Beulah Labostrie

Panama City, Panama     If it is possible to be a star of a documentary, Beulah Labostrie, the great national ACORN leader, as well as queen and inspiration of the organization and its successor in Louisiana and New Orleans, was just that. Having watched The Organizer in its festival releases and in groups of organizers, leaders, members, and other activists thirty or forty times all over the world, I’ve learned whole lines and paragraphs of the film by heart, but few of those lines both enliven and carry the weight of history as several of the interviews with Beulah reveal.

Early in the film she talks about coming into the organization not long after organizing began in New Orleans in the middle 1970s and how exciting it was to her to become a community activist and in her words learn about “city, state, and national government.”  Later in the documentary she says that “voter registration was the thing” she “likes most.”  Underlining that point, she smiles revealing that an example of how close it was to her heart was her willingness to “spend ten days on a bus for voter registration.”  The footage behind her voice shows ACORN leaders and members in the process of registering voters with the smile of Helen Miller, former president of SEIU Local 880, saying it all as she comes away from hitting the door of a future voter in the rural South.  Beulah with a shake of her head and a smile follows the bus comment by saying that after all that time “people were getting wild” and then with a breath adds, “and crazy” and in the background there is a picture of an African-American Chicago ACORN leader embracing an older white woman leader from Minnesota ACORN in front of the bus as they shouted and shook their fists.

Every audience loves this piece, and it shows the magic and mastery of Beulah Labostrie as a leader.  She listened and she offered her wisdom.  I never heard her raise her voice, though I have seen her calmly dress down many politicians and scores of others who violated her moral and organizational compass.  Neither was I exempt.  She was unsparing.  If she thought that I had gained a pound, she made sure to mention it to me.  For years we would make the drive to various board meetings together in Arkansas and elsewhere.  She would never sleep, keeping an eye on my driving, and from time to time offering me advice on maintaining my life with my family from dealing with my partner to raising our children.  What’s more, when she offered advice, I took it, and when I needed advice, I went looking for Beulah Labostrie.  Among ACORN and Local 100 leaders and staff, I was certainly not the only one.

Her leadership of the successful New Orleans campaign to raise the minimum wage in 2002 was epic.  We stood together when we stopped the Sewerage & Water Board privatization.  Her role in the organization in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a model of rock solid mentoring of new leaders and relentless conviction and courage.  Beulah had retired from traveling, but we sat together in New York City in the Fox News studios when we were interviewed by Megan Kelly.  I could tell Beulah Labostrie stories all day and every one of them would end with words of thanksgiving.

In the documentary there are scenes from her younger days giving an ACORN chant at one of the national conventions.  Every time I see these shots, I smile when I see the joy on her face as she rhythmically claps wearing an ACORN t-shirt as regal as unusual for her.

Towards the end of the documentary, she looks straight into the camera as she talks about the attacks on ACORN in 2009, and as she speaks she talks of her heartbreak at the media onslaught that “was mostly lies” and the way it was tearing down “our work,” but she stands strong in defense of ACORN, as she always did, and after a pause, poignantly says, “but that’s the story of us.”  Her words have the weight of mountains as the camera moves away.

When it comes to ACORN, Beulah Labostrie is “the story of us.”  She passed away at 96 and almost 97.  She was ready to go, but the rest of us weren’t ready to see her leave.  She will be greatly missed, but her spirit, her commitment, and her wisdom will always be here in our hearts and minds.


Crowds on Demand

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?