by John Atlas
Vanderbilt University Press 2010, 336 pp.
IN 2008 the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and its extended family of related organizations had a combined budget of more than $100 million, a staff of more than one thousand and a membership of more than 400,000. By the end of January 2010, ACORN had ceased to exist as a national organization.
In Seeds of Change, John Atlas chronicles ACORN’s forty years of struggles and victories, and its spectacular and public downfall. A legal aid attorney, leader of tenants’ rights struggles, and a social change activist for forty years, Atlas wanted to reflect on the efforts that built ACORN into a social justice movement. ACORN gave him full access to their records and invited him to sit in on meetings not generally open to journalists. Dozens of current and former ACORN organizers granted him interviews. Atlas is clearly sympathetic to ACORN, but he lets the facts speak for themselves.
Wade Rathke started ACORN and is the strategic and entrepreneurial force behind much of Atlas’s story. A disillusioned antiwar activist from New Orleans, he dropped out of Williams College to organize welfare recipients in Springfield, Massachusetts. Rathke thought the welfare rights movement had hit a dead-end; working poor people resented welfare. Rathke saw the need for—and the possibility of—a multi-racial movement of the poor and near poor. Returning to the South and with the active support of George Wiley, the leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization, Rathke started organizing in Arkansas and formed the Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now. A few years later, as the group expanded into a national organization, it became the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, retaining the original acronym.
Rathke based his work on accepted community organizing principles laid out by Saul Alinsky and adapted by other networks like Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, the Midwest Academy and Citizen Action Network, and the Gamiliel Foundation (which in the 1980s employed a promising Columbia graduate named Barack Obama). Atlas repeatedly describes the ACORN organizing model: an organizer knocks on doors and asks residents what they want to see improved in their neighborhoods; the concerned resident becomes a dues-paying member of ACORN and joins a campaign to clean up a local eyesore or create a safe playground for neighborhood children.
Rathke adapted and re-imagined the community organization tradition more than most practitioners. For example, Alinsky advised that community organizations should shun electoral politics. Ignoring that advice, ACORN ran a slate early in its history for a county legislature in Arkansas. The election helped mobilize the membership and showed that the organization had real power. Rathke went on to organize an ACORN Political Action Committee. Years later, ACORN helped to establish the Working Families Party, the most significant third party in New York state. ACORN also developed an expertise in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Eventually, Project Vote, an esteemed clearinghouse for mobilizing minority voters, became part of the ACORN family of organizations. Effective voter registration and get-out-the-vote work raised ACORN’s profile for its friends, and especially its enemies.
Community organizations live and grow on militant tactics. You identify a problem. You rally people to create change, and you confront powerful people to force change. ACORN did all that, and did it well. ACORN also managed to grow new institutions to meet the needs of its members as a direct result of its militancy. In the housing crisis of the early 1980s, Philadelphia ACORN members squatted in abandoned housing owned by the federal government. When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) threatened to evict and prosecute the squatters, neighbors and even some local officials welcomed bringing abandoned housing back into use. ACORN also organized around the Community Reinvestment Act and confronted banks that continued redlining low-income communities. Through all this work, ACORN organizers built their own housing development corporation. HUD contracted extensively with ACORN Housing, and banks looking to demonstrate their bona fides on lending to low-income communities partnered with (and sometimes used their foundations to fund) ACORN Housing.
Fighting against predatory tax preparation firms that charged exorbitant rates for helping low-income filers claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, ACORN developed a tax counseling affiliate. The IRS contracted with that nonprofit firm as a particularly effective vehicle for reaching poor communities. ACORN also tried to establish its own labor union network; the several locals founded by ACORN organizers eventually affiliated with the SEIU, while retaining close ties to ACORN. ACORN even owned a radio station and a magazine.
AS ATLAS notes, the legal and financial complexities of tying all these entities together were not widely understood within ACORN. Rathke and his brother Dale were among the few who grasped how the complex web fit together. In July 2008, the New York Times reported a story that was already roiling ACORN internally: Dale Rathke had embezzled nearly $1 million eight years earlier. At the time, Dale served as comptroller for ACORN and the two hundred other groups in its family of organizations.
Wade knew about the embezzlement in 2000. Protective of both his brother and the organization, he chose to hide the issue. Dale lost his job as comptroller but remained on staff as a special advisor. Arcane yet completely legal bookkeeping allowed the missing money to become a loan. Dale signed a promissory note, backed by Wade and their parents, to repay the missing funds at 7 percent simple interest. Foundations supporting ACORN did not know, nor did the ACORN Board. Once knowledge of the embezzlement reached the Board, its members, outraged by this fundamental violation of democratic norms, fired Wade in May 2008.
Rathke’s replacement was Bertha Lewis, an African American from Brooklyn who had risen from being a member-leader to heading the organizing staff for the large New York City chapter. Lewis ascended to top leadership at a nearly impossible moment. ACORN’s internal strife would not go away easily. The Illinois chapter, alienated by what its leaders saw as Wade Rathke’s arrogance, had left before the scandal broke and remained outside the national organization. New Orleans members and leaders chafed at what they considered overly harsh treatment of Wade Rathke. Another faction criticized Lewis for not being tough enough with Rathke and actually went to court to seek release of financial records.
