Tuesday Sep 18

EXCERPT FROM Nuts & Bolts: ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing

The ACORN brand stood for something. It spoke of actions, aggressive pursuit, and success in voter registration, housing, and community improvements, which attracted members and their fervent loyalty, and opponents and their continuing antipathy.

The very power of the brand is also the conundrum for the ACORN successor organizations in the United States and why I would maintain that ACORN must and will (should and might?) rise again. Even years after ACORN pulled the plug in the states, the former ACORN organizations are still on any list of groups on the Congressional defunding amendments. Other funders, regardless of how shortsighted their advice might have been at the time, need to come to grips with the reality and not continue to be cowed by the right wing “optics,” as many spoke of the problem. The rest is legal quibbling. The left and right are in perfect agreement that these state organizations are simply ACORN with another name, and that either brings joy or hate to the heart depending on your perspective. It is equally clear that simply operating on the state level or past that as national networks by any name, such federations, even PICO and Gamaliel, as good as they are, along with others that have developed, cannot hope to build the kind of brand and discipline that ACORN was able to create as one unitary organization.

More importantly, friends and foes, as well as ACORN’s own work for forty years in some cities and communities around the country, created an evergreen legacy with our constituency that is more powerful than any opponents or a federal or state funding ban. Whether me or someone and something else, it is just a matter of time, before ACORN is revived to build again from that base and brand, the devil take the hindmost. Actions and tactics have to communicate, and as long as ACORN continues to communicate in such a dramatic, hardwired, visceral way to the heart and soul of America, it is just a matter of time before its banner is picked up again to rally the troops.

Among the most famous ACORN tactics were squatting and street blocking. In the case of squatting or physically occupying abandoned homes in order to link houses that needed families with families that needed homes, the tactic was expressly tailored to fit the needs of the housing campaign which it did spectacularly. The squatting tactic also had a range of subsidiary options. The squatting could be symbolic with an “opening” of the house, a taking of possession, posting a sign, and demanding title, or depending on the campaign, family, and circumstance, we could physically break in, forcibly turn on water and electric, and physically occupy the home with the full neighborhood part of the defense of the property and the squatter. At this level the tactic ratcheted up the pressure many levels especially when the property was controlled by the city or its housing authority and we were trying to win a broader program of homesteading or a $1 purchase program. At that end of the tactical scale it might also involve being willing and able to take arrests for trespassing, which were sometimes provoked by long extended occupation or in the case of federal Housing Urban Development (HUD) owned houses, squatting insured virtually immediate arrest at the point we entered the home. In one day of action HUD arrested around twenty-five people from Columbus, Ohio to Fort Worth, Texas for our demanding that they should move the houses back to people.

Physically squatting was very effective in the cities where we were able to build sympathy for the squatters and their families against the grisly backdrop of an abandoned house. Even though we were breaking the cardinal principle of the United States, the protection of private property, it was so clear that an abandoned and decaying house was in no one’s public or private interest so the support was often very strong for the morality of our position as opposed to the technicality of the law, which is an excellent tactical position. Infrequently there was a backfire; the most notorious for us was the case of the charismatic Lisa Redd in Detroit, where after several days of escalating support and sympathy for her, putting incredible pressure on then mayor, Coleman Young, the papers broke the fact that Redd was guilty of so-called welfare fraud. We ended up winning a program in Detroit, but it took us years to do so after that setback. We learned a hard lesson about vetting the public faces and leaders of our campaigns.

Street blocking worked well in winning neighborhood issues particularly when the tactic followed an immediate traffic accident involving any kind of injury, real or perceived, to a child, such as speeding or no signs in a school zone. There the rage and the rationale fit the tactic to the strategy like a hand to a glove.

Street blocking also works well as a general purpose tactical alternative in an escalating strategic situation where we needed to force a governmental target to have to respond on an issue by triangulating an issue for our constituency with critical disruption to a constituency
that the city or other governmental entity valued more highly. Not infrequently, in city after city, when push came to shove, ACORN would block traffic at central arteries and times for business commuters to the central business districts in major cities, and it would be hell to pay. Interestingly, there were few tactics that got more attention and less press than street blocking. The tactic was the equivalent of a citizen strike and could be exercised in hit-and-run fashion by relatively few people in certain situations. Twenty folks could create virtual gridlock at a four-way interchange, if they were willing to endure the horn blaring and cursing of the commuters until the police show up, make their point, then dissipate, and turn up again with the same folks or another group at a similar intersection then blocks or ten miles away. Over the years we took relatively few arrests on this tactic, but the message almost invariable got delivered forcibly.

Blocking interstates or flyways was a more dangerous escalation and one that I do not believe we ever tried anywhere more than a handful of times. The speed of the cars and the logistics on expressways were daunting.

Dropping a sign or acting on interchanges for entry or exit were easier, and more likely to still engage local police rather than state police, so were more practicable.

