If you’ve ever watched CNN, you almost certainly know who Van Jones is. He’s a regular contributor to the network who has also served in the Obama White House, taught at Princeton, and worked at John Podesta’s Center for American Progress. Born in small-town Tennessee to a schoolteacher mother and a school principal father, he attended the University of Tennessee and Yale Law School. During the years that followed his 1993 graduation from the latter institution, he worked for, founded, or co-founded a wide range of NGOs, activist groups, grassroots organizations, advocacy projects, initiatives, social enterprises, and the like. His causes have ranged from “racial justice” to “environmental justice” to “economic justice.”
As presented on sites like Wikipedia, his career comes off as that of an admirable liberal who has spent his life crusading for the betterment of American society. On CNN, he comes off as a hardcore man of the left but also exhibits a charm and humor that take the edge off his politics. After Donald Trump’s address to Congress in March, Jones earned the ire of some of his Democratic friends and colleagues when he praised the speech and – in reference to remarks that Trump addressed to the widow of a Navy SEAL – said that Trump “became President of the United States in that moment, period.” It seemed a moment of laudable honesty that transcended ideology and partisan rancor.
But there’s more to Jones than meets the eye. Arrested in 1992 as part of a San Francisco mob protesting the acquittal of the cops who’d beaten Rodney King, he was jailed alongside Communists and anarchists. “This is what I need to be a part of,” he thought. Next thing he knew, he was a Communist. In 1994, he founded a Marxist collective called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM.
He was involved in STORM for a decade. Then he moved on. Soon he was in the mainstream. Was he still a Communist? Hard to say. On the one hand, he no longer publicly identified as one. On the other hand, he never explicitly renounced Communism.
On September 12, 2001, in Oakland, Jones took part in a “solidarity” gathering for “people of color”– solidarity, that is, not with the victims of 9/11, but with Arab and Muslim Americans who during the previous 24 hours had supposedly been subjected to a massive wave of bigotry and violence all over the country. (This, of course, was either a conscious lie or a fantasy.)
There could hardly have been a more revolting event that day anywhere in the U.S. Instead of reviling the terrorist attacks, the speakers condemned the U.S. government for its internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, for its historic mistreatment of blacks and American Indians, and for its bombing and abuse of people in Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere around the globe. The people at the World Trade Center, said one speaker, died “because of our government’s inhumane foreign policy.” Another speaker expressed “satisfaction” at the attack on the Pentagon. Jones was the last to speak. “It’s the bombs that the government has been dropping around the world that are now blowing up inside the U.S. borders,” he said. “We’ve got something stronger than bombs. We’ve got solidarity. That dream of revolutionary solidarity is stronger than bombs.”
By 2008, Jones was identifying not as a Communist radical but as an environmental activist. In an interview that year, he explained that for him, the green movement’s demand for “eco-capitalism” was just a small step on the way to eradicating all “systems of exploitation and oppression.” In other words, for Jones, as for many other environmentalists, the green movement seems to serve as a useful, popular means of fighting democratic capitalism without being burdened by the unpopular label of “Marxist” or “Communist.”