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John Atlas

John Atlas

Posted: August 30, 2010 04:58 PM

A week after Katrina hit New Orleans, Federal Government officials and private relief organizations were still discussing how to send aid to the area. ACORN, which had been organizing low-income and working class residents in the city since the 1978, had already moved into action.

Banks were giving their middle-class, mostly white customers ninety days or more to make their payments, but borrowers who had subprime, high-interest loans (like many black homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward) were given only one month. Three weeks after the storm devastated the city, ACORN released a report -"How the sub prime mortgage industry is sandbagging Katrina-affected homeowners"- to expose the industry's double standard. After the media publicized the report, ACORN--along with labor unions and consumer groups--demanded meetings with the banks and sub prime lenders and successfully negotiated plans to prevent foreclosures for dozens of homeowners.

With vast parts of the city's low-income neighborhoods devastated, evacuees, many with just the clothes on their backs, fled to 44 different states, but had no way to know the physical and financial condition of their homes and neighborhoods. Glued to the television news, as well as Google maps, cell phones, and newspapers, they tried to discover how much water had flooded their bedrooms and when they could return.

ACORN's New Orleans office was in disarray, but with chapters in 100 cities across the country, its member's homes in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Little Rock, Atlanta, Birmingham, and as far away as Seattle, Vancouver, and New York became refuges for the Katrina diaspora.

From temporary headquarters in Baton Rouge, ACORN sent text messages to members with cell phones and quickly received 200 replies. Joe Stafford, 25, a member from the Uptown New Orleans chapter, whose father had died in the floodwaters, fled to Houston with his girlfriend and their two children, ages ten months and two years. They were staying at a two-bedroom apartment with four other families when he received a message from ACORN organizer Steve Bradberry offering relocation aid. Stafford messaged back: "I watched my father die . . . and had to leave his body behind. I don't know where my mother is either . . . I think she got left in New Orleans. I don't think she left the house, she loved that house, wouldn't leave it. ACORN helped her get that house. That's how we joined ACORN, by getting a house." In a few days he and his family were safely housed with Houston ACORN member Tarsha Jackson.

To plan the city's recovery effort, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin asked some of the region's business, real estate, and legal powerbrokers to form a blue-ribbon task force to make recommendations. The task force, which excluded community groups, emerged with a plan to shrink the city's population sacrificing the hardest hit neighborhoods to protect upscale areas from future flooding. The plans resembled the 1960s federal urban renewal program, which bulldozed many low-income areas in cities across the country to make room for luxury apartments, office towers, convention centers, highways, and sports complexes. The plan called for restoring its tourist attractions--the port, the hotels, the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the Superdome--but paid little attention to the plight of the poor and working class residents, many of them scattered in cities hours away.

Just as many neighborhood activists had mobilized in the 1960s and 1970s to thwart the urban renewal bulldozer, ACORN launched a plan to save these communities by organizing residents to speak out on their own behalf.

After Nagin announced that the city would demolish 50,000 homes in the low-lying areas, ACORN plastered " NO BULLDOZING" signs on homes, trees, and broken fences all over the Lower Ninth Ward. At one point, ACORN activists chased off a backhoe crew preparing to demolish a home.

ACORN also sued the city to stop the demolition, and in January 2006, it won a court settlement requiring that homeowners be notified and given the opportunity to appeal before any action is taken.

ACORN protests pushed officials from FEMA to act when they refused to turn on the electricity so the homeowners could begin to fix their homes. ACORN's members lobbied the Small Business Administration to provide money for loans to help owners reopen restaurants and stores.

Beginning in December, ACORN crews and volunteers from across the country began working day and night to repair the homes of families in the threatened areas. ACORN's crews tore down moldy drywall, ripped up flooring, carted ruined possessions to the curb, and put blue tarping on roofs to prevent further water damage making the houses ready for rebuilding. Relying on volunteers and private funding, ACORN's clean-up/house-gutting program saved more that 1,500 homes.

