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Van Jones on Trayvon Martin, Racial Violence and Why Obama Ignored Race Issues for Two Years

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As thousands of people across the country call for justice in the case of Trayvon Martin, we’re joined by Van Jones, longtime anti-police brutality activist and co-founder of, which aims to strengthen Black America’s political voice. He describes fearing for his own safety while wearing a hoodie and discusses the state of race relations under President Obama. “This kind of hits close to home for me. I’m an African-American father. I’ve got two little black boys,” Jones says. “How am I going to protect these young guys? I mean, do you have to dress your kid in a tuxedo now to send them down the street?” Jones says the moral voice of the black community on race went silent after Obama was attacked for his response to the 2009 unlawful arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., and hopes the Trayvon Martin case “opens the door for the kind of grown folks’ conversation we thought he was going to be able to lead when he was a candidate—well, that he did lead when he was a candidate, that hopefully we can see now going forward.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate failed to pass a measure Friday to end billions of dollars in tax breaks for large oil companies. Before the vote, President Obama urged Congress to pass the bill, arguing that the same investment should be made in clean technologies.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, members of Congress have a simple choice to make: they can stand with the big oil companies, or they can stand with the American people. Instead of taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s never been more profitable, we should be using that money to double down on investments in clean energy technologies that have never been more promising—investments in wind power, in solar power, in biofuels, investments in fuel-efficient cars and trucks and energy-efficient homes and buildings. That’s the future. That’s the only way we’re going to break this cycle.

AMY GOODMAN: The measure failed on a 51-to-47 vote, short of the 60 needed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster.

Well, today we spend the hour with President Obama’s former green jobs adviser, who has accused both the Obama administration as well as supporters of not doing enough to push through environmental and progressive legislation. In his new book, Rebuild the Dream, Van Jones explores a number of mistakes made both by the White House and also different movements after Obama’s 2008 victory, including not pushing through such measures when Democrats had a majority in Congress. Van Jones is the first former Obama official to release a book. He writes, quote, “Too many of us treated Obama’s inauguration as some kind of finish line, when we should have seen it as just the starting line. Too many of us sat down at the very moment when we should have stood up.”

President Obama appointed Van Jones as his green jobs adviser in 2009. But Jones resigned his post after he came under an attack spearheaded by, well, the, at the time, Fox News host Glenn Beck. Beck was ultimately forced out, as well. Van Jones writes about his experience in this new book.

Before his shift to focusing on the environment, he co-founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, focusing in part on victims of police abuse. After Hurricane Katrina, he co-founded, a web-based grassroots organization that aims to strengthen Black America’s political voice. He is also the bestselling author of The Green Collar Economy. His latest book, Rebuild the Dream, is being released on April 4th, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Van Jones, it’s great to have you back to Democracy Now!

VAN JONES: It’s good to be back. Feels like home.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s really wonderful to have you here, and it looks like, in some ways, we are coming full circle, talking to you today on this day when thousands of people have marched in Florida and around the country around a case of—

VAN JONES: Racial violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Racial violence, and a case of, it looks like, and we’ll see from grand jury investigations, serious police misconduct in dealing with this case, the case of Trayvon Martin.


AMY GOODMAN: Your comments on the killing of the 17-year-old African-American teenager who had Skittles and Arizona iced tea with him in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, and was killed by a neighborhood so-called watchman, George Zimmerman, who has yet to be arrested?

VAN JONES: Well, you know, this kind of hits close to home for me. I’m an African-American father. I’ve got two little black boys. And, you know, I think, for myself, how am I going to protect these young guys? I mean, do you have to dress your kid in a tuxedo now to send them down the street? They said, “Well, the guy had on a hoodie.” I’ve seen white people jogging in hoodies my whole life. It was raining. I think it just—I don’t know how you get a capital offense out of wearing a hoodie. So now, I think for a lot of African-American parents, how do you protect your kids? This kid was not involved in gang activity. He was not armed. He was not doing anything that any other kid doesn’t do. And yet, somehow, he gets targeted.

