Jones’ We Rise tour, which kicked off Wednesday and continues until Aug. 19, is stopping at venues from Los Angeles to New York as he hosts conversations with local government and community leaders and artists about politics and activism. Wednesday’s kickoff event in Los Angeles featured a panel with hip-hop mogul and producer Russell Simmons and actor and rapper Nick Cannon, as well as performances that included spoken word poetry.
In an interview with HuffPost before the tour launched, Jones said he wants to push people ― progressives in particular ― to think beyond partisan divides to work on social justice issues, such as mass incarceration and the drug epidemics.
“Part of what’s happened is everybody feels a sense of crisis ― economically, geopolitically ― but instead of turning to each other, we’re turning on each other,” Jones said.
Since the election, Jones has drawn some criticism from the left for his push to “bridge divides” with folks on the right, particularly those who voted for Donald Trump. As a proud progressive who worked in the Obama administration and famously dubbed Trump’s election a “whitelash” against changing demographics, Jones caused some brows to furrow when his CNN show, “The Messy Truth,” which launched in December, had him visiting Trump supporters to listen to their struggles.
Many progressives ― and people of color in particular ― have taken issue with the panoply of people after the election, including Jones, who have called for those on the left to “have conversations” with Trump voters rather than focus solely on supporting marginalized groups, many of which have seen their rights threatened by the Trump administration.
Jones maintains that he can do both: “I’m just as concerned about what’s going on in Appalachia as in South-Central Los Angeles. We’re concerned about people both parties have let down for decades.”
“It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Screw Trump and anyone who voted for him,’” he added. “But the problem is it doesn’t create a job or close a prison.”
Jones’ “We Rise” tour won’t mirror his “Messy Truth” show, he says, largely because he will be talking mostly with liberal panelists and audience members, since, as he put it, “progressives and people of color will be the main people who show up.”
“I’m going to be challenging those folks with stuff I’ve seen, to try to get us to open our hearts,” Jones said. “It’s a risk for me, because right now there is real risk as a progressive to raise criticism, because they don’t want it to play into Trump’s hand somehow.”
HuffPost spoke to Jones about the tour and why he thinks people on the left should be joining with those on the right to advance social justice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s about trying to get us back to a place where we’re talking about solutions and building bridges again. It’s scary to me, because I’m going out into what feels like a civil war ― and trying to point out opportunities for hope and progress ― without being Pollyanna about it.
I’ve gotten a chance to go to so many different cities ― I’ve been to West Virginia, to South-Central L.A. Everywhere I go it’s the same thing: addiction, poverty, a broken criminal justice system, high death rates. I’m seeing common pain but no common purpose.
There’s stuff we’re not going to agree on ― health care, immigration ― and everyone knows where I stand on those issues. But there are issues we do agree on, and nobody is doing anything. No one thinks the criminal justice system is doing well, or addiction ― whether narcotics in black communities or opioids in white communities ― or that were preparing the next generation of workers.
We’re all yelling at each other about who’s a snowflake, but there’s funeral after funeral of young Americans from overdoses, homicides and even sometimes police shootings.
My view is we should be tough on Trump and his policies and behaviors, but we should be very curious and open to understanding and finding common ground with Trump’s voters. Van Jones
You’ve done some of this kind of bipartisan bridge-building work with your show, “The Messy Truth,” when you talked to Trump voters about their concerns. How do you respond to the criticism you’ve gotten over those efforts?
Look, I think Trump is worse than people fear ― and I think many of the Trump voters are better than people know. The truth is messy. Many of the Trump voters held their nose to vote for Trump, just as many of us held ours to vote for [Hillary] Clinton. My view is we should be tough on Trump and his policies and behaviors, but we should be very curious and open to understanding and finding common ground with Trump’s voters.
I’m not kumbaya ― but unless you’re saying “Screw Trump,” you’re accused of being kumbaya. I’ve been in politics for 30 years. You have to look at reality, and to get things we want to get done, we have to de-inflame some of these tensions.
You mentioned there are issues people on the left and right tend to agree on. For instance, that mass incarceration is a problem. But even so, aren’t there still divides on how to solve it, or issues related to it, like police violence?
My organization [The Dream Corps] has real legislation moving right now, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, where we think we’ll pick up Republicans on not shackling women in federal prisons when giving birth.
We don’t have to agree on everything to agree on some things. On criminal justice, there has been real bipartisan progress.
I think the problem is people are in their own bubbles of outrage, and we’re not trying to solve problems anymore. If you have a kid in prison or hooked on opioids or who doesn’t have a job, a lot of this back and forth is not inspiring. There’s a bunch of people addicted to being righteous and saying Republicans suck. That’s not a hard case to make. The harder case is that there are things we could be doing as progressives to get better outcomes for our community.
I think the problem is people are in their own bubbles of outrage, and we’re not trying to solve problems anymore. Van Jones
You haven’t been the only one making calls to “bridge divides” since the election. Everyone from the Women’s March to Heineken has pushed people to “have conversations” with folks they disagree with. But critics note that promoting dialogue makes it seem like it’s individual opinions that need to change rather than systems or policies.
That’s a false choice. We get in these false binaries: either you work on dialogue and understanding or on systemic change. But you can’t work on either unless you’re working on both. Try to close a prison without talking to a Republican. You can’t do it in any state. It’s not dialogue for its own sake: You can’t deliver on structural reforms without being in dialogue.
We have to get passed the hazing that you’re an Uncle Tom appeaser just because you’re trying to close prisons, and in order to do that you have to talk to Republicans. We have to keep our eyes on the prize: the people who are actually suffering.
I think the truth is messy: I’m a progressive. I’m proud of it. I think our ideas are better, but I don’t think our ideas or party is perfect, and I benefit from back and forth with people who disagree with me.
How does your experience as a black man in America relate to your belief that people should come together despite these deep political divides?
I don’t think I can be any more cynical or defeatist than people who were enslaved and lynched and had dogs sicked on them and somehow found a way to be optimistic. I think people have lost all perspective. It’s become fashionable to be cynical. I’m not going to let Trump change who I am. I’m a hope-and-changer ― in 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020 and 2024, if God lets me stay here.
[Martin Luther King Jr.] was talking about hope and change. Before that you had Ida B. Wells, while people were being lynched, talking about hope and change. This is what we do. This country was a slave state on stolen land, and we had to fight a civil war only to get to apartheid. And Dr. King created a democracy out of apartheid. I stand in that tradition. People with less money and no phones turned an apartheid regime into a democracy against much greater odds than what we face, and they weren’t cynical.
I’m literally bewildered by how fashionable it’s become to just shoot down any idea or any suggestion that we might be able to get kids out of jail or morgues as Pollyanna, kumbaya stuff. And I reject it.
Come out, sit in a room with me for an hour. If you think I’m full of it, come out and tell me to my face. Let’s have this conversation.