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.
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 MoveOn.org, 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.
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.