A former Obama advisor, police oversight and solid waste

Glenn Beck has accused Van Jones of being a communist revolutionary. That’s not what I heard last week.

I attended two of Jones’ presentations at Guilford

College on Jan. 19 and also had the opportunity to interview him separately. I found myself agreeing with him more than I expected to, and his honest, straightforward way of talking forced his audiences to pause. A skilled orator, he frequently repeated his main points, which was very helpful as I tried to scribble down his statements.

Because of his extensive experience working against police brutality in California I asked him about that first.

“First of all, I have a very radical position with regards to law enforcement,” he said. “I believe police should obey the law.”

His honest, straight for – ward way of talking forced his audiences to pause. A skilled orator, he frequently repeated his main points, which was very helpful as I tried to scribble down his statements.

As an attorney, Jones worked on behalf of clients alleging police brutality. His father was a cop in the military and his uncle served as a police officer. He argued that the institution of policing, like all other human systems, requires oversight. Similar to the need for someone to inspect meat and buildings to make sure they are up to code, he said the need for police oversight comes not out of hatred for police.

“They’re just human beings, and that’s what makes the system dangerous,” Jones said.

I couldn’t help but think that voices like his would be helpful in Greensboro’s discussions around a civilian review board for the police department. In fact, his statements might help us with other city issues as well. As the majority of his work these days is focused on environmental racism and green economic justice, it seemed only natural to bring up the White Street Landfill.

“All of us create trash but only some of us are expected to live near it,” he said to me. “You have to ask the question, ‘What would Dr. King say about a society that can always find a monetary reason to dump trash on poor people but can’t find a moral reason to do otherwise?’” Jones described the current economic order as one where poor people benefit “last and least” from the advances of society but still suffer “first and worst” when it comes to issues like landfills and pollution.

He also extolled listeners to engage in solidarity, which he described as an act of mutual aid, rather than charity. To some the distinction may seem trivial, but in actuality the intent and repercussions can be significantly different.

Jones spent six months in the Obama administration as a special advisor for green jobs and gave the president more credit than I would. He glossed over any negative aspects of the administration in his speech. A few of his other comments caused me to raise my eyebrows as well.

“Big money follows big ideas, and big ideas follow big passion,” he told a small group of students, faculty and staff. “Don’t do anything for money, and you will have an extraordinary life.”

While Jones is admittedly not rolling in money, he gave far too much credit to the American Dream. Yes, in his case big money eventually followed his passion, but there are countless passionate people whose ideas don’t require big money or would never receive funding because of the type of projects they envision. Usually, big money is most interested in capitalizing on future profits, while passion is a secondary factor at best.

I am also not as optimistic as Jones that green jobs, even if created for poor-and working-class people who are usually overlooked, are the key to solving the problems we face. This was the heart of his speech and the work he’s doing now. While it is difficult to deny his proposals as good short-term solutions, our problems are much more complicated and will require complex, long-term struggles on many fronts.

I don’t attend lectures because I expect the speaker to espouse exactly what I believe. Jones did what I hoped for by eloquently presenting important ideas, and even made his audience laugh.

I do share his optimism about the possibility to deal with the root issues of problems we face and significantly improve our quality of life.

“We are constantly striving [for] a more perfect union, not a perfect union,” he said.