When Van Jones picked up the San Francisco Examiner on June 7, 1995, his blood ran cold. The cop he’d helped take to court two years earlier for shooting a mentally ill black man nine times was in the news again, this time implicated in the death of Aaron Williams, an unarmed black robbery suspect who was beaten and pepper-sprayed.
Jones, then a 26-year-old lawyer with dreadlocks down to his shoulders, didn’t just get mad — he organized. He rallied hundreds of urban youth to pack San Francisco’s weekly police commission hearings and demand that Officer Marc Andaya be dismissed from the force. Jones didn’t tell the activists to put on suits or mind their manners. He simply told them to speak out, which they did — loudly. The hip-hoppers disrupted the usually somnolent meetings with raps like “Up on the pavement / Out of enslavement / Why do cops gotta act like cavemen?”
“They didn’t want to hear our culture,” Jones says, “so we gave it to them. They didn’t want to see intelligent, marginalized people on television, so we gave it to them. They didn’t want to see some uppity young lawyer like myself showing up in a suit and quoting all their laws, so I did it every chance I got.”
In 1997, after months of turbulent hearings, Andaya was suspended, and eventually fired, ostensibly for lying on his application. The victory was sweet, but Jones’ crusade against police violence, and his commitment to the youth he’d helped organize, was just beginning. In 1996, Jones had founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, named to honor the great, often unheralded, civil rights organizer. The center created the first lawyer referral service for victims of police violence in northern California, and it now fields more than 50 calls a week. “Our staff looks like the fucking Muppets,” Jones laughs. “We’ve got every color in the Skittles bag — hip-hoppers, transgender activists, lawyers — all working together.” The center recently expanded its horizons, opening a branch office in New York City and helping to spearhead the fight against California’s Proposition 21, a draconian juvenile crime initiative voters passed last spring.
Jones’ efforts to mitigate police violence earned him the prestigious Reebok Human Rights Award in March 1998. But he isn’t resting on his laurels, and he isn’t stuck behind a desk. That fall, Jones led a band of hip-hop activists to the home of San Francisco district attorney Terence Hallinan. The district attorney hadn’t satisfactorily answered their questions about the death of a white 17-year-old girl inadvertently shot in the head during a drug bust, so the group decided to pay him a house call — with television camera crews in tow.
“There’s Mr. Terence, TV cameras in his face, kids asking, ‘Why are you protecting a killer cop?'” says Jones. “This is what you live for. If you get 20 phone calls a day about people getting beat up by police, children getting their arms broken, then this is what you live for.”