Lost in the Archives

Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Madison   Somehow I thought a week would be more than enough to go through the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Now at the midpoint I feel like I’m trapped somewhere between 1970 and 1985 and can’t get out for the life of me. It’s all a unique, interesting, somewhat unsettling, and bizarre experience.

Going into the archive waiting and working area is a little like being a visitor in a jail. You sign in and show your ID, logging your time of entry. You have to lock up your belongings in a locker or closet. They don’t exactly frisk you for sharp objects, but they definitely require you to stow your pens and issue you a pencil if you must write something down. In a funny way it makes sense of course. They don’t want folks to walk away with historical documents that they are storing for safekeeping obviously, nor do they want them defaced or marked. To keep the prison analogy going you also have to put in a request to see a specific box, which they then disappear into the bottom floors of the building and return later and issue to you.

Around 1990 when I had a brief stay as the “activist in residence” for almost a month at the University of Wisconsin, and my friend and comrade, Professor Joel Rogers, introduced me to the people at the society because they had a renowned “Social Change Collection.” Many of the civil rights organizations had their records here. I knew the National Welfare Rights Organization, where I had once worked, had their records here. The famous Highlander Center in Tennessee had all of their records here. I had also had no success in reaching out to the University of Arkansas or their branch in Little Rock to get them to agree to take ACORN’s records with any interest and the same story had been repeated at the University of New Orleans. The final deciding point had been that the historical society was funded directly by the state legislature and in 1990 that sealed the deal because it seemed in the pre-Walker era to mean that they would always receive adequate support to maintain the records, which is a must for archives.

Once the deal was made, we would start shipping records up to them via UPS, but I had never actually been back to see what was happening or how the whole thing was set up. I was here now thinking I could go through them somewhat quickly and gather material for a book of “readings” collected from old memoranda and reports that would give an original source look at how ACORN had been built and operated. It’s turning out to be a much harder task than I had imagined. The records are kept based on when they are received, so I’m trapped in boxes and boxes from the first 15 years. The database doesn’t even acknowledge any records from 2008 on, because they still have not been accessed into the system. Of course since the records came from many different locations and the idiosyncratic filing or non-filing system of many field offices, organizers, researchers, lawyers, and others, there are duplications galore and trails that dead end quickly.

None of that is the fault of the collection or the archivist here, but for my task it’s all somewhat frustrating. Finding something interesting means walking over to the scanner and putting the document through page by page so that it emerges as a PDF on a thumbdrive. Then a record of the file needs to be typed in the computer with a title, the file needs to be labeled accordingly on the drive, and transferred to a larger hard drive. You get the picture?

So, I have two days left now, and I’m already reassessing and doing triage to see whether there’s a way to move more quickly or stay the course, box by box. At some point just like reading the newspaper, I’ll just have to look for the pictures to tell another story.

Making history is one thing, but leaving records so that the history can be assembled at some point is quite another I’m finding.

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Celebrating ACORN’s 46th Birthday

DSCN1298Quito    At the annual Americas’ meeting of many of ACORN’s organizers in Quito, after a lengthy conversation about implementing our plans for an internet radio station to kick off in mid-August with shows from all of the offices interspersed with music replayed from our existing stations, a cake came out and by popular request we did our best trying to sing a recent organizing song along the lines of Drake’s “Hot Line Bling.” The meeting had been good, spirits were high, plans were in place, but at the same time the discussions had been serious and sober, and we were humble to the task.

The challenge for senior staff, including myself, can be the wide view from the front windshield of opportunity, compared to the vast and expansive accomplishments in the rear view mirror. ACORN Canada has become a powerhouse with huge victories and campaigns protecting and advancing the interests of tenants and consumers. Work in France, the United Kingdom, and India is encouraging and exciting, and opportunities seem to increasingly abound for ACORN in Europe, if we can get our arms around them. We may have our first meeting ever of all of our organizers in Africa this fall, which would allow us to potentially turn a corner there for the future. Consolidating and tightening our program in Latin America may allow us to finally solidify the work and victories there over the last dozen years. Reports are starting to emerge that auger for real impact and deep alliances around rural electric cooperatives in the southern United States and accountability for charity care in nonprofit hospitals, lending and financial discrimination in the United Kingdom, and threats to remittances globally. Partnerships with colleges and universities are extending the organization’s reach and resources. Plans for upgrading training tools with better technology and investment could be significant. It was exciting to sit around this table!