Bridges were choke points that were easier to access and more dramatic of course and very frustrating to city forces. The overreaction of the police in New York City to the bridge march by Occupy Wall Street was a turning point in that movement given the initial indifference to the
encampment, and their ability to not only take the police rage, but skillfully get the videos out on YouTube and pictures out on other social media, introduced a flagging movement to a larger audience that resonated powerfully.

Washington, DC is another city where bridges are a huge choke point. It was fascinating to hear the parry and thrust of internal debate at the AFL-CIO convention during its historic election between John Sweeney and Tom Donahue over the issue of whether or not it was tactically appropriate for labor to block bridges. This debate and Sweeney’s initial embrace of more effective and militant tactics seemed to speak to a new strategy for labor and a new tactical period of innovation at the time, though it turned out hope was not a plan.

Unfortunately more imaginative and aggressive tactics have not evolved independently by labor, although many of the tactics of community organizations have been adopted by labor campaigns increasingly. Additionally some of the more effective corporate campaign tactics for labor continue to be under legal and political attack. On the eve of Obama’s first election the successful plant closing sit-in at the Chicago door and frame company seemed to herald the prospects of tactical workplace seizures reminiscent of the activity of many workers during the Argentine financial crisis, but this proved to be more flicker than flame.[95]

Strikes which were the tactical nuclear weapon for unions have been falling in number and size almost annually for several decades. More recently a faux strike by a few Walmart and fast food workers has proven a widely effective tactic for bringing attention and publicity to the
plight of these lower waged workers and their demands for significant pay increases and living wages, though these are not strikes in the classic sense of actions designed to inflict economic loss to a firm’s bottom line. These are what we might call in light of the previous conversation “branding strikes” or “publicity” strikes or perhaps symbolic strikes,[96] designed to harm the corporate image more than the real balance sheet of McDonalds or certainly Walmart. Whether these tactics are strategic in the sense of achieving unionization or simply advancing the longstanding campaign for living wages will be closely watched.

The United Farm Workers boycott of grapes and lettuce during the late 1960s and 1970’s accompanying the spate of successful organization in California and Arizona seemed to herald a tactical breakthrough there, as did the de facto embargo internationally of South Africa around the persistence of apartheid and the Nestle boycott, but boycotts though frequently threatened have not had as impressive a record in recent decades or as ready a weapon in the 21st century arsenal, despite the media effectiveness of the Color of Change and Sleeping Giants. Partially the law has not evolved to favor the tactic. The penalties for damages can be organizational death sentences. Injunctions have rained like summer showers on unions and others. Even in the best of situations they involve a huge burden of moral rectitude, vast organizational marketplace reach, especially for national and international firms or targets, and significant staffing and financial resources able to be expended over an indeterminate period of time. The checklist before engaging in such boycotts is daunting.

Organizers reading Trampling out the Vintage might raise questions about even the effectiveness of many of the UFW boycotts other than the initial ones and whether even in that case we also find a situation where the tactic overwhelmed the strategy, at least if the strategy was to build a union. Although indisputably Chavez and his colleagues built something that has lasted even if what they have is an amalgamation of
nonprofits rather than a collective bargaining, dues paying membership-based institution. Reading Trampling also makes it impossible to ignore the fact that the success of some tactics also rests on the thin line between the pressure and protest of direct action and gloves-off, no holds barred violence.

It is common knowledge and well documented whether in cinematic form in John Sayles’s, Matawan, Barbara Koppel’s Harlan County documentary, or numerous other accounts that in mineworker strikes bullets were often blazing. Entering the Service Employees from the United Labor Unions, we often listened with mouths gaping wide to stories of the janitors’ strikes in big cities that featured bombs blowing
up toilets, as well as receiving fascinating advice in our orientation about where in Manhattan we could buy skunk oil, but it was still something of a surprise to read behind the public persona of Cesar Chavez, the hard fisted, violent “wet works” and pitched, dangerous battles and destruction in the fields. For example I know Chava Bustamente well, and always found him a sweet and gentle man, who would kid me about the time I got him to visit an avian museum with me in Saltillo, Mexico during an Enlace meeting in order to see the bird habitat dioramas, but to read about he and a team of folks chopping down 80 acres of lettuce one night and then getting caught trying to break a scab herder’s car window to incinerate his vehicle, says to me that such activity must have been epidemic in the constant strikes in the California fields.

Violence is not only as “American as apple pie” as Baton Rouge born civil rights organizer Rap Brown claimed, but is also lingua franca around the world. There are now generations of Palestinians who have been arrested and served time for rock throwing, no matter how ineffective, simply because it was a tactic that defined resistance, even if futile. Say what one may about the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in governance in Egypt, their willingness to fight military power in the name of whatever definition they hold for democracy and suffer 2000 injuries and 700 deaths is either a profile in courage or something unnameable that few other organizations can even imagine. The willingness of many, whether in China or Prague or Hungary, to face tanks with their own bodies is also past most of our understanding of political action.

Wade Rathke is the Chief Organizer of ACORN International, Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN (1970-2008), and Founder and Chief Organizer of Local 100, United Labor Unions (ULU). Nuts & Bolts: ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing is available from Social Policy Press at www.socialpolicy.org

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