Politics

01.13.14

ACORN’s Seeds Sprout Up Across the Country

The left-wing group crushed by the right is gone, but its members never stopped working. After four years of anonymity, the liberal veterans want conservatives to know they’re back.

In 2010, ACORN, the grassroots organizing group, was reeling from a series of scandals, and with most of its funding pulled, shuttered the last of its remaining offices around the country.

For conservatives, it was a triumph. The newly ascendant right-wing blogosphere caught ACORN reps on tape giving their low-income clients advice on how to engage in tax evasion, human smuggling, and child prostitution (the tapes, it was revealed later were heavily and selectively edited). What’s more, the right shut down an organization that was responsible for one quarter of all new voter registrations around the country, and had pushed for low-income housing and living-wage jobs over the past four decades.

Four years later, it appears as if those shouts of celebration from the likes of Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh may have been premature. That’s because from Florida to California, dozens of entities have sprung up in the wake of ACORN, many of them with the same leadershipand doing the same work that the group did for 40 years.

“These guys created a bunch of organizing Frankensteins around the country,” said Bertha Lewis, who was the ACORN CEO when the organization folded and who now leads The Black Institute, a think tank dedicated to African-American issues. “I had to dismantle ACORN, but nature abhors a vacuum. What were those former ACORN members to do? They were so angry at what they thought was so bogus and unfair that they said we are not going to go away. We have to reorganize.”

In Philadelphia, the former head of ACORN Pennsylvania leads a group now called Action United, which, together with teachers unions and labor groups fought efforts to shutter low-performing schools, leading direct campaigns that disrupted state board of education meetings. In California, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), lead by an 18-year ACORN vet, is occupying foreclosed homes in San Francisco and pushing the mayor of Richmond to use eminent domain to prevent more foreclosures. In Chicago, a former ACORN organizer leads a group called Action Now, which has battled with Mayor Rahm Emanuel over issues like the minimum wage and school reform.  Action Now recently helped elect Toni Foulkes, a former Chicago ACORN leader, to the Chicago City Council.

“It was hard to see people I cared about go through with that and it was hard to see an organization I was a part of go through that. I was proud of what we did in Chicago,” said Katelyn Johnson, head of Action Now. But, she added, “The issues are the same. ACORN was able to do a lot of things for low-income people, but they were stopped. The demand and the anger and the frustration continue to flow. Inequality is as high as it has ever been.”

Perhaps nowhere has an ACORN spin-off been as successful as one has in New York City. There, New York Communities for Change, operating out of the same offices that once housed the local ACORN chapter, has led massive rallies for car wash  and fast food workers, and played an important role in getting Bill de Blasio elected mayor. Last week, the group took partial credit for steering Melissa Mark Viverito, a former labor organizer turned city councilwoman who once got arrested at Occupy Wall Street  into the job of city council speaker, the second-highest ranking elected office in New York City.

“To be honest, I think because we were still focused here on the city, we were able to push back a lot on the Bloomberg agenda, which really helped create the space for someone like de Blasio to come in,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of NYCC. “This was a major focus of our work after we got started. How are we going to get a new mayor who not a continuation of the Bloomberg-era policy of giving everything away to a few friends while the rest of the city is living in poverty. That was de Blasio’s refrain over and over, and I think a lot of that—the tale of two cities stuff—was a result of the work that ACORN was doing before and that NYCC is doing now.”

Former ACORN organizers acknowledge that there were problems with the old organization, most seriously that the brother of the group’s founder had embezzled close to $1 million from it. But they say there are advantages to being closer to the ground on the local level, without having to deal with the bureaucracy from ACORN headquarters in New Orleans.

But the lack of a national effort has been felt as well.  None of the splinter groups, for example, do voter registration like ACORN did—something that has become even more important, they say, in the wake of voting rights challenges in states like North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Plus, there has not been the kind of push on federal legislation that the old ACORN did, and some former members blame the rise of the Tea Party in part on the lack of an ACORN-led pushback from the left.

“They certainly did real damage to our country and to low-income people in our country by destroying ACORN,” said Kevin Whelan, a former national spokesman for ACORN who now leads a group called The Home Defenders League, which fights foreclosures. Whelan said that in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, the major organizing effort in America was from conservatives to “mobilize people against their neighbors, rather than against the people actually responsible.”

“They succeeded in destroying a group that brought people together, but that space gets filled in.”

Now the ex-ACORN organizers want the Palins, Limbaughs, and Breitbarts of the world to know that rumors of their demise are greatly exaggerated.

“The work always goes on,” said Brian Kettenring, a former ACORN organizer who is now co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, which helped lead a three-day encampment in front of the Department of Justice to protest foreclosures and [lax?] federal banking regulations. “These are some of the best organizers in the country, and the corporate abuse of low-wage workers continues apace, so the need to organize never changes.”

According to Lewis, the former ACORN CEO, do not be surprised if these now-disparate groups around the country join forces again, forming an organization that is like the ACORN of old in everything but the name.

“Poor people don’t go away. Black people don’t go away. Latino people don’t go away. Poor whites don’t go away. Middle class folks that have been hit by joblessness don’t go away. That is what they thought. And they are just wrong. Folks like me don’t go away.”