Welcome author / journalist, John D. Atlas, and Host Tula Connell, AFL-CIO Now Blog.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread.  - bev]

Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group

While I was in a public space recently, reading Seeds of Change, John Atlas’ new biography about a certain nationwide grassroots movement, I resisted the urge to look around furtively and make sure no one saw the cover of the book. After all, the dreaded word “ACORN” is printed boldly in red.

The attacks on ACORN have been so amplified through the reactionary media that far more people are aware of ACORN via the lens of a pseudo-pimp than by the acres of good works the organization actually has accomplished. When members of the public sees or hears about ACORN, they are more likely to think “corruption” than “people power.” And that’s more than a real shame—it’s a massive loss for millions of America’s low-income people who desperately need the type of empowerment engendered by the ACORN model of organizing.

Atlas, a lawyer, longtime community activist and president of the New Jersey-based National Housing Institute, provides a well-researched and highly readable antidote to the vicious smear campaign begun against ACORN in the 2008 elections. Subtitled The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, the book is the product of many years in which Atlas poured through ACORN’s extensive files—with the group’s permission—and interviewed dozens of ACORN activists across the nation. With its outside-looking-in approach, Seeds of Change compliments ACORN founder Wade Rathke’s personal account of the organization. Rathke joined us in this space for a book salon on his work, Citizen Wealth.

Atlas condenses a vast amount of material into tight, clear prose that makes it easy for any reader to grasp in a few sentences issues like redlining and the subsequent ACORN-led push for passage of the now maligned Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). But the bulk of ACORN’s work was neither high-profile nor nationally based, and Atlas does an impressive job pulling together the organization’s myriad but diffuse grassroots accomplishments—the hard-fought local living wage campaigns, elections of ACORN-generated candidates for public office and success around distinctly neighborhood issues like predatory utility companies and polluting power plants.

Although he states at the start that ACORN as an organization was never identifiable by any one national leader, Atlas makes it clear that Rathke’s stewardship was paramount for many years while the organization got off the ground—his individual stamp shaping its formation. Bucking the 1960s–1970s SDS vision of unions as part of the sniveling capitalist class, Rathke sought to connect labor and the community, his one-on-one experiences with union members, like those whom he worked with on an offshore oil rig, having taught him that “people are more complex than he had realized.”

Rathke would never view union and blue-collar workers as his enemies. If they were misguided about school integration or the war in Vietnam or the welfare system, that didn’t mean they were evil people or that they couldn’t change their views.

Even though the ACORN-led union “association” organizing model didn’t survive the long haul, ACORN’s partnership with grassroots union activists engendered key cross-fertilization, ACORN community activists later taking prominent leadership roles in labor, seeding the ground for the union movement’s progressive rebirth.

Like the seed (we’re sticking closely to the metaphor, here) for which it is named, ACORN’s accomplishments, large and small, litter the ground, hard to collect and piece together. But then, the very identity of the organization also proved a puzzle.

People who encountered ACORN had a difficult time comprehending it. Even union leaders and other close allies of ACORN, such as the head of Arkansas’s AFL-CIO, couldn’t quite understand what Rathke was doing. He had produced an admixture of organizing group, national political party, community and workplace union.

ACORN’s amorphous nature enabled it to accomplish much—but also provided opponents with the ability to make a quick hit on a local ACORN office that viraled out of control, this closing episode chronicled in “The Prostitute and the Assault,” the final chapter in Seeds of Change.

Or is it the final chapter?

A distorted (surprise) Politico article on Seeds of Change breathlessly titled, “New Book Says ACORN Will Be Back,” stirs the specter of an ACORN comeback, already in process via re-named local former ACORN organizations.

That’s good news. As Atlas shows in a portrait of ACORN President Dorothy Hurd, who was “brought up ‘not to make waves,’ ” before she marched into Boston’s City Hall to demand the mayor address trash-filled vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods, change means conflict.

“It was a scary experience for me and a lot of folks,” Hurd would recall, “but it got results, got news coverage and got some vacant lots cleaned up. At that point, I was convinced that people working together like that can work.” She realized ordinary people could successfully demand a say in politics that affected their lives.

And that was the essence of ACORN. And democracy. And why the forces of reaction attacked it so hard.

69 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes John D. Atlas, Seeds of Change”

egregious August 15th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Welcome to Firedoglake – so glad you could join us!

BevW August 15th, 2010 at 2:02 pm

John, Welcome to the Lake.

Tula, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 2:02 pm

John: It was a pleasure to read Seeds of Change–excellent research, oral interviews and a great writing style.

At the end of Seeds of Change you ask if a 21st century social movement is possible and go on support such a possibility, but with qualifications, such as whether Obama will become a transformative president. Why?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Great to be here

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:04 pm

If we are to end discrimination and lift the working poor out of poverty and provide a society that treats its most vulnerable with dignity, we will need a social movement. I think Obama wants that.

