February 23, 2010

Politico's Ben Smith reported yesterday that the James O'Keefe/Andrew Breitbart smear of ACORN, promoted so avidly by Fox News (and particularly Glenn Beck), had finally taken its toll:

The embattled liberal group ACORN is in the process of dissolving its national structure, with state and local-chapters splitting off from the underfunded, controversial national group, an official close to the group confirmed.

"ACORN has dissolved as a national structure of state organizations," said a senior official close to the group, who declined to be identified by name because of the fierce conservative attacks on the group that began when a conservative filmmaker caught some staffers of its tax advisory arms on tape appearing to offer advice on incorporating a prostitution business.


"Consistent with what the internal recommendations have been, each of the states are developing plans for reconstitution independence and self-sufficiency," said the official, citing ACORN's "diminished resources, damage to the brand, unprecedented attacks."

The new organizations, he said "will be constituted under new banners and new bylaws and new governance," he said, consistent with the recommendations of an outside panel.

Much of the group's strength lay in its local chapters in places like New York, which appear to be continuing to operate as normal. New York's City Hall News reported today that the local group there had re-emerged under the name "New York Communities for Change."

However, as CBS' Political Hotsheet reported, the reports of ACORN's demise may be somewhat premature:

... Kevin Whelan, an ACORN spokesman, denied the reports Monday afternoon, telling The American Prospect that "it is not true that ACORN is closed for business all across the country. It still exists."

That does not mean there isn't something afoot: In Brooklyn, a group called NY Communities For Change lists as its address the offices that had belonged to the Brooklyn chapter of ACORN.

In a statement late Monday afternoon, ACORN confirmed to Hotsheet that "today in New York a group of grassroots leaders and organizers who have worked with ACORN for many years announced today that they are establishing a new, state-based organization."

"ACORN's national leadership respects the decision of this dedicated group of community leaders who have done so much to help make their neighborhoods, cities, state, and the country a better and fairer place," said Whelan, the spokesman. "We know they will continue to do great work and we wish them well."

... In California, a group called Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment recently announced "the leadership and staff that were working with ACORN in California made the decision to break off from ACORN and launch a new organization." There are also reports that the Massachusetts chapter of the group has become "New England United for Justice."

Still, while the dissolution of ACORN's national structure may be occurring slow motion, the outcome is more or less the same: Returning community organizing to its local roots and focusing its strategies there.

While the national structure does not appear to be dissolved as of now, that process may effectively be underway. Whelan told Hotsheet in a statement that "It's no secret that ACORN has had to fight hard to survive a series of vicious right wing attacks over the past year and half and that this has made it harder for ACORN to raise funds and organize and serve its members."

"We understand the desire of local grassroots leaders in some states to move ahead focusing solely on the fight to improve their communities," he said.

On his show yesterday, Beck didn't exactly gloat over the victory for his team. Instead -- as he did after Van Jones resigned -- he made clear he was just getting started. Next in his sights will be those local community organizers.

And the bizarre thing is that the whole outcome is built on a lie.

Nevermind that an independent investigation found that O'Keefe and Co. had grotesquely manipulated their videos. Nevermind that they perpetrated a huge hoax on the public by pretending that O'Keefe had worn an outrageous "pimp" outfit into the videotaped sessions (he hadn't).

The upshot is that Breitbart, Beck and the pro-corporate rightists whose agenda they've been promoting in attacking ACORN have succeeded in demolishing the most effective national community-organizing apparatus.

And yes, Mr. Breitbart, you succeeded through innuendo and sleaze, by making it your mission to destroy people's lives. No irony there, eh?

The lesson: Douchebaggery works. And no one has less compunction about using it than right-wing, pro-corporate operatives.

There is one major reason the Right has so viciously attacked community organizers like ACORN: They have become one of the most effective means of getting out the progressive vote, particularly in enrolling minorities as voters. It was a major component of the 2008 tide that swept conservatives out of power.

Remember the GOP's bizarre attacks on community organizing in the 2008 campaign, led by Sarah Palin? Well, they certainly didn't stop after the election. The O'Keefe/Breitbart smear existed for one reason: to defund the Left. (Breitbart was explicit about this being his mission last night on Red Eye.)

The ACORN attacks have muddied the funding picture for all progressive groups, and were ultimately enabled by the cowardly response of Democrats:

Few people would defend the mistakes, mismanagement, poor staff training, and lack of accountability that has marred Acorn practices in the past. Indeed, the current leadership of the organization has acknowledged those shortcomings and is trying to do something about them.

But the critics have gone much further than Acorn deserved. In the assault on Acorn, no lies have been spared, no accusations tempered by reason, and no acknowledgment has been made of the enormous good Acorn has done over the years. Behind the attacks are a deep hatred of liberals and progressives—especially those in the Obama administration—and a lack of concern and respect for poor and minority constituencies. It is part of a strategy to divert attention away from the important legislative efforts that many conservatives don’t want to succeed: a health-care overhaul; stiffer environmental standards; tougher regulations for financial institutions; and efforts to create jobs.

While lies, innuendos, and unproved accusations by conservative critics and politicians might have been expected, it is harder to explain why mainstream observers and progressive politicians have not questioned many of the anti-Acorn criticisms and allegations.

Only six Democrats in the Senate were gutsy enough to oppose the bill that prohibits Acorn from receiving any more federal money. Their Democrat colleagues, including some of the allegedly most progressive senators, like Tom Harkin of Iowa and Charles Schumer of New York, ran for political cover and voted to support the measure, scared by the onslaught of right-wing broadcasts and newspaper articles. Ironically, Senator Schumer had appeared two months earlier in Washington at an Acorn fund-raising event where he lavished praise on the work and accomplishments of the organization.

Those senators, as well as all but 75 members of the House, which passed a similar bill, accepted the substance of the allegations against Acorn without bothering to verify them or to ask Acorn and its supporters to present their side of the story.

Community organizers need progressives' backs, not the backs of their hands. It's time to start fighting back, loudly, against these smears and lies.

Here at C&L, we've tried to track the anti-ACORN douchebaggery, but so much of it has been buried in the nonstop onslaught from right-wing talkers that in many ways we too had a role in the failure to prevent this horrendous outcome. Most of all, I think we failed to call out Democrats for their spinelessness. Well, no longer.

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