Controversial speaker talks of greener energy at Siena
LOUDONVILLE As part of a lecture series at Siena College on Thursday evening, human rights and clean energy activist Van Jones laid out his view for an environmentally friendly and prosperous future, but his detractors only wanted to talk about the past.
Hyped as a controversial speech by about a dozen protesters who turned up across the street from the college campus in Loudonville, the contents of Jones’ remarks, as part of the 24th annual Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Lecture Series on Race and Nonviolent Social Change, sounded like a stump speech from President Barack Obama.
Clara Sciartelli of Ballston Spa was one of the disapproving protesters. She said she was disgusted by the college’s choice for the event.
“This is a disgrace to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said.
Sciartelli claimed that Jones is an avowed communist. This past admission from Jones, who now identifies as an advocate for the market economy, was one of many that he addressed during his speech, but Sciartelli refused to listen to his talk.
Jones began his talk by gently chiding his critics, as he jokingly identified himself as the product of a militant black family.
“People want to talk about the controversial views I never had or the controversial views I used to have,” Jones said. “I’d much rather talk about the controversial views I actually have.”
For the most part, though, his remarks were politically moderate and his views mainstream. He began by laying out the formation of his political philosophy as a relatively naive law student at Yale College, where he witnessed firsthand the inequity in America. Jones suggested that this experience and his upbringing created a viewpoint that was angry and very liberal.
It’s this period of Jones’ life that most of his opponents find fault with, including Mike Collins, a 1960 Siena graduate and a resident of Clifton Park. Collins argued that Jones’ background was contrary to the college’s philosophy.
“Why would you give this guy a platform?” Collins said.
According to Father Kevin Mullen, the president of the college, Jones fit in with the lecture series’ theme of social and environmental justice.
Many of those listening were Siena students who were required to attend as part of a class.
Dan Browne of New Jersey and Matt Morris of Long Island were two freshmen who sounded relatively apathetic about Jones’ appearance. They said there had been a growing dialogue on campus about his upcoming speech, but they weren’t too riled up either way.
In closing his speech, Jones challenged the audience of 1,500, predominantly college students, to actively build a better future. He urged the young people in attendance to make the same strides for progress that the baby boomers had.
Jones argued that America needs to take advantage of its growing diversity and move away from fossil fuels, which he characterized as burning death. The way to prosperity, he contended, was by harnessing the environmentally friendly energy solutions around us and coming together as a people.
“Think about what [the baby boomers] were willing do for their country. The risks they were willing to take,” he said.
Arguing that modern technology, such as computers and smartphones, has made it easier to implement positive change, Jones said, “All you guys have to do is move your thumbs a little bit better. Because not only can you build a green economy, you can build a green economy based on the principles of liberty and justice for all.”
Throughout his speech, Jones elicited choruses of laughter that evolved into applause breaks as he built toward his finish. He also constantly reiterated his observation about America. “Something strange is happening in your country,” he repeated in various incarnations.
In response to the speech, Brendan Kane, a senior and president of Siena’s Student Republican Club, mildly embraced Jones’ message but contended that his presence was inappropriate for this forum considering remarks he has made in the past. Some of Jones’ actions that Kane took issue with were his signing of a petition stating the government was responsible for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and his support for convicted cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal.
Kane said if Jones would recant certain statements, like the use of a derogatory word to describe Republicans, then he would be more likely to welcome him. Ultimately, though, Jones’ appearance was just too soon for him.
“I think it is just going to take time.” Kane said.
Siena College will be co-hosting an open forum on Jones’ speech with Siena’s Student Republican Club on Wednesday in the Serra Hall West Room at 4 p.m.