To significantly help the poor, anti-poverty groups need to be part of a movement that includes progressive Netroots, labor, environmentalists, liberal faith groups, civil rights organizations, and other community groups.

It will only happen if: The left becomes more skillful at getting our story out to the public to counter the right wing echo chamber’s skill at manipulating the MSM by defining the public agenda and the millennial Generation becomes more consciously political, and develop agendas so that unions join with environmentalists; the peace movement can join with America’s pro-Israel policy in the Middle East; and even community-organizing groups can work together. They rarely do because they have often compete for foundation funding, just like unions sometimes compete for members.

We will also need the newly mobilized Obama supporters to join forces with the existing liberal and progressive organizations.

While many progressive organizations exist, most have not yet built a coherent vision of social justice or come up with ingenious ways to frame issues, find leaders, and otherwise activate people to engage in contentious lobbying and direct action.

Neither our existing groups nor have any leaders emerged that inspire the kind of energy, passion, certainty, and unity of earlier social movements, such as those organized by the abolitionists; the auto, mine, and other workers of the 1930s; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the peace movement in the 1960s; Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the environmentalists in the 1970s; and the Christian Right during the 1980s and 1990s.

Some organizing networks have so much in common—such as the several Hispanic groups involved in immigration reform, the Center for Community Change, and National Peoples Action, as well as the new groups emerging out of the ashes of ACORN and PICO. I am not sure they have developed a concise vision and the desire to encourage civic participation, although they are beginning to coordinate their activities and develop a sense of common history or purpose.

The question we all face is whether the Obama agenda is, as George Packer and other have noted, “a list of issues that have different constituencies rather than a single, overarching struggle for freedom or justice.”

History appears to indicate that without a movement behind him, Obama won’t have the power to overcome the opposition to his bold agenda. By the time FDR started his second term, big business and the right wing opposed him every step of the way. Bipartisanship was waning, as it already has for Obama.

With the support of the union and other grassroots movements, which he nurtured during his first term, Roosevelt could count on populist attacks against the rich and powerful to sustain his agenda. FDR’s second-term acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic convention attacked the “economic royalists” and “privileged princes” of “economic dynasties” who had “created a new despotism.” In that campaign’s final speech, Roosevelt said: “I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.” FDR used revolutionary rhetoric to voice “anger and resentment,” Jonathan Alter writes in The Defining Moment, “without destroying the system.”16

And yet Obama seems to be doing everything he can to undermine such a movement.

DonMidwest August 15th, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I was not aware of this important organizing effort of the powerless, all the way from local issues to national issues. In this way, ACORN educated people in the use of democracy to improve their own lives and get issues heard.

When I got back into politics after a 40 year absence in 2004, the local democratic party in the area of Columbus Ohio was in disarray. I had an idea that grass roots effort should be an education in democracy. But the democratic party was important for a little while during an election, but it was not anything like what ACORN did to organize dues paying members and work directly on issues. From the book I learned that by the early 1980′s ACORN had to work outside the political parties because many issues, e.g., poverty, were no longer main stream democratic issues.

dakine01 August 15th, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Good afternoon John and Tula and welcome.

John, I have not had an opportunity to read your book but do have a question.

Why do you think the right was so intent on destroying ACORN? Because they could or because of a fear that they (ACORN) might gain traction against the corporatists?

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 2:07 pm

So w/o Obama, or another prez like FDR, social movements can’t be successful?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:10 pm
In response to DonMidwest @ 6

Hi Don,
Good to hear from you. And you are exactly right. At some point we may want to talk about the notion of an inside outside strategy in more detail.

Margot August 15th, 2010 at 2:11 pm

And yet Obama seems to be doing everything he can to undermine such a movement.

Why do you think Obama is doing this?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:12 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 7

The attacks against ACORN as a “criminal” organization have been a consistent mantra of the right and its business allies, who despise ACORN for its success at challenging the anti-consumer practices of banks and low-wage employers as well as its effective efforts to expand voting among the poor.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:14 pm

At some point, presidential leadership can help propel existing social movements.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:16 pm

I could guess, but I am not sure. But I’d be interested in your view and other’s.

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Could ACORN have done anything to successfully challenge the type of assault it experienced? What lesson do we learn from what happened to ACORN?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:18 pm

By the way, success also led to the Republican Party’s ongoing war against ACORN, which began decades ago as part of its effort to defund the left. It accelerated in 2004 and even more so during the 2008 presidential campaign. Karl Rove (President Bush’s top political adviser) and conservative Republicans orchestrated an attack on Acorn for alleged “voter fraud,” as part of a campaign to suppress the voting of minorities and the poor. As part of this effort, a U.S. Attorney was asked to investigate ACORN. The investigation came up empty-handed, but the GOP operatives persisted. The allegations of “voter fraud” hit a peak in October 2008, aided by Arizona Sen. John McCain’s charge in a presidential debate with Barack Obama. McCain campaign defamed ACORN and pinned a big A on the chest of Obama to prove Obama pals around with terrorists and evil people.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:20 pm
In response to Tula Connell @ 14

ACORN got hit with the more than perfect storm. I don’t think it could have saved itself.

