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Monday, September 07, 2009

A Truly Radical Idea: Van Jones and the Greening of Criminal Justice

The midnight  resignation of Obama environmental adviser Van Jones is being treated in the media and the blogosphere [read Fred Barbash and Harry Siegel's summary on Politico] as yet another turn in Washington's ideological gang war ("Washington's a tough place that way," noted Howard Dean in one of the more sympathetic comments).  Fox's Glenn Beck is said to have scored the first "scalp" inside the Obama White House, and many progressives are describing Jone's demise as a "lynching" or a "swiftboating" and bemoaning the administration's unseemly haste to rush Jones out the door.  Indeed, the controversey seems like a decent Hollywood send-up of Bill Clinton dumping  Lani Guinier.  Jones' past as an organzier with an avowedly revolutionary organization here in the ultra-Left Bay Area, STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement) was widely known at the time of his appointment to an advisory position requiriging no Senate confirmation (the alleged policy nub of the criticisms directed at Jones).  It seems hard to believe that Jone's alleged primary sins of signing a 9/11 "truther" petition or calling Republicans "assh-les" in a speech last February before he took office  (didn't the former Vice President use an expletive on the floor of the Senate without having to resign) could be more damning in the eyes of Fox News then being a Marxist revolutionary, but there you have it.  The truth is that Jones' has promoted one of the most radical ideas to emerge from the Bay Area in some years; but his vision has more in common with Alice Waters than Che Guevera.

The Ella Baker Center, the civil rights organization Jones cofounded in 1996, was one of the first to take up the issue of mass incarceration as a primary focus for civil rights struggle.  In innovative and successful organizing drives, like the movement to stop Oakland from building a giant new juvenile detention center at the height of California's "lock-em up" politics, Jones began to forge a vision linking environmentalism and criminal justice reform.  What Jones saw was that the high carbon automobile dependent lifestyle of mostly white middle class people in the suburbs, was linked to high incarceration economically disinvested lifestyles of mostly people of color in the inner cities by a logic of fear.  The alternative to both was a new green urban agenda, in which the inherent energy  advantages of innercity locations could be leveraged by investment in new energy efficient infrastructures.  The by-product (in addition to slower climate change) would be  tens of thousands of new skilled jobs in the very innercity locations which had suffered the most crime and incarceration during decades of deindustrialization and middle class flight.  If that infrastructure reinvestment cycle could be unleashed, a serious effort at breaking down the barriers to employment by the formerly incarcerated could be the single most important criminal justice fight of our time (and one that could unify law enforcement and justice system critics).

This is a truly radical idea, one that challenges not democracy and capitalism, but our expensive and cronyism riddled penal state.  It is not the vast rightwing conspiracy, but the far more powerful centrist alliance of  high incarceration/high carbon political and economic interests that will benefit from removing Van Jones. 

Posted by Jonathan Simon on September 7, 2009 at 12:00 PM | Permalink


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Why did Jones think these transgressions and utterings were not going to be publicly aired? His ego was much greater than his common sense. The fact that he went to Yale Law under extreme affirmative actions is no testament to his'intelligence. So how really 'smart' is this slick cat?

Posted by: dan murphy | Sep 8, 2009 9:54:11 PM

Thanks for the post. It seems that despite Jones's history of erratic political jumps there are a lot of mainstream people who vouch for him.

But when I try to dig down to substance, many of his ideas have a "pull a rabbit out of the hat," or "1. Go green 2. ??? 3. Profit!" quality to them. Can you point me to something that "connects the dots." That is, can you point me to something that rigorously walks through Jones's ideas and shows them to be well thought out? Is he more than just a charismatic face?

Posted by: not a jones hater | Sep 7, 2009 2:10:20 PM

Ah, so the dastardly oil companies were behind the "lock-em up" politics. I knew it all along.

Posted by: humblelawstudent | Sep 7, 2009 12:37:06 PM

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