At the same time it was a small table, compared to the giant halls where ACORN annual organizers’ meetings were held in the past. 150,000 members globally is not the same as almost a half-million concentrated in one country, like the United States. Frequently, we’re involved in throwback situations to the early and mid-1970s where we’re trying to put twenty pounds to work into a one-pound bag and a stuff a thousand people into a clown car.

But, the key is to keep moving and moving forward, which is part of what emerges at every birthday celebration. The alternatives are devastating, embracing the next day, and the opportunities of life and work are everything.

At 46 years the main celebration is the excitement that the organization and the work continues, and is important and winning. It’s a milestone, but just another day. Next year on the 47th anniversary, we will be at the biennial convention of ACORN Canada in Ottawa.

There’s a lot to be done. Time to think about where we will be when we gather for the 50th!

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The Obstacles to Closing the Digital Divide are Ideological and Naive

Students from a nearby elementary school start to filter into the 81st Avenue Branch Library after school lets out in Oakland, Calif. on Thursday, May 5, 2016. The Oakland Public Library has eliminated fines on all children's materials and will soon urge city officials to ban fines for all patrons.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

New Orleans   You may be hearing this on the radio, but the chances are also good that you are reading – and maybe even hearing — this on your computer because you have broadband internet access. Yet, as most of us realize, at least 10% of the American people or more than 35 million folks, do not have broadband access, and you need to add another almost 8 million lower-income people who only have access through mobile phones, which is something, but still leaves a Grand Canyon gap to be closed when it comes to bridging the divide, and it’s ridiculous to claim otherwise. In 45 states, 20% of the public assistance programs for low income families require fixed broadband access in order to successfully apply.

Faithful readers and listeners know that this is a huge issue for me and for ACORN everywhere, but I’m beating on this drum again because of an interview in the New York Times with perhaps the best of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) members, Mignon Clyburn. Clyburn knows how to get things done and has the connections to make things happen in broad terms in Washington, since she is also the daughter of the 3rd ranking Congressman James Clyburn from South Carolina where she was also a former member of the Public Service Commission there. Clyburn’s remarks there were both the best and worst of what we might hope for if we want to create “internet for all.”

At one level, Commissioner Clyburn is a staunch advocate of bringing full broadband to lower income families, and has been aggressive in trying to make it happen, but where she reaches her limits are ideological in that she can’t break out of a neoliberalist commitment to hopes and prayers that benevolent corporations will somehow miraculously solve the problem. Or, perhaps worse, she washes her hands of a government role, arguing that “the community will demand the service.”

Despite her advocacy in general she is still counting on jawboning companies involved in mergers by applying a little stick if they want their big carrot. Most recently in Charter’s merger with Times Warner cable the FCC required the company to create a reduced price service for lower income families and to extend its coverage to another two million homes. These $10 per month programs might be something we could believe in, except that one company after another starting with Comcast where their merger with Universal required such a program, and followed by other companies supposedly “volunteering” to implement such programs, have failed to deliver or meet their goals and the FCC does virtually nothing to enforce its orders or monitor the volunteer efforts, making them pretty much little more than worthless press releases and icing with no cake underneath.

On Google Fiber and its community expansions where they require a certain portion of a community to enroll – and pay – in order to get high speed service, Commission Clyburn leaves it to the community to demand it, even while understanding that the community isn’t demanding it, because they can’t afford it. She’s talking a walk through a side door here. Perhaps she’s hoping that the community will demand that the city or someone else subsidize it, because the FCC record with telecoms they regulate delivering on these demands is abysmal.

When asked why she has such “trust in carriers to do the right thing,” she naively replies that, “I don’t think there is any business that wants to be perceived as not being a good partner with society.” Wow! The list starts with Comcast but almost all of the telecoms would be poster models for not giving a flying hoot about being a “good partner with society” or even their paying customers, much less lower income families.

When asked why it took a call from her to get a high school in Mississippi better broadband service, which as the reporter points out, “shows people don’t have the power to get better broadband on their own,” her reply is stone cold depressing. She says, “Is it a perfect system? Heck no…but it will get done…and that is the beauty of having local, state, and federal regulators. Yes, it may take some years to get broadband rolled out to all cities, but it’s going to get done.”

For Commissioner Clyburn, perhaps the best the FCC has to offer, somehow it is still all good if relief and justice is in the great “by and by.” Meanwhile the damage to millions of lower income families is incalculable. How does she sleep with that under her pillow?