Some say it grew too quickly.
But during the last decade it grew quickly because it was so effective in helping the poor, particularly the working poor. So foundations and government agencies wanted to fund the group. Banks, H&R Block and other corporations at first opposed ACORN’s push against them, and then realized it was good for society and business.

Its success in winning victories for the poor led to its growth. Growth led to internal management weaknesses and internal divisions. Rathke, the founder knew his management weak, but was trying to change that. Like most founders of groups, he was afraid of losing control. As he moved to a more authoritarian or hierarchal approach this caused a backlash by some of his close and skilled colleagues. The divisions had elements of a family dispute as well. Their were legit difference over strategy such as Rathke’s push for expansion, and internal democracy and accountability. Rathke thought he could organize more dues paying members by creating an AARP for the poor. Was this a mistake?

As ACORN grew it relied more and more on government contracts, foundations and corporate partners. They hoped to use their money to expand. Was this a mistake?

The embezzlement and cover up was wrong and hurt. But the NYT, which exposed the story botched it, blew it way out of proportion. With the knowledge of the embezzlement, some funders ran from ACORN and the board split into 3 factions.

The organization could have survived all this.

Like I said its success also led to the Republican Party’s ongoing war against ACORN, which began decades ago as part of its effort to defund the left. It accelerated in 2004 and even more so during the 2008 presidential campaign. Karl Rove (President Bush’s top political adviser) and conservative Republicans orchestrated an attack on Acorn for alleged “voter fraud,” as part of a campaign to suppress the voting of minorities and the poor. As part of this effort, a U.S. Attorney was asked to investigate ACORN. The investigation came up empty-handed, but the GOP operatives persisted. The allegations of “voter fraud” hit a peak in October 2008, aided by Arizona Sen. John McCain’s charge in a presidential debate with Barack Obama. McCain campaign defamed ACORN and pinned a big A on the chest of Obama to prove Obama pals around with terrorists and evil people.

None of ACORN’s self-inflicted wounds were of themselves fatal, not should they have been.

The attacks against ACORN had nothing to do with prostitutes, embezzlements etc. Its opponents came from businesses that opposed the min wage, Republicans who feared ACORN’s voter registration work, the right wing media, “think tanks” blogger, magazines, which hated Acorn because of its ideology and because they see the poor, black, Hispanic and immigrants as a threat.

The attacks against ACORN as a “criminal” organization have been a consistent mantra of the right and its business allies, who despise ACORN for its success at challenging the anti-consumer practices of banks and low-wage employers as well as its effective efforts to expand voting among the poor.

But the fact that Rep. Darrel Issa and other ACORN opponents persistently claim that ACORN is criminal doesn’t make it so — a distinction that gets lost in the Times and other mainstream reporters.

The stories planted during and after the election season yielded a bountiful crop of misinformation The mainstream news media was unwittingly complicit in the conservative campaign to frame ACORN. For example, a study of media coverage of ACORN found that over half (55%) of the all stories about ACORN during 2007 and 2008 focused on “voter fraud,” while few stories reported on its grassroots organizing work. Moreover, 80 percent of the print and broadcast stories about ACORN’s alleged voter fraud (and 63 percent of the New York Times’ stories) failed to mention that ACORN itself was reporting voter-registration irregularities to authorities, as required by law. The Times’ coverage of ACORN was almost entirely negative; 56 percent of its stories focused on voter fraud and embezzlement.

And the Democrats and Obama threw ACORN under the bus.

When the attacks came, that part of the left which promotes economic populism, and therefore Acorn’s agenda is limited to a few groups, but mostly the union movement, which while the most powerful force on the left, is still a weak countervailing force to corporate power.

DonMidwest August 15th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

This book describes a wide scope social justice movement in the USA. I didn’t know this was possible. Part of the success was to organize poeople who knew that the system was broken and could see through the propaganda that maintains the status quo. Latin America may be an example of the rebirth of democracy through social movements of the have nots. I am not sure when the “middle class” (whatever that is these days) can be organized as an effective social justice movement in the USA.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:24 pm
In response to DonMidwest @ 17

The genius behind Acorn’s strategy was recognizing that for the poor to have greater opportunities, it would be best to organize them into group not just for the poor or just for blacks, but a group that fought on behalf of a majority of the people. That was Acorn’s original vision. The leaders almost pulled it off.