Lewis managed to ride out and overcome the faction fighting, but she immediately faced fierce and unrelenting attacks from outside the organization. Atlas recounts how she turned on the television in her Brooklyn apartment to view the final 2008 presidential debate. She was stunned to see John McCain rail against ACORN and charge that its “voter fraud” activities threatened the foundation of American democracy. The Republican attack on ACORN’s voter registration efforts reflected classic Karl Rove jiu-jitsu: it’s Republicans, not Democrats and certainly not community organizers, who have a record of purging voter rolls, intimidating voters of color, and tampering with voting machines. Since the 2000 elections, these GOP tactics have received some—not enough, but some—scrutiny. What better way to deflect attention from their own unsavory actions than charging an effective opponent with voter fraud!
ACORN and Project Vote demonstrated in 2004 and 2006 that they knew how to register new voters and get them to the polls. A 2004 ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage in Florida carried with more than 70 percent of the vote. Atlas notes that John Kerry cautiously distanced himself from the ballot initiative. Had he embraced it, he might well have won Florida and the presidency. ACORN organized similar initiatives in several key states in 2006 and ran effective registration and get out the vote campaigns. We now know that Rove used his position in the White House to organize legal harassment against these efforts. The scandal around firing of federal attorneys in 2007 revolved entirely around appointed Republican federal prosecutors refusing to issue politically motivated voter fraud indictments. But many appointed federal attorneys lacked the integrity to resist the political pressure. ACORN faced dozens of indictments. In none of them did any court find actual voter fraud. David Iglesias, a fired federal attorney, called voter fraud “a boogeyman….very frightening but it doesn’t exist.”
Despite ACORN’s exemplary record on voter registration, right-wing opponents, often quoted in the mainstream press, kept referring to criminal charges and criminal investigations. A pattern was setting in. Right-wingers denounced ACORN with reckless and inaccurate charges. FoxNews would report the smears and add lies of its own. The mainstream media would start to treat the fact of the accusations as news without fact checking the actual claims made against ACORN. Major liberal politicians, many of whom benefitted from ACORN’s voter mobilization campaigns, remained silent. Lacking a nationally recognized spokesperson, ACORN just didn’t make it on the rolodex for most national news organizations. False charges of criminal activity were repeated without rebuttal.
After the presidential election, this pattern of false charges without rebuttal was repeated with a new and entirely manufactured scandal. Andrew Breitbart, a right-wing blogger who would in 2010 seek to defame a Department of Agriculture official named Shirley Sherrod as a black racist, released shocking videos of ACORN staff offering advice to a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute.
Every television viewer “knows” that James O’Keefe entered ACORN offices dressed in an outrageously flamboyant pimp outfit to seek this advice. Even the New York Times reported as fact that O’Keefe dressed as a pimp and entered ACORN offices. He did dress as a pimp for the video, and he did enter ACORN offices, but at different times; during his actual visits to ACORN offices, he dressed very conventionally. His hidden video camera shows low-level ACORN staff responding sympathetically to him and alleged prostitute Hannah Giles. Clearly, some ACORN staffers said some dumb thing in seeking to offer support to Giles and O’Keefe. But because O’Keefe and Breitbart refused to release the original, unedited tapes, we don’t know the context of the conversations. Given the Sherrod experience and the distortion around the pimp costume, we have every reason to be skeptical.
Skepticism, though, was not the order of the day when these tapes were released. The Times, the Post, and other mainstream press outlets, openly afraid that they would face accusations of liberal bias, jumped on the manufactured scandal as if it were a news story. Republicans in Congress had already established talking points that claimed ACORN was a criminal organization—never mind that no one had been convicted of a crime. They moved swiftly to introduce legislation to deny federal funding to ACORN or any of its related organizations. Congressman Jerry Nadler pointed out that this legislation directly violated the constitutional ban against bills of attainder, whereby legislative bodies, rather than courts, determine guilt and mete out punishment. Despite Nadler’s accurate analysis, the legislation passed by overwhelming majorities. The Obama administration acted quickly to enforce the new law.
ACORN commissioned Scott Harshbarger, the former attorney general of Massachusetts, to conduct a full-scale investigation into the allegations of wrongdoing. He found management weaknesses and a need for a better system of staff training, but no voter fraud and no financial irregularities since the 2000 embezzlement. A Congressional Research Services report also cleared ACORN of any misconduct regarding voter registration. These stories were buried in the back pages of the Times and elsewhere. Reeling from the public relations disaster wrought by the Right, ACORN state and national leaders came to an agreement in January 2010 that state affiliates would form new organizations without connection to ACORN, Inc. They will address forming a new national network at some point in the future.
ACORN CERTAINLY had flaws. Its self-inflicted wounds from the embezzlement cover-up weakened the organization at a crucial moment. In the pages of this magazine and elsewhere, ACORN organizers often irritated even close allies with exaggerated boasts about its organizational strength. Yet for all its faults and limitations, ACORN did organize poor people and make a difference in their lives.
Suffice it to say that ACORN proved powerful enough to earn the enmity of very powerful forces determined to destroy the organization, but not powerful enough to defend itself from these attacks. The attacks not only succeeded but largely went unanswered in the mainstream press, on the floor of Congress, and in the general political discourse. That fact speaks volumes about the current state of American politics and the feeble condition of the larger liberal Left. Right-wing bullies destroyed a very effective organization of and for the poor. Allowing bullies to get their way never makes for good policy or good politics.
Jack Clark served as national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, one of Democratic Socialists of America’s parent organizations, from 1973-1979. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.
Homepage Image: Andrew Breitbart (Shal Farley/Wikimedia Commons/2009)