Don’t let the big smile and gentle manner fool you — Cleve Jones is a political scrapper and he knows how to fight the good fight.
The iconic human rights activist and Castro resident has been in the middle of the equality for all throw-down since he first arrived in the Castro in the 70′s as a fresh-faced lad from Arizona and was befriended by the unofficial Mayor of Castro Street, Harvey Milk.
They became close friends and political comrades. After Milk was elected as the first prominently out LGBT person in the US as San Francisco’s District 5 Supervisor, Cleve became the new Supes student political intern. He was at City Hall the day Mayor George Moscone and Harvey were assassinated by Supervisor Dan White and was part of the core group who immediately organized a march in response to the tragedy.
Since that fateful day, Cleve has continued to pursue the legacy of hope and equality for all that Harvey’s political platform was based on. He co-founded the SF AIDS Foundation in 1983. In 1987, gave birth to the Names Project - the AIDS Memorial Quilt – that’s grown into the world’s largest community arts project, memorializing the lives of over 85,000 Americans killed by AIDS. Most recently, Jones has been working with UNITE HERE, the hotel, restaurant, and garment workers union on homophobia issues. He is a driving force behind the Sleep With The Right People campaign, which aims to convince everyone to stay only in hotels that respect the rights of their workers.
As the 35th anniversary of Milk and Moscone’s murders approaches this Wednesday, November 27th at 7PM, Cleve and a large group of community activists have been working hard to mark the occasion with more than just the usual march down Market Street from the Castro. This year they are trying to show the City that Harvey’s message of hope, fairness, and inclusivity should continue to be the driving force of its political policies. Cleve sat down with us for a quick chat about upcoming event.
Castro Biscuit: Can you talk a bit about your history with the Harvey Milk/George Moscone Memorial March and Candlelight Vigil?
Cleve Jones: I helped organize the first memorial march the day of the murders and was the principle organizer of the subsequent marches for about 15 years.
CB:That first few years of the March/Vigil must have been really difficult for you personally – what is the one thing you recall having a large impact on your during that time?
CJ: Losing Harvey was hard on me. He was a mentor and something of a father figure. Seeing his body was horrible. I think I was in shock for months. But his death also moved people in a powerful way. So even in the midst of overwhelming grief I saw the community strengthened.
CB: How are things going for the upcoming 35th anniversary march?
CJ: This year’s march is going very well. Attendance has dwindled in recent years, but with the 35th anniversary and the current political situation, I think Harvey’s message is as relevant as ever.
CB: I understand there is a special focus this year – what is it?
CJ: The focus for this year’s march is housing. Harvey Milk and George Moscone cared about renters, working class people, and immigrants. We want folks to remember the men, and the issues for which they fought. Harvey himself was forced to move out of Castro Street after his rent was raised 300%!
CB: How did you get pulled into helping organize the March this year?
CJ: I got involved in the year’s march after a series of conversations with housing activists and tenants’ rights groups concerned about the increase in evictions and skyrocketing rents. I was also deeply saddened, and angered, by the suicide of my old friend and neighbor Jonathan Klein after his eviction.
CB: It seems a large diverse coalition was formed to sponsor this year’s march – how did that come about?
CJ: I’m really proud of the large coalition of groups that has come together to build this year’s memorial. Again, people are highly motivated by a sense that the developers and the rich are destroying much of what we love the most about our city. We’re also going to talk about the efforts to save City College. I think Harvey and George would be appalled by the threats to close City College and the lack of action from our Mayor and other political leaders.
Cleve Jones and the other organizers are focusing on infusing Harvey’s message of ‘hope’ into San Francisco’s current political debate surrounding housing and equality at this year’s memorial march. There will be a host of speakers including the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “MILK,” Dustin Lance Black before the march leaves from the corner of Castro and Market and heads to the steps of City Hall.