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 2:27 pm

John hits it on the head several times here when he notes that it is the empowerment–specifically the economic and political empowerment–of the low-income, people of color, that seems to make the forces of reaction strike back particularly hard. Or as writers have pointed out, the Tea Party’s call to “Give us back our country” is really a code for their desire to return to a white-led nation.

John, can you speak to how joining class and race issues made ACORN so effective–and such a target?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:27 pm

ACORN was accused of voter fraud, causing the subprime crisis, , setting up a brothel, and misusing federal funds, even stealing the 2008 presidentil election.

Accused of all these things – by republican officials, including karl rove and candidates John Mccain and Sarah Palin, by right-wing “think tanks” funded by big corporations at to get acorn as well as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Fox News.

The mainstream media reported and repeated ths accussions so often that many Americans came to believe them. But they aren’t true. None of them.

But in politics, perception is reality. In the end acorn was brought down not only by its enemies – big corporations, the republican party, and the right-wing echo chamber – but also by its allies in the democratic party and the liberal foundations that abandoned acorn when the heat was on and they needed their help.

bgrothus August 15th, 2010 at 2:31 pm

As someone who lives in NM and has been involved in voter’s rights activities, it was charges against ACORN that were at the root of the Iglesias firing, (though much can also be said for the interference of Dominici and Wilson in raising issues that were designed to hurt the Democrats during the election cycle as well).

Clearly, the Republicans have been tireless in their efforts at disenfranchisement. And they have been successful. Perhaps as much as the Nader vote in FL in 2000, it was the effective removal of tens of thousands of voters from the voter files that enabled the “success” of the Bush campaign.

The promotion of the (FALSE) “voter fraud” meme nationally has been a driving force in preventing real voter protection. We have paper ballots in NM, as a result of the disenfranchisement and under-vote in NM proved after the 2000 debacle.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:31 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 18

Well that’s interesting. Although Acorn was multiracial, one of the reasons Acorn became more vulnerable was because over the years Acorn moved from a group the crossed racial lines, but increasingly became mostly African-American.

DonMidwest August 15th, 2010 at 2:34 pm
In response to Margot @ 10

Why is Obama not engaged with social justice enough, even though his organizing experience was so important?

This is my natural question, but it may be the wrong path. The better question is first, whose interests is he serving and it seems obvious that it is the financial industry, the military and the security establishment. These forces are destroying our empire and most Americans don’t get it.

A part of regaining our constitutional democracy is the kind of organizing that acorn did. It might already be too late to reverse our collapse.

BevW August 15th, 2010 at 2:35 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 22

John, when did the changes to the multiracial foundation change, was there any one cause, leadership?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:36 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 21

Tell us more about whats happening in New Mexico. My chapter in my book called the Right to vote takes place in New Mexico. Acorn has never been convicted of voter fraud or any crime. Employees have. There is a difference, which many right wing dimwits have difficulty understanding. Under the law Acorn must submit all voter registration applications even when they know the registrations are false.

Some ACORN’s employees tried to beat the system and get paid without doing the work. Acorn has a good quality control system aimed at minimizing registration fraud. When Acorn supervisors catch mistakes on the forms or phony registration, they asked the authorities to investigate, and gave cover sheets to the authorities noting which forms were questionable.
When we talk about voting, what’s outrageous and unfair is the gross inequalities in voter turnout. This could easily be corrected by requiring all eligible voters to be registered the way we require all 18 year olds to register for the draft. We would have nearly zero registration fraud. Groups like Acorn could take on other tasks to help empower the less powerful.

If people with family incomes under $25,000 had cast ballots at the same rate as those above $75,000, more than 6 million additional voters would go to the polls. If only a slight majority of them had voted for Gore in 2000 Gore would have won an outright victory. In 2004 Kerry would have won. Millions of low-registered low income voters would change not only the outcomes of presidential races, but also the outcomes of many races for Congress and for state legislatures as well. For Republicans, stifling voter access became an urgent priority. Why it is not a high priority for Dems is hard to fathom.

Many problems with out voting system. * We should hold elections on weekends instead of workdays.
*Get corporate money out of politics; *Allow fusion voting like in NY. The 2 party system limits our choice without any benefits.

AdamPDX August 15th, 2010 at 2:40 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 20

…and the investor class would said it was really ACORN that stabbed Jesus with a spear if they thought they would have gotten away with it.

The investor class lies. A lot. When 6 mega-corporations own the mass media in it’s entirety, the investor class can say anything it wants.

dakine01 August 15th, 2010 at 2:41 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 22

I have a vague recollection of applying for a job with ACORN when I got out of the USAF back in ’82 in Boston (although it may just be my memory failing me). I know I interviewed with MASSPIRG at the time.

Was there much cross over between ACORN and groups like the state level “PIRG” (Public Interest Research Group)?

bgrothus August 15th, 2010 at 2:46 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 25

After getting paper ballots, the focus has been on auditing the vote. And we are constantly battling against voter ID. I was the original plaintif in a voter ID suit that we initially won. But we were eventually beat back, so the battle remains at the state legislative level. We have great access to our legislators, and we are seeing greater success at that level, though our fight is consistently and constantly against the right wing.

