Van Jones’ Hopes (And Fears) for Occupy Wall Street

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Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Van Jones, former member of the Obama administration, is photographed in Washington, in this file photo dated Feb 23, 2010.

A few weeks back, Oakland Police fired non-lethal projectiles and teargas into a crowd of Occupy protesters, and the former Obama Administration official Van Jones reacted with quick condemnation. “Let us be clear: there is no justification for the use of violence against a non-violent protest,” he wrote with a colleague on Huffington Post. “The police department and the mayor should apologize for an inexcusable use of excessive force.”

Jones’ reaction was not surprising. In the two years since he resigned from the government, under fire from conservatives for having once embraced “Marxist” ideology and other controversies, Jones has been seeking a way to recreate the grassroots energy of the Tea Party for the left. Since the Occupy Protests began, he has become one of their biggest cheerleaders, organizing a broad swath of liberal institutions, from labor unions to Planned Parenthood, to help support the cause and magnify the Occupy message.

The benefits of this approach are clear. Occupy has already changed the national political conversation. Jones has argued that the Occupy protesters are analogous to the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960, when four black students sat down at a whites-only Woolworths lunch counter. Those students did not lead the movement that would result in the Civil Rights Act four years later, but they opened a space in the national conversation that made the change possible. But there was also always a risk to this official liberal embrace of a group of young protesters, which I write about in this week’s issue of TIME magazine, now available online to subscribers.

That is why Jones is still concerned with what is happening in Oakland, and not just because of the police. In recent weeks, a minority of protesters have turned violent and have damaged property in the city, threatening to tar what has heretofore been a peaceful protest effort. If such disruption grows, there is a clear risk to the credibility of the Occupy movement. That’s why Jones is now rallying the liberal establishment for a new education push about the importance of non-violence. “Those of us who are committed to non-violent change have to get very clear and very loud,” Jones told me.

As a result, on Wednesday, Jones’ coalition, The American Dream Movement, held more than 200 teach-ins around the country to talk about both the economic issues raised by Occupy, and the importance of non-violence. Though some Occupy protesters may have attended the teach-ins, they are made up mostly by activists associated with the old-line progressive world, including the membership of These people don’t lead Occupy, and they are not trying to direct its efforts. But they are trying to serve as protectors of Occupy, a movement they see as too valuable to let slip away.