The Friend of My Enemy Is ... Van Jones?

Photo: YouTube (C-Span)

I like Van Jones.

I like Van Jones in the same way I like Cardi B, Barack Obama and grits, which is to say I like the idea of Van Jones. I’ve agreed with a lot of his commentary on CNN, and I support his efforts on criminal justice reform, most recently as CEO of the Reform Alliance.

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In the past 25 years, Jones has founded three groundbreaking racial/criminal justice organizations and successfully advocated for 12 bipartisan criminal justice reform bills in eight states last year alone. There is no question that Van Jones is out here doing the work.

I also think “Bodak Yellow” is a trash song. I think Obama was sometimes too moderate and disagree with his killer robot drone policy that killed innocent civilians. Grits topped with sugar are an abomination. And sometimes, I have no idea what the fuck Van Jones is thinking.

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When Van Jones speaks truth to power, and when conservatives like James O’Keefe have attacked Van Jones, The Root has not been hesitant to offer praise and we have even defended hims. But to people who truly hold disdain for the way conservatives and Republicans use dog-whistle racist policies for their political gain, to see Van Jones give ammunition to an anti-black enemy comes across as an act of treason.

Like the time he was overcome with emotion and called Donald Trump’s first presidential address to white America, “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period.” Or the time Jones called Trump the “uniter in chief” after the passage of the First Step Act, a set of sweeping federal prison reforms that Trump had nothing to do with crafting or passing.

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On Thursday, Jones appeared at Wypipo Freaknik, also known as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), alongside American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp and the Daily Caller’s Saagar Enjeti to discuss criminal justice reform. The resulting 22-minute conversation (you can watch it in its entirety here) was filled with kumbaya platitudes, except for Enjeti, who unabashedly expressed his trepidation around the unleashing of rabid negroes from prison.

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Clips from the discussion made their way to social media, causing many to deride Jones for what seemed like self-serving equivocation in the face of the very people who support and perpetuate many of the fundamental anti-black policies embedded in the American criminal justice system. This, especially when he backtracked halfway through his defense of immigrants and equated stereotypes about Trump with voters to the painting of undocumented migrants as violent thugs.

“Here’s the deal, the conservative movement in this country, unfortunately from my point of view, is now the leader of this issue of reform,” Jones explained to the gathering of conservatives, trotting out a list of cherry-picked examples of red state governors whose states seem to have moved the ball forward on criminal justice reform. “Take some dadgum credit for being smart.”

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Aside from the fact that I have never heard a black man use the word “dadgum” (unless Elmer Fudd is “passing” as white), to the naked eye, Jones’ cozying up to Schlapp (who has been accused of racist dog-whistles multiple times) looks like a particular form of cowardice. To be fair—in private, off the record conversations with this writer, Jones has acknowledged that he is willing to face criticism for engaging with both sides of the aisle if it advances the conversation on criminal justice.

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There’s only one problem with what Van Jones is asserting to the CPAC crowd:

Van Jones is lying.

Van Jones has been neck-deep in these issues for years and he knows his factual cherry-picking is a lie of omission, at best. To see Jones contort himself into an unseasoned pretzel to appease a roomful of white people who would slit his child’s throat if his son walked by in a hoodie was, at the very least, troubling, if not downright irresponsible. It would be easy to drag Jones for this.

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But I like Van Jones.

So I decided to ask him.

To his credit, Jones did not shirk away from the criticism, answering each question in detail. His responses have only been edited for brevity (you can find them in full here), followed by commentary/examination of his responses.

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The Root: Do you feel that the conservative movement is the leader on criminal justice reform in this country?

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Van Jones: At CPAC, I was using humor and some hyperbole—accusing them of stealing our movement, etc.—to acknowledge progress and encourage them to do more. Conservative leaders finally coming around is a good thing. It means we can win more change ...

Unfortunately, saying conservatives are “THE” leaders felt like a diss to many on the left—like I was putting one above the other. That was not my intention. We have sisters and brothers who have been laboring every day at the grassroots level on this cause for decades—getting way too little recognition, resources or respect. All of us—on the left and the right—stand on their shoulders.

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Honestly, it’s probably a mistake for us to talk about criminal justice reform as a liberal issue or a conservative issue in the first place. It’s an American problem, so it’s an American issue. It’s an issue of human freedom and dignity, and we should all want leaders and activists in both parties to embrace it.

The problem many people took issue with was not that Jones’ assertion was a “diss” as much as it was a lie. Trump’s Republican-led Department of Justice swiftly reverted back to pushing for mandatory minimums. They rescinded the Obama-era promise of doing away with private prisons. They went back to the War on Drugs. Red state leaders have rejected marijuana legalization legislation. They support felony disenfranchisement.