We have some organizations that have been organizing for economic and environmental justice that are well-entrenched and effective. ACORN used to have their office just a few houses down from me. We won a great battle to maintain 501.c.3. status when a few legislators lost their seats after effective voter education by some non-profit groups. You better believe that Democratic AG went after them. . .a big disappointment. But the AG lost in court. We have elected some progressive new Democrats who are young and want to enact legislation regarding ethics, among other issues.

It is for this reason that I remain hopeful about change at a local level. Martin Heinrich is one of the new faces who come from this arena, though fighting at a national level is still very difficult.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:51 pm
In response to BevW @ 24

In Chapter 7 of my book I dramatize Acorn’s work during the late 1970s and early 80s. They were engaged in a nationwide effort to counter the widespread abandonment of buildings that had been milked by landlords, taken over by city governments and left to rot. Acorn organized a successful squatters movement that led to turning these abandoned buildings into livable apartments and a national Homesteading law. Since this occurred in the inner city these Acorn chapters were mostly black. Outsiders began to see Acorn as an African-American group as it moved into cities and focused on their issues. It was not an a strategic decision. It just happened.

bgrothus August 15th, 2010 at 2:55 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 29

Wasn’t it ACORN that was leading the charge in hard-hit areas of Boston (just one place) where forclosures were rampant in the last year or so? This type of empowerment was also totally unacceptable/threatening to the ruling class. The meme of those “undeserving” of home loans was effective of course. It is stunning how effective these campaigns by the right wing have been on all of these issues.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:56 pm
In response to Adam503 @ 26

Yes. One of the condition for change will require us to develop a media that can counter the 6 mega-corporations own the mass media. When Acorn became the target of New Corp, which owns the WSJ, NY Post, Fox Cable, Fox News, even book publishing, Acorn was confronted with a Beast. News corp attacked Acorn saying it caused the subprime crisis, voter fraud, etc.often without ever asking Acorn to respond.

DonMidwest August 15th, 2010 at 2:56 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 28

This is in response to voting problems in Ohio in 2004. I am going off topic but someone might be interested in this reference. Richard Hayes Phillips spent 3 years of his life to produce a book “Witness to a crime: A citizens audit of an American Election.” Kerry won in Ohio which means he won in 2004. Many different tricks were pulled off in different parts of the state and this has never been given the legal scrutiny it deserves. A couple of days before the election Kenneth Blackwell, the Secretary of State, sent a phone message to everyone in the state to vote against gays.

Mauimom August 15th, 2010 at 2:57 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 5

If we are to end discrimination and lift the working poor out of poverty and provide a society that treats its most vulnerable with dignity, we will need a social movement. I think Obama wants that.

Whoa!!! Where on earth do you find evidence of this????

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 2:58 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 27

Some, but not much.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I mistyped. What I mean is that Obama would like to end discrimination and lift the working poor out of poverty and provide a society that treats its most vulnerable with dignity. Like some many liberal who want to see change, he does not seem to understand the historic role that social movements play.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:02 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 30

Yes, Acorn was leading a charge in Boston for decades.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:06 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 30

I have a story in my book about a young African American woman raising five children in Dorchester, a working-class Boston neighborhood. Her name is Maud Hurd and she got involved in ACORN the way most members do. In 1982 an organizer knocked on her door and asked, “What are your concerns about your neighborhood?”
She had never been asked that before. “At first I didn’t want to be bothered,” she recalls. Her experience with other community groups was that they didn’t accomplish much and didn’t last long. “One of the differences with ACORN was the organizer asked me what I thought,” she explained. The trash-filled vacant lot next door to her house, was Hurd’s answer to the organizer.
She had tried for years to get that lot cleaned up. Frustrated by her failure, she agreed to attend an ACORN community meeting about the many garbage-strewn vacant lots in her neighborhood. At the meeting the group decided to try a get a appointment with Mayor Ray Flynn, who called himself the “neighborhood mayor,” ACORN members sent letters to Flynn’s office but received no response. Phone calls didn’t work either. Encouraged by ACORN organizers, the group decided to try a direct action, a protest. Hurd and a few other ACORN members went door to door in their neighborhood, recruiting others who were also upset by the unsightly vacant lots that pockmarked their community. She then led more than a hundred ACORN members on a march into City Hall. In the lobby outside Mayor Flynn’s office, they piled bags full of debris from the abandoned vacant lots. This action launched a monthlong campaign that eventuated in a program that cleaned up more than seven hundred lots.
“It was a scary experience for me and a lot of folks,” Hurd would recall, “but it got results, got news coverage, and got some vacant lots cleaned up. At that point, I was convinced that people working together like that can work.” She realized that ordinary people could successfully demand a say in policies that affected their lives. “Before that experience with ACORN,” she says, “I never thought of myself as a leader. At work, singing in the choir, or whatever it was, I saw myself as a background person.” Now she was inspired to overcome her fear of public speaking.

