van jones

Van Jones on Mass Incarceration, Black Lives Matter, and Ava DuVernay’s ‘The 13th’

Van Jones has been fighting against police brutality and mass incarceration for over 20 years. Here he explains how America can turn it around

by Chris Williams, October 7, 2016

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van jones

Netflix / CNN

On December 6, 1865, the thirteenth amendment officially became part of the United States Constitution. The amendment abolished slavery in the South, with one major caveat that outlawed the practice “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This language allowed a new system of involuntary servitude to take its place. As a result, it jumpstarted this country’s practice of heavily criminalizing Black bodies at unprecedented rates for the smallest infractions or for simply being.

The result has been catastrophic and today, one in three Black men will be incarcerated during their lifetime.



The 13th, the latest documentary by award winning director Ava DuVernay, provides an in-depth look at the prison industrial complex and how it has resulted in the militarization of the police and private and public prisons becoming big business in the United States. Aided by interviews with Van Jones, Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Jelani Cobb, and Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The 13th intertwines their voices with archival footage about America’s well-documented history of racism and mass incarceration, and illuminates the numerous and devastating ways this country has punished vulnerable Black citizens. DuVernay utilizes her lens to paint a cohesive picture through the usage of data, highlighting the astronomical rise of the prison population from the early 1970s to the present day.

The 13th opened the New York Film Festival last month, making it first work of nonfiction to open the illustrious festival. Today, the film opens on Netflix and a limited number of theaters across the country.

EBONY.com recently sat down with Van Jones, who appears in the film, to delve into how the United States became the king of mass incarceration.

EBONY.com: What is the story behind you becoming involved with this documentary?

Van Jones: Well, first of all, like any human being with a functioning brainstem, I’m a huge fan of Ava’s. I was very delighted when she reached out to me. Given my work and background in criminal justice, she figured that I would be a good person for her to interview. So, I was happy to say yes. I’ve been involved with criminal justice and police accountability work for more than two decades. I founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights back in 1996 focusing on police brutality and youth prisons. I had a lot to say, and I’m glad I was given a chance to say it.

EBONY.com: How long have you known Ava DuVernay?

Jones: We got in contact with each other during the 50th anniversary of the Selma march where the president came and marched. I was on CNN giving my passionate commentary on it. She sent me a tweet on Twitter, and we started communicating after the march. This was the beginning of our correspondence. As it turned out, we both lived in Los Angeles. We got together for a meal and started looking for ways to work with each other. She’s also an executive producer on a virtual reality project that I’m working on called Project Empathy. She’s lent her name and some guidance to my efforts to use virtual reality technology to create more empathy and to give people an experience on what it feels like to be locked up in a prison. So – we’re working together on that too. The website will be projectempathyvr.com.

EBONY.com: What was your initial impetus to begin working for criminal justice and against police brutality? Was it a personal experience?

Jones: The personal experience of being Black. [laughs] That’s all the personal experience you need to understand police brutality. Look, I graduated from law school in the summer of 1993. The year after the Rodney King rebellion had jumped off and I was in law school learning about liberty and justice for all, but I could cut on my TV and see that wasn’t happening. So – I decided to get involved and do something about it. I wanted to use my law degree not to make a lot of money, but to make a ton of difference. I’ve never looked back.

I’ve been fighting for justice for my people since I graduated from law school, and really before then. People always ask me why. I tell them I can’t understand how you could not. What good does it do me to be called successful while living in this country when my two sons can’t walk around safe? I didn’t have any more of a personal run-in with the police other than petty harassment. It’s just one of those things where I can’t understand how people, who have any ability to make a difference, choose not to. It’s very odd to me.

EBONY.com: At the beginning of the documentary, you make reference to the United States having 1 out of 4 human beings incarcerated on the planet, with the majority of those people being people of color. Why has it taken so long for politicians to recognize that this situation has gotten out of hand and how it has become an epidemic?

Jones: Well, because you had politicians who became tough on crime, which I call stupid on crime, and they scored more political points backing dumb policies. For a while there was even African Americans supporting them. For a long time, politicians were very afraid of being called “soft on crime.” To avoid being called soft on crime, they decided to be stupid on crime and go beyond any reasonable or rational approach to look tough. People started outbidding each other to vote on longer sentences. Let’s not forget even Black preachers and politicians jumped on that train for a long time. “Let’s lock these gangbangers up on my block.” And that was a license to build bigger prisons and stereotype almost anybody in the hood as being a “gang member.” There have been gangs in the United States since the beginning. There were Irish gangs and Italian gangs. Any gathering of young, Black men became an excuse for open season, which isn’t to say that there weren’t any bad things going on, but sometimes the medicine is worse than the disease. It’s only now that the pain point has gotten so bad that people are starting to reconsider. But it’s still hard. Just because we’re talking about it doesn’t mean we’re changing laws. These laws are still on the books.