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In almost every criminal justice issue, Republicans have not only pushed for the status quo, but they have also made criminal justice reform harder. The vast majority of the public agrees with most reform issues. Yet, Jones calls the individually sporadic departures from the conservative norm “leadership.”

TR: How do you square that with the totality of legislation, data and research that shows this not the case (except for a few cherry-picked statistics?)

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Jones: Over the last several years, we have seen four factions on the right increasingly embrace criminal justice reform.

First, the fiscal conservatives got tired of seeing the nation waste $80 billion a year of taxpayer money on a prison system that hurts many more people than it helps. Second, the Christian evangelicals and other religious conservatives recognized the need for second chances and redemption for those coming home. Third, Libertarians began demanding more oversight and accountability from the bloated and overreaching criminal justice system. And fourth, black conservatives have been increasingly outspoken about the need to roll back the incarceration industry.

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With these four factions getting bolder, we have seen laws beginning to change in states run by conservatives—states like Texas, Georgia and Mississippi. Of course, progressives and people of color have been pushing the hardest in those states. But the GOP is resisting progressive pressure on every issue from guns to climate change. On this issue, something has begun to change inside the ranks of the right wing ...

Most of us can’t bear to watch right-wing media, so sometimes big shifts happen on the right that we aren’t aware of.

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For instance, Sean Hannity interviewed Jared Kushner on Fox News in December. Hannity shocked everyone by challenging Jared to convince Trump to use his pardon power to let more people out of prison. That shows how far the right-wing has moved on this issue in a very short period of time. I am trying to encourage them to keep going.

While Mississippi, Texas and a few GOP-led states have passed groundbreaking prison reform bills, the Republican governors and legislators mentioned by Jones have all experienced budget shortfalls, partly because of conservative policies, that forced their state legislatures to cut budgets across the board. When you combine this with the fact that crime has been steadily decreasing for years, it makes sense that the prison population is falling everywhere, not just in Republican states. 

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In fact, every single one of the states with the top 10 highest incarceration rates is led by Republican Governors with Republican legislatures.

I cannot comment on the bastion of civil liberties, Sean Hannity.

TR: Aside from reducing costs and treating offenders like “Children of God,” the ACU’s platform on criminal justice is pretty vague. Can you name a few policies pushed by the conservative movement that shows a shift in thinking or a new approach to criminal justice?

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Jones: There are too many to name here. American Conservative Union has recently backed “clean slate” legislation to let formerly incarcerated persons start their lives over; “justice reinvestment” to shift dollars from locking people up to lifting people up; the federal “First Step Act,” which includes some retroactive sentencing reform; the “Dignity For Incarcerated Women” bills across the country; giving youth who break the law a chance to get out of prison earlier on parole; reforming the felony murder rule, voter restoration for formerly incarcerated people and more. I mean, it’s pretty incredible.

My allies at #Cut50 have worked closely with conservatives on all of these issues and seen their commitment firsthand. The ACU even ranks GOP politicians based on how they vote on these issues now; they made calls to legislators, activated their grassroots network, and met with governors and the president to encourage their signatures on the bills. FreedomWorks unleashed 30,000 phone calls into Mitch McConnell’s office, just to help pass the First Step Act. I think there were five separate sessions on criminal justice reform at CPAC, which is extraordinary. This is not the kind of stuff that most progressives are aware of—because it is new development on the right.

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Eight of the 10 states with permanent felony disenfranchisement are led by Republican Governors and legislatures. The last Republican state to give former felons their right to vote, Florida, saw widespread support from voters on both sides. There was only one group who fought against ending felony disenfranchisement—Republican politicians.

GOP leaders still overwhelmingly support private prisons, money bail and drug prohibition, three of the most racially disproportionately applied policies in the criminal justice system.

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TR: One of the most important goals of the conservative movement has been to fill the federal judiciary with right-leaning conservative judges. Do you think this is compatible with the goals of comprehensive criminal justice?

Jones: No, it’s not. And that’s part of why I went to CPAC. The conservative cause is not a monolith. There’s a quiet war going on between conservatives who support criminal justice reform and those who hate it. That old, nasty, lock-em-up faction, led by Tom Cotton and people like Jeff Sessions, is starting to lose power. But it still has enormous sway, including on the bench. I went to encourage the more reform-minded factions. I also hoped to try to get those who are still stuck in the past, whether they be judges, radio hosts, bloggers, what have you, to join the reformers. It may not work, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

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That’s important because the court situation is scary. Trump and McConnell have pulled out all the stops to push through as many judges as possible. At this point, nearly 1/6 of the federal bench are Trump appointments. This is going to be a travesty to many issues we care about — possibly even criminal justice.

