Jones was affiliated with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which had brought him to the city as a legal observer in 1992.
It protested against police brutality, held study groups on the theories of Marx and Lenin, and aspired to a multi-racial socialist utopia.
Jones was educated at Jackson Central-Merry High School, a public high school in his hometown; he graduated in 1986. During this period, Jones also worked as an intern at the Jackson Sun (Tennessee), the Shreveport Times (Louisiana), and the Associated Press (Nashville bureau).
He adopted the nickname "Van" when he was 17 and working at the Jackson Sun.
He operated out of "a closet-like office" within the space of Eva Paterson, Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee, and used his personal computer.
In 1996–1997, Jones and Police Watch led a campaign to gain the firing of officer Marc Andaya from the San Francisco Police Department.