ACORN's Fall

Seeds of Change: The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, By John Atlas, Vanderbilt University Press, 336 pages, $27.95

Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, By Jeffrey Stout, Princeton University Press, 346 pages, $29.95

Few organizations in American history have disappeared as quickly, and on the basis of such flimsy accusations, as ACORN. In 2007, ACORN had field offices in 100 cities and 260,000 members, drawn almost entirely from inner-city minority communities. It helped register more than 1.6 million voters nationally between 2004 and 2008. In New York, one ACORN spin-off, the Working Families Party, became the political home for savvy liberals. In 2004 in Florida, ACORN initiated and steered to success a ballot measure raising the state's minimum wage.

By 2008, Republicans were accusing ACORN of waging massive voter fraud, even though prosecutors across the country failed to find any evidence of voter fraud by ACORN or any other community-organizing group. In his third and final presidential debate against Barack Obama, John McCain alleged that ACORN was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." One post-election poll, not surprisingly, showed that 52 percent of Republicans believed that Obama's victory was largely the result of ACORN's fraudulent endeavors.

In July 2009, two right-wing provocateurs, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, visited a number of ACORN offices, ostensibly seeking advice on how to obtain assistance for a prostitution business. On Sept. 10, their edited tapes were run on Glenn Beck's show on Fox News, showing ACORN staffers appearing eager to help O'Keefe and Giles set up their business. In fact, no ACORN staffers provided such help, but no matter. By month's end, both the House and Senate had voted overwhelmingly -- with some but not much Democratic opposition -- to defund ACORN, which had been the recipient of federal community-development grants for its nonprofit housing projects. The Obama administration, seeking to distance its onetime community-organizer president from ACORN, declined to defend the organization, and the private foundations that provided much of ACORN's funding largely followed the government's lead. By January 2010, most of ACORN's state affiliates had decided to leave the national organization and re-establish themselves independently. ACORN still existed on paper, but its membership and money were almost entirely gone.

Today, it's apparent that what happened to ACORN is much the same thing that happened to Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod: A video screened on right-wing media ignited a political firestorm, and the Democrats, opting to believe what was aired, joined the hunt against the alleged miscreant. Sherrod was almost instantly exonerated. Since O'Keefe's ACORN video first appeared on Fox, he has emerged as a scam-artist-cum-provocateur whose subsequent work has been repudiated by his former sponsors. But ACORN is dead.

ACORN's fate raises questions more fundamental than Sherrod's. How could one of America's leading community organizations -- one that had become a force across the country mobilizing low-wage minority workers and Democratic voters -- be pushed to its doom with the effective complicity of its Democratic beneficiaries? Was ACORN more marginal than it seemed? Is community organizing a strong force in America's inner cities or a negligible presence in America's body politic? Or is it both?

These are questions that engage John Atlas in Seeds of Change, his excellent history of ACORN's rise and fall, and Jeffrey Stout in Blessed Are the Organized, his equally excellent history of the community-based groups affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Atlas is an activist attorney, Stout a professor of religion at Princeton. Both chronicle the battles that ACORN and the IAF have inspired -- from the IAF's success in replacing the shantytowns on the Rio Grande with housing and roads to ACORN's efforts in getting banks to fund its housing developments in major cities.

Stout and Atlas both take a hard look at the various models of community organizing. Stout is a firm believer in the IAF way -- the reliance on institutional support of churches and synagogues; the painstaking, one-on-one meetings that organizers have with congregants in search of the issues of most concern to them; the determination to stay out of election campaigns, opting instead to question candidates on the issues that matter to the group's members and then to publicize the candidates' answers. Where the IAF has faltered, as it has in Los Angeles, he attributes its failures to the drift of its operations away from its members' concerns.

Yet Stout is painfully aware that the most important issues in the lives of IAF members -- issues of social and economic power and equity -- are decided not at the local level but on the national and global stage where capital is dominant. When he looks at national organizations, however -- and he takes a pretty close look at Organizing for America, the group that emerged from Obama's presidential campaign -- Stout finds that the groups are largely ineffectual because their members have little input in their decisions or sense of ownership of their programs. Countering elite domination with effective democratic force, he believes, requires the kind of bottom-up organization championed by the IAF and its founder, the legendary Saul Alinsky.

As Stout notes, however, Alinsky himself was acutely aware of the limits of the local. "A political idiot knows that most major issues are national, and in some areas international, in scope," Alinsky wrote in an afterword to a 1969 reprint of his Reveille for Radicals. But he warned against trying to found national organizations that weren't deeply rooted locally, and Stout echoes Alinsky's cautions. In a sense, Stout paints himself into a corner: He acknowledges the inability of even the best community organizations to address the fundamental distribution of power, all the while affirming that only rooted, democratic community organizations can be effective.

Yet, as much as he is convinced of the strength of the IAF model, Stout concedes that other kinds of popular organization such as unions and political machines have played an effective role, albeit flawed, in representing ordinary citizens. The current problem, he acknowledges, is that those organizations are "much weaker than they used to be, with the consequence that a smaller fraction of the citizenry is organized on a face-to-face basis."

Beginning in the 1960s, when community organizing first took root in America's ghettos and barrios, an unspoken division of labor developed in who organizes whom. Workers in manufacturing were already organized in unions when George Wiley began organizing welfare recipients and Cesar Chavez began to sign up farm workers. The mission for socially conscious activists in the '60s was to help those left out of the great postwar prosperity obtain their fair share, by enabling them to win political, and through that, economic, power. That's why Alinsky played a significant role in the intellectual development of both Obama and Hillary Clinton when they were young: This was the challenge for their generation.

The problem with this division of labor, however, became clearly apparent in ACORN's fall: An organization rooted in communities of the minority poor can't count on much establishment support -- even Democratic establishment support -- when it's subjected to a whirlwind of slander.

When ACORN first developed in the early 1970s, its founder, Wade Rathke, understood that problem. Rathke, who was compelled to resign in 2008 as a result of a financial scandal, nursed the fledgling organization to life on the seemingly unpromising terrain of Arkansas. (Originally, ACORN stood for Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now.) In Arkansas, an organization of, by, and for the black poor would have encountered massive obstacles to its quest for power and legitimacy. So in its early years, ACORN focused on organizing working-class whites as well as blacks and had more white than black members. In one of its signal early victories, white farmers in Arkansas successfully opposed the construction of a heavily polluting power plant in their area. In later years, though, the organization's involvement in inner-city housing issues -- a cause for which it was able to win significant financial support from banks -- changed ACORN's demographics, shifting its membership toward the minority poor. And championing the minority poor, as Shirley Sherrod can attest, is still treacherous terrain in American politics.

ACORN's decomposition still leaves many community organizations in the field. And are they ever a balkanized lot! Oddly, for example, Atlas and Stout each describe efforts to rebuild working-class neighborhoods in post-Katrina New Orleans. But while Stout discusses the IAF and Atlas discusses ACORN, neither book acknowledges the other organization's efforts. It's as if the two groups existed in parallel universes, invisible to each other.

Even if those efforts could somehow be brought together, however, the community organizations could achieve only limited power. Meanwhile, the decline of unions has left much of the formerly organized white working class politically adrift at a time of economic decline, and prey to the racism and reaction of the demagogic right. The mystery is why, in their failure to defend ACORN, as in their failure to defend unions, the Democrats have been complicit in their own decline. Perhaps a party so dominated by a largely atomized professional class can no longer appreciate the power of working-class organizations. If so, it augurs poorly for all liberal projects. A disorganized America -- its community organizing ghettoized, its working-class organizing all but defunct -- is no country for progressive change.

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