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 3:07 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 31

What do you suggest?

bgrothus August 15th, 2010 at 3:08 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 37

Community organizing, It Works.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:15 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 37

I have one tactic the readers of Firedog should do. Follow the right wing activists, who call,write and harass reporters and editors to report their side of the story. We should be calling the so called liberal reporters when they get their stories wrong. I started doing that as I read all the misreporting about Acorn. Obviously I didn’t do it enough. And it was a struggle. There’s a great story about a movement led by Brad Friedman to get the NY Times to slightly apologize for it’s egregious reporting about Acorn.

dakine01 August 15th, 2010 at 3:20 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 37

I think I remember that protest. For what it’s worth, Ray Flynn was the neighborhood mayor if your neighborhood was Southie.

Dorchester? Not so much

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 3:21 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 31

One of the condition for change will require us to develop a media that can counter the 6 mega-corporations own the mass media

Aren’t progressives doing that now?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:22 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 33

Speaking of Obama, you should know that my book reveals ACORN’s rocky relationship to Obama, who sought ACORN’s endorsement and its get out the vote efforts during the 2008 election. But when Right-Wing Republicans and Fox News first attacked ACORN, he distanced himself from the group even after it was exonerated from any misdeeds by several independent investigations, including a 2010 report from Government Accountability Organization, (GAO), the Congressional “watchdog.” Atlas argues that the Obama administration’s failure to defend ACORN contributed to the decline of an ally that represented thousands of families who made up Obama’s base.

I conclude that Obama’s treatment of ACORN symbolizes how, unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, he detached his presidency from the progressive base that helped get him elected. During the 2008 campaign, Obama had mobilized millions of people, which taught them the skills of organizing. But Obama never translated the enthusiasm of his campaign into a real grassroots movement. If anything, he shackled it by forming Organizers For America as part of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Weakening his base contributed to his administration’s fear of Glenn Beck, Fox News and the right wing echo chamber, which weakened his agenda and led to the embarrassing firing of Shirley Sherrod.

When the fight for national healthcare and the rest of the Obama agenda heated up, ACORN, one of the few organizations with the capacity to mobilize minorities and the young to vote in elections and help pass his reform legislation, was unable to counter to the right wing Tea Party’s opposition. This made it harder for Obama to enact his progressive agenda.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:24 pm
In response to Tula Connell @ 42

I suppose. But Tula, what are you thinking about when you say that?

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 3:29 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 44

FDL is a great example–the team here has generated news that the corporate media has not covered, in addition to covering issues in a way the corporate media doesn’t. There are other such examples. Blogs and other social media are reminsicent of radio in its early days before corporations took it over–unions and others had a regular voice on radio and massive outreach. We need to build on the alternative media available to us, rather than hoping we’ll ever own a network.

Which brings the question of whether community change movements needs to add “PR” to their bag of tools. What do you think?

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:31 pm

In case your curious my book does have a narrative arc. By following Acorn’s leaders, members and organizers as they confront big corporations and unresponsive government officials in Albuquerque, Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit, Little Rock, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and the Twin Cities, I reveal how ACORN became the most successful anti-poverty group in America, including its effort in 2002 to warn the nation of the subprime crisis.

And then suddenly, in less than two years after ACORN’s ally Barack Obama got elected, in one of the most bizarre and disgraceful incidents in recent political history, it was destroyed by a ferocious attack by the right wing of the Republican Party, its allies, and Fox News.

bgrothus August 15th, 2010 at 3:32 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 43

I think it would not be untrue to say that the rt wing media is more powerful than the bully pulpit of the Presidency. How Obama reacted to that reality is not much of a surprise, though if the Presidency has any pulpit power, he has not really used it.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:38 pm
In response to Tula Connell @ 45

That’s a great point. One could argue that Acorn neglected both its communications capacity to general public and the mainstream press, as well as the alternative media. It also needed a better communication among its members. Of course I always have to add that even though Acorn was the largest and most successful antipoverty group, it often lacked the resources to hire enough organizers let alone PR folks.

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 3:40 pm

John, if you had to say one thing you hope to accomplish by telling ACORN’s story, what would it be?

cbl August 15th, 2010 at 3:41 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 5

And yet Obama seems to be doing everything he can to undermine such a movement

no more startling example of that would be HUD’s PETRA proposal – essentially privatizing all govt owned housing – vague, semantic tricks hiding it’s true agenda (uh, foreclosure for crony capitalists) stopped (for now) by Maxine Waters & Barney Frank

and of course wildly coincidental that it was introduced after ACORN’s tragic destruction

Welcome to the lake Mr Atlas !- thanks for the book and your work
Welcome back Tula ~

here’s a brief link on PETRA here

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:42 pm

You might be interested as to why I wrote this book. I have been on the front lines of anti-poverty and social justice efforts for many years; working with church groups, environmental groups. I was the director of legal aid lawyer and like most of you, I wanted to make just a small difference. I know how hard it is just to make a small difference.

