“We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN,” said Senator John McCain in his third presidential debate with Barack Obama in October 2008. ACORN, he said, “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
By early 2010, ACORN had closed its doors, a victim of an orchestrated assault by right-wing media and politicians, as well as some self-inflicted wounds.
Obama had briefly worked with ACORN on voter registration drives when he practiced civil rights law in Chicago. The group’s leaders believed that, once Obama was in the White House, ACORN would become an even more influential group. But they hadn’t anticipated the fusion of right-wing forces that brought ACORN down.
Had ACORN still been around in 2016, it might have prevented a real threat to democracy—Donald Trump—from becoming president. ACORN had developed a finely honed grassroots approach to registering voters and getting them to the polls. By putting its operation to work in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only 77,000 votes to win the Electoral College—ACORN might have changed the outcome.
In their recent documentary ACORN and the Firestorm, Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard not only reveal how the mighty ACORN fell but also show how the attack on ACORN was a dress rehearsal for our current toxic political culture, including the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right.
Through archival clips and interviews with ACORN staffers, leaders and members, friendly and hostile politicians, and political analysts, the film recounts the group’s history, starting with its founding in Arkansas in 1970 by Wade Rathke, a charismatic and brazen young organizer.
In addition to registering millions of voters, ACORN assisted the working poor to buy homes and avoid foreclosure, challenged banks’ racist and predatory lending practices, stopped companies from spewing cancer-causing pollution in low-income neighborhoods, got local governments to fix up abandoned buildings that had become havens for crime, and fought for fair treatment by employers, landlords, insurance companies, and government. ACORN led the campaign to get Congress to strengthen the anti-redlining Community Reinvestment Act. It organized the victims of Hurricane Katrina to gain a voice in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. It spearheaded the living-wage movement in more than 100 cities and helped make the federal Earned Income Tax Credit an effective anti-poverty program.
By 2008, ACORN had more than 1,000 staffers and 400,000 dues-paying members, recruited by door-to-door canvassers, with chapters in 110 cities in forty states, making it the largest grassroots anti-poverty organization in the country. In the film, we see ACORN members engaged in protests, civil disobedience, lobbying, voter registration, and meetings with politicians.
Unlike many liberal do-gooders, ACORN didn’t assume it knew what poor people wanted or needed. Maude Hurd, an ACORN leader from Boston, recalled her first encounter with an organizer. “People always knocking on my door telling me what the problems were,” she said. “ACORN was different. When they knocked on my door, they asked me.”
In the film’s opening scene, we meet a burly bearded white man named Tavis, who looks like a character in Duck Dynasty and who has a Confederate flag folded across some chairs in the front yard of his house in rural Florida. (“Heritage not hate,” he explains. “I don’t fly it because I don’t want to make nobody mad.”) He says he voted for Reagan and Bush, but he swears loyalty to ACORN for helping him save his house from foreclosure after his wife lost her job and they got behind on their mortgage payments.
“The idea of ACORN is to stand up for the oppressed, the poor, the people who were taken advantage of,” he explains.
For years, banks, the restaurant and other low-wage industries, and other business groups attacked ACORN, but in the early 2000s they were joined by the Republican establishment and the burgeoning right-wing media. ACORN was unprepared for the onslaught.
When McCain attacked ACORN on national TV in his debate with Obama, ACORN leader Bertha Lewis was thrilled “just to hear our names mentioned,” she says in the documentary. “I thought it was great. Well, little did I know. Forty years of work called into question by one little video.”
That “one little video”—actually, several videos—was made by two amateur activists, twenty-five-year old James O’Keefe and twenty-year old Hannah Giles, who met via Facebook. Their project was promoted by a little-known right-wing agitator named Andrew Breitbart.
As the documentary describes, O’Keefe and Giles took their undercover hidden camera into at least a half-dozen ACORN offices around the country and sought to lure staffers into agreeing to commit illegal acts. In one office, Giles (dressed up in a bizarre costume and claiming to be a prostitute) and O’Keefe (pretending to be her boyfriend) ask for ACORN’s help to buy a house to operate a prostitution business with young girls smuggled from Central America. Whether the ACORN staffers believed the two provocateurs, or just played along with the charade, isn’t clear. ACORN and the Firestorm allows the audience to decide for themselves what happened.
But what actually happened didn’t matter because their sting operation worked. What most Americans remember about ACORN is what Breitbart wanted them to believe. With his help, O’Keefe and Giles doctored the videos to make ACORN look guilty. For example, as Breitbart was releasing the videos to the media, O’Keefe wore a pimp costume in an interview on Fox News. The show’s host said that he was “dressed exactly in the same outfit he wore to these ACORN offices.” That was a lie. He wore regular clothes when visiting the ACORN offices, but spliced into the videos scenes of him in the pimp outfit.
Breitbart turned what might have been dismissed as a college-age prank into a national controversy. He orchestrated a sophisticated internet campaign, employing an army of bloggers to keep the misinformation in the news. Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservative media played and discussed the videos night after night, repeating the same anti-ACORN (and anti-Obama) talking points. In the film, we see a collage of conservative media commentators describing ACORN as a “criminal enterprise” and “a socialist outfit,” and declaring “Obama is ACORN.”
The mainstream media, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and even Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, soon picked up on the manufactured controversy and, without fact-checking, acted like a transmission belt for the anti-ACORN allegations. In doing so, they gave Breitbart a louder megaphone and turned him into a conservative cult hero.
