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The Worming of ACORN

The 2010 takedown of the national organization—and not the Democratic Party's acquiescence—is the subject of a new film

The Obama years in many ways masked the disintegration of the Democratic party, denuded of its core strengths and resources over recent decades by right-wing obstructionism, neoliberal up-sucking, party disorganization, and delusion on a grand scale. The destruction of ACORN in 2010 should have been both a warning to and rallying cry for the Democrats, but alas, here we are, up Trump’s creek. For its part, ACORN had been a forty-year-old national organization with hundreds of thousands of members committed to voter registration, community service, and direct action on behalf of its poor and working class constituency. As you’ll recall, ACORN went out in media-fanned flames after conservative prankster James O’Keefe posed as a pimp, captured a visit to an ACORN satellite office on video, edited the video to be as salacious as possible, and then released it to a frenzied media chorus, happy to garner impressions and clicks at the expense of a modest but endangered effort: effective democracy.

The sleazy sting played on the racialized criminalization of the poor, essential to the disciplinary logic of cutting social services.

The story of the organization’s rise and fall, and how the hateful and deceptively edited undercover “reporting” of two shameless, billionaire-funded kids, is told in Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard’s new documentary Acorn and the Firestorm, which premiered on PBS in May after a limited theatrical release in April. The documentary is, unfortunately, conceived as a dull ACORN hagiography: less a Michael Moore call-to-action (musty righteousness aside) than a toothless lament about conservative cruelty. But don’t let that stop you from seeking it out. Critical viewers will find footage of a past political structure much in need today: an effective Democratic Party-linked organization with a base of active support from the working class. Although communicated with the tone of a resigned shrug, Acorn and the Firestorm could be seen as a stark reminder of how quickly Democrats retreated from their remaining strongholds. 

The film shows how Wade Rathke, an ex-Students for a Democratic Society member, formed the Association of Community Organizations Reform Now. ACORN rose to power throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Its novelty: organizing welfare recipients, forming tenants’ unions, building urban homesteads throughout the crumbling inner-cities, canvassing door-to-door in poor neighborhoods, and forming electoral blocks like the Working Families Party to hold nominally progressive politicians accountable. More recent footage included by Atlas and Pollard shows ACORN activists busing from city to city, protesting for wage increases, getting in face-to-face confrontations with congressional staff, and marching through a bank office to protest predatory lending, its employees cowering under their desks. In one clip from a training session, an ACORN organizer reveals a hidden secret of their approach: it is always worth it to engage in a losing campaign so long as it empowers the base. The current DNC seems only capable of capitulation.

But the enemies of ACORN had their own secret weapon: the Nixonian ideologue James O’Keefe. Along with twenty-year-old accomplice Hannah Giles, O’Keefe targeted ACORN’s affiliated but independent housing and financial services offices, where low-income people could ask for tax preparation help or funding for a mortgage. O’Keefe and Giles’s footage appeared to show ACORN employees sympathetically assisting Giles, despite her implied sex-worker profession, and even offering to help smuggle other young women across the border to set up a brothel. The collapse of ACORN, under the ideological hyperbole of an ever-hypocritical right and an acquiescing, self-defeating left is sadly an old story.

A taping of O’Keefe’s subsequent court deposition reveals the massive fraudulence of their gotcha footage: ACORN’s employees had been manipulated with a backstory of abuse; O’Keefe was not dressed as a pimp as he had implied; and at least one ACORN employee was squeezing the two for information to turn over to the police. But the damage had been done. The sleazy sting played to the racialized criminalization of the poor, essential to the disciplinary logic of cutting social services. Nonetheless, shortly after the videos were released, Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s CEO, appeared on several cable news programs condemning the employees O’Keefe and his protégé had targeted. And to no good effect: the selling-out of her own colleagues did not contain the titular firestorm. Politicians, mainly Iowa’s racist congressman, Steve King—who once asked, “Where did any other sub-group of people contribute more to civilization?”lead the charge to defund ACORN. Barack Obama’s refusal to defend the organization—which registered millions to his coalition—days before signing the legislation was a final betrayal, sealing ACORN’s fate. And just like that, one more bulwark against the rising tide of disenfranchisement-as-electoral strategy had been abandoned.

One of the most confounding aspects of the documentary is how it depicts some of the key players in the smear: O’Keefe and King, the obvious villains, are shown to be half-cocked buffoons bumbling through a deposition and carrying around an actual acorn as a symbol of victory. Atlas and Pollard fail to portray them as much more than merry pranksters. The racism of their assault on ACORN, along with evidence of their links to the so-called alt-right, could have made the stakes of their white supremacist assault clearer.

Also questionable is the film’s choice of heroes. Bertha Lewis is shown as faultless in her rise through the ranks of ACORN, which lead to a break in the decades of hierarchy established by its white, funds-thieving, Ivy league old-guard: founder Wade Rathke, who stood in contrast to the organizations mostly poor and non-white base. But truly odd is the choice of Hannah Giles—who played a caricatured prostitute to O’Keefe’s cartoon pimp—as the film’s all-American anti-hero. Atlas and Pollard prefer to depict Giles as O’Keefe’s naive dupe or perverse prop rather than as a remorseless political assassin. With footage of her practicing jiu jitsu and paddle-surfing (alongside unnecessarily long cuts of her dressed in the infamous, skimpy street-walker costume)—her attractiveness and youth seem to receive particular attention—she ends up with more screen time than Lewis.

ACORN should not be remembered merely as an instrument of compromise; there hasn’t been a comparable organ of working class power in the United States at least since the pre-war labor movement.

For the film’s highly orchestrated and frankly far too smarmy climax, the directors arranged for Lewis and Giles to meet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When Lewis fishes for an apology, Giles responds that she only regrets not going further by following up the initial prostitution pantomime to find corruption at the highest levels of ACORN. Lewis promises that she would not have found anything. She only becomes angry when Giles reveals she doesn’t vote.

Unmentioned in the film is Lewis’s track record of political endorsements and campaigns, which to many seem to grate against the interests of her base. The Clintons, despite their welfare-gutting, mass-incarcerating, ACORN-suing legacy, still received Lewis’s support over Sanders in 2016 (even though Sanders, favored by her Working Families Party by a wide margin, was one of only seven Democratic senators to vote against defunding ACORN). New Yorkers who remember her cash-grab capitulation to Bruce Ratner on the Atlantic Yards project might doubt the film’s case for Lewis’s purity as well, further strengthening Giles’s journalistic pretense that ACORN’s corruption didn’t end with Rathke.

At the same time ACORN should not be remembered merely as an instrument of compromise; there hasn’t been a comparable organ of working class power in the United States at least since the pre-war labor movement. The filmmakers stage a strong case for the ACORN model, but don’t attempt to reconcile the futility of their service to a political party so quick to pawn away its efforts. For a more intriguing conclusion, the film would have to concede that the Democratic coalition has crumbled, with considerable help from the Democrats themselves, and ask if there’s a new way to remobilize that base.

Maybe it could have gone like this: with the recent Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME gutting public sector unions, some have speculated that the wildcat teacher’s strikes in right-to-work states could be a vision of a future labor movement. If the model of workers taking action through grassroots networks outside of their immobilized union structures could apply to the ex-constituents of ACORN, the unsung heroes of the film, they may create a way to circumvent the drama of their leadership and the Democratic Party’s permanently ineffective strategy of damage control.