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Muhammed Ali Was a Man of the People

w583h583_37461-african-american-involvement-in-the-vietnam-war-muhammad-aliNew Orleans    In the continuing conversation following the death of Muhammed Ali, a beloved champion of a controversial sport, and a controversial figure who pulled off the magic trick of being beloved and respected even by many who disagreed with his views on war, politics, and race, it is interesting to see how deep his footprints were among real people, not just celebrities. Part of Ali’s appeal was plain and simply that he genuinely seemed to love people, and despite being a “race” man, as many of our older members might have called him, he was a “little people” man, rather than someone who lost himself in the celebrity stratosphere. He never got what Steve McDonald, the first ACORN president, called, “the big head.”

It’s been interesting to collect some telling stories about close encounters with Ali that reveal all of this.

Mike Gallagher, an old friend and organizing comrade over many decades, was originally from the Wilkes-Barre area of Pennsylvania. He shared this story involving one of his brothers and his dear mother, now 96.

The sad news today about the passing of Muhammad Ali reminded me of a chance meeting between the Greatest and my tiny mother many years back:

After his championship heyday and before he finally quit the ring, Ali had a training camp up in the mountains in Pennsylvania not too far from where I grew up. Those of you who were in Fair Share will remember our hilarious friend and colleague Richard Montgomery, a sometime sparring partner who knew the facility well.

One day my mother and one of my younger brothers were out for a drive. They stopped for gas and soon after Muhammad Ali and his large entourage pulled in to the same station. As they were both filling up, they got to talking, one thing led to another and my mother and brother were invited up the mountain for lunch. There Ali fed them and kept them entertained for the rest of the afternoon with stories and jokes and they left star struck. My mother, who is now 96 and frail but lucid, said he was so charming, kind, funny and warm that the time just flew right by.
Tell me that isn’t a dear, dear story!

Here’s another one a bit more political. It’s a reminiscence from Beth Butler, a longtime ACORN community organizer in New Orleans involving Ali and Sherman Copelin, who had, with Donald Hubbard, been promoters of Ali’s bout against Leon Spinks in 1978 in the Superdome, and before that were cofounders of SOUL, the 9th ward political organization that played a huge role in African-American and all politics for decades.

Muhammad Ali and Sherman Copelin crashed an ACORN PAC (Political Action Committee) meeting in the early 80s, in the lower 9 [9th Ward]. Elizabeth Rogers got a jab in about how “he had done nothing for his people since he left Russia” He was pleased that she remembered, but Sherman thought that it was time to leave, and the group then proceeded to endorse the other candidate.

Elizabeth Rogers was an outlier even for an ACORN member back then. With her husband, they were back-to-the-thirties committed leftists, who were white, but lived in the largely African-American lower nine. Rogers held her tongue for no one, and also according to Butler told him to put away his “red handkerchief” because he had more important things to do than magic tricks for all “his people.” That Ali took that “punch with a smile,” also says something profound about the heart and soul of the man.

William C. Rhoden, a sports columnist for the New York Times, and a black man living still in Harlem, in a moving personal reflection about Ali never having sold out and having set a very high bar for not doing so, summed up the special nature of this man and what his life taught as well, saying,

“What I gleaned from Ali’s life, as I’ve lived mine, is that the goal is not to go through life undefeated. The quest is to exercise resilience and come back stronger.

Beloved by much of the world, Ali was nonetheless consistently, unapologetically black.

I loved that about him. Muhammad Ali was an ungentrified black man.”

And, a man of the people. All the people.

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Libertarian Tech Billionaire Peter Thiel Had Set His Sights on ACORN

 Getty Images for New York Time

Getty Images for New York Time

New Orleans  This is a bit unusual for the Chief Organizer’s Report, but a piece by Steven Thrasher in The Guardian, published in the United Kingdom, gives progressives a better understanding of what is at stake in the billionaires’ war against free speech, the poor, and really all of us. Hang with me, because this is where the knife hits the bone.

Peter Thiel’s Gawker war not his first brush with a high-priced vendetta.

Billionaire’s investment in conservative James O’Keefe’s ‘sting’ video may have had a long term – and negative – impact on progressive causes

By Steven W. Thrasher in The Guardian

Watching Peter Thiel, the libertarian billionaire, waging war on Gawker Media has reminded me that there was a time when Thiel himself backed another controversial media figure famed for causing outrage in his pursuit of the “truth” – conservative “film-maker” James O’Keefe.

Thiel, who has been in the news … for underwriting the legal fees of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, has sparked a heated debate about the free speech implications of a billionaire using his cash to muzzle media organizations.

But he has also used his money to fund people who set out to greatly harm progressive causes including public media, housing for poor people, and rational perceptions about immigrants and voting.

