On Oct. 3, two weeks after the first Occupy Wall Street squattersettled on a marble bench in Zuccotti Park, most of the nation’sliberal kingpins gathered 200 miles away in Washington to voice theirsolidarity. “Let the word go forth,” called a speaker on the ballroomstage at the Washington Hilton. “They got unity on Wall Street. Theygot unity in 50-some cities. And we’ve got unity in this room.”
It was a remarkable gamble: hundreds of student, environmental, labor,feminist, immigrant and minority-rights leaders pledging support fora cause they neither foresaw nor controlled. Even more remarkable wasthe man speaking that day: Van Jones, a Tennessee-born activist whojust two years earlier had resigned his post overseeing green-jobsprograms in the Obama Administration amid a growing scandal over hisradical past. Jones is now back in the spotlight, leading the fightto get progressive groups to support the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Alternating between rabble rouser and PowerPoint-wielding professor,he laid out his theory of how the left had gone wrong by ceding thenational conversation to the Tea Party and why the Occupy protestscould help bring it back on track. “They went down there to the sceneof the crime against our future,” he said, his thunderous tonesomewhat at odds with his red power tie and rimless glasses. “Theywent down there, and they have been camping in the rain. They havebeen pepper-sprayed, they have been falsely arrested, and they neveronce broke discipline.” The crowd of national activists howled itsapproval. “There isn’t another leader who can pull people like thattogether,” says Robert Borosage, a director of the Campaign forAmerica’s Future, which agreed to rebrand its annual conference atJones’ suggestion as a meeting of the American Dream Movement.
Jones’ remarks that day were in many ways the start of a full-scaleembrace of Occupy by the liberal establishment. The protests haveremained a diffuse operation, directed only by local activists whomeet in city squares across the country. The protesters didn’tsolicit outside leadership, and for weeks Democratic politicians, fromPresident Obama on down, didn’t quite know whether or how to get onboard. But with Jones’ participation, the protesters are now supportedby a coalition of more than 70 liberal organizations—includingMoveOn.org, several large labor unions and Planned Parenthood—thatprovide resources and a more coordinated message. Tarps andzero-degree sleeping bags have flooded into squares through a websiteset up by Jones’ partners. Thousands of the groups’ members haveturned up for marches, and 350,000 signed a petition to Mayor MichaelBloomberg after he threatened to evict the protesters from lowerManhattan so the park could be cleaned. When Occupy protesters pushedfor a boycott of bailed-out megabanks, Jones started a Move YourMoney website, gathering 70,000 pledges from people across thecountry to transfer their funds to local community banks or creditunions.
Jones likens the Occupy campers to the four black students who stagedthe sit-ins at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro,N.C., in February 1960, the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Thosestudents didn’t change the country alone, Jones points out, but theywere quickly followed by lawyers and church organizers and later byCongressmen who pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That’s the spaceJones is now trying to fill: the army behind the first wave. “Youdon’t get young people like this every day,” he says.
Back to His GrassrootsIt’s hard two years on to recall just how toxic Jones became in thelate summer of 2009. He worked for the White House to implement theRecovery Act as a midlevel staffer, without a West Wing office orpersonal access to the President. But he had arrived at hisgovernment job by way of San Francisco street activism, having for atime embraced the Marxist label when he worked as an organizeragainst police brutality, and that label stuck. At town-hall meetingsacross the country, Tea Party types denounced Jones as an avowedcommunist and Marxist. He became a regular talking point forconservative pundits on Fox News. “What are we doing with communists in the White House?” one outraged voter shouted at Representative Chet Edwards, a Texas Democrat, at a town hall that August. “He has the ear of the President!” Edwards, like many other people in Washington at the time, had never heard of Jones. A year later, the Congressman lost his race for re-election by 25 points.
Born Anthony Jones in Jackson, Tenn., to middle-class schoolteachers,Jones has always been provocative: as a student at Yale Law School,he was known to walk to class wearing combat boots and carrying aBlack Panther book bag—almost a quaint relic by the early 1990s. “Iam a very candid guy with a very colorful past,” he says. In theyears that followed, he moderated his approach and the issues hefocused on. His 2008 book, The Green Collar Economy, earned praisefrom the Democratic establishment for laying out a vision ofenvironmental change that would lead to new jobs in the inner cityinsulating homes and installing solar panels. It was hardly the stuffof Les Misérables, but Jones always had his cheerleaders. “Van Joneshas made it his life’s work to speak truth to power,” House minorityleader Nancy Pelosi says.
But even as Jones traded in his bullhorn for a briefcase, hecontinued to be attacked for his past. In 2009 a video surfacedshowing his use of an unprintable word to describe Republicans, andhis name was found on a 2004 Web page he says he never read orendorsed implicating the Bush Administration in the Sept. 11 attacks.
