Today’s post is by Heidi Swarts, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark. She studies religion and social movements in American politics, with a focus on the politics of community organizing in American cities, and has published previously on ACORN and policy innovation and on congregation-based organizing and urban political opportunity and constraints. Swarts is author of Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-based Progressive Movements (2007).
ACORN is dead—maybe. Long live ACORN.
The national community-organizing group has been near-destroyed by sustained attacks from the right wing because of its very effectiveness. While some state and local groups have reconstituted themselves, they aren’t ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the single centralized national organization. As I argue in Organizing Urban America, ACORN’s unique national strategy made a major contribution to the American progressive sector. It was fully national and staffed by expert, innovative strategists who could disseminate new campaign ideas through its state chapters all the way down to the city and neighborhood levels. Its local members kept it focused on the issues that mattered to them. The power to run national campaigns at all three levels, using multiple innovative tactics, helped ACORN win pathbreaking national campaigns: against predatory lending by Household Finance, usurious tax “refund anticipation loans” by H&R Block, and winning billions of dollars in community reinvestment from banks. Flawed as ACORN was, the loss of a multi-tiered national organization just when it began to make a major national impact is the real tragedy.
Any half-sentient American could not escape the attacks on the nation’s largest grassroots low-income community organization, which began in earnest during the 2008 presidential campaign. The Republican National Convention saw three major speakers (from both members of the ticket) ridicule and attack all community organizing. Sarah Palin’s famous remark that small-town mayors are kind of like community organizers, “but with real responsibilities,” must have caused a few thousand eye-rolls among organizers responsible for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of citizens in campaigns to hold elected officials accountable: for health care for all, laws banning predatory home loans, bank investment in the communities they formerly redlined, and enrolling eligible Americans in programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—in recent years, probably the country’s most significant anti-poverty program. The IRS runs a national community outreach program with the help of “community partners,” non-profits and community-based groups that spread the word to working people who might qualify. When I spoke to the IRS director of this program in 2007, he enthused about ACORN, which was head and shoulders above other groups in its ability to reach eligible taxpayers through deeply-rooted local affiliates, including members door-knocking in their own neighborhoods. They recruited so many more eligible citizens that the IRS quickly ramped up the number of cities in which it participated.
That, of course, is all history now. While ACORN has long been a target of the right, there is now a well-funded right-wing media infrastructure to bombard the public with distorted accusations of “voter fraud.” ACORN was targeted because it ran the most effective new-voter registration and mobilization campaign among the young, low-income, and people of color, who were likely Democratic voters. ACORN did not engage in “voter fraud” — the casting of fraudulent votes. Some of the thousands of workers they hired engaged in voter registration fraud — filling out inaccurate registration forms that ACORN itself vetted and turned over to state authorities as fraudulent, as required by law. (It is against the law to simply throw them out; officials must ensure that they are illegitimate. This fact was ignored by Fox News, the Republican Party, and the McCain presidential campaign.) The mainstream media abdicated its responsibility to investigate these allegations and simply reported what both sides said.
The nail in the coffin was the stealth operation by two young conservative activists who filmed local ACORN tax-assistance workers advising the purported pimp and prostitute on how to file taxes and disguise their source of income. (Few outlets have reported that in other ACORN offices, they were asked to leave or reported to the police for illegal sex trafficking.) The few local ACORN staffers who took the bait inexcusably were fired. But the damage was done. ACORN lost federal support for recruiting EITC-eligible workers and advising homeowners, and the ripples spread throughout the foundation sector. Although their advice was unethical and outrageous, the few ACORN staffers implicated were cleared of legal wrongdoing; yet conservative provocateur James O’Keefe is facing federal charges for illegally infiltrating Senator Mary Landrieu’s offices in Louisiana.
ACORN internal governance needed reform, knew it, and long since had embarked upon it. But the media assault and loss of funds superseded its efforts. Advocates of social justice had better hope that a phoenix rises from the ashes.