What is Acorn? And Why Progressives Need to Support It

The right goes after the left's most effective groups. Because ACORN does not rely on government funds the organization will survive the orchestrated attacks against it. But if it's to restore its strength, it needs progressive support.
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By now most Americans have heard of the group, ACORN. It is so unique the mainstream press, especially the Washington Post, CNN, and other television networks are ill prepared to explain what it really is. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is a nation-wide anti-poverty group that has, through community organizing, pressured powerful banks to provide home ownership opportunities for working people. It has fought to raise workers' wages, get traffic lights at dangerous intersections, increase police protection in low-income neighborhoods, and help families avoid foreclosures.

The group has improved the lives of millions of working families and strengthened America's democracy through its voter registration efforts. ACORN helped lift low-waged poor out of poverty by building the "living wage" and minimum wage movement, perhaps the most successful poor people's campaign during the past two decades. Coordinated and inspired by ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center, what began as a series of local efforts in the late 1990s, led to a national boost in the minimum wage in 2007, an increase signed by George Bush.

Unlike any other anti-poverty group, ACORN is a national organization with thousands of dues paying members, mostly black and Hispanic Americans, in cities around the country, many of whom participate in direct action and elect their local leaders. ACORN does not depend on one famous charismatic leader. It leaders, nurtured in local chapters across the country, are ordinary people who often do extraordinary things. To many of the poor and moderate-income families living in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, South Central Los Angeles, the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and the hundreds of other neighborhoods where ACORN organizes, these unpaid neighbors are heroes.

Anticipating the subprime loans pushing people into mortgage foreclosure, ACORN campaigned in the late 1990s against the financial giant Household Finance Company's use of predatory, high interest, deceitful mortgage loans. Through a successful lawsuit and collaboration with 50 state attorneys general, ACORN obtained over $500 million dollars in compensation for injured families. Had the nation's political and financial leaders followed ACORN's lead, America would have avoided the epidemic of foreclosures that has engulfed the country. Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, ACORN's local chapter has saved thousands of homes through a volunteer home restoration project and built the Lower Ninth Ward's first new homes after the storm.

In Paterson, New Jersey, where I ran a legal services program, I watched ACORN members and their children, armed with black garbage bags, gardening gloves, and shovels, clean up Roberto Clemente Park removing newspapers, broken glass, and beer bottles, turning a neighborhood eyesore into a community asset. ACORN also organized a campaign to prevent lead poisoning in young children. I observed ACORN workers providing advice to families filling out tax returns, carefully showing eligible families how to obtain the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal tax credit for the working poor, whose benefits were expanded by both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Since 2000 ACORN's effort to register millions of poor, minority voters, a time-honored way of bringing disenfranchised people into the American democratic process, put it squarely in the crosshairs of the Republican Party. Determined to destroy ACORN as a threat to the GOP, White House political director Karl Rove led an effort to get U.S. attorneys to file bogus "voter fraud" charges against the community group. When one of them, a Republican, David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney for New Mexico refused, Bush's Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez, fired him - an abuse of power that cost Gonzalez his job once his brazen behavior became public. This month, the House Judiciary Committee released over 5,000 pages of White House and Republican National Committee e-mails, with transcripts of closed-door testimony by Karl Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers. The documents reveal that Rove directed the sacking of U.S. Attorneys who found no evidence to indict ACORN.

ACORN has also long faced harassment from right-wingers, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the Wall Street Journal editors, who attack ACORN for ideological reasons. While they call ACORN "socialist" and "left-wing," what they are really worried about is how ACORN effectively challenges big business and its conservative political allies on behalf of America's working families. They understand that ACORN's success dispels the conservative myth that we can only help the poor through private charity and an unfettered free market.

Like all large organizations made up of human beings ACORN is not without flaws. It has recruiting and oversight weaknesses, which were made worse over the last decade, when in response to the growing needs of the poor for a voice, ACORN grew too quickly -- from 50 organizers, 22 offices 80,000 members in 1999 to 300 organizers, 102 offices 400,000 members in 2008 -- and tried to do too much.

But it has a long history of quickly responding to its weaknesses. After the videotape prank by two young right-wing activists, ACORN's CEO Bertha Lewis quickly dismissed the offending employees caught on those videotapes giving tax advice and homeownership advice to a young man and woman pretending to be a pimp and prostitute. Although no tax or loan documents were prepared or filed and ACORN's management oversight mitigated any further harm from taking place, Lewis worked with ACORN's advisory council, a group of eminent progressives, including Maryland's former Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, John Podesta and Andy Stern. The group appointed an outside auditor who will help recommend and implement necessary internal reforms. This week, a former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger was named to oversee the internal review.

Meanwhile Fox news broadcast these "gotcha" videos on a virtual round-the-clock basis, causing a controversy far out of proportion to its news value. We now know the hidden tapes were doctored, in some cases taken illegally, and that contrary to the filmmaker's claims that they were never rebuffed by any ACORN office they visited, eyewitnesses and two police reports reveal they had been turned away from several ACORN offices. Also, the filmmakers' own transcripts disclose some ACORN staff being duped by a bogus story about the filmmakers trying to protect a prostitute and immigrant girls from a violent pimp.

Moreover, the mainstream press failed to inform it readers that the video maker was guided by Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the conservative Web site Big Government, and a protégé of inflammatory Matt Drudge, who initially aired the offending ACORN videos. CNN and other members of the so called "liberal press," failed to introduce the story with the fact that this was part of a long conservative campaign to smear and vilify a group using any means necessary including lying and exaggeration, and tie their deceit to the Democratic president.

The mainstream media also neglected to inform the public that every scholar who has conducted a recent evaluation of ACORN found that it was a force for good in our communities. In a cynical age, when 24 hour cable news demands one sensational story after another, ACORN instills in its members a belief that the future can be a better day and that individuals, working together, have the power to shape their own destiny.

The effectiveness of the right wing echo chamber's attacks has damaged ACORN's reputation and led to cut off of federal funds. The capitulation of some on the left and some Democratic Party leaders to the attacks against ACORN is partly understandable. They want to avoid a public distraction from their efforts to pass national health care and Wall Street regulatory reforms. But surrendering to the right only empowers the Glenn Becks and the Republican leadership. First it was MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood, and Van Jones, then ACORN, now they are going after SEIU and the Center for American Progress.

The right goes after the left's most effective groups. Because ACORN does not rely on government funds, but like a union and the NRA, has members' dues, the organization will survive the orchestrated attacks by the right. But if it's to restore its strength as the most effective national poor people's organization it will need the support of the progressive community. As one tenant activist in New Jersey, who is not a member of ACORN said to me, "ACORN is devoted to organizing poor people, mainly people of color, to fight for their rights in housing, education, etc. They are -- horror of horrors -- community activists. The progressive community should be rallying around them."

John Atlas is president of the Montclair based National Housing Institute, which produces Shelterforce magazine. His book on the history of ACORN, Seeds of Hope, published by Vanderbilt University Press, will be out in 2010.

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