Profile: The Return of the Rabble Rouser

Catch TIME magazine's profile of Van and the American Dream movement, in the context of our support for Occupy and the 99 Percent. It is hitting newsstands today. While the article focuses on Van, many groups are supporting this phenomenal movement, and we are proud to be counted in that number. Be sure to share with your friends. [View the PDF here]

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—­,  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!”—and Jones flashed his broad smile, a glowing, ear-to-ear brightening of aman recently  returned from exile. “Exactly,” he said.

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