Van Jones: The LA riots changed America. They also changed me

Van Jones, a CNN host and civil rights activist, was a law student at the time of the LA riots 30 years ago. Jones explores the verdicts, the riots and the aftermath of the unrest in the hourlong CNN documentary, “The Fire Still Burns,” airing Friday.

Jones describes his arrest in San Francisco, where he was caught up in the maelstrom of a chaotic protest, as a formative experience — one that profoundly shaped how he came to view this country and the inequities in our legal system.

The events of those days influenced the path he took after law school, recommitting himself to work in the area of ​​social justice—sometimes within government, sometimes in the media and at times within nonprofits—with a goal of doing good in the world. In addition to being a CNN political commentator, he plays a leading role with Dream Corps, a nonprofit he founded focusing on criminal justice reform.

Jones says that less has changed in the past three decades than we might have hoped: America is still grappling with racial unrest and a deeply flawed criminal justice system.

But it’s not too late to learn lessons from the trial verdict in Simi Valley and the subsequent unrest, Jones says. Ahead of the premiere of the film, I spoke with Stephanie Griffith, a CNN Opinion editor, recounting the events of that fateful week and how it changed his life. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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

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

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

There was an uptick in crime in LA at that time, and then there was an overreaction with super aggressive policing. There are people who see an uptick in crime right now. And the result of responding with super aggressive policing was the complete alienation of a whole generation of young Black and brown folks who ultimately burned out whole neighborhoods of an American city. We don’t need to go back down that path.

Businesses begin to burn on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots in 1992.

CNN: Can you recount events surrounding the Rodney King trial verdict as you remember them?

Jones: The whole thing took place over the course of a week. I was working at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area for a woman named Eva Jefferson Paterson, who was a civil rights legend of that time. I was in the office when I heard that the verdict had gone the wrong way. And I went into her office and she was, as I recall, in tears and just really shocked and mad.

After that, I left work and took the bus home. I was only African American on the bus. Everybody was just staring straight ahead and just basically trying to not be there, and the bus was completely silent.

Then another African American guy got on the bus, and we kind of made eye contact. And he said, “Did you hear?” I said, “Yeah, I heard.” And he said, “LA is gonna burn tonight.”

And I said, “You’re 100% right.”

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

The next day, April 30, there were demonstrations planned in San Francisco. As soon as they hit downtown, it just turned into bedlam. People start tearing stuff up. And I left. A week later when I’m out there, literally just trying to be a legal observer with a colleague, … I got arrested. In the film, we go back to the spot where I got arrested, with the lawyer I was arrested with. It’s a powerful moment.

CNN: It sounds as if you were not only deeply angered by the verdict but also disappointed by the response of the community.

Jones: Everybody knew that a great injustice had been done to the Black community. But when it all came down to it, we didn’t know what to do. I just felt like we needed better leadership. And we needed better ideas and better organization. I’ve spent the past 30 years of my life trying to build constructive organizations and constructive ideas that could actually solve some of these problems. But I never got over the feeling of being disgusted with the system and disappointed about people’s response.

CNN: What’s the most important lesson you learned from that tumultuous time 30 years ago?

Jones: The most important lesson is that Number 1, when you have lawlessness in the police force, you’re going to get way more lawlessness in the streets. At some point, you’re going to have social chaos. That’s what happened. People don’t like to burn down their own neighborhoods. But at a certain point, you’re going to have a negative reaction.

Then, Number 2, over time, you can make some changes in public consciousness and public policy. It just takes a lot of work. And it may take decades of work. But we have made some progress. It’s just not enough. This documentary is not the past. What’s so amazing is, that it is another version of the present. And there are lessons to be learned.

CNN: What was the personal impact of the beating, and the subsequent verdict, on you?

Jones: I saw one video of one Black guy getting beaten and saw the court system respond poorly. And it changed my entire life for 30 years. I’m still living out the aftershocks at that moment, both how horrific the injustice was of a guy getting beaten almost to death and the cops getting acquitted in front of the whole world and the impotence and complete futility.

You now have a generation of young people who see videos like this almost every day on their cell phones. If one video could alienate a nerdy Yale Law student like me, it should give you some insight into the impact on, you know, millions of Black and brown people a day and how they are feeling this.

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

CNN: A lot of people would say the racial justice movement today involves a lot of White people. Is that a sign of progress?

Jones: It’s a sign of progress at the level of understanding and empathy. In the middle of a pandemic, there were Black Lives Matter marches that were non-Black people saying, “Enough is enough.” I love that. It was very encouraging.

I think as you fast forward, though, a year and a half, almost two years later, there is no federal legislation (referring to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which Congress failed to pass). And the cases where there have been police convictions, have had (cell phone or police camera recordings) where the evidence was so overwhelmingly terrible that the jury ultimately did the right thing.

And now we have this big backlash, where some people on the right are calling for more policing and no discussion of racism in the public schools. So these things are always fraught. I do think on the one hand, there has been progress, but at the same time, there’s been a backlash and no federal legislation. I think it’s important that we understand these histories.

And so I think what happened 30 years ago is as relevant as this morning’s newspaper and as important for us to understand as anything happening right now. I’m not trying to be depressing, but it’s tougher than people assume. The backlash is more fierce than I think people appreciate, and the stakes — the negative consequences that could come from going back and redoing all the dumb stuff you did in the 1980s — could be one, two, three LAs if we’re not careful.

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