Justin Jones: Black, Filipino, civil rights activist

Rep. Justin Jones —TWITTER PHOTO

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Republican-dominated House of Representatives in Tennessee in the United States has expelled two of three Democrat lawmakers who took part in a protest action calling for more gun-control measures a week after a school shooting in Nashville in which six persons, including three children, were killed. One of the two expelled is Rep. Justin Jones. CoverStory.ph is reposting this report on Jones with permission from the San Francisco-based Positively Filipino, the digital magazine on the global Filipino, which ran it on Sept. 7, 2021. The author is founding elder at the Center for Babaylan Studies and professor emerita in American multicultural studies at Sonoma State University.     

Justin Jones, a young Black and Filipino activist, reached out to me late in 2019, asking if I could help him lament the harm caused by anti-Black attitudes in the Filipino communities he grew up in. He wanted to embrace his “pagka-Pilipino” (Filipino-ness) as much as he has embraced his Blackness. So, I introduced him to a few of the Black and Filipino scholars/culture-bearers in my circle, and I hosted a healing session on Zoom for him.

Two years later, Justin is sitting at my dining table, and I can tell that he has indeed rediscovered his Filipino roots and honors them deeply.  He tells me: “My Filipina Lola Tessie and my Black Lola Harriet are my first divinity teachers, first theology teachers, first spirituality teachers.  I realize now that the family stories they told me about their childhood in the Philippines and in Chicago and San Francisco carried their Indigenous roots.” 

Growing up

Justin grew up in Oakland/East Bay. He is a biracial person who looks more Black than Filipino, and Black became his default identity. Although he was raised by both his Filipino and Black grandmothers on collard greens, black-eyed peas, and adobo, and stories from both sides of his family, Justin said there was still silence about his Indigenous Filipino grandfather, who is Aeta. Outside of the home, the Black and brown communities in the East Bay made him aware that he is always perceived as a Black person. His hunger to get to know his Filipino identity always loomed in his young mind. 

He became politicized in middle and high schools, and events such as the murder of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin motivated him to organize and become an activist. His English teacher inspired him to not be complicit with injustice; to speak up and stand up. Environmental issues, social justice and civil rights became central to his passions and concerns. He was a key organizer of Bay Area protests after Trayvon Martin’s murder. 

He remembers: “Some people were concerned that violence might erupt because of people’s anger, but the opposite happened. Protest was a place for collective grief, to lament, to be in community, express righteous indignation at what happened.” 

Justin took his Filipino lola to her first protest action in San Francisco against the Keystone XL pipeline. He now recalls that perhaps his passion for activism came from hearing his lola’s stories about the People Power protests in the Philippines, and particularly about the Catholic nuns who kneeled in front of tanks with rosaries to stop them from running over those protesting against the Marcos regime. He also heard stories of the civil rights movement and the inhumanity of Jim Crow segregation from his Grandma Harriett.

Role models

After high school, Justin went to Fisk University, a historically Black university, where his role models, John Lewis and Diane Nash, had also studied. At Fisk, he received the John R. Lewis Scholarship for Social Activism. As a political science major, he continued to immerse himself in local civil rights issues in Nashville and became active in organizing work on campus and in the larger community.

One of his memorable experiences is visiting John Lewis in his office. He said: “I waited for 20 minutes outside his office and when he finally invited me (in), I saw that it was lined with photographs of the civil rights era and he walked me through the history of the civil rights era. I heard that he always makes time to talk to young people and I’ve been inspired by him so deeply.”

justin 2
Justin Jones in Washington DC at Black Lives Matter Plaza, 2020. —PHOTOS COURTESY OF POSITIVELY FILIPINO

Justin has been in Nashville, Tennessee for eight years now. After graduating from Fisk, he enrolled in a master’s program in divinity studies at Vanderbilt University.  He continues to lead organizing efforts, and when the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the country, Justin and other local activists occupied the Ida B. Wells Plaza in Nashville, and called for accountability and reckoning with institutionalized racism and police brutality. One of the focal points of the protests was the demand to remove the bust of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, at the Tennessee state capitol.  The 62-day protest led to 14 charges against Justin; to date, 12 of those charges have been dismissed. 

justin 3
The legislator helped organize and lead a 62-day occupation of the Tennessee Capitol in response to the police murder of George Floyd.

Healing retreat

Sitting at my dining table, Justin speaks of the intense trauma that activists experience when being out in the streets protesting, getting harassed and intimidated by police. Recognizing their collective trauma, he organized a retreat to tend to their pain. He told his fellow activists that they are warriors and healers. How are we healers, a few friends asked him. He told them that in his Filipino culture, there are “babaylan” who are both warriors and healers. He told them stories about his Filipino grandmother’s practice of honoring ancestors;,how she would make the sign of the cross herself every time she passed a church; how she would say “Bahala na!”—Let it be—as her expression of faith and trust in the Sacred. 

Jones and Rep. John Lewis, while interning in Washington DC, 2016

He tells me: “Ate Leny, the more I study decolonization, the more I realize that my Ibanag grandmother has always carried the Indigenous culture within herself.”

Justin carries the prayers of his ancestors as he walks the path of making good trouble. In Nashville, he is carried by the Elders of the Civil Rights era, and he honors them with respect and care. Diane Nash has been mentoring and supporting him, and his gratitude to this beloved civil rights leader is profound. 

justin 5
Jones and the author

Sitting with Justin and watching him walk his talk with courage and dignity inspire me. I feel his giftedness and I see it coming from his deep dive into the decolonization process and his reverent approach towards the calling of his Indigenous soul. I see the babaylan spirit in him. 

Postscript:  I recorded an hourlong interview with Justin but only 17 minutes of it are audible. I have been in many situations where the Sacred doesn’t want to be recorded. I smile and I bow my head.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.