Born on September 20, 1968, in Jackson, Tennessee, Van Jones (whose birth name was Anthony Kapel Jones) attended the University of Tennessee at Martin. “When I got to college, I stumbled upon Black Liberation Theology,” Jones would tell an interviewer years later, “and that really struck a chord with me in terms of where I was politically at the time — being really concerned about racism and the African-American experience here.” As an undergraduate aspiring to a career in journalism, Jones founded an underground campus newspaper as well as a statewide African American newspaper.
After earning his BA degree at the University of Tennessee, Jones abandoned his plan to become a journalist and instead enrolled at Yale Law School, where, as an angry black separatist, he first arrived wearing combat boots and carrying a Black Panther bookbag. “If I’d been in another country, I probably would have joined some underground guerrilla sect,” he reflects. “But as it was, I went on to an Ivy League law school…. I wasn’t ready for Yale, and they weren’t ready for me.”
Though Jones contemplated dropping out of Yale, he realized that a law degree would furnish him with perceived credibility as a critic of the criminal-justice system — which he believed was thoroughly infested with racism; thus he persevered and earned his Juris Doctorate in 1993.
Jones says he became politically radicalized in the aftermath of the April 1992 Los Angeles riots which erupted shortly after four L.A. police officers who had beaten the now-infamous Rodney King were exonerated in court. “I was a rowdy nationalist on April 28th,” says Jones, “and then the verdicts came down on April 29th. By August, I was a communist.”
In early May 1992, after the L.A. riots had ended, Jones was dispatched by LCCR executive director Eva Patterson to serve as a legal monitor at a nonviolent protest (against the Rodney King verdicts) in San Francisco. Local police, fearful that the event would devolve into violence, stopped the proceedings and arrested many of the participants, including all the legal monitors. Jones spent a short time in jail, and all charges against him were subsequently dropped. Recalling his brief incarceration, Jones says: “I met all these young radical people of color. I mean really radical: communists and anarchists. And it was, like, ‘This is what I need to be a part of.’ I spent the next ten years of my life working with a lot of those people I met in jail, trying to be a revolutionary.”
Soon after the riots, Jones wrote an essay wherein he said: “Our moment had finally come! We were righteous, fired up, weren’t takin’ no more! We were one thousand strong on Market Street, with the Bay Bridge shut down in rush hour traffic and the grounds around the state building swarming with angry mobs! Our rallying cry was for justice; our demand was that the System be changed! Yes, the Great Revolutionary Moment had at long last come. And the time, clearly, was ours! So we stole stuff. Y’know, stole stuff. Radios, tennis shoes. Well, not everybody, of course.”
Years later, Jones would recall the L.A. riots as “sharp outcroppings of the systemic chaos that social injustice breeds.”
After leaving Yale in 1993, Jones relocated to San Francisco, where he helpedestablish Bay Area Police Watch, a hotline and lawyer-referral service that began as a project of LCCR and specialized in demonizing local police. In 1996 he founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which, claiming that the American criminal-justice system was infested with racism, sought to promote alternatives to incarceration. Jones headed the Baker Center from 1996 to 2007.
By the late 1990s, Jones was a committed Marxist-Leninist-Maoist who viewed police officers as the arch-enemies of black people, and who loathed capitalism for allegedly exploiting nonwhite minorities worldwide. He became a leading member of Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM), a Bay-Area Marxist-Maoist collective that had ties to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
In June 1998, Jones was a panelist at the Black Radical Congress conference held in Chicago.
In 1999, Jones and fellow STORM members went to Seattle to take part in the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations, which escalated into violent riots.
In 2000, Jones campaigned aggressively against California Proposition 21, a ballot initiative that established harsher penalties for a variety of violent crimes and called for more juvenile offenders to be tried as adults. Jones’ efforts incorporated a hip-hop soundtrack that aimed to attract young black men clad in such gang-style garb as puffy jackets and baggy pants, who would call attention to the alleged injustices of the so-called “prison-industrial complex.” But infighting and jealousies between various factions of Jones’s movement caused it ultimately to fall apart. “I saw our little movement destroyed over a lot of sh**-talking and bullsh**,” said Jones.