And so in September 2009, Jones resigned from the ObamaAdministration. “It was the best six months of my life followed bythe worst two weeks,” Jones recalls. He disappeared from public lifeand spent his time trying to figure out how an organic wave ofconservative populism had so suddenly disrupted his career andthwarted Obama’s agenda. He took a part-time teaching job at Princetonand gave himself what he called “a Ph.D. on the Tea Party.” “I startedthinking, How the heck did we go from hope to heartbreak so fast?”says Jones, for whom conversation is often an opportunity to auditioncatchphrases. “We went from having a movement to a movie.”
It did not take him long to reach some conclusions, which he packagedin a 70-slide PowerPoint presentation that he began showing to theleaders of just about every progressive institution on both coasts.Modern social change, he argued, was driven from the ground upthrough “meta-branded” movements organized online through socialmedia. The key, he said, was to construct an identity that peoplefrom different groups could join without abandoning their ownpriorities. In the 2008 campaign, the only brand liberals ralliedaround was Barack Obama. But his election gave liberals the wrongtheory of the presidency, Jones came to believe. “Lyndon Johnsonwasn’t out there leading the civil rights movement,” he says.“Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist.” If liberals wanted change,in other words, they would need a grassroots movement of their own.It would have to be organized around a set of ideals, not anyparticular person. “We don’t want leader-centric movements,” Jonessaid. “We want leader-full movements.” Deepak Bhargava, theexecutive director of one of the left’s most active Washingtoninstitutions, the Center for Community Change, says Jones’ PowerPointpresentation reminded the liberal establishment that it wasn’t tiedto Obama’s struggles. “We were all incredibly taken with theanalysis,” he said.
In short order, nearly every national progressive group in the U.S.signed on to Jones’ effort, pledging to form what the groups calledthe American Dream Movement. They organized small “Jobs Not Cuts”protests this summer and fall and held hundreds of house parties todraft a broad agenda calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, moregovernment spending to help the unemployed and greater regulation ofWall Street. Jones says he has modeled his movement in part on theorganic Tea Party groundswell of 2009, and he steered clear of hisold White House contacts as he developed it.
Then something happened that Jones never expected: some young peopledecided to pitch tents in lower Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street wasborn.
Will the Movement Behave?The decision by liberal groups to embrace Occupy was not a foregoneconclusion. In the protest’s first weeks, much of the establishmentleft stayed on the sidelines, unsure what to make of the activistscamping out beneath skyscrapers. “It was a big question,” Jones says.“Will these kids even be there tomorrow? Are these kids going to getviolent?”
But Jones pressed the case for championing the new effort. He began toadopt the clear-cut class language of the Occupy protesters,denouncing the “banksters,” whom he described as “some of the worstpeople in the world.” He wrote an essay in the Huffington Postaddressed to his fellow liberal leaders, titled “Wall StreetProtests: Which Side Are You On?” and appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher to declare how proud he was of the new generation in the streets. “You talk about the Arab Spring,” Jones said. “We could be on the verge of an American Autumn.”
An immediate challenge is to prevent the Occupy movement from turning violent or falling under the sway of lawbreaking anarchists. Inmid-November, the American Dream network will host more than 200teach-ins across the country focusing on the demands of Occupy, theissue of income inequality and the importance of nonviolence toretain credibility. “Those of us who are committed to nonviolentchange have to get very clear and very loud,” Jones says.
Had the Occupy movement started two decades earlier, there is littledoubt that Jones would be camping out there in the rain. But he is43, with two young children, living in Los Angeles, though moreoften than not traveling the country. He hopes to be able to guide thedialogue begun by Occupy into legislation and electoral results in2012. His coalition plans to select a slate of candidates, “fromdogcatcher to Congress,” across the U.S. and train thousands ofvolunteers as local organizers.
On Nov. 17, Occupy Wall Street and the American Dream Movement areplanning a major day of protest. It will mark the second full monthof the encampment in lower Manhattan and, Jones hopes, send a clearmessage to the congressional supercommittee in Washington that thegrassroots energy in the country has shifted to the left since themidterm elections. Jones is sure to become a target of the rightagain now that he has re-established himself near the front lines.
In recent weeks, he has traveled to Occupy general assemblies inBoston, Los Angeles, SanFrancisco and Manhattan, speaking at each ofthem. There he has found a new generation of activists with newcustoms—like the “human microphone” practice of collectively repeatingthe words of each speaker—that he never used when he was a streetactivist. Few in these crowds would identify him as their leader oreven be able to identify him at all, but Jones says he sees them allas potential leaders.
“This is new for me,” he called out one night at a general assemblyin Zuccotti Park before hundreds of protesters. (“This is new forme,” the mass responded.) “I am used to having a real mike,” he said.(“I am used to having a real mike.”)
Someone in the crowd shouted an objection—“This is a real mike!”—andJones flashed his broad smile, a glowing, ear-to-ear brightening of aman recently returned from exile. “Exactly,” he said.