Crowds on Demand

a community voice ACORN Organizing

New Orleans    Utility companies are rarely popular companies.  Entergy might be one of the least popular of the breed.  A huge part of its national business is managing nuclear power plants, rarely on the top ten favorite list for a lot of people.  Regionally, Entergy has some of those plants in Taft, Louisiana, Russellville, Arkansas, and elsewhere that are huge money sucks.  A million years ago under a previous name, Middle South Utilities, Entergy was the electricity provider to much of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana and New Orleans, under the name of New Orleans Public Service Incorporated or NOPSI, which forces them under the regulatory jurisdiction of the elected members of the New Orleans City Council on some matters, bringing us to this story.

Entergy wanted to build a gas fueled “peaking” power plant on wetlands along Bayou Sauvage which is essentially an expensive back up plant.  Local environmental and community groups, including ACORN affiliate A Community Voice (formerly Louisiana ACORN) opposed the plant as both costly, not believing it would only run $210 million, and unnecessary.  There were two public hearings in recent months until the old council, now replaced in recent days, approved the matter with only one dissenting vote.  One holdover councilperson, Jason Williams, wants to reopen the matter.  We’ve all heard of “fake news” by now.  Williams wants to look into the fact that the votes may have been swayed by a “fake” crowd of protestors carrying signs, wearing shirts, and speaking in favor of the plant.

A local progressive coalition and community forum, called Justice & Beyond, was approached by one of its activists, a local musician, who felt guilty for his participation, saying he was paid to show up to the hearing.  The coalition gave the information to the press.  Later, the local online news outlet, The Lens, followed up on their own as word spread, finding actors who were willing to come forward and tell the story.  Entergy vehemently denied that there were paid protestors, pointing the finger at its public relations firm, giving the scandal and perversion of protest and speech even more publicity.  The public relations firm also denied the story for a while, but too many actors were blabbing that they were paid $75 to show up at each hearing and $200 if they had a speaking role.

Eventually it came down to their subcontractor, a company called plainly Crowds on Demand, based in Los Angeles but active in political hotspots like Iowa and New Hampshire, and of course Washington, D.C. that had been running these fake protests since 2012.  Sometimes they hired on as a welcoming crowd or a spoof of an outpouring of love in nonpolitical events as well, but this kind of “astroturfing” as grassroots pretenders was part and parcel of their business model.  More denials moved the scandal increasingly to farce.

The ridiculous irony of this affair is also not lost on me.  One rightwing commentator after another tried to ask me during the attacks on ACORN whether we were involved in what they called “rent-a-mob” events for various causes and companies.  Nothing could have been farther from the facts but knowing that his was as a common scam in their political and corporate tactical tool bag now makes it clearer to me why they assumed everyone involved in democratic practice and protest was as fake as they were.

The plaguing questions are whether the politicians knew, and, if they didn’t, why not, or did they just not care?