In 2004, when i decided to write a book I had heard there was one group that seemed to be making a big difference. The group was called ACORN. I wanted to find out if it was true, and if so how they did it.

I tried to write a readable, accessible book that would take the reader into the heart of the Acorn drama and show, but not tell the story of ACORN’s triumphs and failures. I want the your to come away with a better understanding of community organizing. But even more important I hope you as a reader can learn something new about what we can do to help strengthen our democracy, reduce the persistence of poverty, and build a progressive movement.

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 3:44 pm
In response to cbl2 @ 50

Glad you stopped by,cbl2.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:47 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 47

That is a great point. Dont’ we have to give Obama credit for addressing financial deregulation and national health care and raising the issue of global warming?

He has not addressed the issues of inequality or presented the public with a different vision from the “free market.”

DonMidwest August 15th, 2010 at 3:48 pm

ACORN thought that this was a country that supported social justice if the issues were properly framed and the institutions were engaged, there could be progress.

What has happened is collapse: collapse of journalism, collapse of education, collapse of the economy, collapse of interest in poor by framing it as a racial issue, collapse in the rule of law.

ACORN ran a low budget operation focused on social justice which ran up against a collapsing empire which needed to squash dissent.

ACORN destruction shows the failure of our constitutional democracy.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 3:51 pm
In response to Tula Connell @ 49

In addition to what I said in comment 51: I also want to dispel the conservative myth that we can only help the poor through private soup kitchens and charity and the liberal myth that the solution rests simply with more government services. SEEDS OF CHANGE, not only provides the inside story of ACORN’s four decades of effective organizing, but also offers a new way of addressing the issue of poverty and a hopeful analysis of the potential for a revival of real American democracy.

BevW August 15th, 2010 at 3:54 pm

As we come to the end of this FDL Book Salon,

John, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and ACORN.

Tula, Thank you very much for returning and for Hosting this Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information –
John’s website – blog
Tula’s website – AFL-CIO Now Blog

Thanks all,
Have a great week.

egregious August 15th, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Thank you John, Tula, and Bev for a great discussion!

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 3:57 pm
In response to John Atlas @ 55

Glad you brought that up, John: Empowerment of the disenfranchised makes the reactionaries livid. They prefer groveling for crumbs.

Where will you be discussing your book at live events? I know the AFL-CIO is co-sponsoring a Busboys and Poets book event here in DC for Seeds of Change.

Tula Connell August 15th, 2010 at 4:01 pm
In response to BevW @ 56

Thank you for all your work on this and all Salons, Bev.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 4:01 pm
In response to Tula Connell @ 49

One other big motivation for writing the book is this. ACORN’s work directly challenged the view of the poor found on TV and in so many books written over the last decade such as HBO’s The Wire, The American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and A Nation’s Drive To End Welfare by Jason DeParle (Viking Books 2004), David Shipler’s The Working Poor (Knopf 2004), and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family (Scribner 2003). Each document the plight of the working poor and provide a valuable, complex portrait of what it’s like to be deprived in a wealthy society. But each of these writers presents poor people as mostly passive victims. Some work in low-wage jobs, while others are jobless. Some are good parents, while others neglect their children. Some are responsible citizens, others drug addicts, criminals, morally deviant, whose actions separate them from normal society. Absent from all these shows and books are stories of collective efforts by the working poor to lift themselves up and change public policy.

Similarly, ACORN’s work dispels the myth that the only way to help the poor is through soup kitchens, charity and social services. Rather, Acorn—politically both pragmatic and progressive—energizes the poor so they can clean up their communities, build homes and increase wages. In a country suspicious of state intervention, ACORN’s experience showed that an activist government, when combined with a well-organized civic group, can be a vital and effective force in the struggle against poverty.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 4:08 pm
In response to cbl2 @ 50

exactly

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 4:09 pm
In response to Tula Connell @ 59

Thank you Tula, and Bev for a great discussion and helping to navigate this salon.

