Cleve Jones on 'When We Rise' and the Power of Activism

Cleve Jones at a Marriage Equality rally in 2013 (Photo: Wendy Goodfriend/KQED)

The opportunity to speak to someone who has made the world a better place doesn’t come often, so talking to Cleve Jones shouldn’t be taken lightly.

For most of his life, Jones has worked for “the Movement,” a summation of all the various causes he’s taken up over his decades of political activism. As a teenager, he worked with the United Farm Workers, and after moving to San Francisco in the '70s, he fought for causes such as gay rights, AIDS research and, for the past decade, labor rights. But he'll always be known for two things: working with Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly gay politician, and for conceiving the AIDS Memorial Quilt, credited with breaking the country's hard exterior regarding the mortal devastation caused by the disease.

Jones's resume reads like a textbook on the history of human rights in America, which is probably why he wrote a memoir. Published last year, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement has Jones telling tales from his life as an activist, going all the way up to his work with UNITE HERE. His friend, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), then took much of Jones's story and used it for the upcoming ABC four-part mini-series, also called When We Rise. Before its broadcast this week, I spoke with Jones about his life in San Francisco and what he's learned about the power of political movements.

Cleve Jones speaks outside the Supreme Court in June 2013
Cleve Jones speaks outside the Supreme Court in June 2013. (courtesy of Hachette Books)

I understand you moved away from San Francisco's Castro District for a few years but have since come back. How has it been?

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I moved back to the Castro about seven years ago. I had been spending time up there when we were making the movie Milk, and I realized how much I missed San Francisco and the Castro. When we finished filming, I made the decision to move back as soon as I could. I was fortunate enough to find a rent-controlled apartment, which made it possible.

When you were living in the Castro during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, how visible was the impact of the disease on the neighborhood?

By the fall of 1985, I had lost almost all of my closest friends. The death toll in the neighborhood hit 1,000 by the end of 1985, and after that we lost 2,000 a year for another 10 years. It was a devastating experience. There are a lot of ghosts here and I am very conscious of that when I walk through the neighborhood today.

What was it like before AIDS hit?

When I first came to San Francisco in the early 1970s, the gay scene was on Polk Street and the Castro was just a sleepy Irish and Scandinavian neighborhood. There were a couple gay bars over here, though. There were a ton of gay bars back then in the '70s -- probably three times what we have today -- and some were in the Castro. The large numbers of gay people didn't start moving in until the mid '70s and that accelerated in the late '70s.

That was very exciting. It was very youthful. Today the population is much more diverse and much older, and there's a lot more heterosexual families. But in the '70s and '80s this neighborhood was overwhelmingly populated by young gay men, mostly white but not entirely.

How was it for you as a young gay man? Was it safe?

I think all of us who came here were looking for a place where we could be ourselves and be safe. There was still a lot of violence with the bashers coming into the neighborhood, and the cops were pretty dreadful. But it felt like a village, like a real community, and it still does, despite all the changes.

Having been an activist for so long, do you know when a protest is at its most effective?

You know, people go on and on about what's effective and what's not. You'll find that the minute you go to a room full of people, raise your hand and say, "I think we have to do this," 20 hands will go up and tell you why you shouldn't do that. What we do, especially on the left, is criticize and make fun of each others' efforts. But the reality is that just about any tactic that you can think of, whether it's writing letters to the editor, holding a protest, engaging in civil disobedience, registering voters, filing lawsuits -- all of these can work. In fact what people need to understand is that it's the urgent need to commit to a long-term struggle that leads to change. We don't pay a lot of attention to history and we like everything packaged into neat little products with a begin time and an end time. It doesn't work that way! The struggle is ongoing and its permanent, and right now we have entered a new phase of it, but all of those tactics can work. It's important for people to do whatever they can with whatever they have wherever they are.

Do you think our current political situation will radicalize some of those who haven't been politically active?

I think we are entering a period of political chaos and that chaos is deepening. It's the kind of situation where there's potential for political upheaval, and also the possibility of great good. It is my hope that people will be radicalized and rise up to resist, and I hope that out of this chaos will emerge a much stronger progressive movement that stands against racism, xenophobia and homophobia. We don't know what's going to happen, but I'm heartened by the millions who have taken to the streets.

Actors Guy Pearce and Austin McKenzie, writer Lance Black and activist Cleve Jones attend the North American Premiere of 'When We Rise' at the 28th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Actors Guy Pearce and Austin McKenzie, writer Lance Black and activist Cleve Jones attend the North American Premiere of 'When We Rise' at the 28th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival. (Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Did you ever think that your book would lead to a network television show?

Back in 1978, I went back home to Arizona for the holidays. It was after the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Late one night my mother and I were talking about what was going on, and she said, "You're living through one of those times, when you get older, people will write books and movies about what you're living now." She predicted this back in 1978.

I've always been aware that I was involved in historic times. It was never about me, it was just about where I was and what was going on. When I started writing the book, I had no idea that it was going to end up being the partial inspiration for a mini-series. I went down to L.A. so I could focus and not be distracted, and I stayed with Dustin Lance Black. It ended up that I worked on the book and he worked on the screenplay.

It's been exciting. I've seen the show and I like it. Parts are very powerful, but it leaves out a big chunk of what I've been doing with my life for the last 10 years with the labor movement, so I'm not particularly happy about that. I wish there was more about my work with the union. But I still think people should see it.

You mentioned Milk and Moscone. You were actually the one who discovered Milk's body after he was shot by Dan White. How has it been living with that memory?

Meeting Harvey was the most important thing that happened to me in my entire life. Everything that's happened since goes back to him. I walked in shortly after he was shot and saw his body, and it was horrifying. I had never seen a dead person before. I thought everything was over. I think I was in shock for months afterwards, and it's something I still think about.

But it's an example of how one can face great tragedy. So many times in my life I thought everything was over but it wasn't. I just had to keep on fighting and moving forward, and I want people to be aware of that, especially now since so many people think this election is the end of everything we hold dear. It's not. We're going to fight back and resist, and do the best we can.

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