President Bush had tried to rescind the federal law requiring union-level wages on government-funded rebuilding projects, but ACORN joined with the AFL-CIO and the NAACP to pressure Congress and successfully overturned that decision. The same coalition lobbied local and national officials to make sure that government-funded contractors hired local residents on construction jobs.

Evacuees with low-paying jobs were eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal program that provides an income supplement to low-wage workers--from a few hundred dollars to $4,000 a year--to help lift them out of poverty. To obtain the benefit, however, people have to know about the credit, and file a tax form. In February 2006, with funding from the William J. Clinton Foundation, ACORN reached out to Katrina survivors in ten southern cities to provided on-the-spot tax preparation and helped direct displaced residents to other much needed federal and state benefits programs for Katrina survivors.

ACORN sued to ensure that New Orleans' displaced, largely black population would have access to out-of-state polling places, especially in Atlanta and Houston, for the New Orleans' municipal elections in April and May 2006. After a federal judge rejected ACORN's demand for satellite voting stations outside New Orleans, ACORN's organizers (along with other groups, like the Metropolitan Organization, a local the Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate) registered over 20,000 absentee voters helping to elect City Council members sympathetic to ACORN's agenda.

Within three months after the storm, ACORN formed the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association (AKSA), the only national grassroots group that represented the evacuees. AKSA drafted a platform and sent delegations of members to Baton Rouge and Washington to demand bolder and quicker action.

They held public protests and press conferences and engaged in regular negotiations with FEMA officials to ensure that the agency provide disaster housing and other assistance to displaced survivors. Mixing confrontation and collaboration, ACORN's tactics only sometimes proved effective against a slow moving, seemingly uncaring bureaucracy.

ACORN brought together experts--including planners, architects, and engineers from New York's Pratt Institute, LSU, and Cornell, as well as environmentalists, lawyers, and housing developers, to forge an alternative recovery plan to the city's powerbrokers. Working with the AKSA, and their allies, they inventoried the Ninth Ward's businesses, public buildings, parks, schools and social agencies, and presented their plans at an unending number of official meetings that if implemented would give families the opportunity to return home to affordable housing, living wage jobs, and good schools.

ACORN's pressure, protest and planning work resulted in the city designating its group the city's official neighborhood-planning team for the Lower Ninth and New Orleans East, two of the poorest neighborhoods and helped implement the plans, including building the first new homes in the Lower Ninth.

Since the 2008 presidential elections, ACORN was hit with another disaster-- a ferocious attack by the Republican Party, Fox News and their business allies. It included false accusations of "voter fraud" and an assault orchestrated by right-wing entrepreneur Andrew Breibart. Using the same tactics to he used to try to defame Shirley Sherrod, Breitbart posted doctored videos on his Big Government website. The infamous doctored "pimp and prostitute" videos appeared to entrap several ACORN staffers in providing advice to promote prostitution. This was a storm ACORN couldn't weather.

The controversy, reported widely and often mistakenly not only by Fox News, but the New York Times and other mainstream media, led many of ACORN's one-time allies among funders and Democrats to abandon the group. Although ACORN was subsequently exonerated of any wrongdoing, it was too late. All of ACORN's local chapters closed their doors.

ACORN was dismantled but its legacy--in New Orleans and elsewhere--continues. One group, called A Community Voice, led by former ACORN leaders Vanessa Gueringer and Gwen Adams, continues ACORN's mission in New Orleans, regularly confronting local officials over issues like policing and the rebuilding of the Ninth Ward. "We must fight for our $91.4 million that the city got for shuttered schools in our community and spent elsewhere," said Gueringer at a recent community meeting. "We can't afford to let our children down. They deserve schools in our community that they can attend. It is just wrong. We must continue to fight," she added.
The group is one of at least a dozen former ACORN affiliates that are now independent--but continuing the work of organizing the working poor for power in cities across the country.

A similar but shorter article appeared in this weeks Nation.

Both are based on two chapters of John Atlas's new book Seeds of Change, The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Antipoverty Community Organizing Group, Vanderbilt University Press. Buy it at Amazon and Vanderbilt University Press or better yet at your local book store.