Taking the Movement Out of the Obama White House

Van Jones was one of the only people in the White House who came out of grassroots movement work and not just political/partisan hack work.
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UPDATE: I'm scheduled to be on CNN Monday morning, 9/7, at 8:30am ET to discuss this post. Tune in.

My newspaper column this week was about the difference between a political party and a political movement - and I can't say I'm happy to see the lessons of that difference being highlighted so intensely and so negatively as they are with today's news that Van Jones was forced out of the Obama administration (and let's be real clear, despite the "resignation" billing, the White House's pathetic behavior this week makes clear Jones was forced out by the higher ups). This is a serious tragedy for the progressive movement on three levels.

First and foremost, Jones was one of the only movement progressives in a policymaking position in the Obama White House. By that I mean, he was one of the only people in the White House who came out of grassroots movement work and not just political/partisan hack work, and one of the only movement progressives put in a policymaking job, and not ghettoized into a political/tactical job. Whenever I got sick to my stomach at the thought of Obama's Team of Corporate Zombies - people like Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Jim Messina - running the show, I was able to at least tell myself that hey, someone like Van Jones is at least in there somewhere fighting the good fight as he always has. No more - and that's a damn shame.

Second, Jones being forced out will not mollify the racists, crazies, tea baggers, Republican congresspeople and other assorted conservative freakshows - it will only embolden them. When lynch mobs in the Old South lynched someone, when a witchhunting band caught a target in Salem, when HUAC "proved" the supposed communism of its victims, that didn't calm them down - it only intensified their bloodlust because it made them believe they could be even more successful in the future. So if the White House's political "gurus" believe booting Jones was the safe and prudent way to mitigate right-wing hatred, then they are as short-sighted and stupid as they've proven themselves to be in mismanaging the summer's health care debate. Seriously, folks - if you think you can appease or mollify someone who takes to the public airwaves and does this, then you are as crazy as that screaming lunatic is.

Finally, the Jones announcement will inevitably create a chilling effect on the aspirations of other movement progressives. Van is a fantastic person who has done fantastic work. He's kept his advocacy real and didn't compromise his principles. And so when he was appointed to a high-level White House job, it seemed to validate that you could, in fact, keep it real and also advance in American politics and government. That is to say, his story seemed to prove that an outsider could also succeed on the inside - and that outside advocacy doesn't automatically prohibit you from one day working on the inside.

Now, though, because of today's announcement, that lesson has been rewritten. Jones being tossed from the White House says that even in an administration headed by a former community organizer, progressive movement activists (as opposed to far-right conservative movement activists who are celebrated in D.C.) probably cannot hope to ever enter or rise in government.* I'm not saying that's an ironclad rule - but that is the message of this particular event, and you better believe that all the movement activists who know Jones or looked to him as a hero will get that message loud and clear. And that's a tragedy.

The obvious rejoinder to these points is that Jones supposedly brought this on himself by long ago making a mistake and signing a misguided petition about 9/11. Obviously, he made a mistake** - and he admitted that. But even if you don't accept that apology or admission of fault, the idea that him signing that petition means he's worthy of removal is just a pathetic argument that highlights the most damning hypocrisies of all. For instance, are we really expected to believe that Jones signing one random petition is a bigger problem than, say, Geithner accepting free room and board for the industry he is supposed to be regulating? I could make a huge list of such contrasts, including the tellingly different media/political Establishment treatments of "birthers" (cheered on) and "truthers" (totally ostracized) - but you get the point: the entire brouhaha about Jones supposedly awful transgressions is manufactured, considering the genuinely problematic transgressions of so many other White House officials are treated as no problem at all.

Let me just end this post by saying I'm sincerely disappointed about Jones getting kicked out of the White House for all three reasons I've laid out above - and also because I've been personally inspired by the guy. I've seen him speak, read his work and met him at the Democratic convention here in Denver. Out of all the activists and leaders I've met in more than a decade in movement politics, he's really one of the best. And while I hope - and expect - Jones will be back in movement politics soon, losing him as a voice in an Obama administration that is so mobbed up with corporate sycophants and political hacks is a real bummer.

* For the 9/11 truthers out there, let me just say this: Yes, there is ample evidence that the government was grossly negligent in ignoring intelligence warnings about 9/11. And yes, there is evidence that the government has not been all that forthcoming about acknowledging that fact. To say that is not controversial at all - it's verifiably true, and to support better efforts to uncover the evidence around 9/11 isn't controversial either. But no, there is no evidence that proves or strongly suggests the government deliberately orchestrated 9/11. The 9/11 Truth movement has tried to aggressively harass/intimidate almost every person in public life - me, Van Jones, and everyone else - in an attempt to force people to sign onto its statements that the government wasn't just negligent, but orchestrated 9/11. These people are absolutely incessant - and their tactics and statements attempting to equate governmental negligence with governmental orchestration is as offensive as it is awful. It's the worst mix of bullying and conspiracy theorism - and it's not merely "controversial," it's unacceptable and it needs to end.

** By the way, that message is especially true for African American movement activists, because let's just be honest - the fact that the right chose to mount a hysteria campaign specifically around an African American, Jones, was no coincidence. The right didn't just randomly pick some mid-level guy working on noncontroversial issues (green jobs) - they were specifically looking for a black guy with movement politics in his background. Remember, he was targeted WAY BEFORE the 9/11 stuff ever came out - in other words, the right-wing started attacking him before those conservative voices ever even KNEW about the 9/11 controversy.

Hence, we can be assured the original targeting of Jones was a calculated move with race in mind - a move designed to fit the criticism into a larger racial backlash framework first perfected in the 1980s. That framework has created a simple reality: In America, governmental advancement is wide open for right-wing movement players, and you can even vaguely hope for a seat at the political table if you are a white progressive former hippe-turned-yuppie liberal. But if you are a black person with any enduring loyalty to progressive movement or social justice activism, the loud and clear message from politicians and the media is that you are not welcome anywhere near the halls of power, because you will be billed as some nefarious combination of Al Sharpton, Huey Newton, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Willie Horton.

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