As the Tea and the Republican Party activists were gearing up for their election day campaigns, including plans to intimidate Democratic leaning voters from casting ballots, ACORN, responsible for registering millions of young, minority, and working class voters, closed its last door, ending its 40-year run as arguably the nation's most effective anti-poverty group.
The group, whose state affiliates dissolved months ago, is filing for bankruptcy, selling off its few remaining assets. By 2008, ACORN had grown into an organization of 400,000 dues paying members, from all walks of life, but mostly working poor and people of color, in 38 states, with over 1,000 staff. ACORN's people confronted powerful corporations and politicians, as they organized the first fast food restaurant into a union, forced subprime mortgage lenders to compensate their victims, led the campaign to increase the minimum wage and living wages for working people, built affordable housing, struggled against gentrification in cities like Brooklyn, and helped Hurricane Katrina's survivors return to New Orleans.
In less than two years after ACORN's former ally Barack Obama was elected President, it was subject to a ferocious attack by the right wing of the Republican Party, its allies, and Fox News. In an attempt to defeat Obama, John McCain, during the third presidential debate, defamed ACORN claiming the group, whom he linked to Obama, is "now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country."
For months preceding the 2008 presidential debates, Republican Party and right-wing echo politicians, bloggers, columnists, editorial writers, and TV and radio talk-show hosts led an orchestrated campaign blaming ACORN for widespread voter fraud. During the week of October 6-15, CNN aired 54 segments mentioning allegations that ACORN submitted allegedly false or duplicate voter-registration applications in a number of states.
Not one U.S. attorney would find any evidence of an illegal vote cast and counted because of registration by ACORN and those working for it. Using TV ads, accusations by local Republican officials, and the national debate, the McCain campaign took the opportunity to link its opponent to what it called an outlaw leftist group.
ACORN would have survived the presidential election attacks, but for videotapes of two right wing activists who entered ten of ACORN's offices, allegedly posing as s pimp and a prostitute. The activists with the help of conservative entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart claimed that the videos proved that ACORN's staff was incompetent and the group was promoting prostitution.
The videos were shown on Fox News and cable around the clock for weeks. Every media outlet picked up the story. When the mainstream media, including the New York Times, verified the Fox tapes as factual, most of ACORN's financial and political supporters abandoned the group. Congress defunded ACORN, further stigmatizing the group. By the end of 2009, every independent investigation--including the Congressional Research Service, a former Massachusetts Attorney General, a Brooklyn District Attorney and the California Attorney General, exonerated ACORN from all wrong-doing. It turned out the videos were doctored, edited, and misleading. Over 45 federal, state, and local investigations cleared ACORN of wrongdoing, but two investigations--one in Pennsylvania and one in Nevada-- continued to drain ACORN's resources.
But the damage to ACORN was done -- the group had to dismantle, though Bertha Lewis, ACORN's CEO, hoped to have a small Washington D.C. presence to give voice to the poor.
In an email sent to supporters yesterday, Lewis said, correctly, that she spent months strengthening the group's management to induce some of its financial and others supporters to come back. But she said "the pressure and cost of defending ourselves in multiple investigations as a result to the falsified videos has eroded our organization. As a result we will be filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy by the close of business today."
Born to a teenage mother in a Florida migrant camp in 1951, Lewis became a successful tenant leader and Off Broadway producer. She took over as head of ACORN in 2008. A razor-sharp, inspiring leader, she previously led ACORN's New York chapter and had been called by Crain's New York magazine one of the "100 Most Influential Women of New York." New York magazine concurred, naming her one of the state's political "influentials."
In yesterday's email, which was also posted on ACORN's website, Lewis thanked her supporters and members and ended by saying, "ACORN will live on in the hearts of the people it served, and as those of us who fight for justice know, 'THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED."'
ACORN was not just any organization. It was an unlikely one--a membership-based community organization among the poor and working class that has proven that activism can improve the lives of the poor and less powerful. In several states groups completely independent of ACORN and independent from each other have emerged building on ACORN's strengths--focusing on bread and butter issues, recruiting dues-paying members at the door; encouraging members to control the organization and participate in decision making; and using a variety of tactics and strategies to help the poor help themselves.
It is uncertain whether ACORN's absence in this year's voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in minority neighborhoods had affected the outcome. Some Tea Party and Republican activists claim voter fraud is still widespread. They point to the existence of the ACORN inspired anti-poverty groups as evidence that voter fraud remains a clear and present danger.
John Atlas is the author of the new book SEEDS OF CHANGE, The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group, available at Amazon.com and Vanderbilt University Press and book stores.