The main thing he does as an organizer and activist, says Cleve Jones, is listen. That’s something he learned from Harvey Milk, one of the country’s first openly gay elected officials, with whom Jones worked closely. Nowadays, Jones listens to people’s concerns as an organizer for the hospitality workers’ union, UNITE HERE, and it’s what led him to conceive of the largest public art project in history, the AIDS Memorial Quilt — and to keep going with it even though people told him it wouldn’t work.
“I was watching and listening, and I could tell it was what people needed,” Jones says. “I lost almost everyone I loved, and then I made new friends and I lost them. The grief and despair and rage were not only overwhelming, they were crippling, and there had to be a way to harness that emotion and to help people grieve and feel, so they could continue to fight.”
Over a latte at Café Flore, Jones talked about his new memoir, When We Rise, which details his life in activism at the center of the gay rights movement in San Francisco since the ’70s. Along with creating the quilt and working with Milk, the supervisor assassinated with Mayor George Moscone in 1978, Jones co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and fought to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. The book, which writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, recommends reading for “pleasure and joy”, inspired an ABC miniseries, premiering Feb. 27. It was written by Dustin Lance Black (who wrote the biopic Milk), and stars Guy Pearce as Jones, Mary Louise Parker, Rachel Griffiths and Michael K Williams.
“The movement saved my life,” When We Rise begins. As a teenager in Phoenix, Jones felt so alone and sure that he was the only gay person in the world and could never have a happy life that he started stockpiling pills to use to kill himself. Then, while in the library avoiding the potential bullying in gym class, he saw an article in Life, “Homosexuals in Revolt!”, which made him believe he could find love and purpose and a community. It led him to San Francisco in his early 20s, where he settled eventually in the Castro — the neighborhood he lives in today.
Jones says that of all his accomplishments, he’s most proud of just having endured and kept working and fighting. There’s a reason he’s been an activist for almost 40 years.
“At least once a day someone comes up and says, ‘Thank you for your sacrifices,’ ” he says. “This not a sacrifice — I just purely love the work. I met most of friends in the movement and for me, it’s a lot of fun. I enjoy strategizing about how we’re going to get a message out to the media, how we’re going to get a good turnout, designing fliers and organizing. I like the mechanical aspects of it, and it’s never stopped interesting me.”
Currently, Jones is using all his strategies and skills to resist Donald Trump’s presidency. People often tell him that we survived Ronald Reagan and George Bush’s presidencies, meaning we can survive this as well — something he doesn’t want to hear.
“This dumbing down of America has reaped rewards for the right wing,” he says. “People haven’t been taught history or critical thinking. I could name you hundreds of people I love who did not survive Reagan and Bush. Then there’s the thousands and thousands more who died in wars and coups d’état we supported or engineered. And I think this situation is going to make Reagan and Bush look like a Sunday picnic.”
Fighting against Trump and his policies will be a long hard process and people need to remember to focus on love, says Jones, who writes in his book about going to Quaker meetings as a teenager and working for them as an adult. Civil disobedience, calling or visiting your representatives, writing letters to the editor, voting and protesting can all be effective, he says, and he advises people not to listen to others who tell them they can’t make a difference. In When We Rise, Jones writes about being stabbed when he lived in Sacramento for being gay, and in Café Flore, he turns and pulls down his T-shirt to show the small scar near his shoulder blade.
“The minute you say you’re going to do anything, the attacks will come, not from the right wing, but from the left,” he said. “All the metaphorical knives in my back came from my own people. There’s a chorus of naysayers who are going to tell you that whatever you want to do doesn’t work.”
Jones hopes the stories of struggles and defeats and wins and adventures in his book — as well as the miniseries — will inspire people to act and to remember that they aren’t powerless.
“I have been so fortunate to know and work and march with some of the greatest leaders of our time,” he says. “I met César Chavez. I knew Harvey Milk. I had a conversation with Nelson Mandela. I got to go to church with Rosa Parks. These are all ordinary people! Their lives are full of the defeats and humiliations and challenges that we all experience, and they changed the world. Everybody can do that.”