Tuesday, May 25, 2010


President Obama: Leadership Please!

By Reginald Johnson

Remember back in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina was leveling whole sections of New Orleans, and hundreds of people were being killed?

Remember the picture of former President George Bush, peering out the window of a plane, looking down at the devastation? We all criticized Bush for that, saying it was symbolic of Bush’s woeful and uncaring response to the tragedy that befell New Orleans.

The president should have headed straight down to where the flooding was and talked with the people of New Orleans face to face, showing his compassion. Don’t just sit in a plane and peer out the window, we said.

That lack of empathy and concern for what’s going on during a disaster is being repeated right now by President Barack Obama. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a catastrophic event, which in the long run may turn out more devastating and more costly than Katrina. Hundreds if not thousands of jobs are being wiped out, as Gulf-based industries such as fishing, boating and tourism are being ruined by the massive BP oil spill. Entire eco-systems along the Gulf coast, including shore birds, shellfish and plant life are being destroyed as the unending gusher of oil now seeps into tidal wetlands.

This environmental devastation will spread over to the Florida coast and then possibly up the Atlantic coast, as the oil is pushed by ocean currents.

It’s estimated more than 36 million gallons of oil have now spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

We’re talking hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars of shoreline and environmental damage that will eventually be caused by this disaster, by the time it is over (if the oil leak is ever stopped!). Countless numbers of people will have their lives ruined by the loss of jobs and property.

Yet while all this is going on, Barack Obama doesn’t seem particularly excited. He sits unruffled, as always, analyzing the situation ----- back at the White House. While he did fly to Louisiana earlier in the month to survey the situation, he didn’t stay long, and spent no time talking with residents along the coast. He should have spent a couple of days there, listening to people and showing understanding for their concerns.

Obama, an eloquent and at times passionate speaker, has shown little passion in condemning BP for this spill and demanding corrective action. Where’s the fire? Where’s the outrage?

Obama also hasn’t done a good job in getting his administration to develop a comprehensive response to the spill. He’s retained Ken Salazar has his Interior Secretary, despite Salazar’s chummy relationship with oil companies, and the secretary’s decision to give companies like BP a waiver on performing environmental reviews on drilling plans, as a precondition for obtaining drilling permits from the government. One of those waivers was for the Deep Horizon rig, which exploded April 20, triggering the massive spill.

Obama should have fired Salazar immediately and replaced him with a real environmentalist.

Also at this stage, the government should step in and take over the efforts to plug the leak and do the clean-up --- with BP performing much of the work and of course paying for it. BP has been in charge of the operation so far, and still the leak is going on. More experts need to be brought in, more countries need to be brought in, and only the government can facilitate this. Obama needs to show leadership and do this.

Apparently both Russia and China have expertise in deep water drilling operations and can help. Their assistance should be requested. Also, two Dutch companies have the know-how to “skim” the oil off the top of the sea and recover it. They need to be brought in. The EPA reportedly rejected the skimming idea, because of some possible pollution side effects. At this stage, given the enormity of the spill, EPA concerns have to be put aside. We’re talking about hundreds of miles of coastline that may be ruined if the oil slick isn’t contained.

Any legal constraints on preventing the government from stepping in and taking over after a corporate-generated oil spill also have to be lifted, pronto. Congress can do this. If the Patriot Act can be passed overnight, then this needed legislation can be passed quickly, too.

I hope, I certainly hope, that BP’s considerable financial help for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign isn’t a factor in Obama’s lack of outrage over this spill and his poor response.

For the sake of the people on the Gulf and for the sake of our precious national environment, we need more, a lot more, from this president.

Friday, May 7, 2010


ACORN: A Strong Legacy

By Reginald Johnson
May 7, 2010

The fall of the nation’s best community organization deserves some comment.

The Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) folded its tent recently, ending some 40 years of valiant work on behalf of the poor and less fortunate. At the time of its closure, it had 400,000 members nationwide.

Put simply, ACORN’s passing is blow for those who are trying to make this country a fairer, more equitable place, where everyone has a shot at a decent life.

ACORN and its band of young, idealistic organizers waged a myriad of successful campaigns in cities throughout the nation to gain better housing, improve wages, create stronger schools and gain voting rights for low and moderate income people.

The list of successes that ACORN wracked up over the years is an impressive one, and shows what can be done when people join together and fight in a determined way for change. Here’s a capsule of some of ACORN’s accomplishments:

· Led or played a key role in successful campaigns in 11 states to raise the minimum wage. Instrumental in drive for “living wages” throughout the country. Some 150 living wage ordinances are now in effect.
· Organized effective campaigns to curb predatory lending, long before the evils of predatory lending became widely known during the subprime mortgage meltdown. Won agreements from lenders to cap fees and points. Led a lawsuit against Household Finance to stop abuses. That case, joined by 50 state attorneys general, eventually landed a $484 million settlement, at the time the largest consumer rights award in U.S. history.
· Won controls on foreclosures in several states, including Connecticut, where ACORN got a bill passed giving homeowners the right to mediation with a bank.
· Won a number of battles in several states helping to preserve or create new affordable housing. In New York, the group won an agreement from promoters to include thousands of units of affordable housing in a major development project in Brooklyn. Also in New York City, ACORN led a successful fight to keep Starrett City --- with 6,000 units the largest rent-stabilized complex in the country --- from being sold to a developer who would have eliminated rent protections.
· Waged campaigns to collect millions of new voter registration applications, resulting in an estimated 2 million new people on the voter rolls.
· Helped clean up thousands of homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and helped spur new federal funding for storm-hit areas.