ACORN’s successful voter registration drives, especially in swing states, had been a nightmare for GOP campaign strategists. Republican governors, state attorneys general, and senior Bush administration officials alike led a fruitless pursuit for incidents of voter fraud by ACORN. In 2004 Karl Rove (President George W. Bush’s top political adviser) told several U.S. attorneys to prosecute ACORN for voter fraud. One of them—David Iglesias, the Republican U.S. attorney in New Mexico—refused after finding no evidence of fraud, and was ultimately dismissed. Some local Republican officials nevertheless filed bogus lawsuits, accusing ACORN of voter fraud.
Most Americans had never heard of ACORN until McCain (and Sarah Palin) began attacking the group on the campaign trail. By October 2008, 45 percent of Americans believed ACORN was trying to register people to vote multiple times in violation of election laws. A November 2009 survey found that 52 percent of Republicans believed ACORN had stolen the election for Obama. By linking the group to President Obama, conservatives sought to undermine him and his liberal agenda.
Months after ACORN’s demise, the group was exonerated from any wrongdoing by every official and independent investigation that looked into O’Keefe and Giles’ accusations, including one by California’s attorney general and two federal investigations. But by then it was too late.
As the film shows, ACORN leaders were surprised by the failure of most Democrats and liberal organizations to come to its aid when it was under attack. Many liberal foundations—cautious by nature—dropped ACORN like a hot potato. Even nine months after Obama took office, in an interview with ABC, George Stephanopoulos felt compelled to ask him if he favored cutting off federal funds to ACORN.
These two award-winning directors—Atlas’s previous documentaries include Brothers Hypnotic and Sour Grapes; Pollard, who was Spike Lee’s longtime editor, has also directed August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, Two Trains Runnin’, and Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me—have produced an invaluable teaching tool about grassroots organizing, the role of media in politics, and the ongoing battle for the soul of America.
As the film suggests, Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media for “fake news,” his embrace of the right-wing echo chamber, his racism and attacks the poor and vulnerable, and his claims of widespread “voter fraud” draw on the right’s campaign against ACORN a decade ago.
Soon after the 2016 election, Trump claimed that massive “voter fraud” was responsible for his losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. We can expect the GOP to continue its efforts to reduce turnout among poor, minority and younger voters (who, when they vote, tend to support Democratic candidates) during the current election season and in 2020 elections, justifying its actions by perpetuating the myth of widespread “voter fraud.” The film reminds us that voter suppression is nothing new for the Republican Party.
The film reveals other parallels between the attack on ACORN and the rise of Trump. After Breitbart died of a heart attack at forty-three in March 2012, a little-known ex-Wall Street banker named Steve Bannon succeeded him as the head of Breitbart News. He turned it into an arm of the 2016 Trump campaign, served as Trump’s campaign manager, spent several months inside the White House, and continues to be the president’s ally.
With funding from wealthy conservatives for the misnamed Project Veritas, O’Keefe is still plying his sting operation, which he’s used against Planned Parenthood, teachers unions, NPR, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Atlas and Pollard gained Giles’ trust and sought to tell the story of ACORN’s demise through her eyes as well as those of her nemesis, Bertha Lewis. The film depicts Giles as an idealistic but naïve conservative trying to make sense of the country’s political tensions.
“You know, I was a kid,” she says in the film, “Just wanted to have some fun.” But she admits that the hit job was her idea.
“Andrew Breitbart and I were instant friends,” Giles recalled. “Andrew knew and understood the media, and we [she and O’Keefe] had no media smarts whatsoever.”
Lewis grew up in a poor family in Philadelphia. After college she worked in the theater business in New York but spent much of her spare time organizing her neighbors against slum landlords and drug dealers. A friend suggested she contact ACORN, telling her “they’re looking for organizers.” “They pay you for fighting?” Lewis asked.
She joined ACORN in 1995, quickly rose up the ranks, and became an influential player in New York City politics. In 2008 the ACORN board fired founder and top staffer Rathke (who had covered up an embezzlement scheme by his brother, the group’s financial director) and replaced him with Lewis.
She believed that, by adding more financial controls and better staff training, ACORN could weather the storm. She went on TV and radio shows to defend ACORN and appealed to foundations to keep their grants coming, but she couldn’t staunch the bleeding.
After ACORN folded, some local leaders regrouped and started new independent organizations—such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and New York Communities for Change—that have drawn on ACORN’s organizing strengths but avoided its management problems. Lewis founded the Black Institute, a think tank on racial issues.
The filmmakers orchestrated a meeting of the two protagonists, Giles and Lewis, seven years after the videos went viral and brought ACORN down—on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., no less.
“So Hannah. This is quite bizarre for me. It must be bizarre for you too, right?” Lewis says.
Giles tells Lewis that she’s become so disillusioned with politics that she’s retired from activism and doesn’t even bother to vote. But her Facebook page reveals that she (along with her husband) is still involved in using videos to expose alleged corruption among liberal groups by recruiting young conservatives to “follow in her footsteps” through a group she founded, the American Phoenix Foundation. Her Facebook handle is @hannahgiles.acorn.
She remains unapologetic about her work with O’Keefe and Breitbart to bring ACORN down. “The idea of helping low-income families is noble,” she says, but she still believes that ACORN was corrupted by “power and money.” “That makes me sad,” Lewis tells her.
Giles and Lewis were talking past each other. They were involved in a political drama that, the film makes clear, was larger than both of them.
ACORN and the Firestorm—inspired by John Atlas’s book, Seeds of Change—reminds us that America’s current polarization wasn’t inevitable. It was manufactured, a product of the web of big business, conservative media entrepreneurs, and right-wing politicians that led to Trump and his efforts to challenge science, the press, civil liberties, and public policy based on evidence.
ACORN was an early victim of that firestorm, but it continues to spread, damaging our democracy.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20 Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books). During the making of ACORN and the Firestorm, he provided information about ACORN to the filmmakers.