In 2009 Thiel invested in O’Keefe, a conservative agitator whose undercover videos (some dishonestly edited to present things that never happened or just plain wrong) were used to undermine liberal causes.

Before admitting to backing Gawker’s biggest lawsuit, Thiel was best known – as much as the billionaire was known at all outside Silicon Valley – as an early investor in companies such as PayPal and Facebook.

He also has been a longtime champion of conservative causes, backing GoProud, a now defunct lobbying body for gay Republicans sick of the “centrist” Log Cabin Republicans.

But his early investment in O’Keefe (who has since pleaded guilty to breaking into a US senator’s office and paid $100,000 to a victim of his smears) may have had the most long-term – and negative – impact.

Shortly after I began working as a writer at the Village Voice in 2009, O’Keefe was in the news for making his first breakout “sting” video, which seemed to show him dressed as a pimp and conservative blogger Hannah Giles dressed as a prostitute. They appeared to approach various offices of Acorn (the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, one of the most powerful grassroots organizations for poor brown and black people which did important work with voter registration and housing access) to ask for their assistance in avoiding taxes, which they seem to get.

Eventually, the videos were debunked – but not until they had done tremendous damage. As I wrote in 2010:

O’Keefe had carefully edited his tapes and left out, for example, that he was decked out in college preppie clothes, not pimp-wear. At least one Acorn office threw him out, and at least two knowingly played along with his ruse. (The San Diego office called the cops after he left, and the Philadelphia office filed a police report.) The upshot was that after his edited tapes became public, Congress quickly voted to strip ACORN of all federal funds. The organization effectively went out of business before the bill could take effect or be thrown out in court.”

O’Keefe later made outrageous, selectively edited videos that would lead to significant outcomes, like the ousting of NPR’s CEO, even though that video was thoroughly debunked when the raw video was seen. But going back to 2009, I got a tip that O’Keefe was not “absolutely independent”, as he claimed, but that he had received funding from one Peter Thiel for a video he’d made earlier in the year called “Taxpayers Clearing House”.

The opening of Taxpayers Clearing House is pretty racially offensive. As Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie plays, O’Keefe rides around in a van that looks like the Publisher’s Clearing House Prize Patrol, a well-known American sweepstakes that surprises entrants with a $1m prize. He approaches unsuspecting black and brown people in their homes, duped into thinking they are going to win money when he rings their bell. Instead, he presents them with a bill for $28,000 – the portion of their bill, he says, for the 2008 bailout of Wall Street banks. The whole thing is framed to make minorities look stupid, dumb and greedy.

Asked about Thiel’s involvement, his spokesman James O’Neill, told me that the billionaire had provided O’Keefe with “about $10,000” to make the video through a “small-government group”. He also denied Thiel had involvement with the Acorn videos, adding that he’d only “watched them on YouTube” and “he shares the view that taxpayer money should not promote human trafficking”. (No taxpayer money was ever used to promote human trafficking.)
This incident reveals a few things about Thiel’s reach, the scale of his attacks on liberal politics, and the effectiveness of both outside the domains of traditional press and presidential politics.

While Thiel did not directly fund the Acorn videos, he funded the film-maker who did shortly before they were made; those videos not only managed to destroy Acorn, but they helped Republicans keep voting to defund it for years after it was dead and to convince half of Republican voters in 2012 that Acorn had stolen the election for Obama in 2008.

Would O’Keefe have been able to get that video made, as widely seen, and effectively considered but for Thiel’s startup funding? It’s a counterfactual. But if we are to take seriously the idea that Thiel’s initial half-million-dollar investment in Facebook entitles him to a portion of the value of the company that dominates so much everyday life today, we must also seriously consider that his startup investment in O’Keefe has had a handsome return on investment, too.

Fast forwarding to the Gawker case, Thiel ominously told the New York Times that he “refused to divulge exactly what other [media lawsuit] cases he has funded but said, ‘It’s safe to say this is not the only one.’” So there are an unknown number of media lawsuits he has going on. In 2009, the already billionaire mogul was willing to give a paltry $10,000 to an unknown video troublemaker, who has done a great deal of damage to progressive politics. How many things is he involved with? Only Thiel knows, and we can only wait to find out.

It’s fitting that Thiel funded the crude Taxpayers Clearing House video in 2009. Shortly after O’ Keefe’s video came out, Thiel wrote an essay for the libertarian Cato institute complaining that: “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” With that in mind it makes ideological sense that he should align himself with O’Keefe, both early warriors in the backlash against the Voting Rights Act that grew during the Obama years.

