With the notable exception of handing over $700 billion to Wall Street last year, the United States Congress is not known for quick, decisive action. But recently, in a resounding bipartisan vote, members of both houses voted to deny federal dollars to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Over the past fifteen years, ACORN and its affiliates have received on average about $3.5 million a year from the government, or approximately one-millionth of this year’s budget.
The votes came just a few days after the release of a series of (now infamous) videos in which young right-wing activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles pose as a pimp and a prostitute. They take a hidden camera to a number of ACORN tax preparation offices around the country seeking tax and business advice. (Why a pimp and prostitute? Who the hell knows. Neither answered my request for an interview.)
The undercover duo provoked responses from ACORN staff that ranged from the unconscionable (an employee in Baltimore reacting to O’Keefe’s plan to bring in thirteen Salvadoran girls as prostitutes with the suggestion he claim some as dependents) to the obviously sketchy (a Brooklyn tax adviser suggesting the couple put their cash profits in a can and bury it in the backyard) to the praiseworthy (the ACORN offices in Philadelphia called the cops and filed a police report)–O’Keefe and Giles haven’t seen fit to post that tape. Mostly, though, the tapes are a testament to what might be called the Borat Effect: human beings’ intense socialization to be helpful and not rock the boat, even when confronted with someone doing something objectionable, outrageous or preposterous.
But if the disconcerting contents of the videos were the proximate cause of ACORN’s Congressional rebuke, it is the organization’s mission that made it a target. Since the 1970s, ACORN has committed itself steadfastly to building power for poor people. “Unlike almost any other institution on the left,” a former organizer told me, “they constantly gravitate toward the most fucked-over people.” Not surprisingly, this makes America’s right wing furious. O’Keefe says he was inspired to pull the stunt after watching a video that showed ACORN engaging in civil disobedience by breaking the padlock on a foreclosed home and escorting its locked-out owner inside. The video, O’Keefe told the Washington Post, made him “upset.”
For the past several years, reactionaries of every stripe have waged a relentless campaign aimed at delegitimizing ACORN, and the organization’s manifold dysfunctions have given them a steady stream of ammunition. “When I was working for them we’d hired all these low-income people, and we couldn’t even get them their paychecks on time,” another former ACORN organizer told me. “We were losing really good employees. It comes from this place where there’s so much work to do, we don’t do logistics because there’s always a crisis. But logistics matter.”
Last year news broke that the brother of Wade Rathke, who founded ACORN, had embezzled nearly $1 million. Rathke didn’t disclose it to the board. The revelations precipitated a change in management and a much-needed self-evaluation, a process formalized by ACORN’s announcement that former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger will “lead an independent inquiry into the organizational systems and processes surrounding the social services of the organization.”
For all its organizational problems, ACORN does vital, indispensable, unglamorous work: it trains legions of organizers, builds grassroots leadership and wages disciplined and effective local and statewide campaigns, such as its minimum-wage effort in Florida in 2004.
But it is hardly the colossus of right-wing mythology. For proof of ACORN’s meager influence, one need only look at the swift action by Congress to cut off its funding and compare that to the fate of other government contractors under a cloud of far more damning revelations. Like, for instance, Blackwater. As my colleague Jeremy Scahill has reported, a recent federal audit suggests that Blackwater may owe the government $55 million allegedly for failing to meet the terms of just one of its federal contracts. Five of its employees face murder charges for their role in the massacre of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Yet Blackwater’s $217 million security contract in Iraq was just extended indefinitely by the Obama administration. Or consider former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, which received $80 million in contract bonuses to provide electrical wiring in Iraq; so far, sixteen soldiers and two contractors have died from electrocution from that wiring, precipitating a comprehensive Defense Department review. And in what was perhaps the most buried news story of the summer, there was pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s $2.3 billion fraud settlement with the Justice Department for its illegal promotion of painkiller Bextra and other drugs. According to fedspending.org, Pfizer had more than $73 million in federal contracts in 2007 alone.
But the government contracts of Blackwater, KBR and Pfizer remain intact. (In a delicious bit of irony, the legislation defunding ACORN was written so broadly that Representative Alan Grayson and the Project on Government Oversight have compiled a list of firms they say fit the defunding criteria, and it reads like a Who’s Who of the military-industrial complex.)
The disparity in the treatment of Blackwater et al. and ACORN is part of a larger American problem, what might be called the Inequality of Accountability. We diligently apply the principle of accountability to the poor and the powerless, and the principle of forgiveness to the wealthy and powerful.
Even before it was punked by a couple of right-wing twenty-somethings, nobody knew that better than ACORN.
After all, their members see it every day.