DMI Blog

Mark Winston Griffith

We are ACORN

It's easy not to always feel love for ACORN, even if you are on the political left. Social justice advocates and organizers routinely complain that ACORN doesn't always work well in coalitions, or that they suck up all the air in a protest action or press conference, leaving their allies in the shadows. They use a bare-knuckled style of organizing that can be alienating for even those on the sidelines, and they are known to strike deals with their protest targets that can be too narrowly self-interested. And many, like me for instance, strongly disagree with their position on issues, like their support of Ratner's development of Atlantic Yards.

But, for all people who consider themselves to be progressive, let's be clear: The current right wing attack on ACORN is a frontal assault on all of us who fight for social and economic justice. ACORN may not always behave in the activist sandbox, but they are one of us, and we better close ranks around them, because the barrel of the right-wing attack gun will be focused on you and me next.

ACORN has been taking a lot of hits in the press lately and conservatives are convinced now that they've got ACORN by the short-hairs, with new allegations that ACORN has been running voter registration fraud rings in highly contested, presidential election swing states. While the initial reports by conservative papers like the New York Post seemed to paint a damning picture of ACORN voter registration activity, Juan Gonzalez's piece in today's New York Daily News seems to place a corrective lens over the matter:

Things are getting especially ugly in the key swing states.

The FBI raided an ACORN office in Las Vegas this week, carting off the group's computers and voter registration records. Nevada election officials say they'd received complaints about the forms ACORN submitted.

"Some of them used nonexistent names, some of them used false addresses and some of them were duplicates of previously filed applications," one official said.

In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections has launched an investigation of ACORN's registration efforts.

ACORN leader Bertha Lewis immediately blasted both probes as "part of a carefully choreographed campaign to intimidate the largest organization of black and Hispanic poor people in the country."

Meanwhile, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, has been locked in several court battles with that state's Republican Party over her interpretation of election law.

In an interview Thursday, Brunner praised ACORN's leaders in her state and said the warnings by local Republicans of significant voter fraud were simply "unfounded."

During the past four years, Brunner said, Ohio has had only "four individual cases [of voter fraud], with nearly 8 million registered voters, and one of those was a husband and wife."

I don't know what the facts on the ground in Ohio and Nevada are, but it's clear that the right wing has declared open season on ACORN and all that it stands for, no matter how many lies need to be told to do it. For instance, over the last few weeks, the right wing has blanketed media airspace with the idea that the Community Reinvestment Act, as aggressively promulgated by ACORN over the past few decades, forced banks to lower their lending criteria, which led to the subprime crisis. They have also taken shots at organizations like the Center for Responsible Lending, which has led progressive, smart research and advocacy campaigns against predatory lending in all forms, not just mortgages.

Implicated are all the rest of us who have used the CRA, the only government edict against bank redlining, to own up to their obligations to lend in neighborhoods of color and low-income areas. Not only is this argument against the CRA and ACORN breath-takingly wrong – most subprime lenders were not even covered by the CRA - but it goes far to make the racist suggestion that the very people that ACORN represents – people of color, low income areas – are inherently high risk and unworthy of credit.

The kissing cousin to this argument is the right-wing's recent disparagement of community organizing and their suggestions that Barack Obama's community organizing activity was radical and un-American simply because he tried to help poor people build power. The RNC is issuing stories on a regular basis, trying not only to discredit ACORN and their voter registration efforts, but also manufacturing links between Obama and ACORN.

In an interview I did with Bertha Lewis, ACORN's new head organizer, that will be soon posted on this blog site, she acknowledges organizational missteps, like the recent embezzlement scandal that forced out their former head organizer. She also admits the pressure the non-profit organization is under to win tangible gains for ACORN membership, like grants to run its operation, or housing set asides for its members, or a contract to run a mortgage counseling unit. These are not unlike the pressures any non-profit membership-run organization faces, but ACORN has managed to survive over the decades when other grassroots institutions have crumbled.

It was also clear in talking to Bertha that, because of the powers that ACORN routinely confronts, it will always be in a position of being hunted down by government officials, political party bosses, and corporate interests who don't like being publically shamed by scrappy, low-income black and brown women demanding wage increases, affordable housing, or an end to predatory lending. And of course, there can be no more threatening challenge to the conservative establishment than millions of black, brown and working class people being registered by ACORN to vote in states that will determine the outcome of the upcoming general election.

As a progressive community, we have an obligation to call out ACORN on their stuff. God knows I have. But we also have an obligation to stick up for one of the most effective grassroots social justice organizations this nation has ever seen, an organization that stands on the frontlines everyday, taking body blows for all of us.

Mark Winston Griffith: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 1:29 PM, Oct 10, 2008 in Economic Opportunity
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