As the grassroots sit-ins and marches that originated as Occupy Wall Street spread to other cities, Van Jones, lead evangelist for the American Dream movement, took the stage Monday at a Washington, DC hotel where organizers of the institutional element of the progressive movement converged at Take Back the American Dream. The gathering was organized by the Campaign for America's Future in partnership with Jones' new organization, Rebuild the Dream. Jones voiced his support for the spontaneous Wall Street uprising, and for the U.S. Marines who agreed, he said, to protect the protesters while wearing dress blues.
Jones said that after he left the White House, where he served as a green jobs adviser to President Barack Obama, he occupied his time studying how the Tea Party movement came into existence and marshaled its power. Jones had been a target of Tea Party ire, stoked by Glenn Beck on his Fox News Channel platform, back when Beck served as the de facto community organizer for media baron Rupert Murdoch, before Beck fell out of the mogul's favor.
Jones explained the Tea Party's “leaderless” model to the activists with a PowerPoint showing how the instigators of the Tea Party movement — leaders of groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity — didn't so much create a top-down organization as they did a network that fostered the development of local Tea Party organizations by local activists, who then took ownership of their own corners of the movement. “The Tea Party is an open-source brand,” Jones explained, “that 3,528 affiliates use; none of them own it.” For all their talk of rugged individualism, Jones said, the forces behind the Tea Party “have enacted the most collectivist strategy for taking power in the history of the republic.”
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Jones also demonstrated, with modeling schematics, how progressives had initially, during the 2008 presidential campaign, centered their movement more around a person — Obama — than their own issues. In no small part, Jones implied, progressives were drawn to the Obama campaign's branding, with its iconic “O” logo onto which people projected their own aspirations and beliefs.
“It has been a tough couple of years,” Jones told his audience. “We went from hope to heartbreak in about a minute…We have the wrong theory of the presidency.”
As for the rise of the right, Jones said, “I'm not mad at the Tea Party. I'm not mad at them for being so loud. I'm mad at us for having been so quiet the past two years.”
With Monday's speech, Jones set out to sell the idea of a more diffuse and locally directed progressive movement to a gathering of progressives who are more used to being part of organizing campaigns launched from organization or union headquarters. What Jones is offering instead, though his Rebuild the Dream hub (launched in partnership with MoveOn.org), is an open-source brand for the left, complete with a logo in the form of a red “A” (for “American Dream”) with a white star at its center, underlined by a blue stripe. It's a graphic turn on the American flag, part of Jones' call to the left to reclaim the mantle of patriotism.
Rebuild the Dream has already facilitated some 1,600 house meetings of like-minded people who aim to build a grassroots movement on a par with the Tea Party. Rebuild the Dream has also issued a “Contract For the American Dream,” built on the model of past right-wing contracts, which politicians are being asked to sign in order to signify their willingness to support movement goals in their political and legislative work.
Today, the more institutional wing of the left will be represented among the less-affiliated protesters of Occupy Wall Street, as union members, artists, hactivists and students join in the mass expression of outrage at the impunity with which big banks and traders have turned the economy against everyday Amercans for the benefit of the 1 percent of Americans who own 42 percent of the nation's wealth. A number of New York union locals are marching in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street from City Hall to Zuccotti Park, the protesters' base camp.
Van Jones sat down yesterday with AlterNet executive editor Don Hazen and Washington bureau chief Adele Stan to share his hopes for the rebirth of a liberal people's movement.
AlterNet: When you talk about Rebuilding the Dream being a resource hub for progressives, how do you envision that?
Van Jones: We want to be a support center like FreedomWorks is a support center [for the Tea Party]. Everybody focuses on the money from the Koch brothers; they focus on Fox News TV. But they don't focus so much on infrastructure, and the relationship between the institutions. So we've tried to focus in on that.
AlterNet: One of the things FreedomWorks did was to create the Tea Party Patriots, which is a network, as you noted in your speech. One of the things Tea Party Patriots did was to create its own social media infrastructure. Progressives tend to use Twitter and Facebook, which means our calls to action are out there on public platforms. Is that just who we are, or do you foresee building an American Dream movement social-media network, just as Tea Party Patriots did for their people? They build communities that way — communities that are locally and regionally based, but which are then tied to the national Tea Party Patriots network, which is in turn tied to FreedomWorks. But they also bring in new people who may not have been politically active before, because there's a level of the social media network that's local. One of the reasons some people are saying that Occupy Wall Street is more like the Tea Party than the folks at this conference is that nobody is directly affiliated with a top-down, long established organization.
Van Jones: People can take too literally the [Tea Party comparison] — like what is the one effort that is going to be the [progressive version of] the Tea Party. Then people can start having a tug of war over it. But, really, I don't think of it like that. I think we're going into a real period of serious experimentation and innovation, and even improvisation — certainly through the [2012 presidential] election, and probably a couple of years beyond as a couple of things happen. One, as the economic crisis gets worse — it ain't gonna get better — the formal economy is going to continue to contract. That means you're going to have a lot of people suffering due to the economy. That's going to create a need for a response. What are we going to do? How can we address the ways in which people are hurting — immediate needs? That's going to be a driver of innovation, the economic crisis. People have to eat. People have to live indoors. People aren't going to just lay down and die because Wall Street wants to hold up the economic recovery.
But the other driver will be the other process — which is a global phenomenon — of the business model for social change changing, moving away from the hierarchical and more toward the horizontal. And you'll see different efforts that reflect different aspects of that. Getting all these grassroots leaders to align ourselves differently as we begin to function differently, more in partnership, and also a lot more open-source efforts.
