On the same night that torch-bearing white nationalists wound up staging a rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Van Jones stood at a podium, in the nation's capital, telling a theater full of supporters why they should let love rule in the face of racial hatred. The timing was sheer coincidence — the ninth stop on the CNN pundit's 14-city WE RISE tour had been scheduled well ahead of Friday night's prelude to the violent Unite the Right protest — but one that speaks to the reason why Jones' #LoveArmy crusade has been met with criticism from the very circles he's hoping to corral.
"A lot of people are asking, 'Why are you doing this?' " Jones said Friday from the stage of D.C.'s Warner Theatre. "I am sick of you guys being stressed and depressed since this past election."
Deemed "a star of the 2016 campaign" by the New York Times shortly after blaming "whitelash" for President Trump's election, Jones quickly earned the liberal left's ire after characterizing Trump's State of the Union address as "presidential." Since signing with JAY-Z's Roc Nation management firm earlier this year, however, he's earning cred among a different constituency: generation hip-hop. The first political activist on an artist roster ranging from Big Sean to DJ Khaled and Damian Marley to Rihanna, Jones recently got stopped in the airport by a young TSA agent who said she recognized him, not from the cable news network, he tells me, but for appearing in Footnotes for 4:44, the Tidal-exclusive short doc series complementing JAY-Z's latest album.
"JAY-Z's platform is bigger than CNN's platform for this new generation coming up," Jones says by phone.
Though he admits his own hip-hop bona fides are less up-to-date — "I mean, I know Chance the Rapper," he adds — Jones is using his Roc Nation affiliation to fuse a tighter relationship between artists and activists. During his Atlanta stop, he talked to T.I. about the criminalization that leads to mass incarceration among young black men in the hood. Roc Nation artist Rapsody opened Friday night's show in Washington with a performance before Jones brought out former NAACP president and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous for a conversation.
But this isn't some Van Jones-come-lately hip-hop hookup. He's been rallying rap activists since the mid-'90s, when he was a young dreadlocked attorney who got an officer kicked off the San Francisco Police Department following his implication in the death of an unarmed black suspect. With his Dream Corps nonprofit using the same coalition-building tactics to tackle a range of initiatives, Jones' #LoveArmy-powered tour might seem like the perfect setup for a potential candidate who once worked in Obama's White House, before he was forced to resign as a "green jobs czar" following criticism over controversial comments made about Republicans prior to his appointment. But it only takes a candid half-hour conversation with him — which we had a few days before the tragic events in Charlottesville and one week before Jones' tearful on-air response to President Trump's latest remarks, blaming "both sides" for the weekend's violence — to realize Jones is probably too passionate and point-blank for public office. He invoked the names of Civil Rights heroes ranging from Martin Luther King to Ella Baker as we discussed his frustrations with cynicism masked as activism, black America's moral obligation and critics who see his message of love as a hard sell in the era of Trump. This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Rodney Carmichael: How did you wind up signing with Roc Nation? Did it start from a personal relationship with JAY-Z?
Van Jones: It was really through Prince. I worked with Prince for years and he was working with JAY-Z, trying to support Tidal. When he passed, that relationship was still intact. And they said, 'Look, we're doing athletes, we're doing artists, but we have never really dealt with people in the television world, the pundit world.'
Hip-hop artists often find themselves being courted as pawns in politics. How have you convinced some of the entertainers and rappers participating in the tour that this isn't more of the same old BS?
Well, it's hard to get out of the political system what we need. But I'm not a politician and I'm not running for office. I've been working on grassroots issues since 1993, when I got out of law school. So all the ticket proceeds go to help the Dream Corps, a support center that really backs up #YesWeCode, teaching our young people how to program computers; Green For All, which is working to get solar jobs and solar opportunities to the hood. We have a criminal justice program, [#cut50]. So they can look at the track record of what we've been doing on issues that they want to be supportive of. Once you start getting into the electoral situation, I think it's a lot more dicey because it's hard for us to get the political system to be responsive. But I think artists have always felt more comfortable addressing issues like criminal justice, like addiction, like jobs, which is what we're really doing with this tour.
Usually, politicians only come around to engage the community when they want to push us to the polls. I know you're not running for office, but why pick an off year in the election cycle for the tour?
Well, because poverty doesn't take a year off, and addiction doesn't take a year off, and violence doesn't take a year off, police brutality doesn't take a year off. I think that is a big part of the problem, that people show up every four years or two years. But the problems and the problem solvers are always here.
You've got a president that's more interested in having people turn on each other than turn to each other and that's a big part of the problem. But we don't have to go for that. There are poor white people all over the country now who have addiction and poverty and criminal records and are living in neighborhoods with high death rates — in places like West Virginia, Appalachia — and nobody's doing anything for them, either. I'm looking around like, why are we fighting each other? We've got the same problems. Common pain should lead to common purpose. And common purpose should lead to common protests. Common protests should lead to some kind of common sense.