That’s why need to increase our collection of data on these courtrooms. The First Step Act allowed for judges to depart from mandatory minimums or enhancements in some cases. We need to track courtrooms and make sure judges are actually doing this, even while we push for more sentencing reform so they can’t sentence people to harsh and cruel sentences that ruin lives, families and communities.

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B-b-but, I thought they were the leaders?

Studies show that Republican-appointed judges sentence black people to longer and harsher sentences. How can they lead if they are creating larger disparities in what is arguably the most important position in the criminal justice system?

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TR: After noting that immigrants had lower crime rates than native-born Americans, you pivoted to comparing them to stereotypes about straight, white men and Trump voters. It sounded like you are either equating a racial stereotype that has broken up families and caused actual deaths to a stereotype that, at its worse, makes white people feel bad. Can you give some context or explain?

It is hard to call for understanding across racial lines or ideological lines, without falling into the trap of false equivalence. Of course, the plight of an undocumented immigrant is maybe one million times worse than the plight of the average white male Trump supporter. But nothing is going to get better for anyone under the present standoff and stalemate. So I was trying to ask the people who notoriously hate to be stereotyped (Trump supporters) to stop doing it to others. And the reverse is fair to ask as well, even though the consequences of liberals stereotyping conservatives may be much less severe.

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Even though the announced topic was limited to justice reform, I did take the opportunity to stick up for Muslim families and undocumented immigrants on stage at CPAC, despite some boos. It is important for progressives who have the platform to begin pushing the conversation with conservatives beyond criminal justice reform and also address other issues of basic fairness that impact people of color.

Slow clap for Van Jones.

TR: Given your choice of implementing the policies that would have the most impact on criminal justice reform, what would they be?

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That’s a long list. We need 360 degrees of reform—on the front-end, inside the prisons and on the back end. As the CEO of the Reform Alliance, we are focused on fixing the probation and parole systems. But our sister organizations are attacking every aspect of the broken justice system.

I would say, get rid of money bail. Get rid of mandatory minimums—and make those changes retroactive. Get rid of the notion that we need long-term community supervision, like probation and parole. Instead, when people come home, direct those resources to helping them get housing, employment, education and healthcare. Divert people from ever entering the prison system in the first place, by addressing the systemic reasons behind law-breaking, like addiction, mental health, poverty, education disparities. Address mental health issues in prisons. Give people a true second chance—expunge arrests and records automatically, after a certain period of time.

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Lobbyists for the surety bond (money bail) industry contribute millions to an overwhelmingly Republican list of GOP candidates every year. GOP leaders in Republican states like Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina have directly rejected health care measures and social programs that reduce drug addiction and address mental health.

TR: What falls under the umbrella of what you consider CJR? Can you be in favor of privatizing the prison industry? Felony disenfranchisement? Legalizing marijuana? Mandatory minimums? Police reform? Can you support police unions?

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I am proud of the work of Cut50.org, so check them out. I can’t list out everything. Today’s private prisons are terrible, but public prisons aren’t much better. I would be open to supporting any prison proposal that was designed to send people home as quickly as possible, job ready and transformed. People should be able to vote as soon as they come home from prison. We should decriminalize, tax and regulate marijuana. We should throw out mandatory minimums. I support unions, but I worry that too often police unions fail to hold their members to high standards and have too much influence on city governance.


As someone who regularly reports on the racial disparities in the arena of criminal justice, the data, statistics and politics are familiar to me. Van Jones knows, too. Yet, if America advances the cause of equal justice, there are many people who, like Jones, believe the two sides of the political spectrum are going to have to agree to a common ground.

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Not me.

I believe they know what they are doing. To accept anything else, one can only believe the Republican Party just simply didn’t know that justice has always been meted out unfairly. That they didn’t see the statistics and the disproportionate results. That they are finally coming to their senses. But what is really happening is something different.

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Now, white people have become victims of the drug war. White people are becoming subject to the police state. The incarceration rate for white people is rising while the rate for black people has been falling for more than a decade. Now they want to make it fairer.

When Van Jones embraces the anti-black perpetrators of discrimination, he is giving them ammunition. Conservatives will use Van Jones’ tweets, support and pro-white tears to continue their assault on people who look like me. I can’t support that. The friend of my enemy is my enemy.

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But again, I like Van Jones.

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.