After the demise of his anti-Prop 21 movement, Jones decided to change his political tactics. Specifically, he toned down the overt hostility and defiant rage that previously had animated his activism. As he would explain in a 2005 interview: “Before, we would fight anybody, any time. 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…. 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.”
Jones’s new approach was modeled on the tactics outlined by the famed radical organizer Saul Alinsky, who stressed the need for revolutionaries to mask the extremism of their objectives and to present themselves as moderates until they could gain some control over the machinery of political power. Jones still considered himself a revolutionary, but a more effective one thanks to his revised tactics.
The September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks made a deep impression on Jones. Just hours after the attacks, Jones and his fellow STORM-affiliated activists publicly denounced the United States for having brought the disaster on itself. The following day, Jones led a vigil that expressed solidarity not only with Arab and Muslim Americans, but also with those whom Jones described as victims of “U.S. imperialism” around the world. In a press release announcing this vigil, Jones stated: “Anti-Arab hostility is already reaching a fever pitch as pundits and common people alike rush to judgment that an Arab group is responsible for this tragedy. We fear that an atmosphere is being created that will result in official and street violence against Arab men, women and children.”
In the early 2000s, Jones and STORM were active in the anti-Iraq War demonstrations organized by International ANSWER, a front group for the Marxist-Leninist Workers World Party. STORM also had ties to the South African Communist Party and it revered Amilcar Cabral, the late Marxist revolutionary leader (of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands) who lauded Vladimir Lenin as “the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” (In 2006 Van Jones would name his own newborn son “Cabral” — in Amilcar Cabral’s honor.)
During his tenure with STORM, Jones collaborated on numerous projects (including antiwar demonstrations) with local activist Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez, who served as a “mentor” for members of the Ella Baker Center. Martinez was a longtime Maoist who in the early 1990s had joined the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), a Communist Party USA splinter group with which Jones has had a longtime close relationship. Martinez and Van Jones together attended a “Challenging White Supremacy” workshop which advanced the theme that “all too often, the unconscious racism of white activists stands in the way of any effective, worthwhile collaboration” with blacks.
In 2002, Jones was a keynote speaker at a Berkeley, California rally to mark the national launch of Not In Our Name, a Maoist anti-war group founded by Revolutionary Communist Party member C. Clark Kissinger.
Also in the early 2000s, Jones served on the board of directors of the Oakland-based Youth Empowerment Center, which UndueInfluence.com described as an “anti-capitalist money-funnel for radical youth indoctrination groups.”
Around 2002, Jones, who had experience as a record producer, produced (for the Ella Baker Center) an album that starred cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. That album featured lyrics depicting America not only as a place where “terrorists are made,” but also as “a piece of stolen land led by right-wing, war-hungry, oil-thirsty … mother f***ers” who “got people of color playing servant to do that sh** for them.” Jones himself performed on the album as well, reciting the following anti-Israel lyrics:
“The end of the occupation. The right of return of the Palestinian people. These are critical dividing lines in human rights. We have to be here. No American would put up with an Israeli-style occupation of their hometown for 53 days let alone 54 years. U.S. tax dollars are funding violence against people of color inside the U.S. borders and outside the U.S. borders.”
In 2003 Jones took an unpaid leave-of-absence from the Ella Baker Center to work as the grassroots director for Arianna Huffington‘s California gubernatorial campaign. He played a major role in developing the campaign’s “Schools Not Jails” platform.
In October 2004, Jones joined a host of notable leftists in signing the 9/11 Truth Statement (Jones was signature #46), which called for an investigation into whether “people within the current [Bush] administration may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war.”
In 2005, Jones and the Ella Baker Center produced the “Social Equity Track” for the United Nations’ World Environment Day celebration, a project that eventually would evolve into the Baker Center’s Green-Collar Jobs Campaign — “a job-training and employment pipeline providing ‘green pathways out of poverty’ for low-income adults in Oakland.”
