ACORN's Real Crime: Empowering the Poor
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The name Felix Walker is not one you would recognize, but this 19th-century congressman inadvertently contributed a word to America's political lexicon that you will recognize--a word that fairly well sums up a lot of what we're getting these days from right-wing politicos and pundits.
In the 1820s, Walker was the U.S. representative for Buncombe County, North Carolina. In an age of great political orators, Walker was not one. He was a droner, a dull fellow known for expressing his dullness at great length on every topic. No matter what issue was up for debate in the House--no matter whether he had any real knowledge, facts, or insights to add--Walker would rise to speak, insisting that his constituents back home would want his voice heard. He would then launch into a wandering, wearisome, often-nonsensical discourse that he always called "a speech for Buncombe."
Exasperated colleagues began to refer to Walker's interminable prattling as "just so much buncombe," a phrase that has been passed down to us as "bunk"--a synonym for meaningless political claptrap.
We've been getting an overload of bunk in recent weeks from a gaggle of Fox-brained Republican Congress critters. They've been flapping their gums to demonize and destroy a grassroots group that has offended them by--get ready to be outraged--organizing and helping to empower thousands of Americans who live in low-income and working-class neighborhoods all across the country.
ACORN is this grassroots group. For four decades, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now has been going door to door, neighborhood to neighborhood, to extend basic democratic tools to people who've been dissed and dismissed by the political system. What ACORN's effort amounts to is civic education. Few members of the local chapters have ever been active in community decision making. After all, that process is usually held in the tight grip of moneyed interests who reside and work in distant, much tonier zip codes, and regular folks rarely are welcome.
Through ACORN, however, these powerless ones get an immersion in self-help democracy, learning how to operate in the public sphere to become both political and economic players. They form their own neighborhood organizations, elect officers, and choose a set of issues to push--from bank redlining to better garbage pickup, from rip-off utility bills to enforcement of antipollution regulations. They soon discover that working together, they have actual power to get things done through direct actions, group negotiations, and voter participation.
This democratization process is the essence of self-government, and ACORN has been remarkably successful at it. Having organized half a million members into 1,200 neighborhood chapters in 110 cities and 39 states, the group has become our nation's most effective voice of, by, and for modest-income families. As a Texas ACORN member put it, "Once you get involved, you will never be satisfied with grumbling again. After getting organized and making change happen, you can never go back to doing nothing."
An engaged, organized, educated, and motivated group of low-wage Americans with an agenda of progressive change is not a sight that delights the corporate establishment--especially when the group has proved to be an impressive force in congressional and presidential elections. This is why the money powers have unleashed (and funded) their snarling hounds of right-wing politics to go after ACORN with a blood lust.
It was in 2004 that national GOP political operatives first felt the group's growing grassroots punch. In the Bush-Kerry presidential run, ACORN members registered and helped turn out hundreds of thousands of voters in their neighborhoods, especially in such hotly contested states as Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. Most of those folks preferred the policies put forth by Kerry and several Democrats who were contending for congressional seats, thus adding substantially to the usual number of Democratic votes.