At his talk at the Columbia University, Van Jones explains how George Floyd's murder awakened the collective consciousness of the world.
The day that Van Jones’ father died, they put a picture of his father on the funeral program. His father was standing in front of the Yale Law School the day Van graduated with his hands in the air, saying, “We did it.” The magnitude behind his father’s statement was not to be underestimated. “I am your ninth-generation American here, which is the first one in our family that was born with all your rights, and look at how well you’ve done,” he said.
“People don’t understand this moment, because there’s a dominant narrative in the mainstream that says, you know, ‘racism was 1000 years ago, civil rights were 2000 years ago, slavery was 10,000 years ago,” he said. But, as Van Jones sees it, the racism, fight for civil rights, and slavery is not ghosts of history, but the present.
Van’s mother and father were born in segregation in the South. “My father actually grew up in Memphis. He grew up in Orange Mound, Memphis, which I guess was the biggest one of the biggest black, so-called ghettos, in the south,” Van said.
Born in 1968 in Jackson, Tennessee, Van was the first person in his family who was born with all of his rights.
When Jones got into law school in 1993, he saw people building more prisons, the federal government funding from hundreds to thousand police officers, and not enough help for kids who looked like him.
“I wanted to use my time and talent to help other young people of color. And here we are 25 years later, and some of those issues are finally being addressed,” he said.
Shock Over Seeing Rodney King’s Death and the Cops’ Acquittal
Once he graduated from Yale Law in ’93, Jones moved to the Bay area. The previous year Rodney King was beaten by two LAPD cops and killed. Van recalls the riots and his shock when he saw the videotape of King’s murder and when the jury determined that the cops were innocent, and they walked free.
Van said that the first time he and fellow law students saw Rodney King’s murder’s videotape, it was so shocking. He said, “People cannot understand. The young people cannot understand how shocking it was because people didn’t have cell phones.”
Back in those days, when the fax machine was new too, it was a “crazy idea” that somebody in the community had a video camera, especially on their person when the police were “beating the crap out of the black guy,” according to Van. There was no Youtube, either. To share any footage, one had to take the video to a television station, where people there would review it and put it on the air, Van explained.
“That was a huge shock, and we thought, we just knew everything was going to change because now they have been caught in the act. And now our points have been proven. We’ve been saying this for years and years. But, the jury acquitted all those guys and said the guys are just fine. I was 23. I’ll never forget the shock of that verdict coming back the way that it did,” Van recalled, after seeing cops beat Rodney to death and expecting that the killers would surely be held responsible.
Afterward, there were disturbances all across the country. “LA almost burned to the ground,” Van recollected. “We had to bring out the military to put down those uprisings and disturbances. And for me, I felt like a young African American,” he said.
Problems with Law Enforcement in the Context of Race
The big problem with law enforcement is impunity, the idea that people in power who commit a crime will walk free without any repercussions. When the cops who killed Rodney King were released without any charge, that sent two messages: one, that cops can abuse their power and two, that the black community is not justified to sue them. Van said, “if you do that in a country where there are disfavored ethnic minorities and in any country in the world, those disfavored ethnic minorities are going to catch hell.”
Van says that there needs to be special procedures in place to ensure that police officers are prosecuted fairly when they break the law. “Saying that the police should obey the law should not be a radical proposition in America. All that can be done politically, and I think that that will be a fight,” he asserted.
Van’s Response to the Clinton 1994 Crime Bill that Funded Police and Prisons
After Van graduated from Yale Law in 1994, Congress and President Clinton passed the Crime Bill, the largest crime bill in United States history. Consisting of 356 pages, the bill provided for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons, and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs. Van recalls that “these prisons were being built everywhere.”
In response to this bill, Van spent a lot of time trying to push back on both parties and get them to think about it differently.
“You shouldn’t be locking up young African Americans using drugs. I see kids using drugs at Yale. None of them went to prison. At worst, they went to rehab,” Jones said. “So why are you treating poor black kids differently than you treat your rich white kids who have the same problem and same behaviors?” he raised the question.
Jones committed himself to tackle this issue. He and his colleagues closed five abusive youth prisons through the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
“We sued a couple of police departments, really reformed the San Francisco Police Department, got two horrible police officers named Mark and Daya fired, and I burned out. Because that’s too many community meetings, devolving into chaos and incrimination,” Van explained his struggles and accomplishments. He was 25 years old at the time.
After he attended countless funerals and saw enough kids in the caskets who had died as a result of the racist criminal justice system, he admitted that it took a lot out of him. He decided that he couldn’t continue in that phase of life, but needed to do something more positive and proactive. “I’m not tough. I’m resilient,” he said.
Van’s Oakland Green Jobs environmental initiative
Van Jones figured out a way to get these kids jobs so that they won’t be out here baiting the cops and each other. He created the Oakland Green Jobs to get the kids standing on street corners trained to put up solar panels.
“I don’t want you standing in front of my house getting on my nerves. I want you to get up my house and put up solar panels, ” he recalled telling the kids. How did he get the kids to participate?
“Well, you know you don’t start with the solar panels. You start with the money. I told them, ‘You’re gonna get paid. It’s a job. It’s a contract. It’s an entrepreneurial opportunity,'” he said.
Van and the kids had a good time with the program. It caught the attention of Nancy Pelosi, who had just become Speaker of the House, and she took Van to Washington D.C. Afterwards, Speaker Pelosi and Van got President George W. Bush to sign the Green Jobs Act to spread the program around. “I wrote a book about it the next year, and it became a bestseller. Obama’s team read the book. Boom. I’m in the White House. Boom. I’m meeting you. But it didn’t come out of being primarily concerned with the earth and polar bears and global climate change; of course, we all care about those things,” Van recalled about how the Oakland Green Jobs environmental initiative started.
Televised Lynching of George Floyd
At the beginning of 2020, if you said that policing and structural racism are going to be the top issues everyone’s gonna have to deal with, people might have looked at you a little bit funny. They would have thought, “here they go again” with a roll of their eyes, said Van. “They” referred to the liberals.
What changed, recently, according to Van was the “televised lynching of George Floyd.”
“Whenever you see a white man choke the life out of a black man in broad daylight, and with pride, and people are screaming ‘You’re killing him!!!’ and the police are standing by doing nothing, that’s called lynching. When a billion people see a lynching on this on their smartphones, it shocked the conscience of the whole world.”
What ensued were Black Lives Matter protests in Utah and Idaho, where there are hardly any black people, according to Van. People in London, in Germany, and around the world were protesting.
“30 to 40 million people may have demonstrated in the middle of a pandemic and a plague, which would make it one of the biggest protest movements in the history of the world,” said Van. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot that would still push the other direction, but we now have a much larger coalition of conscience,” he concluded.