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.”
HOW IT FELL
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."