What Progressives Must Learn from the ACORN Debacle

By Guest Contributor Rinku Sen originally published at ColorLines.com

If we do our work well, we should expect similar attacks and know that long track records won’t protect us.

I’ve been expecting it for months, but I was still bummed to see the official announcement: ACORN, a decades-old community organizing powerhouse, will be closing its operations permanently as of April 1. As I wrote last year, ACORN has been the subject of a concerted attack by the right and was largely abandoned when liberal supporters, including President Obama and Democratic members of Congress, distanced themselves. But the attack on ACORN isn’t about ACORN alone. It’s an important element of a conservative strategy to discredit the Obama administration, destroy organizing capacity among progressives and quiet voices for real change. They’ve helped shut ACORN’s doors. Now, it’s up to us to make sure the onslaught stops there.

A quick recap. For many years, ACORN has been attacked by conservatives for its massive voter registration program. Accusations of voter fraud during and after the 2008 election were eventually rejected by the courts, but they drew national attention nonetheless, fueled by efforts to link the organization to Barack Obama and by an earlier ACORN embezzlement scandal. Then, conservative activist James O’Keefe–who was arrested recently for plotting to tamper with Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s phones–released a video purporting to show ACORN staff advising a pimp and a prostitute on how to get away with tax fraud. The Brooklyn district attorney investigated that incident–in part by simply watching the unedited tape, something news organizations failed to do– and concluded that there was no unlawful activity at ACORN. But it was too late: Congress had already responded to incomplete news stories by banning ACORN from receiving government contracts, including for mortgage counseling and voter registration. A federal judge has ruled that ban unconstitutional, by the way.

I’m not ACORN apologist. The organization had some serious quality-control issues, and hasn’t always played well with others. The embezzlement could have been handled more forthrightly, for example, and in the struggle over Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards stadium project, a number of New York activists charged ACORN with cutting an inadequate deal with developers. I am struck now, though, by the ease with which a 40-year-old stalwart could be taken down with a flimsy, if concerted right-wing smear campaign. Some of the challenges ACORN faced are commonplace among progressive organizations and leaders. Loose internal oversight combined with poor media and communications skills left the organization prey to shoddy corporate journalism, all of which contributed to this outcome.

Conservative groups routinely make the same sorts of mistakes, but they don’t generally result in such massive losses. Why? Because conservative activists are not in the business of challenging entrenched power. Progressives have to remember that we run an oppositional movement, even with a Democratic president of color in the White House. We are fundamentally about changing the dominant way society is set up, and that will always make us a more likely target of attack than those working merely to maintain the status quo.

Race wasn’t the sole motivating factor behind the ACORN attacks, but the situation has some important racial dynamics. The vast majority of ACORN’s membership was black and Latino, and their work was centered in black and Latino neighborhoods. So although the organization engaged rarely in an explicit racial analysis, conservatives were able to play easily on racial stereotypes that paint people of color as oversexed frauds and cheaters. The one-bad-apple excuse, so effective in relieving police departments of responsibility for violent, racist cops, never seems to apply to institutions with large numbers of people of color. And images of O’Keefe dressed as a pimp and plotting crimes with black people quickly overwhelmed the facts–that at least one ACORN office called the cops on him, that the video contained demonstrably false assertions about ACORN’s federal funding or that it was heavily edited, to name a few.

Now we have to move forward, whether we’re filling the organizing space or building other resources for poor people of color. It will be tempting to think that if we all keep our practices clean we can avoid ACORN’s fate. But if we do our work well, we should expect similar attacks and know that long track records won’t protect us.  We will have to be as creative, broad-based and rigorous about our defense as we are about our other campaigns. If there isn’t already a plan in place, this is the time to make one.