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.”