The one thing you expect when something like that happens to your child, your unarmed child is killed by a stranger, is that the police will be on your side. And here, not only do you have your expectation that your kid, who’s not in trouble, can get to the store and come back safely, but then even the police won’t be on your side. It feels like the privatization of the kind of racial violence that we often associated with some of our worst police departments. Now, private citizens are doing this sort of thing with apparent police approval.

Now there is the need for more facts, but often what would happen, if the situation was reversed—can you imagine a black kid says, “Look, I was walking around my neighborhood, trying to protect it with a gun. I saw a white guy. I don’t think he belonged here, so I shot him”? The kid would at least get arrested. I mean, that—you know, you would at least have the beginnings of the criminal process. Now, certainly, you get a chance to get before a jury of your peers. I think people are outraged because it seems like this is another step down the road of saying black male life, young black male life, is not valued in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: You tweeted about Trayvon Martin, and you wrote, at the time, after George Zimmerman killed him, when he was clearly unarmed. Your tweet was, if you remember, you said, “II just dropped kids off & returned to car. Realized I was wearing a dark hoodie. Felt pang of fear. All of us are vulnerable. RIP #trayvon.”

VAN JONES: Yeah, and that wasn’t for a tweet. I literally—I was coming back to my car, and I saw my reflection in the glass of my own car, and I realized, here I am, a black guy with a hoodie. And if it’s open season, according to the police, if that’s a good enough excuse—well, the guy had a hoodie, that’s why he got shot—then that we’re all vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN: It took President Obama a little time, and a lot of civil rights leaders were calling on him to say something, but he did address the death of Trayvon Martin last month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that we examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident. But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. You know, if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon. And, you know, I think they are right to expect that all of us, as Americans, are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. All right, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Van Jones, your thoughts on what President Obama had to say? And then take us back, as we’re spending the whole hour, to your early activism around this very issue and your thoughts about how far we have come, or have we?

VAN JONES: Well, first of all, that comment from the President really should be seen as the third act in a three-act play on race for this president. You remember with the Reverend Wright situation, he stepped forward, and he gave a speech on race, probably the most profound speech on race by anyone seeking the presidency in the history of the republic, changed public opinion about him 180 degrees and probably secured his run for the presidency right then and there. Courage, candor, speaking grown folks’ talk. Act I.

Act II, now he’s president of the United States. Skip Gates is arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: The Harvard University professor.

VAN JONES: African-American Harvard University professor, the only Harvard professor ever—Harvard is older than the United States—ever to be arrested in his own home for anything. He’s arrested just for being there. The President of the United States now—

AMY GOODMAN: He had come home from a vacation.


AMY GOODMAN: And someone had called the police. The police came in, and even when he showed ID, when he said, “What are you doing? You’re in my house,” they arrested him.

VAN JONES: Right, they arrested him. So now you have probably the most famous professor at Harvard, Skip Gates, African American, arrested in his home. Here’s Barack Obama, President Obama. Now, the most powerful man in the world, president of the United States, steps forward and says, “I think the police behaved foolishly.” The right wing and the law enforcement establishment brought the wrath of God down on the White House. I was there. And suddenly, he’s forced to do a beer summit, to sit eye to eye with a racist police officer. As a black man, even the most powerful man in the world cannot speak about race. And if he does, he’s then forced to sit humbly across the table from a racist police officer.

AMY GOODMAN: Skip Gates was, also.

VAN JONES: As was Skip Gates. That was one of the most terrifying, shocking revelations about where we are in a racial discussion in this country that I had ever seen. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what—I mean, you were there. So keep going, what you were saying inside.

VAN JONES: Well, Amy, I’ve never spoken about the things that I said when I was there, because I think if you’re going to be in an adviser, you’ve got to be able to give advice and not feel like—have people feel like you’re going to go out and tell tales out of school. What I will say is that it felt like somebody dropped a bomb on the place, and we had to respond. That was the perception. And then, for two years, not a word from the President. If you were a blind martian, you wouldn’t even know our president was African American, if you just listened to what he had to say. And then this horrific tragedy. And the President steps forward. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he waits a bit.

