Van Jones loves his former boss, Barack Obama, he told a campus audience Wednesday night, and “would take a bullet for him.” Yet as happy as he was that Obama won re-election, he’s even happier — “overjoyed,” in fact — “that the backlashers lost.”
“We just won a tremendous victory because we didn’t bow down, and buckle down, and hand the country over to the worst people ever born,” Jones told an appreciative crowd of several hundred in Pauley Ballroom, site of this year’s Mario Savio Memorial Lecture. His 30-minute speech was fiery, funny and hyperbolic — sometimes all at once — and firmly in the tradition of Savio lecturers like Robert Reich, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Seymour Hersh.
“It’s our time,” he told them. “It’s our time.”
Taking the lectern after brief talks by a pair of younger activists, the 44-year-old Jones contrasted the “deeper patriotism” of their generation with the “cheaper patriotism” of the Tea Party movement, and urged those on the left to step up the pressure on elected officials — including Obama — to address pressing issues like racism, poverty and climate change.
“It wasn’t supposed to be ‘Yes he can,'” said Jones. “It was ‘Yes we can.'”
Well-known in the Bay Area for co-founding the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Jones was tapped by Obama in 2009 as his green-jobs adviser. That April he was dubbed one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine, which called him — in an entry by actor Leonardo DiCaprio — “a pioneer in fusing economic opportunity and social justice with environmentalism.” Even Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO then campaigning to be California’s Republican governor, proclaimed herself “a huge fan.”
Others were less friendly. The right-wing WorldNetDaily website — under the headline “Will a ‘Red’ Help Blacks Go Green?” — highlighted Jones’ Marxist past, calling him “an admitted radical communist and black nationalist leader.” The article sparked predictable outrage on the right and a campaign, spearheaded by Fox News’ Glenn Beck, to bounce him from the White House team.
Jones soon resigned his appointment, refocusing his attention on grassroots activism and writing a best-selling book, Rebuild the Dream. On Wednesday, he showed how returning to private life can facilitate the exercise of free speech.
“Four years of obstruction. Four years of lies. Four years of smears. Four years of some of the worst behavior that you’ve ever seen in the United States,” he said in characterizing the behavior of Obama’s opponents during his first term. “What would it have meant for this country had they prevailed? How do you raise children in a country where the cheaters and the liars win?
“This is a moral question,” he declared. “This is not a question of right versus left. It’s right versus wrong.”
The core question posed by the presidential election, he said, was this: “Are we those people we saw in 2010, with those funny tri-cornered hats, spewing hatred? Or are we those beautiful people we saw in 2008, every color in the rainbow coming together? Who are we?
“We answered that question,” Jones said. “And we should celebrate that victory.”
Celebrate, he said, but don’t settle.
“Stopping the backlashers, beating mean people with dumb ideas, is a victory” — broad smile, pause for laughter and scattered applause — “but it’s not change,” Jones said, calling for stepped-up pressure on the Obama White House to advance a progressive agenda.
During his time in Washington, he noted, the only protesters he saw outside his office window were Tea Partiers. That, he said, must change as well.
“We can’t have four more years where you cannot talk about racism, about poverty, about peace, about the environment,” Jones declared. “Four years of silence from the left are over.”