And that's really what the tour's about.
I got to watch your web series The Messy Truth around election time. It was a hard watch. And it's funny because, after the election, a large part of the media narrative began to echo the idea that we need to be listening to Middle America more. But in a way it started to sound like we were saying we need to give a bigger stage to some of this bigotry and backwardness. What did you want people to gain from watching that series?
I think hurt people holler. When you have Black Lives Matter and the Dreamers and Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders supporters marching and jumping up and down, it's because they're hurt. And people need to pay more attention to what folks are saying. Young African-Americans aren't marching around here talking about Black Lives Matter for no reason. At the same time, when you see the Tea Party and then the Trump people jumping up and down and hollering, we need to pay attention. Some of the stuff they're saying is completely unacceptable. Some of the ideas they have, I've been opposed to my whole life — and not just on Twitter, in real life. But some of the stuff they're saying, I agree with. When they say the people in Washington D.C. don't care about us, and we're not finding a way to have good jobs or a level of comfort and security, they're not wrong. That's true. [Washington politicians aren't] worried about my people, either. It's not just all one thing. If you deal with the black community, on the one hand we're oppressed and a righteous community. On the other hand, we have a lot of issues internally that we don't want Fox News pointing out. But they are real issues. I call it The Messy Truth for a reason. I'm trying to give everybody permission to look at it in a more complicated way.
People say, 'Oh Van, when you go out there and talk to those Trump people, does it change any of their minds?' That's not my job. I'm not trying to convince Trump people to be better people. I'm trying to prevent the Trump era from making me a worse person. I do not want to become somebody who is so hard-hearted that I can only see the worst in my opponent. Dr. King said you should never let a man drive you so low as to hate him. I'm in a weird situation where I thought we were civil rights people, human rights people, progressive people, transformative people. That's what I thought we were.
Why am I going to let a bad leader in the White House have us then create a bad movement that would be unrecognizable to Dr. King and Ella Jo Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. They had way more hateful people coming at them than these fools tweeting at us. And they didn't come with some middle finger. So I just don't understand it.
Why does it seem like the emotional labor of fighting inequality always falls on the backs of black folks and other marginalized people in this country? We get hit with the whole forgiveness narrative and told we need to be the bigger, more morally-grounded people. But what political gains have black people retained from loving our enemy?
First of all, if we're not gonna be moral, then who is? I hope you're not expecting for Paul Ryan or Fox News to be the moral leaders of the country. Cause you're gonna be waiting a long time for that. I keep hearing this [and] it's become very fashionable to say, but it has no relationship to history and it has no relationship to strategy. It's just an emotional kind of fatigue, which I understand. But when you're fatigued you need to sit down, drink a Gatorade and get back in the fight. Fatigue is not a strategy. It's not fair that the oppressed have to lead the oppressors to their freedom, but it's necessary. It's the only time it's ever worked. If Frederick Douglass can come out of slavery, if Harriet Tubman can come out of slavery, and fight to move the country to higher ground and succeed, we can't deal with some tweets?
It's become fashionable to be cynical and say a bunch of s--- that has nothing to do with history and strategy. So what's the strategy? Is the strategy then for us to say, 'We're gonna return hatred for hatred?' Is that our strategy? And if that's the strategy, then how does that actually work?
But isn't the love/hate binary a false one? For so long we've always heard black people are too emotional to really know how to play the political game. Where is the room for critical thinking if the choice is only between love or hate? It almost feels like blind love is as bad as hate when it comes to political discourse, right?
I think you're asking a very important set of questions, so let me try to give maybe a more useful set of answers. The question maybe should be [about] the definition of love. Dr. King loved his enemies. He also crippled their economy with boycotts. He also shamed and humiliated the whole country by forcing them to show their hand. He twisted the arm of presidents and got laws passed. So the idea that we just sit up here and love and there's no political game — there's a whole bunch of stuff you can say that we actually did get. [We got] the Voting Rights Act. Now, are they taking them away? Yes. But my frustration is it's just become fashionable to be cynical and not actually look at history.
[The movement] was a two-prong thing in the '60s: On the one hand you would have straight-up riots and all kinds of other stuff, and that would have an impact. But you'd also have the other side of it, which was a little bit more targeted and strategic. Nobody was just sitting down. People act like you're going to sit down and sing "Kumbaya." These younger people don't study the strategy of non-violence. It's not either fight or don't fight. Of course we're gonna fight. If you're not gonna fight in the face of all this stuff, then I don't have anything to say to you. The question is who are you gonna be when you fight? What's the strategy? And then, what's the outcome?