Wow. All those victories were achieved through the efforts of staff that was low-paid and usually swamped with work. But they were very dedicated staff, and together with legions of highly-motivated volunteers from their communities, they achieved so much.

ACORN was very active in Bridgeport, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s. Together with their organizers, ACORN members in the Park City helped win battles with landlords over housing issues, pressured local banks to expand home ownership opportunities for people of lesser means, made neighborhoods safer and cleaner and in general forced City Hall to be more responsive to people’s needs.

I’m glad to say I was a part of ACORN’s efforts for many years, working with staff to build a strong tenants organization at my apartment complex on Fairfield Avenue. We won several victories, including a successful rent strike to force needed clean-ups and repairs, and rescuing the jobs of some long-time maintenance workers abruptly fired by a new management firm. Those successes couldn’t have been achieved without ACORN’s help.

John Soltis is another Bridgeport resident who got heavily involved in ACORN after the group arrived in 1980. Soltis thinks that ACORN did a lot to improve the lives of people in Bridgeport, a struggling city hurt by years of factory closures.

Soltis said relentless pressure by ACORN members forced the city to create a Fair Rent Commission to put a brake on rent gouging; got the city council to allow more public input through a public speaking session prior to every meeting; and blocked the development of an environmentally-questionable waste recovery plant in a residential neighborhood.

ACORN in Bridgeport also was very adept politically, registering a slew of new voters and becoming a major player in the Democratic Party. Many of its members won office, including Soltis, who landed a seat on the Board of Education.

ACORN also forced the white political power structure in the city to finally open up and accept more black and Latino candidates. ACORN’s voter registration drives were a key reason behind the Democratic Party primary victories of Charles Tisdale, the first African-American to run for mayor in Bridgeport.

“I think ACORN made people feel, for the first time in their lives, they could bring about positive change,” Soltis said. “It empowered people.”


As important as it is to recognize the significant accomplishments of ACORN, it’s also important --- particularly for progressives --- to know how it fell.

The fact is that the right-wing --- together with an incompetent and often biased mainstream media --- killed off ACORN.

Republicans never liked ACORN with its consumer and labor-oriented agenda and confrontational tactics. But when ACORN’s voter registration drives swung into high gear during the Bush years, that was the last straw. Voters registered by ACORN generally meant Democratic voters, and GOP leaders like Karl Rove saw that as a mortal threat. Rove and others launched a campaign to discredit ACORN, raising questions about the validity of the voter registrations.

All across the country, complaints were filed against ACORN, with Republicans charging that illegal methods were used to gain new registrants, and that some registrations were bogus. The complaints sparked a flurry of investigations and frequently put ACORN in a bad light in the press. Many in the media placed a heavy focus on the splashy vote-related charges, while paying little attention to ACORN’s organizing successes.

As time went along, hardly any of the official investigations confirmed the numerous claims about phony registrations or illegal methods.

By early 2009, it looked like ACORN would weather the storm of Republican attacks. But then the right-wing pulled a stunt that finished off the organization. They had two imposters go to several ACORN offices and act as if they were a pimp and prostitute, looking for housing help. During the meetings, which the tricksters were secretly videotaping , they indicated they wanted to start some sort of prostitution scheme, possibly involving young girls. The ACORN people never went along with it. But the tape was later doctored, and made to look like ACORN staffers were somehow complicit.

The tape was then fed to the press, and outlets like FOX News began running it 24-7, with commentators expressing outrage over ACORN’s behavior. The New York Times also ran many unskeptical pieces about the case. Demands were made that ACORN be probed and their federal funding be dropped.

Political pressure mounted, and Congress moved to pull ACORN’s federal grants, which accounted for about 10 percent of the group’s budget. ACORN could have survived that hit, but they could not survive when foundations --- alarmed by the latest accusations --- began stopping further funding. That source of money was a much larger portion of ACORN’s financing.

In March, a prosecutor cleared ACORN of any wrongdoing in the prostitution-hoax case. A New York federal judge ruled that Congress had violated the Constitution by pulling ACORN’s funding. And The New York Times admitted they hadn’t done a very good job in checking out the veracity of the prostitution story, and issued a mild apology

But the good news came too late. ACORN was out of money. The leaders had a meeting, and decided the organization had to close down.

It will be difficult to fill the void left by the end of ACORN. Some new organizations similar to ACORN have been formed in New York and Chicago and those groups, most likely using former ACORN staffers, will try to fill some of the gap.

Soltis believes that while ACORN is gone as an organization, the struggle to carry on its mission of helping the poor will not die.

Referring to the legendary union group the Wobblies, which was destroyed by government attacks a century ago, Soltis said, “They killed the Wobblies, but the organizing went on. Wherever there's injustice, there's a need to organize."