The Lynching of ACORN

11/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas refuted Professor Anita Hill's sexual harassment testimony against him with these famous words:

"This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt, was searched for by staffers of members of this committee, was then leaked to the media, and this committee and this body validated it and displayed it at prime time over our entire nation....This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree."

I cite this as precedent in three realms: An African-American defining a lynching beyond the traditional mob beating and hanging of black people; a Supreme Court Justice not known for opinions sympathetic to minorities here asserting racism as the cause in a line of inquiry; and the U.S. Congress's acceptance of this definition as they hastily approved the minimally experienced Thomas following his scathing complaints.

The history of lynching in America is considerable. From 1882-1968, nearly 5000 lynchings occurred in the United States. Lynching is vigilantism and extrajudicial decision by a group of people, a violent act by a mob that does not believe their agenda will be met by law, aware they are acting out of the law, but in effect being the law. There is rarely accountability for those involved. In fact, the display of the victim hanging for all to see is meant to scare off others, violators of perceived segregation or threats to authority. A perceived wrong to white women was often used as justification. Fueled by prejudice and mistruths, urged by a perceived threat or need for immediate justice, lynchings often occurred for reasons other than the alleged crime, like a land or business dispute. Lynchings occurred primarily with blacks men dying at the hands of a white mob, but white people were also targeted, for activism or outspokenness.

This would seem to be the case in Kentucky, where a white census worker was murdered, left hanged, naked, hands taped together, gagged, his ID taped to him and "FED" scrawled across his chest. To dispute that this heinous crime qualifies as a lynching is a very dangerous road to go down, even from people who email Whitehouse watermelon pictures. Nonetheless, some are inhumanly quick to venture any number of defamatory theories, blaming a victim who can no longer speak for himself, rather than acknowledge what is plain as day.

The manner in which Bill Sparkman was left to be found makes it clear that this was meant as a message. His body didn't have "Bill" scawled on it, or "Guy Who Wronged Me Personally In Ways That The Legal Process Will Not Adjudicate Fairly." No, it said simply, "FED," as in, what else is there to say? He was a federal employee--how dare he? But why on earth would someone want to kill a federal employee (outside of postal-worker-on-postal-worker violence)? How could population counting of American citizens to allot them equitable representation and public resources make them want to kill you?

Fanatical fear mongers, such as wrist-slasher and U.S. Representative Michelle Bachman, have sought to create fears of this census process that occurs every 10 years, alleging surveillance and plans to build government camps. She has been notably dodging the issue since Sparkman's murder, but she had plenty of unfounded fears to share about the census just months ago:

As you can see from this clip, ACORN has already been conflated with the right wing paranoia about the census, with FOX's Megyn Kelly re-enforcing these misperceptions up until Bachmann evokes the Japanese internment camps in World War II as reason for us to be suspicious today. That ACORN is raised as a specter in the same breath as the internment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. Government post-Pearl Harbor reveals the far-flung misimpressions of this community umbrella organization. ACORN sounds like COBRA.

The census worker lynching in Kentucky indicates that this violent fervor is still alive and well, and being fed some of the purest baloney that the right wing fear machine can mass-produce in their all-out efforts at relevance. The only danger presented by both census-taking and ACORN's voter registration is the counting and empowerment of Brown people. As the population includes more minorities--on their way to becoming the majority--plenty of bigoted white people feel their sense of prestige endangered. Census data goes into districting, and thus proportional representation in government. More Brown people voting further threatens the status quo.

By the standard of a high-tech lynching, ACORN's travails are commensurate. The attacks on ACORN have been ongoing, involving the Justice Department, the White House, and the Republican National Committee, well before a couple of privileged white kids in costumes wandered into poor communities across the country hoping to make social workers look stupid and lose their jobs. This is a mob Karl Rove started years ago.

James O'Keefe III is serving Karl Rove, knowingly or unknowingly. His very identification of ACORN as what had to be taken down a notch -- not Goldman Sachs, not the Treasury, not U.S. companies with off-shore accounts -- why would O'Keefe even know what ACORN is?

This extensive report on the Media's failure to objectively cover ACORN, just released by the Occidental College Urban & Environmental Policy Institute shows the rampant inequity of media coverage and lack of accuracy in reporting on ACORN for the past year. If someone were to see solely this much negative press, they would probably hold an unfavorable view of ACORN as well, as some 67% people do, according to a recent poll Karl Rove Tweeted.

Enter James O'Keefe III to take that ball of misinformation and run with it. On FOX & Friends, James O'Keefe III is introduced at the beginning of the interview, wearing a fur coat over his preppy blazer, as he waves a cane. The host is quick to excuse his appearance: "You're not a pimp, you're just playing one on our show."

O'Keefe replies: "I'm one of the whitest guys ever, I just wear ridiculous stuff and put people in ridiculous situations." That is how he assures us he is not a pimp--he is one of the Whitest Guys Ever, therefore on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Blackest Guys Ever, who normally tend to this kind of thing.