Frankly, a lot of this cynicism is just dressed-up surrender. [If] all you basically want to be able to do is sit up here and complain about racism and have your pity-party, that's not a strategy. People are like, 'Oh f--- Van Jones. He's up there talking to these white people and this love shit. He's selling out.' Wait a second. If I'm selling out, who's buying it? Because I don't see the Trump people moving and I don't see us moving, either. So there's not a whole lot of upside. It'd be a lot easier for me to just be out here saying, 'I hate all these people and I hate Trump!' That's an easier sell and there's a bigger market for that. But I'm actually looking at my history.
You have to ask a question: If black people who are the saving grace for this country — we have always been the most moral force, we've opposed every war, we support every social program, we've been the leadership of every single movement — if we are now going to turn around ... and say we're done, we're turning in our card and we're no longer gonna fight for the highest values, well then who's going to do it? And then do you want to live in a world where nobody's doing it? That's the question I don't hear anybody asking. So I'm out here trying to have this conversation.
When you look at the Civil Rights era, a lot of that strategy worked because there was still a sense of shame in the nation around the truth and ugliness of racism and segregation. And once that stuff became public, that was the leverage to provoke a lot of change. Now it feels different. This era of social media and reality TV that has propelled our politics is all about being shamelessly public about who and what you are and owning your biases. So how does that strategy still have the same kind of impact in a country that feels so shameless?
That's a great question and I don't have a simple, easy answer. I think that sometimes, though, an evil wizard can conduct a lot of magic tricks. So you're looking at one corner of society, and you do have a shameless person who is driving down the culture. But that doesn't mean that every single white person, for instance, is unmoved. You've always had people who didn't give a damn about us, who were absolutely hostile — people like [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions, people like Trump, people like [Civil Rights-era public safety commissioner of Birmingham] Bull Connor. And you also have people right now who are ashamed, but here's the difference: We don't know what to do with the white people who are ashamed because [we] continue to criticize them.
Listen, everybody gets mad at me because I just tell the truth on all sides. I don't give a damn. I'm not running for office. I am trying to close prisons, pull needles out of folks' arms and get jobs — that's what the Dream Corps is about. So I have to look at everything fair. Trump is much worse than most people understand. But just because Trump is worse than some people know, that doesn't mean his supporters aren't better than people know. He does have some supporters out there who are potential allies on some key issues around government surveillance, around criminal justice, around addiction.
If the black political culture continues to move in the direction it's moving in, where we stop being moral [leaders] and stop being strategic, I think we pay a bigger cost than our opponents for that. The terrible thing about racism is it's a no-win situation. That's the trap that we're in, [and it's the] same with politics. If we don't reach out and try to build some bridges, we get run over. If we do reach out and try to build some bridges, then we get taken advantage of. That's not the conclusion; that's the premise. And I've got all these young people running to me screaming about the premise like that's the conclusion. You just now noticed that we're in a trick bag? You just figured that out? That's just being black. Now what's your strategy?
How frustrating has it been for you, after working in this space for so many years fighting for everything from criminal justice to environmental justice, to be dealing with so much criticism from your own folks — whether it be black folks like me who were kind of side-eyeing you over The Messy Truth or even liberals who went off the deep end after you called Trump 'presidential'?
You know, it is frustrating, but I understand. Look, people want you just to be their sock puppet. I'm almost 50 years old; I'm not a child. I was born in '68. I've got people in their 20s criticizing me and I've been doing this work, literally, their entire lives. I started as a serious activist in '89. Got out of law school in '93 and you can ask anybody that knows me, I've very rarely taken more than two days off in a row in two-plus decades. I've closed five prisons. I've stopped them from building the super-jail for youth in Oakland; I stopped that. I've gotten a police officer fired. I've reformed two police departments. So all this stuff that people are talking about that needs to happen, I've done. And I'm gonna tell you, once you get through doing it you look around and realize this stuff is more complicated.
There are very few fights I've won where it was only black progressives. Every fight I've won, it's been some weird coalition of like some crazy white Republican who's mad at this person, and some Latina grandmamas over here, and some business people and labor people. Whenever you actually put together something that works, it's always complicated. It's always messy when you're actually doing stuff that's real work, when you're actually getting bills passed, when you're actually getting prisons closed, when you're actually getting reforms done. It's never what the little Twitter crowd is talking about. So I've learned I can't let them run me. To the extent that people need somebody who's just going to be their teddy bear and say what they want to hear, there are plenty of people willing to do that. To the extent that people find me interesting, it's cause they don't know what the hell I'm gonna say. They're like, 'What's that fool talkin' bout?' — on both sides. And I'm willing to challenge people.