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Jessy Tolkan: Van Jones was seen as young environmentalists’ voice in the White House

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you again from San Francisco. We’re at the Momentum Conference of the Tides Foundation. And joining us now is Jessy Tolkan. She’s the executive director of Energy Action Coalition, a group of 50 young youth organizations throughout the US and Canada, and you fight against climate change or for policies that will mitigate the issues of climate change. And the man who was directly one of your leaders in the environmental movement, and I guess still was, Van Jones, just lost his job in the White House. What do you make of this episode?

JESSY TOLKAN, ENERGY ACTION COALITION, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Van Jones is not a leader in our movement in the past tense. He is still a leader and an inspiring figure. And we have no doubt that he’s just getting started in terms of the leadership he’ll provide in this movement. But it came as a great shock and a great disappointment to an entire generation of young Americans that have been inspired by Van’s vision and Van’s work to fight for a just and clean and inclusive future. In the early hours of Sunday morning when we learned of Van’s resignation, I think it really shook a lot of young people at the core. They saw Van Jones as their voice in the White House, they saw Van as an embodiment of this president’s commitment to a clean and just energy future, and they also saw Van’s role in the White House as the White House really honoring the role of a new generation in this country. So I think the automatic reaction was a lot of frustration. Where was everybody coming to Van’s defense? Where were the people fighting for Van to stay in this position? And something I’m proud of is there’s been a lot of self-reflection within young people in this movement that we’re doing a lot of remarkable things, but we weren’t there the way we should have been as Glenn Beck and Fox News attacked one of our own. It was our responsibility to demonstrate that this country wanted Van Jones to stay in that position, to be loud, to use the media to kind of fight back, and as a movement we didn’t do that as much.

JAY: But you didn’t hire him; the White House hired him, and everyone was waiting for the White House to make their move. And then they had this most muted, “Yes, Van continues to work for us,” which is more or less saying, “Van, time to fall on your sword.”

TOLKAN: Right. And I understand and on a real level feel my own frustration with the White House. I would have loved to see Robert Gibbs or the president himself taking a firm stand and going out there and saying, “Van Jones is a critical member of this staff. We live in a country where people are free to have opinions, we respect that, and that’s an important part of our White House.” And I wish those were—the political reality existed in this country that this administration could do that. And, quite honestly, when I celebrated in the streets on November 4 when Barack Obama won the presidency, I thought that was the kind of America I was going to live in. I think the reality is we still don’t have a politics that makes that possible. I also think it’s important to point out, though, Van has been very vehement in the days since his resignation that it was his choice, that he actually does not hold contempt towards the White House. And at the end of the day, I believe it was an incredibly selfless move, and that Van’s commitment to this cause, at the end of the day, meant that while I think that there were people in the White House who told him they were willing to fight for him, that he was unwilling to kind of continue to be that lightning rod for the administration. Now, I’ll say I think the movement as a whole—and I’ll take responsibility for this—should have been in a position where it would have been impossible that Van saw resignation as the way to go and would have made it impossible for the administration to accept that resignation, that Van is a critical part of this administration, a critical part of this fight, and we can’t, simply cannot allow the right wing and the right-wing media to continue to be in the driver’s seat, which is the position they currently hold.

JAY: And that’s really the point is it’s not about Van at all. And in my own personal opinion, I don’t think Van even, in a sense, had a right to resign, ’cause what’s at stake here is whether this administration has [inaudible] defend its own integrity, defend its decision-making process. And even more than that, this is a very small rump of hard-right talk. Not that many people watch it. It could have been dismissed, and they could have gone back to work, but this whole summer we’ve seen the health-care agenda ending up with Van Jones being taken over by this hard-right rhetoric, and there the White House is just playing defense.

TOLKAN: Right. Well, I would argue what’s at stake is a lot more than the role of this administration and the way they’re acting. I mean, what’s at stake is whether or not we create an economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. What’s at stake is whether or not we can become a nation that offers the basic right of health care to its people. And so that’s why I understand, as a friend and ally of Van, why he made the decision to resign. But I agree with you 100 percent.

JAY: But you can’t get to those things if you allow a new McCarthyism, and that’s what they’re doing.

TOLKAN: Listen, I agree 100 percent. And—.

JAY: Well, what I’m pushing back is—’cause throughout this whole conference I keep talking to people, and everyone wants to say, “Well, he’s only one guy, Obama,” or, “We’ve got to give him time,” and kind of finding ways to let the administration off the hook. And isn’t it—and especially on this, they’re on the hook.

TOLKAN: Make no mistake: I don’t want to let the administration off the hook on anything, and I don’t want young people in this country to let the administration off the hook. And my message to the Obama administration is, if you think young people are signed, sealed, delivered in your camp no matter what, that is not the case. We are a group of highly diverse Americans, the most diverse generation in American history. Our political participation did not end on November 4 when we put the president in office. And while we are incredibly inspired by him, we are standing up and we are taking this as a giant wake-up call that we cannot allow the conservatives in this country to rule this debate, we cannot allow the administration to roll over, we cannot allow the administration to make compromises that will so dramatically impact our future.

JAY: And there needs to be some recognition of the conservatives within the administration. It’s not just some talk show host. These talk show hosts wouldn’t have much power if it didn’t resonate right inside the party.

TOLKAN: Absolutely. At the end of the day—and, you know, I got highly criticized for being quoted in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago that Republicans or Democrats, watch out come 2010 if you haven’t stood up and fought hard on climate and energy. And some of my friends and alleys in the Democratic Party could not believe that I went after Democrats like that. But at the end of the day, I’m not in this game to see Democrats in control or Republicans in control; I’m in this game to fight for a clean and just energy future, to fight for the basic rights of human beings in this country to have health care. And that means holding Democrats and Republicans accountable. And I think young people are uniquely positioned to do that. And we’re about to make a whole lot of noise this fall and, I think, ruffle feathers, quite honestly.

JAY: Well, the problem actually probably is more in the Democratic Party, ’cause with the balance of power in Washington, there’s never been such a situation where the Democrats could pass some legislation if it wasn’t for the conservatives in the Democratic Party. So let’s talk about that in the next segment of our interview, and we’ll talk about energy and climate change. Please join us for the next section of this interview on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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