Thiel is a Trump delegate. Trump too has warned he’ll crack down on the press if elected. But the power of a billionaire like Thiel doesn’t just expose problems with the freedom of the press in general or Gawker specifically. It is easy to argue that Gawker’s woes are of its own making – outing Thiel and others, (said by some to have triggered his initial rage), and publishing sex tapes without permission isn’t exactly going to win a lot of public sympathy (disclosure – I’ve written for them a couple of times years ago and have friends who work there).

What Thiel has exposed is that the problem with American politics (and America in general) is capitalism. Unfettered capitalism lets the Thiels of the world do what they want, largely when they want, and largely legally. If a plutocrat wants to build a private island free from government influence, they probably can. If they want to circumvent even America’s toothless gun restrictions by supporting a 3D printer for guns, they can do that, too. We are almost powerless to stop anything we have learned about Peter Thiel; he has the money and power to legally stave off financial competitors, fund foot soldiers to strike down community organizers, and (almost as an afterthought) deeply influence the media and presidential politics.

This is what American capitalism creates.

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Does the New Overtime Rule Really Affect Nonprofits and Organizers?

overtimeNew Orleans     Randy Shaw, the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and its burgeoning empire, first challenged me to think about whether the new FLSA overtime guidelines would prevent any future prospects of building a farmworkers’ movement or an ACORN, both of which famously focused on building an army of volunteer and professional organizers working “long hours at low pay,” as ACORN advertised for years. The new overtime rules, long overdue, as more and more people are realizing, double the level of eligibility for overtime from a 2004-floor of a bit over $23,000 per year to the mid-$47000 range. On organizing programs that are not easily shoehorned into a 40-hour grid, such a jump seems like a huge budget buster and dream crusher. Both the US Public Interest Research Group, the Nader-created group of researchers and students, and Judicial Watch on the right had both expressed fears of the new rules impact and how it would hurt their work.

Looking into this all more carefully and going back to the basics, I remembered our many tussles with the fine men and women of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, an understaffed and overworked group, I mean this seriously, the likes of which has few parallels in government. At different times we were able to establish organizers as discretionary employees and therefore properly salaried, which still maintains. I also remembered once on a Local 100 review shaking the investigators hand as he left, having concluded in the mid-1980s that we were not involved in sufficient interstate commerce. To make the story shorter, I finally shook myself back from my stupor and went back to the basics.

At one level, the gross expenditures to establish coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is $500,000, so a huge number of nonprofits in general and organizing efforts in specific are far under that number and face years of work to have any worries in this regard. More importantly, a DOL Wage & Hours circular dated as recently as August 2015 reminds one and all that nonprofit organizations existing for charitable, education, and similar purposes are in fact exempt from coverage of the FLSA and that this is a long settled matter in the courts as well. The circular importantly for membership-based organizations like ACORN and the original UFWOC, says that dues, gifts, donations, and the like are NOT counted at establishing the gross revenues, and in ACORN’s case those were the revenues period. Furthermore, the coverage threshold is established by commercial activity, and the DOL is clear that a nonprofit can also separate out the workers and revenue involved in any sales or commercial work so that only those workers are under the FLSA. The same separation can be done for any individual staff involved in regular interstate commerce like phone calls and travel between states.

So, why did ACORN worry about these issues for its organizers? First, ACORN was a complicated organization as any look at the more than 130 “banned by Congress” list would establish, yet we operated under one organization-wide salary and seniority schedule, so the mix-and-match would have diluted that solidarity of mission and commitment. Secondly, we were involved in hundreds of living wage fights, and the “optics” were sometimes issues, including the one legal test where we challenged the coverage in California. It was easier to raise the minimum of our scale in 2004 at the last FLSA adjustment on overtime to over the threshold and more clearly differentiate hours for non-field staff. Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact that we believed under the FLSA, like all other similarly situated nonprofits that we were legally exempt, and we threw in arguments over freedom of speech and association into the mix as well.

Why are the US PIRG and Judicial Watch worried? Obviously, I can’t be sure. The PIRGs contract a lot of their fundraising to a for-profit, which may have been part of their concern. Judicial Watch is a unit of other conservative operations to the best of my knowledge, so there might be issues that are not immediately obvious. For the most part though, if they were willing to take the heat, they could still cook the same way even in the new kitchen.

So in short, yes, a farmworkers movement could be built again under FLSA with the additional argument I believe still exists that all of its $5 per day and room and board were volunteers under the FLSA guidance, and an ACORN could also be organized again. The obstacles to doing so are many and mountainous, but they are not the FLSA or the new overtime rules.

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