John Atlas August 15th, 2010 at 4:39 pm
In response to Tula Connell @ 58

America’s Future Now Conference, Washington DC June 8

Netroots Conference, Las Vega, Nevada, July 23

Bluestockings book store, Lower East Side of Manhattan at 172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington, 1 block south of Houston and 1st Avenue. August 26, 7 pm

BlueWave, Marcia Marley, 139 Union St. Montclair, NJ, September 2,

McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince Street, New York, September 7, 7pm

Watchung Book Store, Watchung Plaza. Montclair, NJ, October 7, 5pm

Demos, 220 Fifth Avenue, 5th Floor, New York, New York, October 12, Noon

NYU Law School, 40 Washington Square S, New York, November 3

Central Unitarian Church, 156 Forest Avenue, Paramus,NJ, November 16.

seaglass August 15th, 2010 at 4:52 pm

It’s scary how easily ACORN was destroyed. We should all pay heed. The Reich wing has resources and connections that trump anything we can put up against them. For one they have the “Secret State” on their side. Become even a minor threat or irritant and ACORN has been purposely placed out here as an example of how easily they can destroy you and your org.

powwow August 15th, 2010 at 9:15 pm

And that was the essence of ACORN. And democracy. And why the forces of reaction attacked it so hard. - Tula

Those “forces of reaction” are still attacking ACORN, in their efforts to protect power at all costs, and to gain personal political advantage at the expense of those of lesser stature and few resources.

But the fact that Rep. Darrel Issa and other ACORN opponents persistently claim that ACORN is criminal doesn’t make it so — a distinction that gets lost in the [coverage of the] Times and other mainstream reporters [not to mention in the opinions of certain federal judges...].

[...]

And the Democrats and Obama threw ACORN under the bus.

- John Atlas

The latest evidence:

The Democratic-majority House of Representatives just passed (in late July) another funding ban targeting ACORN (using identical language to that ruled to be an UnConstitutional Bill of Attainder by federal District Judge Nina Gershon in March), as part of H.R. 5850, the T-HUD FY 2011 Appropriations Bill:

Sec. 416. None of the funds made available under this Act or any prior Act may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, or allied organizations.

Worse, just two days ago, on Friday, the 13th (fittingly…), three judges of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals vacated, in pertinent part, Judge Gershon’s March, 2010 Bill of Attainder ruling, and remanded the government’s appeal to her for further consideration. That appellate panel just declared that the Congressional bans, which prevent – without justification or due process – any ACORN application for federal funding from being considered, are not “punishment” under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the clear Constitutional prohibition on Bills of Attainder (which amount, essentially, to trial by legislature).

If the full Second Circuit doesn’t deign to review this panel decision, in the event ACORN appeals, that appellate panel just removed a crucial Constitutional defense from any other organization that Congress decides to attack in similar fashion, especially if they’re outgunned politically and financially as ACORN was and is. Thus, any such organizations that benefit from receiving federal funding will now be fair game for our vindictive and cowardly Congress, under the averted eyes of the aloof, Constitutional rights-spurning Supreme Court.

For more on what led up to the panel decision rendered Friday, see my Seminal diary about the case that the Obama DOJ argued against ACORN, on an expedited basis, in the Second Circuit in June.

John Atlas August 16th, 2010 at 12:03 pm
In response to seaglass @ 64

I am not that pessimistic. My book is hopeful. Acorn was a success for 40 years! Learning from their strengths and weaknesses can help us understand how we all can make a difference. In fact former Acorn organizers, leaders and their allies have begun building new groups out of the ashes of the older groups. We should join and support them.

John Atlas August 16th, 2010 at 12:10 pm
In response to powwow @ 65

Thank you for a great diary. You can also check out my latest Huffington Post on the poorly reasoned second circuit case. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-atlas/federal-appeals-court-rev_b_682573.html

Acorn’s lawyers intend to appeal.

John Atlas August 16th, 2010 at 12:13 pm
In response to powwow @ 65

The appellate court ruled against ACORN despite the fact that Congress gave no reason to treat ACORN differently from other contractors accused of serious misconduct.

Congress has lavishly funded many corporations that unlike ACORN committed or have been accused of committing serious felonies. Many defense contractors have been accused of or committed crimes. Drug companies have pled guilty to criminal fraud under the federal false claims act stealing billions from the taxpayers by ripping off Medicaid and Medicare yet Congress never passed a bill debarring them from federal contracts. Blackwater, a company that had five of its employees facing murder charges in a massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007, had received a $217 million contract to provide security in Iraq. A former Halliburton subsidiary KBR had received $80 million in contract bonuses to provide electrical wiring in Iraq, which electrocuted 16 soldiers and two contractors. Northrop Grumman had to pay a $500 million fine for getting caught nine times for contract fraud. Congress insisted on defunding ACORN, but failed to seek the same treatment for companies like Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Blackwater, Pfizer, and Boeing – chronic corporate lawbreakers that receive billions in federal dollars. The hypocrisy has been striking. The Congress that defunded ACORN bailed out Goldman Sachs, AIG, J. P. Morgan and other financial services corporation that lacked transparency, committed unethical or illegal acts and engaged in practices that led to the crash of our financial system.

egregious August 18th, 2010 at 8:54 am

Thanks John – great Salon!

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