Van Jones says he gets it.
After more than two decades working in social justice and being one of the first African-Americans appointed by President Obama, photo opps with President Trump are not winning Jones fans in the Black community.
“It doesn’t look good,” Jones, 51, says in a recent interview at theGrio‘s headquarters in New York City. “I get it. That’s why you don’t see me clapping back on people, yelling at people. You know, I get into trouble on Twitter sometimes, but usually, I get it.”
“I used to be one of those outside voices and when I was an outside voice, I looked at the insiders sideways myself. But I’m worried more about impact than image. I’m more worried about outcomes than outrage,” he tells theGrio.
Jones, who is best known for his role as a CNN commentator, is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance and co-founder of #cut50, a bipartisan coalition dedicated to ending mass incarceration. That coalition has put him side by side with everyone from entertainers like Kim Kardashian, Jay-Z and Meek Mill, to formerly incarcerated activists such as Louis Reid and Topeka Sam.
The group helped lead efforts to pass the FIRST STEP Act at the end of 2018, which thus far has sent home 7,000 people from federal prisons. Opponents of the act say the number is modest, and the legislation didn’t go far enough to change the system, conceding too much to conservative interests.
But the outcomes Jones speaks of extend beyond FIRST STEP. A Pennsylvania parole reform bill eliminates extension of parole for minor infractions like not being able to pay a bill on time and rewarding good behavior.
“We have 7,000 Miss Alice Johnsons that have come home this year. I get videos from them, hugging their babies, hugging their grandmothers,” Jones tells theGrio. “There is beautiful stuff that’s happening. And, if somebody has to be the lightning rod to make it happen, light me up.”
Jones’ efforts on the FIRST STEP Act also brought him side by side with President Trump’s son-in-law turned advisor Jared Kushner (who once campaigned to get Jones fired from CNN), and other conservatives. His glowing praise for their criminal justice reform efforts had many Black activists and leaders on the left wondering where Jones’ political- and cultural- allegiances lie.
“It’s nothing the more painful as a Black man, to have somebody call you a sellout, a coon, Uncle Tom,” Jones says. “I go into bed with tears in my eyes. It’s not a good feeling.”
While critics says some of Jones’ viral moments on CNN (such as this one where he called President Trump a “uniter-in-chief”), or his praise of conservatives as leaders of criminal justice reform at CPAC, have gone too far, Jones insists he has no regrets.
He likens his efforts to that of previous Black leaders who were criticized for cooperating with racist leaders in the White House, while making it clear that he doesn’t claim to be these leaders.
“I’m worried more about results than rhetoric. But, that doesn’t mean that other people are wrong.You have to have both,” he says. “Malcolm [X] stood on the outside and said, to hell with all y’all. Dr. King went and sat down with Johnson.”
Another point of criticism Jones says cuts deeply is around his relationship with Black women. When asked whether his effusive praise for reality star-turned-advocate Kim Kardashian overshadows Black women in the trenches, Jones says he’s being given a false choice.
“I’m very proud of Kim Kardashian, because not that many African-American celebrities can deal with Trump. For her, as a White woman to [say] “I’ll go do it. I got three, four Black babies. I’ll go do it.” You know what I mean? I thought that was a positive. And I wanted to encourage that.”
“Sisters are the center of the justice movement in America, which means they’re the center of the justice movement, period,” Jones says, highlighting the majority of white women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, as evidence.
Jones also points to his efforts through cut50’s Dignity For Incarcerated Women‘s campaigns, which disproportionately impact Black women who are imprisoned.
“People don’t know my story. I know my story. So, all they see is this Black dude praising this White woman,” Jones said.
While the optics of his alliances are confusing to many, Jones insists there is an element of strategy to them, and he counts Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Rep. Karen Bass, among his political mentors during the Trump Era.
“There’s no way you can get a [FIRST STEP Act] bill done like this, just one negro,” Jones says. “You know, everything you see ain’t what it is, is what I’m saying.”
In all of Jones’ reflections on his work and messy politics, he is unapologetic in insisting that many Black people were locked up behind bars due to policies both Democrats and Republicans supported during the War on Drugs.
“I sat down at the table and I got something done. I know it don’t look good. But, I’m not trying to look good. I’m trying to get folks home.”
“When I want to walk into a prison, it’s just acres and acres of beautiful brothers and sisters,” Jones says, getting visibly emotional. “Get off our back and let us shine.”
**Watch the FULL interview with Van Jones talking working amongst his former enemies, Kim Kardashian, election 2020 and more below.**