VAN JONES: Well, listen, nothing should move fast in these situations. It’s important to—I mean, you don’t want to rush the president out there, and I don’t blame him for waiting. But once the facts were in and the American people’s hearts were broken, this president stepped forward in the third act. He comes back to himself, and he says, “Listen, I get it.”

I think this is an important moment in the history of the country, in that we went into this bizarre reverse reality where the only people who were racist were the people who were fighting racism. If you’re an African American and you say something about racism, you’re the racist. And so, and you had the moral voice and the moral witness of the black community fall silent for two, almost three, years. It was very hard, with a black president, to speak about issues of race. I think this case ends that silence and inaugurates a new period. Certainly we are a much better country than we were 10 years ago, 100 years ago, but we are nowhere near where we should be. And Trayvon’s death, I hope, and the President’s willingness to speak about it forthrightly opens the door for the kind of grown folks’ conversation we thought he was going to be able to lead when he was a candidate—well, that he did lead when he was a candidate, that hopefully we can see now going forward.

AMY GOODMAN: So where do you think this movement needs to go right now? I mean, you have remarkably brave and persistent parents, the parents of Trayvon Martin.


AMY GOODMAN: Thousands and thousands of people have marched around the country. And yet, George Zimmerman is still free. He hasn’t been charged. And he still has his gun.

VAN JONES: The problem that we have is that as you begin to pull the camera back to understand what is actually happening, it turns out that there is more going on. There is a—there are laws on the books now, these so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, which I call “Kill at Will” laws, that are not just in Florida. It turns out that behind the scenes, this is a story about corporate corruption of our democracy.

ALEC, A-L-E-C, the American Legislative something Council, Evil Council, I guess. I don’t know what the “E” stands for, probably “Evil.” ALEC, which takes a lot of mainstream corporate cash, including from places like, I think, Wal-Mart or others—you should check that, but a lot corporate mainstream cash—has gone around the country at the behest of the NRA promoting these kinds of laws and other laws, anti-immigrant laws, etc., at the state level. While we’re focused on Washington, D.C., and wondering about what Barack Obama is going to be doing today, the state legislatures have been corrupted by ALEC. And so, these laws—

AMY GOODMAN: The American Legislative Exchange Council.

VAN JONES: The American Legislative Exchange Council, or Evil Council. I’m not sure what it is; you’ve got to look it up. But these organizations have put laws on the books that give law enforcement an excuse to pick and choose who they’re going to charge. When they see a body on the ground and someone standing there with a gun, they can pick and choose who they want to charge. “Well, maybe you were standing your ground. After all, look at the person who you shot.” And so, this is—I’m so proud of Ben Jealous from the NAACP, who has not only stood with the family but has also stood up for families across the country that are vulnerable. But this is the kind of thing that begins to happen when have a corporate takeover of a democracy. This is not an abstract concept that the progressives rattle on about. There are real life-and-death consequences at the grassroots level for these kinds of NRA, corporate-written laws and how they impact people in the real world.

AMY GOODMAN: It was also very interesting to see in Florida, the day that Jeb Bush endorsed Mitt Romney, the story that was equally playing out around the country that—was that it was Jeb Bush in 2005 as governor who had signed this Stand Your Ground legislation.

VAN JONES: Yeah, which, again, I think we should just call it what it is: it’s “Kill at Will,” “Kill at Will” legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Van Jones, the first special adviser in the Obama White House to leave and write a book. He is releasing it on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4th, 1968. His new book is called Rebuild the Dream. And we’re going to be spending the hour with him. If you have comments, questions you’d like to ask Van, you can send them stories(at) You can also go to Democracy Now!’s Facebook page, leave a comment with your question, or send them to us via Twitter. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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