Also in 2005, Jones co-founded Color of Change (COC), an organization that views the United States as a profoundly racist country, and whose mission is “to make government more responsive to the concerns of Black Americans and to bring about positive political and social change for everyone.”
During the George W. Bush administration, Jones likened the president to “a crackhead” because of Bush’s supposedly insatiable desire to drill for oil.
In 2006, Jones signed a petition calling for nationwide “resistance” against police, whom he accused of having exploited the 9/11 attacks as a pretext upon which to carry out policies of torture. A notable fellow signer was the radical attorney Lynne Stewart.
Soon after attending the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2007, Jones launched Green For All, a non-governmental organization “dedicated to building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” A major funder of Green for All was George Soros‘s Open Society Institute.
According to Jones, America is plagued by “eco-apartheid,” where low-income people typically live in more polluted environments than wealthy people. In a January 2008 speech, Jones said: “The white polluters and the white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people-of-color communities because they don’t have a racial justice framework.”
In 2008 Jones published his first book, The Green Collar Economy, which received favorable reviews from such notables as Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Laurie David, Winona LaDuke, environmentalist Paul Hawken, and NAACP president Ben Jealous. In the book, Jones maintains that Hurricane Katrina and its associated tragedies were caused by global warming, white supremacy, free market economics, and the “war for oil” in Iraq. This “perfect storm” of social evils, says the author, deprived poor blacks of the protection of adequate levees and private vehicles which would have allowed them to escape the floods. According to Jones: “The Katrina story illustrates clearly the two crises we face in the United States: radical socioeconomic inequality and rampant environmental destruction.” To deal with these crises, he explains, “we will need both political and economic transformation – immediately.”
In April 2008, Jones made clear his desire to incrementally socialize, by stealth, the U.S. economy: “Right now we say we want to move from suicidal gray capitalism to something eco-capitalism where at least we’re not fast-tracking the destruction of the whole planet. Will that be enough? No, it won’t be enough. We want to go beyond the systems of exploitation and oppression altogether … until [the green economy] becomes the engine for transforming the whole society.”
In a June 2008 speech to the National Conference for Media Reform, Jones denounced a proposal for the construction (in Memphis) of a new prison, which he likened to a “huge slave ship on dry land.” “You don’t have to call somebody the n-word if you can call them a felon,” Jones elaborated. “The fight against this new Jim Crow, this punishment industry, where for-profit prison companies are now being traded on the stock exchange … that struggle is being met as it was 40 years ago.”
After the Bush administration left office, Jones lamented that during Bush’s eight years in the White House “an authoritarian sentiment [had] seized control of the reins of power in our country, burned the Constitution, enshrined torture, launched an unjust war under false premises … turned [the American flag] into a war flag, and used it to beat and whip and lynch anybody who didn’t agree that we should be bombing people and torturing people.”
At a February 11, 2009 speaking engagement, Jones asserted that congressional Republicans had been able to pass some of their legislative initiatives, even without majorities in the House and Senate, because they were relentlessly persistent, determined “assholes.”
In late February 2009, Jones spoke at a Washington, D.C. event called “Power Shift ’09,” which was billed as the largest-ever youth summit (attended by 12,000 young adults) on climate change. There, Jones advocated what WorldNetDaily reporter Aaron Klein said “can easily be interpreted as a communist or socialist agenda.” For example:
During a February 26, 2009 lecture on energy issues in Berkeley, California, Jones, referring to the economic crisis in which the U.S. was mired at the time, sarcastically asked a questioner: “How’s that capitalism working for ya this year?”
On March 10, 2009, President Barack Obama named Jones to be his so-called “green jobs czar”; the formal title for the position was “Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation” for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. At the time, Jones was a senior fellow with the Apollo Alliance and with John Podesta‘s Center for American Progress. He described his new role with the Obama administration as that of “a community organizer inside the federal family.” One of Jones’s most avid supporters was Obama’s close adviser, Valerie Jarrett. Another key backer was the Institute for Policy Studies‘ Chuck Collins, who in the 1990s had helped establish the socialist New Party.
In a July 2009 interview with Newsweek magazine, Jones was asked to explain exactly what a “green job” was. He replied: “Well, we still don’t have a unified definition, and that’s not unusual in a democracy. It takes a while for all the states and the federal government to come to some agreement.”
