Opinion: Van Jones: The Los Angeles riots changed America. They also changed me 2022-04-28 11:44:52


Van Jones, CNN host and civil rights activist, was a law student at the time of the Los Angeles riots 30 years ago. Jones explores the sentences, riots, and fallout from the unrest in CNN’s hour-long documentary, “The fire is still burningIt will be broadcast on Friday.

Jones describes his arrest in San Francisco, where he was caught in a chaotic protest spiral, as a formative experience — one that deeply shaped how he saw this country and the inequalities in our legal system.

The events of those days influenced the path he took after law school, as he recommitted himself to working in the field of social justice – sometimes within government, sometimes in the media and sometimes within non-profit organizations – with the goal of doing good in the world. In addition to being a political commentator for CNN, he plays a leading role with Dream Corpsa nonprofit he founded that focuses on criminal justice reform.

Less has changed in the past three decades than we’d hoped: America still struggles with racial turmoil and a deeply flawed criminal justice system, Jones says.

But it is not too late to learn the lessons of the judgment of the trial in Simi Valley and subsequent upheavals, says Jones. Before the film’s premiere, he spoke with Stephanie Griffiths, CNN Opinion editor, and recounted the events of that fateful week and how they changed his life. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

CNN: Why do you think we should revisit this terrible moment in American history? Why made a documentary about it?

The photo shows Fan at his graduation from Yale Law School with his parents Willie and Loretta Jones.

Van Jones: Thirty years from now, there will be documentaries about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. But this week, we’re 30 years away from Rodney King. And I think we should stop and try to learn some lessons.

I think what’s so powerful about this documentary is that it peels back some of the layers of assumptions that a lot of people had about that time. You had a number of things that were happening after that that led to an explosion. Some of these same things are happening now.

There was a slight spike in crime in Los Angeles at the time, and then there was an overreaction with the super aggressive police. There are people who are seeing a slight increase in crime right now. And the result of the response with a very aggressive police was the complete isolation of an entire generation of young black and brown who eventually burned entire neighborhoods in an American city. We don’t need to go back that way.

Businesses began to burn on Pico Street in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots in 1992.

CNN: Can you recount the events surrounding the ruling in Rodney King’s trial as you remember them?

Jones: It all happened over the course of a week. I was working for the San Francisco Bay Area Civil Rights Lawyers Commission for a woman named Eva Jefferson Patterson, who was a civil rights legend at the time. I was in the office when I heard the verdict went the wrong way. And she went into her office and she was, as I recall, crying and shocked and really crazy.

After that, I quit work and took the bus home. I was only African American on the bus. Everyone was staring straight ahead and simply trying not to be there, and the bus was completely silent.

Then an African American man got on the bus, and we made eye contact. He said: Did you hear? I said, “Yes, I heard.” And he said, “Los Angeles is going to be on fire tonight.”

And I said, “You’re 100% right.”

When I got home, I turned on the TV and saw what was happening in Los Angeles. It was a sinking feeling in my stomach watching the fire and all the chaos and noise. But nothing happened in San Francisco that night.

The next day, April 30, there were planned demonstrations in San Francisco. Once they hit downtown, it turned into a bum. People start tearing things up. I left. A week later when I’m there, literally just trying to be legal probationer with a colleague,…I get arrested. In the movie, we go back to the place where I was arrested along with the lawyer with whom I was arrested. It’s a powerful moment.

CNN: It’s as if you were not only pissed off at the ruling, but also disappointed with the community’s response.

Jones: Everyone knew that there was a great injustice done to the black community. But when it came to her, we didn’t know what to do. I just felt like we needed better leadership. We needed better ideas and better organization. I’ve spent the last 30 years of my life trying to build constructive organizations and constructive ideas that can actually solve some of these problems. But I didn’t get past disgust with the system and disappointment with people’s response.

CNN: What was the most important lesson you learned from that turbulent time 30 years ago?

Jones: The most important lesson is that number 1, when you have an outlaw in the police force, you will get more chaos on the streets. At some point, you will experience social chaos. This is what happened. People don’t like burning down their neighborhoods. But at a certain point, you will have a negative reaction.

Then, number 2, over time, you can make some changes in public awareness and public policy. It just requires a lot of work. And it could take decades of work. But we’ve made some progress. This just isn’t enough. This documentary is not the past. So surprisingly, it is another version of the present. There are lessons to be learned.

CNN: What is the personal impact of the beating and subsequent sentencing on you?

Jones: I watched one video of a black man being beaten and saw the court system respond poorly. And it changed my whole life for 30 years. I still live from the aftershocks of that moment, how appalling injustice it was to a man being beaten nearly to death and the acquittal of the police in front of the whole world, impotence and utter barrenness.

You now have a generation of young people who watch videos like this almost every day on their cell phones. If a video can alienate a nerdy Yale student like me, it should give you some insight into the impact that, you know, has on millions of black and black people every day and how they feel.

My questions have not changed. I’m still trying to figure out how to have a more just society. I don’t know how to fix police brutality. I don’t know how to end the mass arrest. I don’t know how to stop racism. But I won’t stop trying.

CNN: Many people will say Including the racial justice movement today Lots of eggs. Is this a sign of progress?

Jones: It is a sign of progress on the level of understanding and empathy. In the midst of the pandemic, there have been rallies relating to the lives of non-black blacks saying “enough is enough”. I love that. It was very encouraging.

I think as you go fast, a year and a half later, after about two years, there is no federal legislation (referring to the George Floyd Police Justice Act, which Congress failed to pass). And in the cases where there were convictions by the police, there were (cell phone or police camera recordings) where the evidence was so terrible that the jury did the right thing in the end.

And now we have a big backlash, where there are some People on the right are calling for more policing And No discussion of racism in public schools. So these things are always charged up. I think on the other hand, there has been progress, but at the same time, there has been a backlash and no federal legislation. I think it is important to understand these histories.

And so I think what happened 30 years ago is just as important as this morning’s newspaper and as important for us to understand as anything that is happening now. I’m not trying to be discouraged, but it’s harder than people think. The backlash is more ferocious than I think people appreciate, and the risks—the negative consequences that can come from going back and doing all the stupid things you did in the ’80s—could be one, two, or three if we’re not careful.