A young ACORN organizer reflects on negative media sensationalism and how it affected this so-called “radical” group of community organizers. ACORN Accusations: How the Right Got It Wrong
November 25, 2008
“It is these wackos… these anti American Afrocentric Black Liberation theologists working with ACORN… they have been training young black kids to hate-hate-hate this country… It was a movement, it was a Bill Ayers anti-capitalist anti-American educational movement, ACORN is how it was implemented right under our noses!… It has been a movement, it has been a religion.” – Rush Limbaugh
For over twenty years Deedee Ferro has worked to serve people in dire need of medical treatment. With a degree in electronics, she works 65-70 hours a week as a Biomedical Technician operating dialysis machines that cleanse blood for patients with failing kidneys. In short, Ferro keeps people alive.
However, when she’s not working, Ferro dedicates time out of her busy schedule to volunteer and lobby for local and national issues. “I work with my neighbors to get things addressed in my community,” she says, “Whether it is a stop sign or poor water quality, it’s necessary to take action.”
It was only eight years ago when Ferro was in civic hibernation. She became active after “they” came to her door. “They” as in Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a group recently derided by right-wing pundits as “radicals.” “For fifteen years I didn’t vote, or think that my voice mattered,” Ferro recounts. “But when they came to my door it was an eye-opener, and now I feel that my voice does count.”
In the months leading up to the November 4 presidential election, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators portrayed ACORN as militant, election stealing socialists and Obama’s anti-capitalist “crackhead” cronies ready for another round of free for all foreclosures. They accused ACORN members being a part of a criminal enterprise and illegally registering homeless voters.
In the latter stages of the campaign, right wing media reverted to sensationalized accounts of ACORN organizing tactics, focusing on isolated irregularities while painting its members as the antithesis of the American spirit. The attacks came in full force in October when voter registry offices in swing states such as Nevada, Indiana and Ohio reported a substantial amount of invalid registration forms turned in by the group. A media-frenzy ensued, labeling ACORN as Obama’s partisan puppets and accusing them of contributing to the nation’s economic woes and foreclosure rate.
ACORN struck back releasing a 30-second television ad that deemed the attacks a form of voter suppression and intimidation. Additionally, ACORN released a statement explaining that in nearly every case that has been reported, it was ACORN that discovered the bad forms and called them to the attention of election authorities.
Presently, ACORN has not been convicted of any form of voter fraud. With the election over, where does the group go from here?
San Francisco ACORN Community Organizer Grace Martinez feels it will be an upward battle. “We’re going to have to work harder then ever. The media gave us a reputation which will make it harder for us to accomplish things within our communities.” She added, “The media put our work and lives in jeopardy for their own political agendas. Organizers were getting death threats and it made me afraid for our safety.”
Since the media backlash major ACORN funding groups have begun to sever ties, such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. They released a statement suggesting, “It’s a mistake and an erroneous assumption when people equate ACORN activities with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.”
Reflecting on ACORN’s work with folks of modest means, ACORN Organizer John Adams said, “We organize around low and moderate income communities, and we feel that it’s important to provide employment opportunities for people to actually serve a purpose in their own community to get back on their feet.” Martinez added, “We don’t purposely go out and hire people [whom conservative media described as addicts], but this is what the people in our community look like.”
She added, “[The media] exploited a small percentage of our group and presented it to the public as all of us. It’s like saying all bank presidents snort cocaine and cheat on their wives.”
In order to prevent the employment of dishonest workers such as former ACORN employee James Barksdale, Martinez explains that ACORN facilitates an extensive training process before hiring. “We do an orientation to discuss the work, we test them out in the field, and we validate their ability to follow directions. If they are not able to perform the job coherently, we let them go.” She added, “We’re not naïve to believe that everyone will be honest. However we do need to be able to verify their work.”
Adams added, “It’s important to talk about our commitment to [registering voters] the right way, because we’re trying to do it at a scale that no one else is doing, which may be a reason why we are being attacked.”
For California ACORN Chair member Deedee Ferro the assumption that ACORN is a left wing partisan tool bothered her most. “I am non-partisan, and I know members in the group who are Republican. I felt personally attacked because I didn’t ask anyone. I just registered what party they were in.” She added, “ACORN has done a lot of great things that have yet to be seen in the media.
Behind the smoke of the political partisan blame game, ACORN’s positive work and accomplishments have been brushed under the rug of righteousness, tainting the group as the premier target for the far right wing. By focusing on a few bad apples, the media was able to stigmatize the entire group.
Although much of this media sensationalism has rendered undeniable blows to the group’s credibility, there is still an optimism many members have for the future and with the massive grassroots influence in President-Elect Obama’s historical victory, many organizers believe that there is a change in the awareness of how influential their work can be. As Adams posits, “The success of the ground work is viewed as a huge part of the win and it seems like there is now an overall perception that one individual can influence the way our government runs.”
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, but raised in Northern California, Ivan Natividad is 24 and a graduate from UC Santa Barbara, with majors in Global Studies and Asian American Studies. He has been organizing with ACORN in Bay Area communities with emphasis on neighborhood safety and violence. He loves music, film and peacocks.