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The New Face of Environmentalism

Van Jones renounced his rowdy black nationalism on the way toward becoming an influential leader of the new progressive politics.

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The activists who worked on Prop. 21 had lofty ambitions -- they hoped to create a youth movement as powerful as the antiwar coalition of the 1960s. With a hip-hop soundtrack, they aimed to enlist a generation clad in puffy jackets and baggy pants in the fight against the prison-industrial complex. Yet despite early successes such as rallies covered by MTV and support from rap icons like Mos Def and MC Hammer, the movement fell apart in the glare of the limelight. The groups fought over grant money and over who deserved credit for various successes. When the voters went ahead and approved the proposition anyway, Jones took a big step back.

"I saw our little movement destroyed over a lot of shit-talking and bullshit," he said. "It just seemed like an ongoing train crash that was calling itself a political movement. It was much more destructive internally than anyone was talking about, and much less impactful externally than anyone was willing to admit."

Jones' fixation on solidarity dates from this experience. He took an objective look at the movement's effectiveness and decided that the changes he was seeking were actually getting farther away. Not only did the left need to be more unified, he decided, it might also benefit from a fundamental shift in tactics. "I realized that there are a lot of people who are capitalists -- shudder, shudder -- who are really committed to fairly significant change in the economy, and were having bigger impacts than me and a lot of my friends with our protest signs," he said.

First, he discarded the hostility and antagonism with which he had previously greeted the world, which he said was part of the ego-driven romance of being seen as a revolutionary. "Before, we would fight anybody, any time," he said. "No concession was good enough; we never said 'Thank you.' Now, I put the issues and constituencies first. I'll work with anybody, I'll fight anybody if it will push our issues forward. ... I'm willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends."

His new philosophy emphasizes effectiveness, which he believes is inextricably tied to unity. He still considers himself a revolutionary, just a more effective one, who has realized that the progressive left's insistence on remaining a counterculture destroys its potential as a political movement. "One of my big heroes is Malcolm X, not because I agree with Malcolm, but because he wasn't afraid to change in public," he said.

Devising a new strategy for the left went hand-in-hand with finding a new approach in his personal life and relationships. Jones said he arrived at that by harking back to his roots. Although he had spent many childhood summers in "sweaty black churches," and in college had discovered the black liberation theology that reinterprets the Christ story as an anticolonial struggle, he had pulled away from spirituality during his communist days. During his 2000 crisis, he looked for answers in Buddhism, the philosophy known as deep ecology, and at open-minded institutions such as the East Bay Church of Religious Science.

The last step was learning to ignore critics from within the movement who didn't appreciate his new philosophy and allies. "I'm confused half the time about what I'm doing, but none of the things that leftists use to discipline each other into marginality have any power over me anymore," he said. "It's like, 'Oh, you're working with white people.' Or 'Who are you accountable to?' A lot of the things that we say to each other to keep anybody from getting too uppity, too effective, I just don't listen to anymore. I care about the progressive movements as they are, but I mainly care about all of our movements becoming a lot bigger and a lot stronger."

Jones has since become known as a guy who actually can get things done, a guy whom the mayor will take meetings with. For instance, last June he worked with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on the UN World Environment Day conference about green cities. Some environmental groups boycotted the event, which was heavily underwritten by Pacific Gas & Electric, a perennial environmental nemesis. Jones sidestepped this controversy while pursuing his own goal, the inclusion of a series of events highlighting the environmental issues faced by the poor and people of color.

His efforts led to six days of conversations between environmentalists and crusaders for racial justice. Juliet Ellis, of the Ella Baker Center board, said it was a necessary step for groups that have shied away from collaborating in the past. "We're still not at a place where social justice and mainstream environmental groups believe they're fighting for the same things," she said. "As far as bridging those divides, Van definitely has the skill sets and the experience and the personality to play a role in that."

But Jones also attracted a number of critics. During the conference, many environmental-justice groups were irritated by what they saw as Jones' attempt to appoint himself the leader of a movement in which he'd never before played a role. They also thought his silence on the sponsorship of PG&E compromised his integrity, given that the company's Hunters Point Power Plant is a primary target of Bay Area environmental-justice advocates.

In the aftermath of the event, seven of these groups wrote a letter to Jones expressing their concerns about the perceived glory-hogging of the Ella Baker Center team. Henry Clark, the longtime executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, and one of the signers, complained that Jones excluded the true leaders of the Bay Area movement. "They jumped out front to put themselves in the lead, to make contact with these funders, in more of an opportunistic way," he said.

"There was concern among many, many environmental-justice organizations who have been working on these issues for years," added Bradley Angel, executive director of the group Greenaction. "But I know we all have the same goals. I'm looking forward to those goals being addressed, since we're all working together."

On the fourth day of the conference, some of the environmental-justice groups that Jones left out organized their own event, a rally across from City Hall protesting the conference's involvement with PG&E. Angel said it was a coming together, "to confront the powers that be, and to show that we will not compromise with those who violate the principles of environmental justice."

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