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]

The Return of the Rabble Rouser

On Oct. 3, two weeks after the first Occupy Wall Street  squatter settled on a marble bench in Zuccotti Park, most  of the nation’s liberal kingpins gathered 200 miles away in Washington to voice their solidarity. “Let the word go forth,” called a speaker on the  ballroom stage at the Washington Hilton.  “They got unity on Wall Street. They got 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 for a cause they neither  foresaw nor controlled. Even more remarkable was the man speaking that day: Van  Jones, a Tennessee-born activist who just  two years earlier had resigned his post  overseeing green-jobs programs in the  Obama Administration amid a growing  scandal over his radical past. Jones is now  back in the spotlight, leading the fight to  get progressive groups to support the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Van Jones for Time

Alternating between rabble rouser and  PowerPoint-wielding professor, he laid out  his theory of how the left had gone wrong  by ceding the national conversation to the  Tea Party and why the Occupy protests could help bring it back on track. “They  went down there to the scene of the crime  against our future,” he said, his thunderous tone somewhat at odds with his red  power tie and rimless glasses. “They went  down there, and they have been camping in the rain. They have been pepper-sprayed, they have been falsely arrested,  and they never once broke discipline.” The  crowd of national activists howled its approval. “There isn’t another leader who  can pull people like that together,” says Robert Borosage, a director of the Campaign for America’s Future, which agreed  to rebrand its annual conference at Jones’ suggestion as a meeting of the American  Dream Movement.

Jones’ remarks that day were in many  ways the start of a full-scale embrace of Occupy by the liberal establishment. The  protests have remained a diffuse operation, directed only by local activists who meet in city squares across the country.  The protesters didn’t solicit outside leadership, and for weeks Democratic politicians, from President Obama on down,  didn’t quite know whether or how to  get on board. But with Jones’ participation, the protesters are now supported by a coalition of more than 70 liberal  organizations—­including,  several large labor unions and Planned  Parenthood—that provide resources and  a more coordinated message. Tarps and zero-degree sleeping bags have flooded  into squares through a website set up by  Jones’ partners. Thousands of the groups’  members have turned up for marches, and  350,000 signed a petition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg after he threatened to evict the  protesters from lower Manhattan so the park could be cleaned. When Occupy protesters pushed for a boycott of bailed-out  megabanks, Jones started a Move Your Money website, gathering 70,000 pledges  from people across the country to transfer  their funds to local community banks or  credit unions.

Jones likens the Occupy campers to the  four black students who staged the sit-ins  at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960,  the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Those students didn’t change the country alone,  Jones points out, but they were quickly followed by lawyers and church organizers  and later by Congressmen who pushed the  Civil Rights Act of 1964. That’s the space Jones is now trying to fill: the army behind  the first wave. “You don’t get young people  like this every day,” he says.

Back to His Grassroots It’s hard two years on to recall just how toxic Jones became in the late summer of 2009. He worked for the White  House to implement the Recovery Act as a midlevel staffer, without a West Wing office or personal access to the President.  But he had arrived at his government job by way of San Francisco street activism,  having for a time embraced the Marxist label when he worked as an organizer against police brutality, and that label stuck. At town-hall meetings across the  country, Tea Party types denounced Jones  as an avowed communist and Marxist. He became a regular talking point for conservative 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 a Black Panther book bag—­almost  a quaint relic by the early 1990s. “I am  a very candid guy with a very colorful  past,” he says. In the years that followed,  he moderated his approach and the issues  he focused on. His 2008 book, The Green  Collar Economy, earned praise from the  Democratic establishment for laying out  a vision of environmental change that  would lead to new jobs in the inner city insulating homes and installing solar  panels. It was hardly the stuff of Les Misérables, but Jones always had his cheerleaders. “Van Jones has made it his life’s  work to speak truth to power,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi says.

But even as Jones traded in his bullhorn  for a briefcase, he continued to be attacked  for his past. In 2009 a video surfaced showing his use of an unprintable word to describe Republicans, and his name was  found on a 2004 Web page he says he never  read or endorsed implicating the Bush Administration in the Sept. 11 attacks.

