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Cleve Jones, the longtime LGBT activist depicted in the movie Milk, spoke at Northwestern in Cahn Auditorium Monday in an event sponsored by Northwestern Community Development Corps, Peace Projects and various other campus groups.
Before the talk, he sat down with North by Northwestern to chat about his life as an organizer and why student activists need to unplug and start marching.
What initially caused you to go into community organizing?
I was always interested in politics: my mother and father had supported the civil rights movement. My family revered Dr. King, so I grew up with examples like Dr. King and Rosa Parks as evidence of how people did have the ability to make change happen.
I got started in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, and I really hated the war, my family hated the war. I felt that there was a moral obligation to resist the war. The organizing, the mechanics of organizing, drafting the flyers, creating the posters, doing the turnout for the protests, figuring out the route of the march: all that kind of stuff I would really enjoy.
What are you most proud of?
I think that the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which I started in my backyard, was very effective — I think it helped America find some compassion and some common sense during the darkest years of the pandemic.
When I was young and I hitchhiked to San Francisco, I wanted to live in a ghetto. I didn’t like straight people; I was frightened of them. I had been beaten up too many times. I wanted to live in a gay ghetto. Then I met a man named Harvey Milk, and it was an extraordinary revelation to me to see how this gay Jew from New York City could arrive in this town and win its heart. I remember going with him to campaign at bus stops in every neighborhood in San Francisco, at the union halls, at the homes for seniors.
When I see privileged students from this campus sitting down with workers from the dining hall, I see Harvey’s work continuing there. It doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight or black or brown or white. They’re looking for common ground, ways to work together to solve problems.
Over the years, how have you seen community organizing change?
When I joined the movement, the main focus was the war in Vietnam. And Cesar Chavez came to organize the grape pickers, and my friends and I joined those picket lines. And then when we heard about the women’s movement, we were interested. In 1970 when I learned about the gay liberation movement, I was thrilled.
Now, I think that there are certain fundamentals to organizing that have remained constant throughout all of the changes: the importance of building committees, the importance of crossing boundaries and barriers between people.
If you’re organizing workers, you have to tell their stories. If you’re working on repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it’s so important to hear the stories of military personnel and military families gay and straight alike. Whatever the issue, if you can focus as much as possible on daily lives of ordinary people, that’s what has remained unchanged.
But there’s a whole lot that’s different now: the communications technology, the growing gap between rich and poor, the financial free fall that we’re enduring right now. And I do want to say to your readers, who I assume are all on Facebook: if you think you’re going to change the world by clicking a mouse, I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken.
How did you bring together the UNITE HERE labor union and the LGBT movements?
I went down to the union hall and volunteered for the Hotel Workers Rising campaign, which is an ongoing, permanent campaign to raise hotel workers out of poverty and into the middle class.
I went to their leadership, and I said, “Look, I want gay people to support the workers.” Gay people spend about $70 billion a year in travel and hotels, and all of the big hotel chains market directly to the gay community.
And then they pass that marketing ploy off as some kind of commitment to LGBT rights, which in my opinion is BS. When the Hyatt corporation says things that are supportive the of the LGBT community, they’re only doing it for one reason, and that’s the LGBT pocketbook.
Meanwhile, the workers in the Hyatt hotels are suffering. In my opinion, Hyatt Corporation is really a very brutal exploiter of immigrant labor, particularly immigrant women — it’s my opinion that a lot of what they do is really unconscionable. So, I pitched the union on trying to build this coalition. I thought it was natural, partly because so many LGBT people work within the hospitality industry. And it’s been quite successful.
You mentioned the Northwestern Living Wage Campaign earlier. Anything you’d say to the organizers?
My advice to the Living Wage campaign is to just keep doing what they’re doing. I think they’re doing a remarkable job, and their rebuttal to the absurd editorial in The Daily Northwestern I thought was spot-on. I think they’re remarkable young people, and I don’t think they need any advice from me.