EBONY.com: Over the past four decades, close to 2 million people have been incarcerated due to the implementation of the War on Drugs by the Nixon and Reagan administrations and the notorious crime bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It seems both Republicans and Democrats have been complicit in Black people’s downfall and perpetuating stereotypes. The term “super predator” by Hillary Clinton has become famous. This charade has been going on for a while. What can average citizens do to hold these folks accountable beyond voting because this cycle has to break?

Jones: I’m part of the campaign called Cut50.org. People can go to sign up with our campaign. We want to cut the prison population in half within the next ten years. We’re working with Republicans and Democrats to do something about this issue. It was a bipartisan failure and a bipartisan consensus to build all these prisons and to lock all these people up. Everybody from Jerry Brown to Bill Clinton to the worst of the Republicans were all in on the deal. So it’s going to take a bipartisan movement to fix it. You have Republican governors in Texas, Georgia, and Ohio that have passed better reform bills than any Democrats have. So, this whole mythology that Republicans are bad on this issue and Democrats are good is also a lie. Both political parties were mass incarceration parties for thirty years. Both political parties now have the responsibility to undo mass incarceration.

It’s going to take many, many years of hard work, but data is on our side. All the major studies show that past a certain point, locking people up for longer and longer sentences, especially for minor crimes, doesn’t deter crime and may even create more crime. The data is showing that this is the wrong approach.

EBONY.com: The documentary does a thorough job of showcasing the clause in the 13th amendment that opened the door for the convict leasing system to begin and connecting the dots between the convict leasing system and modern day private prison companies and how they’ve profited from the destruction of Black bodies. In essence, that is the history of this country. Do you agree with that assessment or is that too strong?

Jones: Well, I don’t know if it’s too strong or not, but what I will say is that the focus is on private prisons but the public prisons are terrible too. There is a profit motive with public prisons, too. The prison guard, the prison town, the prison suppliers also have a financial interest. So it wouldn’t be good enough to say no more private prisons, because if you still have prison towns, where all those voters are relying on the prisons so that they can do the laundry and run their laundry business and run all these other things, then you’re still going to have a problem.

At the end of the day, it is much deeper than just the private prisons. We have an incarceration industry: it has private prisons, public prisons, contractors, and prison guards. It’s an $80 billion dollar industry and that’s what people don’t want to deal with. It’s an $80 billion dollar a year industry that’s mainly locking up poor people, disproportionately Black and Brown. It’s often about locking poor people up for stuff that rich folk do every day. Rich folks do just as much drugs or more drugs than poor people but they don’t go to prison. Rich folks steal way more money than poor people but they do it on Wall Street and they don’t go to prison. It’s a big thing.

EBONY.com: One of the statistics that caught my attention in the documentary was the fact that Black males compose 6.5% of the United States population and constitute 40% of its incarcerated population. What was the most staggering statistic that you learned about during the making of this documentary?

Jones: The $80 billion dollars per year statistic. It isn’t $80 billion one time; it’s every year. It’s the criminal justice machinery locking people up. You’re talking about a lot of money, man. You’re talking about a lot of people making that money off people that don’t have any money. So, how is that any different than slavery? How is that any different than sharecropping? When your body is the basis of somebody else’s profit in the land of the so-called free.

People wonder why Black people are so angry. Well, if you lived in a country where you were a tiny percentage of the overall population but damn near half of the people locked up doing stuff that all too often that everybody else does but they’re not over policed and judges and juries don’t give them second chances, you’d be upset too. This is not new to me. I took Michelle Alexander to her first protest about these criminal justice issues. I’ve known Michelle since we were teenagers. I’m glad people are starting to get it.

EBONY.com: How can the United States tell other countries how to conduct their affairs when we continue to stigmatize a certain segment of our own population? Isn’t this quite hypocritical?

Jones: America’s mistreatment of African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color has been the great hypocrisy of this democracy. That’s not new. That’s been the truth from the very beginning. The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And that was written by a slave owner. From the very beginning, we’ve had this. And we fight to try to change things. That’s where we’re at.

EBONY.com: The issue of police brutality has taken center stage over the past few months with the latest incidents happening in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Charlotte, North Carolina. From a neutral stance, it seems like Black men and women are being used as target practice for the police. This is why Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have been expressing their sentiments and protesting. Do you expect this to continue and grow into a fully-fledged movement across the board with athletes akin to the 1960s?

Jones: It already is. When there are White female soccer players taking a knee for injustice, we’re already heading in the right direction. This fight for racial fairness is going to continue to be a growing movement.

EBONY.com: Grassroots organizations like Black Lives Matter have come to fruition to fight back against a system that still views and treats Black people as inferior. What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and the impact their organization and others like it are having on our society?

Jones: Black Lives Matter is probably the most important development in American society since the rise of Barack Obama. Barack Obama’s rise from obscurity to the White House was historic and will be in the history books 200 years from now. Black Lives Matter is second only to that because it represents a whole new generation coming to grips with their reality and using the power of their voices like in the 1960s. Now, we all have smartphones and video cameras. It’s a whole new ballgame.


Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @iamchriswms.





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