And so in September 2009, Jones resigned from the Obama Administration.  “It was the best six months of my life followed by the worst two weeks,” Jones recalls. He disappeared from public life and  spent his time trying to figure out how an organic wave of conservative populism had so suddenly disrupted his career and thwarted Obama’s agenda. He took a part-time teaching job at Princeton and gave himself what he called “a Ph.D. on the Tea Party.” “I started thinking, How the heck did we go from hope to heartbreak so fast?” says Jones, for whom conversation is often an opportunity to audition catchphrases. “We went from having a  movement to a movie.”

It did not take him long to reach some  conclusions, which he packaged in a  70-slide PowerPoint presentation that he  began showing to the leaders of just about  every progressive institution on both  coasts. Modern social change, he argued,  was driven from the ground up through  “meta-branded” movements organized  online through social media. The key,  he said, was to construct an identity that  people from different groups could join  without abandoning their own priorities.  In the 2008 campaign, the only brand liberals rallied around was Barack Obama.  But his election gave liberals the wrong theory of the presidency, Jones came to  believe. “Lyndon Johnson wasn’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 any particular person. “We don’t  want leader-centric movements,” Jones said. “We want leader-full movements.”  Deepak­ Bhargava, the executive director  of one of the left’s most active Washington institutions, the Center for Community  Change, says Jones’ PowerPoint presentation reminded the liberal establishment  that it wasn’t tied to Obama’s struggles.  “We were all incredibly taken with the analysis,” 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 called the American Dream Movement. They organized small “Jobs Not  Cuts” protests this summer and fall and  held hundreds of house parties to draft a  broad agenda calling for higher taxes on  the wealthy, more government spending  to help the unemployed and greater regulation of Wall Street. Jones says he has  modeled his movement in part on the organic Tea Party groundswell of 2009, and  he steered clear of his old White House  contacts as he developed it.

Then something happened that Jones never expected: some young people decided to pitch tents in lower Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street was born.

Van at Occupy

Will the Movement Behave? The decision by liberal groups to  ­embrace Occupy was not a foregone conclusion. In the protest’s first weeks, much  of the establishment left stayed on the  sidelines, unsure what to make of the activists camping out beneath skyscrapers.  “It was a big question,” Jones says. “Will  these kids even be there tomorrow? Are  these kids going to get violent?”

But Jones pressed the case for championing the new effort. He began to adopt  the clear-cut class language of the Occupy  protesters, denouncing the “banksters,”  whom he described as “some of the worst people in the world.” He wrote an essay  in the Huffington Post addressed to his  fellow liberal leaders, titled “Wall Street Protests: 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. In mid-November,  the American Dream network will host  more than 200 teach-ins across the country focusing on the demands of Occupy,  the issue of income inequality and the  importance of nonviolence to retain credibility. “Those of us who are committed to  non­violent change have to get very clear  and very loud,” Jones says.

Had the Occupy movement started  two decades earlier, there is little doubt  that Jones would be camping out there  in the rain. But he is 43, with two young  children, living in Los Angeles, though  more often than not traveling the country. He hopes to be able to guide the dialogue begun by ­Occupy into legislation  and electoral results in 2012. His coalition plans to select a slate of candidates,  “from dogcatcher to Congress,” across the  U.S. and train thousands of volunteers as  local organizers.

On Nov. 17, Occupy Wall Street and the  American Dream Movement are planning  a major day of protest. It will mark the  second full month of the encampment in  lower Manhattan and, Jones hopes, send a clear message to the congressional supercommittee in Washington that the grassroots energy in the country has shifted to the left since the midterm elections. Jones  is sure to become a target of the right again  now that he has re-­established himself near the front lines.

In recent weeks, he has traveled to Occupy general assemblies in Boston, Los  Angeles, SanFrancisco and Manhattan,  speaking at each of them. There he has  found a new generation of activists with  new customs—like the “human microphone” practice of collectively repeating the words of each speaker—that he never  used when he was a street activist. Few in  these crowds would identify him as their  leader or even be able to identify him at  all, but Jones says he sees them all as potential leaders.

“This is new for me,” he called out one  night at a general assembly in Zuccotti  Park before hundreds of protesters. (“This  is new for me,” 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 a man recently  returned from exile. “Exactly,” he said.

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