For example, November 17 is going to be a major protest date. And we're just letting people take that and run with it. There's no central group people are going to do this. We're just throwing the date out there — November 17th, “Jobs Not Cuts.” That's different from the kinds of coalitional tables that have been set up before where [groups] try to dictate exactly the messaging, exactly this and exactly that. So you're seeing urgency because of the economic crisis, and the opportunity to do things differently, because of the technology, to create all kinds of new forums. And so it could be, in some ways, Occupy Wall Street will reflect some of the success model from the Tea Party. We're talking about the Tea Party because that's what gets the attention. But we're also studying the Arab Spring.
There's a way that we, as Westerners look at things: What is the one right answer? Is it the American Dream Movement, or is it Occupy Wall Street? Which is it? When, actually, we're just glad that the volcano is starting to erupt. We just want to fight. And there are some pre-existing grassroots assets that need to be re-aligned or redeployed; we're trying to do that here. Then there's all this new energy out there. And what you're going to see happening is that new explosion of energy will capture and inspire some existing stuff; some of these new organizations that are started will capture and inspire some new stuff, and you'll see all kinds of interpenetrations and that kind of thing.
AlterNet: So, you as a brand may still say, we're going to build our own social networking infrastructure.
VJ: We're going to continue to innovate and improvise, and nothing would make us happier than for this to result in something that's incredibly useful, and for other things to show up that create incredible utility. There's not going to be one thing that progressives do to fix this; we're going to be in a period of improvisation. Now people are going are, rightly, using your work — Dangerous Brew and other stuff — to get insight and a window into the Tea Party phenomenon, but there are other things.
AlterNet: So, you're saying, that even structurally you're not looking to mirror that movement.
VJ: Not primarily. We wanted to see that if we went through the steps they went through, with their Contract from America, with the house meetings, could we do it? You know, they had 800 house meetings; we had 1,597 — almost double.
AlterNet: And are those people going to meet again to build the grassroots?
VJ: Yes. Look at the three things we're committed to coming out of here. One, November 17th — that's a big deal. That's going to be all over the country. So, if you look from September 17th, when the young people took over Wall Street, to November 17th. That's the American Autumn. You had the Arab Spring; that's the American Autumn…That process is ongoing, on the theme, Jobs, Not Cuts. Now, the difference is, there's not all kinds of coalitions zipping around, trying to dictate all the signs and messaging. We're inviting all kinds of people, individuals as well as organizations, to jump on board.
Number two — we're saying protests must lead to participation. We had those house meetings — we had, I think, 31,000 people, online and in person. We're going to be launching a new online platform…where people will be able to continue that effort. We're also going to be developing teach-ins, because one of the things we learned from all those house meetings was that there's a need for some experience. Because if you go to [a house meeting] that's great, that's great. But if you go to one that's not so great, it's not so great. So if you have a teach-in, there's a way to get the best of all possible worlds. You get a lot of people together, you have some videos or a some main speakers — we're going to try that out.
AlterNet: So you start a national conversation and get people talking.
VJ: We're going to try to get a million leaders in America online and talking with each other. And that's going to be a major piece.
And then there's a third piece, and it's new — and it seems to have escaped people's notice — and that's that we've said we're going to run 2012 people for office in 2012. Now, that's a big deal.
AlterNet: That's a lot of people.
VJ: And the reason we're able to do is not because Mike (Lux) have 2,000 people in their back pockets. It's because we have groups like Progressive Majority and the New Organizing Institute.
AlterNet: Then you're talking about local folks, too — people running for school board and town council.
VJ: Everybody, up and down. We're talking about U.S. senators who want to run as American Dream candidates — soon to be announced. We've reached out to the House Democratic Caucus; there are House members who want to run as American Dream candidates. One of the things that's been missing is, you have Tea Party Republicans: you may not like the product, but you know what the product is. Right now, you say Democrat, and you don't know if you're getting Larry Summers or Dennis Kucinich. So you can imagine at some point that there will be American Dream Democrats — or American Dream Republicans, if they want to act right, or even American Dream independents. They just have to agree with our Contract For the American Dream — those 10 things (the contract contains “10 Critical Steps to Get Our Economy Back on Track”), and including the preamble that says “liberty and justice for all,” not for some, but for all. So you've got more corners where you can have a lot of activity happening.
Look, the Occupy Wall Street stuff is a huge, big deal; this is a huge, big deal; there will be other huge, big deals. There is a big thaw happening. People have gone through their grieving process, and people want to fight. Look, if the economy gets worse, there may be a whole section of Latinos that jump off [and into the movement] — people nobody expected, because of the horrible things that are being dropped on Latino communities in the Southeast and Southwest.
I just want to say one last thing, and this is important. A lot of the people in the leadership of the American Dream Movement just love Occupy Wall Street. We're in awe of them and we want them to do well. And what we're struggling with is how do we support it without looking like we're trying to take it over. Because we couldn't've thunk this up, therefore we want it to be able to have its independence. At the same time, [it's important to determine] where they might need a little bit of support, so you don't jump in and wind up killing something that is an organic thing.
AlterNet: It's going to be interesting to see what happens when Dan Cantor, executive director of the labor-aligned Working Families Party, and other union members join with Occupy Wall Street for the solidarity march this week.
VJ: Exactly! This is thrilling stuff! This is an epic battle [with] the dream-killers on Wall Street — who are so disgusting and so despicable; they are ingrates who are sitting up there laughing at us. I mean, every other bloc of capital that has this much weight, they try to do something to make you like them. Even the polluters, they say, “We'll get clean coal.” They try to do something. But these people on Wall Street — they just don't care. So it's just going to be an epic battle now between the worst people in America, the most selfish people in America, and the most selfless. And that's going to be amazing.