Implicit is this: 'I am so white, I had to dress up like a pimp caricature to look black, and it actually worked. That they acknowledged me despite my outlandish attire shows that they are so gullible and base, I was mistaken for a real pimp, which they all must know, being minorities. Once disguised in this clownish attire, they spoke to me as one of their own, so therefore this is how they all behave throughout their organization. Had I not been dressed as Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch, the ACORN employees would have known that I was white, and therefore been on their best behavior, as we can expect them to be to us white people when we come around to check on them.'

Just by walking in the door dressed like this, O'Keefe is casting aspersions that people like this would go there (not just sex workers--clueless sex workers). O'Keefe even pleaded with one alarmed ACORN worker to not call the cops for assistance, so that later O'Keefe can fault him for not calling the cops. As O'Keefe says in the above clip coldly, "That's who these people are."

O'Keefe is quick to generalize an entire national organization based on a singular intrusive experience, despite other ACORN offices not taking his bait, after admitting he went in there to prove they were thugs. If that's who these people really are, why not release the videotapes in their entirety to show that, including those tapes shot in cities that did not humor O'Keefe, like Los Angeles or Philadelphia, where the ACORN office filed a police report about the pimp and ho spectacle?

As O'Keefe insists in the clip above, ACORN's allegation that the tapes appear doctored is "a lie," so he shouldn't have a problem proving it by releasing the full unedited tapes, which would likely be part of ACORN's lawsuit against him. Refuting the "moral equivalence," O'Keefe decries that doctoring tapes does not even compare with child prostitution -- suggesting that to O'Keefe, the ends justify the means. Was this about the truth, or making ACORN look bad?

Lost in all of the sensationalism of O'Keefe's hyperbole and selective truths was that there has been no other connection between ACORN and underage prostitution, until O'Keefe walked in and started talking about it to any ACORN employee he could get to listen to him.

Try to explain this to the anti-ACORN vandalism that appeared immediately after O'Keefe's videos, notably at Shepard Fairy's art studio in Santa Monica. The stencil reading "ACORN Funded Prostitution Zone" doesn't take into account that there has been no evidence of actual prostitution, or that Shepard Fairy doesn't even have any connection to ACORN--but he made a poster for Obama, so they're all connected? This is the kind of hasty reaction that ties a bunch of unrelated things together in a mob's mind, searching for some easy target.

Many in the crankosphere were quick to chest-beat: "To defend ACORN is to defend child prostitution itself. No one can defend them now!" Actually, you can defend ACORN, and many have, because decades of real work in communities across our country still amounts to more than a fleeting image to a bunch of anonymous people in Gotcha Mode who do not know the reality of what ACORN is and will not bother to learn.

But once again, this is beside the point: Do I have to defend everything that ACORN has or has not done to decry this unjust process? Myself and others have attested to ACORN's greater good, but there is a critical need to refute gross misrepresentation and be vigilant in truth to rebuff future pitchfork-wavers.

In the wake of the fallout from the Pimp-Ho videos, the first government tie to drop ACORN was the Census Bureau, even though they do not pay ACORN for their service. Rep. Daniel Issa of Orange County introduced a measure to strip ACORN of all federal funding, which quickly passed with few questions. It passed so quickly, no one realized it could apply to all defense contractors, as it might should. Now, Democrats are falling over each other trying to score a major win for Republicans and enact a new measure to re-de-fund ACORN, just to be safe.

This is another characteristic of lynching: That it is not just the hate mongers doing it. This was carried out by the community. James Allen's Without Sanctuary, a book of postcards from the turn of the 20th century when lynching photos were like trading cards, includes this observation from Pullitzer Prize-winning historian Leon F. Litwack wrote:

"The photographs stretch our credulity, even numb our minds and senses to the full extent of the horror, but they must be examined if we are to understand how normal men and women could live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities, even reinterpret them so they would not see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another. For the men and women who comprised these mobs, as for those who remained silent and indifferent or who provided scholarly or scientific explanations, this was the highest idealism in the service of their race. One has only to view the self-satisfied expressions on their faces as they posed beneath black people hanging from a rope or next to the charred remains of a Negro who had been burned to death. What is most disturbing about these scenes is the discovery that the perpetrators of the crimes were ordinary people, not so different from ourselves - merchants, farmers, laborers, machine operators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, policemen, students; they were family men and women, good churchgoing folk who came to believe that keeping black people in their place was nothing less than pest control, a way of combating an epidemic or virus that if not checked would be detrimental to the health and security of the community."

James Allen himself reflects on the postcards of lynchings as pornographic fodder:

"I believe the photographer was more than a perceptive spectator at lynchings. The photographic art played as significant a role in the ritual as torture or souvenir grabbing - a sort of two-dimensional biblical swine, a receptacle for a collective sinful self. Lust propelled their commercial reproduction and distribution, facilitating the endless replay of anguish. Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary. "

On James O'Keefe III's Facebook page, one of his many new supporters posted, 'Is there some way to outlaw ACORN? And then anyone giving them money would be breaking the law.' While such strong federal government intervention seems to be counter to the Right's constant outcry of preventing such intrusion, it does aspire to bend the law to punish those who disagree, and set an example.

In no way am I suggesting that O'Keefe was, or is, consciously promoting racial violence, or even responsible for any that occurs in the wake of his smear job.

But at a lynching a hundred years ago, James O'Keefe III would have been the one taking the picture.