ACORN: Flesh-Eating Machine
Or Left–Wing Conspiracy?
By Billy Wharton
09 October, 2009
The People Shall Rule: ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice
Robert Fisher, ed., Vanderbilt University Press (2009), $27.95
A flesh eating machine? A political animal? Or a far-left conspiracy? Descriptions of ACORN vary widely, yet Robert Fisher’s The People Shall Rule attempts to offer readers a window into America’s most influential community organization. The volume brings together academics and activists in what is presented as the first comprehensive examination of the group. Overall, the articles suggest that ACORN has managed to transcend many of the theoretical debates – community development v. conflict politics, service v. advocacy, movement-building v. organizational formation – which have framed previous examinations of community organizing. ACORN, it seems, is a hybrid organization – as willing to employ direct action as to accept donations from real estate magnates.
Several authors point to ACORN’s federated structure as key to the organization’s success. ACORN has managed to marry a fairly centralized, staff-driven, national organization with relatively autonomous member-controlled local groups. This marriage allows for a synergistic national-local energy which is often beyond the capacities of most locally-bound community organizations. For example, Peter Drier argues that many community groups have scored important victories in the struggle to secure community reinvestment programs. Yet, “…only ACORN has used its federal structure to bundle these accomplishments to build its political clout, organizational funding, and constituency base.”
Political clout is precisely what Wade Rathke, founder of ACORN, desired at the group’s origin. Even early on, Rathke argues, the group was “not willing to simply be a power broker,” but, instead, wished to build power in numbers for both street protest and electoral campaigning. In addition, he sought to move away from the “episodic and situational” character of social movements. “Movement,” he stated firmly, “is not magic as much as muscle powering imagination and will.” The basic rule employed to cultivate these muscles is that “if it builds power, if it adds to the whole, then it can be done.” Rathke’s ACORN is a “real-life, flesh eating machine that must be fed constantly on activity and victory.”
The need for constant activity is reflected in ACORN’s stance as an explicitly anti-idelogicial organization in the tradition of Saul Alinsky. They must, therefore, constantly develop new campaigns inside of often hostile historical and economic contexts. One key campaigning opportunity was the struggle against credit redlining in low-income communities, which developed after the Community Reinvestment Act was passed in 1977. Weak national enforcement opened the space for community organizing. ACORN’s versatility was on full display in anti-redlining campaigns – serious research and political lobbying was buttressed by locally-mobilized direct actions. Success was evident on all levels – the organization grew and the campaign generated more than $4 trillion in new loans for traditionally underserved communities.
The victory against redlining was the result not only of organizing from below, but an adaptation by financial capital from above. Capital, it seemed, also had the capacity to respond to changing economic situations. ACORN was therefore faced, in the 1990s, with a social problem it helped usher in by loosening credit – predatory lending in poor communities. Gregory Chadwick and Jan Chadwick estimate that this practice cost victimized families more than $9.1 billion per year and led to countless bankruptcies and foreclosures. ACORN initiated another cycle of organizing that has moderated the predatory trends, but has yet to eliminate them.
Neoliberalism has placed other challenges before ACORN. Another case study presented by John Atlas in his chapter entitled “The Battle of Brooklyn,” describes describes the struggles surrounding a mega-development project proposed in Brooklyn called the Atlantic Yards project. Real estate magnate Bruce Ratner authored the project and managed to secure significant concessions from NY City and State governments using eminent domain laws to displace residents. Community opposition developed immediately, resulting in the creation of the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn coalition and dissent from prominent Democratic Party officials.
Though they seemed like a perfect fit for the opposition, ACORN’s New York leader, Bertha Lewis, did not head to the picket line, preferring, instead, the negotiating table with Ratner. “It’s better to win something,” Lewis told the media, “than go into opposition and just yell and scream and ultimately lose.” Atlas concurs, viewing the ACORN-Ratner deal, which secured 50% affordable apartments and a portion of living wage jobs, a successful attempt to “steer gentrification to benefit poor and working-class residents.” Opponents called the deal an opportunistic “sell-out” and pointed to large-scale personal contributions made by Ratner to ACORN.
The struggle around the Atlantic Yards development is not an isolated instance of controversy. ACORN has faced multiple internal and external scandals of late. In 2008, newspapers reported that the national leadership was rocked by an embezzlement scandal initiated by a member of Rathke’s family, which led to wholesale resignations, including the founder himself. ACORN veteran Gary Delgado viewed the controversy as evidence of the hazards of bureaucratization on the national level. More recently, undercover right-wing operatives created a national media sensation by soliciting information about concealing funds from an illegal prostitution ring. The stunt manipulated the autonomy of ACORN’s local organizations and has led to a significant national decrease in funding from government sources. Yet, as Robert Fischer argues in the conclusion of this compilation, the sheer scale of the ACORN project provides it with “…the ability to experiment and
The critiques mentioned above are, however, not as readily available in The People Shall Rule as one would prefer. Most of the authors are exceedingly friendly to ACORN – defending them from either liberal political leanings or as a theoretical wedge in sociological debates about community organization and social mobilization. The book would be improved by providing space to both right and left wing criticisms of ACORN. From the left, significant questions should be raised about the organization’s trajectory. Its willingness to adapt to and, in the case of both Atlantic Yards and H&R Block, partner with capitalist corporations raises questions about how closely the organization is integrated into the structures of neoliberal capitalism. In addition, ACORN’s blind commitment to act as insiders in the Democratic Party is one of many trends serving to stifle the development of significant third party politics in the US.
Overall though, The People Shall Rule is an important first offering into what promises to be a proliferation of studies into one of the most significant community organizations in the country. Left-wing activists of all stripes would do well to understand the manner in which ACORN has harnessed a dynamic tension between local and national organizing to carve out a place in the lives of poor and working class communities. As neo-liberalism moves into what appears to be a period of prolonged crisis, the strategies and structures championed by ACORN offer lessons to be both learned and unlearned.
This article was originally published in the Socialist WebZine
Billy Wharton is the editor of The Socialist and the Socialist WebZine. His articles have recently appeared in the Washington Post, Monthly Review Webzine and The Indypendent.