Why Van Jones Matters

First, thanks to everybody who have been sending me consolation notes – but the deal here is not that Van is a friend, it’s that he’s a giant amongst us who is being taken down by buffoons. When I first saw Obama at the Democratic ’04 convention I thought “Oh, I get it: it’s Van-lite.” (I should also say that I hold out faint hope that my dour post of yesterday is wrong in its assumption that Van’s days are numbered at the WH – it would be nice if the Obama WH had an iota of the good-job-Brownie-over-the-top loyalty.)

I can’t remember exactly when, at least five years ago, Van told me, flat out, “I’m a communist.”

“Do me a favor,” I quickly replied, “just don’t say that in front of my Mom.”

I went on to explain to him that the reason I supported his efforts in taking the Oakland and San Francisco police depart to task (and court), the reason I would do anything to help him close the institutionalized torture chambers of the California Youth Authority was precisely because of the life my Mother described to me in post-war Stalinist Hungary. The detailed description of a life where oppression is policy and the police are enforcers of that oppression was eye-opening. (She escaped [on foot!] in October 1956 after the US stiffed the rebellion and left the counter-revolutionaries literally twisting in the wind from lamp-posts in downtown Budapest – but that’s another story.) It never occurred to me, a white, middle-class American suburban kid, that police were anything but the people’s friends and protectors. Yes, it was hippie-chic to call them “pigs” but when it came down it – if I needed help, I wouldn’t think twice about dialing ‘0’ and asking for the police dept. (Yes, I pre-date 911.) So to learn there were neighborhoods of poor, mainly minority, everyday Americans who are made less secure, not more, by police actions rang a familiar bell in my head. (Look, I’m not making a moral equivalency between driving-while-black and the Gulag, but I sympathize with those who do – oppression is oppression, using cops to keep the poor down and away from the gentrified because it’s bad for business is enough for me to take action.)

I understand that in the context leading up to the ’60’s civil rights movement, many in and out of SNCC, including Ella Baker, proclaimed themselves as “communists” for lots of reasons – some valid, some merely reactionary. I never got that far with Van, but considering he named his activist non-profit after Baker, I assume he took some inspiration there. But that word is loaded and it can no longer be, if it ever was, contained to an egalitarian doctrine — it has come to represent the very tyrannical day-to-day life he was trying to prevent. (We were driving to a political function when a third person in the car asked Van what he did for a living – “I sue cops.”)

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be poor and black in Oakland, but thanks to my Mother’s stories,” I told him, “I have a way to relate to their plight. I’ve heard what it’s like to live in fear of the very force that is supposed to ‘serve and protect’ you.”

And you know what? He got it.

After that conversation I never heard him use the “c” word again, publicly or privately. Now, I don’t begin to assume the hubris that I had anything to do with his evolution. Van Jones is smarter and more worldly than me and everybody reading this put together – I am 100% sure I told him nothing he didn’t know before. I doubt I am the first Eastern European immigrant or descendant he’s had a conversation with – Oakland is next to Berkeley after all. But what reaches Van, what makes him break down and cry during speeches are the individual, personal stories of struggle, the uphill battles with the weight of society holding you down. Van is a recipient of the Kennedy Honors Speak Truth to Power award and deservedly so – he feels that struggle in his bones.

All of this before you even get to the genius in connecting the issues of the environment and at-risk communities.

The environment, jobs, health care, racial equality and yes, justice, are moral issues. If the Obama retreats on health care or Van or justice for perceived political expedience then that should tell you something about Obama. Emphasis on perceived expedience because it’s clear, the shrill opposition is not interested in anything, anything at all, except personal, gotcha take-downs having no moral center as a guide. So it’s not an argument that Van’s past rhetoric gives them ammunition. Where did “death panels” come from? Where did “birther” come from? Attacking Van is equally vacuous.

Again, while I appreciate the gesture, don’t bother sending me consoling notes because a friend is having a rough time – in fact, I don’t fret over Van, the person, or his future or career. Fuck that – we’ll both be fine. This is an attempted take-down of a very important figure who was recognized by this administration as having a clue – someone with actual, financially practical and humanitarian solutions that leaves no one out. Sounds too good to be true? When you discover Van Jones you get used to that feeling.

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