In Seymour Hersh’s new account of his career, Reporter: A Memoir, he recalls that Martin Luther King Jr. told him upon the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that he planned to register 900,000 Negroes to vote. King would go on to oppose war and organize poor people across racial lines before being killed.
In a new film called ACORN and the Firestorm we’re told that ACORN registered 833,113 poor people to vote in 2008. For some background on ACORN and its destruction, see my review of John Atlas’ book Seeds of Change.
I’ve lately been trying to buy ads supporting peace and opposing war. The Washington, D.C., Metro system, the New York subway, and various billboard companies around the United States refuse any such advertisements as “political.” To try to improve the world in any way is “political” and shameful and inappropriate and usually considered rude to talk about. To try to make a buck selling anything at all is respectable and acceptable.
ACORN was my first unacceptable job, the first place I worked where the purpose was to make the world a better place. I’d had jobs where I’d tried to do that. I’d had jobs where I’d determined I couldn’t do any good. I’d quit them all. Then I got a job at ACORN and all was right with the world. Or, rather, all was right with me because I was able to try to improve the world. And we damn well did. We saved people’s homes (tens of thousands of them), we took money from banks and gave it to their victims. We raised wages. We formed unions. We protected immigrants. We trained people to be active decent and completely inappropriate human beings constantly striving to improve things.
ACORN had long hours and high turnover. It had staff-led activities that were presented as member-led, because staff were supposed to stay in the background and empower members. Its nonviolence did not sound Gandhian. It was noisy and aggressive. But it was using nonviolence, never violence. It was building organizations by knocking on doors and getting street lights put in and trash picked up so that people understood what victories were before attempting larger ones. ACORN worked in coalitions but always aimed for its own growth. It made enemies. It compromised for Democrats. It ignored foreign policy and the military budget where all the money that people needed was going.
But I doubt there was a corporation or a bank or a right-wing lobby-think-tank or a political party anywhere with fewer flaws and shortcomings. While the richest corporations get away with cheating on taxes, busting unions, marketing weapons, and all variety of corruption, the people living in poverty and working night and day to help the poor are permitted no sins.
I worked at ACORN from 2000 to 2003 in the Washington, D.C., office as the national communications staff (all of it). Before and after me, ACORN didn’t have any fulltime communications people. Some had made the argument for many years that knocking on doors could not compete with infiltrating living rooms through televisions and radios. I don’t think there’s actually any doubt that that is true. But working well with reporters cannot remotely compete with owning media outlets or sharing the interests of the owners of or advertisers — and those aren’t options for poor people.
I was long gone when ACORN was destroyed. It was destroyed by rightwing propaganda, corrupt media, and liberal cowardice. It had some minor help from within ACORN. And it had an assist by an attractive young woman possessing near total ignorance of almost anything, who’d grown up in a right-wing Christian family where one apparently learned that democracy consisted of opposing collective action and that there wasn’t really anything one wouldn’t be better off having destroyed.
Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe were a prostitute and a pimp. That is, they pretended to be such. Or rather, they pretended to have pretended to be such. O’Keefe filmed himself wearing a goofy pimp costume and lied that he’d worn it into ACORN offices. He edited videos of Giles the “prostitute” so that nobody would know she had asked ACORN for help and claimed that she and some girls were in danger, but made it appear rather that ACORN employees in various offices into which Giles and O’Keefe took a hidden camera were trying to facilitate prostitution. But if prostitution includes selling yourself to the interests of oligarchs, then these two were indeed prostitutes of the first order.
An ACORN employee who phoned the police to report Giles and O’Keefe as soon as they left his office was himself fired by ACORN for what he’d said while apparently playing along with them, not knowing he was being filmed. He should have guessed he was being filmed, as everyone should guess now everywhere all the time. ACORN should have found out the full story and made it public instantly, and immediately demanded the release of the full videos, not edited bits. Everyone should now know that that is what one must do, that video can be misleadingly edited, that it can even be falsely generated in the first place. Shirley Sherrod and the Washington Post and various later targets of O’Keefe’s scams knew this. Video literacy is progressing.
But what about the ACORN employee who suggested that Giles lie on a home loan form and call prostitution “art”? Here we run up against wrongdoing on the part of someone trying to help others find housing, wrongdoing that will not be tolerated from anyone trying to do good deeds. Only truly evil operations are permitted such flaws. If a CIA agent plotting to overthrow a government or blow up a family at dinner also told a fib about prostitution as a career choice, nobody would blink. When Wal-Mart tells workers to work for a while before clocking in, who cares?
But here was also a culture clash. A young woman for whom prostitution was an evil far greater than war or mass-incarceration or starvation wages ran into an ACORN employee who likely saw someone’s need for a house as taking priority over their need to obey a church, and whose attitude toward laws was probably as cavalier as was Giles’ and O’Keefe’s toward illegally videotaping others or telling blatant lies on Fox News.
The story appealed greatly to the mass media precisely because it involved prostitution but didn’t really, and because it allowed them to label ACORN as generally “criminal” (even though nobody at ACORN was charged with any crimes) and then convict ACORN (in the media sense of conviction) of the real crime they were after: “voter fraud.” This was the equivalent of claiming that Gadaffi was giving Viagra to troops, even though he wasn’t, in order to convict him of being generally “criminal” and then slip under that label the false charge of imminent genocide.
“Voter fraud” was a particularly ridiculous crime. When you register voters, you pay people to go out and collect names. If some of the names look made-up, you can fire the person who gathered them, but you are required to hand them in to the government anyway. It’s up to the government to recognize the real and false names and register people accordingly. So, handing in a relatively small number of false names along with hundreds of thousands of real ones is not a crime, while failing to do so would be. And the false names do not end up actually registered. And if they did, they wouldn’t actually vote in any elections, unless someone had a way and a plan and an interest and a willingness to risk prison by identifying which names had been registered and attempting to vote as them. Not only was there no evidence that ACORN had ever done any such thing, but there was never even any allegation or any mention that such a thing would have to be done. The media trial and conviction for the crime of “voter fraud” consisted of reporting that ACORN had handed in a sheet of paper with the names of the Dallas Cowboy football players on it.
ACORN is still active in other countries and in the United States under other names as new organizations. But the barrier to power remains. Registering poor people to vote on ACORN’s scale is not likely to be tolerated. And fewer and fewer poor people are likely to see anyone worth voting for. Journalism free of the devotion to facts that Hersh writes about is still the norm, and still corrupted by wealth, power, and advertising. If anything, it’s getting worse. A political right on the attack and a political center-right cowering in fear is entrenched and accepted practice. The new Poor People’s Campaign is a good approach, but what it is up against, the meanness, ignorance, stupidity, dishonesty and open support for corrupt oligarchy that took down ACORN needs to be undone if any other ACORN is ever to grow.