Amid mounting controversy over his radical past, Jones resigned his post as “green jobs czar” on Labor Day weekend 2009, claiming that he had been victimized by “a vicious smear campaign.” Jones was later asked whether President Obama had been aware of Jones’s controversial history before appointing him as green jobs czar. Jones replied: “I was fully candid, I mean, about my past, about the ideas that I explored….”
After stepping down from his Obama administration post, Jones was offeredoffice-work space in the D.C. offices of the Center for American Progress (CAP). In February 2010, he officially rejoined CAP. That same month, Jones received the NAACP‘s President’s Award, for achievement in public service. He also announced that he had secured a one-year assignment to teach a seminar on environmental and economic policy at Princeton University, beginning in June 2010.
In April 2010, Jones said the following about the nature of the Obama administration: “You look at the New Party, which is now the Working Families Party, the idea of a new politics — that you could actually in this country bring together labor and civil rights and feminists, etc., and actually make a difference … is the basic framework for what just took over the White House.”
Jones served as one of 20 advisers to the Presidential Climate Action Project (based at the University of Colorado), which made climate-policy recommendations for the Obama White House. He has been praised for his environmental work by such notable leftists as Thomas Friedman, Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, Arianna Huffington, Ben Jealous, Laurie David, Gavin Newsom, Carl Pope, Tavis Smiley, Fred Krupp, and John Podesta.
During a January 19, 2011 speaking engagement at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, Jones said that “in a society where there’s social justice,” any particular individual would be perfectly willing to trade his or her life with that of any other randomly selected person, knowing “with total confidence” that he or she would “have a roughly equal chance to have a good life.”
In the fall of 2011, Jones supported the newly formed, anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement, characterizing it as an “October offensive” that would rival the Tea Party.
Speaking at a March 31, 2012 “All In For The 99%” rally in Los Angeles, Jones denounced libertarians and their principle of economic liberty, saying: “They’ve taken their despicable ideology and used it a wrecking ball, that they have painted red, white and blue, to smash down every good thing in America.” Portraying libertarians as racists, he continued: “They say they’re Patriots but they hate everybody in America who looks like us. They say they love America but they hate the people, the brown folk, the gays, the lesbians, the people with piercings, ya know ya’ll…. You can’t be an anti-immigrant bigot and a Patriot at the same time.”
In June 2013, CNN television announced that it was reviving the political program Crossfire, to be co-hosted by Van Jones, Obama adviser Stephanie Cutter, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and MSNBC host S.E. Cupp.
In 2014 Jones founded The Dream Corps, an organization whose mission is to transform the American criminal-justice system by cutting the nation’s prison population in half; to help “100,000 young women and men of diverse backgrounds find success in the tech sector”; and to “build an inclusive green economy by moving $1 trillion dollars from polluters pockets into low-income communities.” Jones continues to serve as a Dream Corps board member.
On April 12, 2015, Jones attended a closed-door meeting wherein New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio met with a number of fellow leftists to draft a “Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality” in America.
On July 20, 2021, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, held a press conference where he stated: “I have a little surprise for you. I am announcing today, a new philanthropic initiative … The Courage and Civility Award. It recognizes leaders who aim high, and who pursue solutions with courage, and who always do so with civility.” The first two winners of this award and the $100 million prizes that came with it, were Van Jones and the Spanish chef José Andrés, the latter of whom founded World Central Kitchen to supply meals for needy people during natural disasters. When announcing the awards, Bezos said of Jones in particular: “I bet Van Jones is going to do something amazing with that $100 million. I don’t know what yet. I bet he doesn’t know what yet, but it’s in your hands, Van Jones.”
Over the years, Jones has served as a board member of environmental and nonprofit organizations like the Rainforest Action Network; Free Press; Bioneers (which accepts the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Report’s warning that “[h]uman activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted”); the Social Venture Network (which aims “to build a just economy and sustainable planet”); and Julia Butterfly Hill’s “Circle of Life” environmental foundation.