Tag Archives: race

Historians Begin to Look at ACORN’s Impact

Professor Carroll speaking as Fred Brooks, Robert Fisher, and Gary Delgao (from right to left) listen to the Lessons from ACORN Panel at OAH

Milwaukee   If it has been said that newspapers “write the first draft of history,” perhaps it is panels like Lessons from ACORN organized by Oregon State Professor Marisa Chappell at the national conference of the Organization of American Historians that starts to outline the second draft.   At the least an excellent panel of very knowledgeable folks had been assembled to take a crack at it.

Fred Brooks from Georgia State argued that there was not yet a full appreciation of the “radical vision of social change” that drove ACORN, citing the Peoples’ Platform and its 309 points as evidence.  He also talked about a great personal story from an action in Atlanta done by 200 at a conference where Coretta Scott King was speaking and the grace with which she wrapped the ACORN demonstrators demands in Martin’s legacy saying that “if Martin were alive he would have been protesting with us,” and the meeting with bankers the action forced.

Robert Fisher of the University of Connecticut and editor of the evaluation of ACORN in The People Shall Rule drew comparisons from a recent conference on community organizing he had attended in France where many argued that community organizing was dangerous because it could be “disruptive of social engineering by the state,” which Fisher thought was the whole point of ACORN’s “conflict over power.”  Fisher made an insightful remark about the efforts of ACORN increasingly in the early years of the 21st Century to “build bridges” to other organizations and the intriguing promise it had shown in steps to build “a united front” where others had been more sectarian.  Fisher also rejoined later in the panel on my point about working now on an organizing model where the organization “eats what it kills” to also add correctly that ACORN had pioneered in “eating what we won” as well as evidenced by the H&R Block campaigns and many others in the 21st Century.

Professor Carroll of the Rochester Institute of Technology nailed a critical part of the ACORN history as a “misreading of the role of conflict in making social change” which allowed too many of its critics to advance and too few others to move to protect the organization failing to understand how conflict creates change and challenges power.

Gary Delgado, former staffer and author of the still classic book about ACORN, Building the Movement, rattled off a number of observations collected in his 40 years of close observation of the organization.  He worried that the “vacuum” created by the organization shuttering its doors in late 2010 had not been filled and proving difficult to fill because there were not other “national” organizations that had “centralized” operations that could be effective and “were not afraid to make enemies.”  The use of direct action and the singular voice for poor people were also now missing.  Delgado found agreement in nailing the fact that the attack on ACORN had been “racialized” and the opposition that mounted around its voter registration work was rooted in ACORN’s effectiveness in registering African-Americans and Latinos to register and vote.  At the same time he noted, perhaps controversially, that times had changed and ACORN was unprepared for the “air war” when attacked and his own view that “boots on the ground are necessary but not sufficient” to protect the organization.

In my remarks I responded to the question posed by Professor Chappell about how organizing strategies at ACORN had changed to address alterations in the way state power worked by detailing our expansion program designed to adapt to the devolution of federal resources and decision making to states.  I also told the stories of our living wage initiatives and victories that greater statewide capacity and infrastructure allowed, citing the statistics in my Citizen Wealth chapters.

The discussion had been engaging and the questions way too brief, but the presentations had resonated with many, so perhaps there will be fruit borne in the future from the seeds planted in Milwaukee.  John Atlas in his Seeds of Change began and ended his remarks noting forcefully the unreliability and inaccuracies of the New York Times and other media outlets in being able to understand or interpret the ACORN story.  There seemed to be consensus in Milwaukee that the first draft from newspapers absolutely needed to go to rewrite!


What Does TV Say about Reality: Deconstructing HBO’s “Treme”

Professor Vicki Mayer on Treme

New Orleans    The HBO show, Treme, another auteur urban tour from David Simon following the wildly acclaimed Wire, may not have found mass appeal out there in viewerlandia, but in New Orleans literally everyone has an opinion, all of which made for a fascinating evening with Tulane media and communications professor Vicki Mayer as part of the Fair Grinds Dialogue series.  It was fascinating to listen to the Mayer’s presentation but also to hear the discussion.  People in New Orleans watch Treme for so many different and highly personal reasons that if this were an Occupy general assembly, the dialogue would never end, because quite simply “the personal is the perspective” for many here.

Mayer was able to color in parts of the picture that locals couldn’t imagine especially the enthusiasm and interest by scholars around the world.  After an astute opening comment on the way the film industry in New Orleans is “colonizing” the city and contributing to the “privatization of public space” (amen!), Mayer said there were three main points to the scholarly interest in Treme:

  • As multiply layered art with various tropes and themes of such significant interest to film auteurs that HBO could afford to run the show to advance its partnership with Simon as a “loss leader” despite slimmer ratings because the later box sets and long term sales would be good.
  • Scholars see the show as one of a smaller group of television offerings that tries to “speak about social ills in society, especially the post-Katrina, post-crisis society.”  My own view is that the show does this very poorly, but that doesn’t take away from Professor Mayer’s point that there are damn few that even bother, so it’s worth a good look.  The concept of “private mobilization” that emerged as part of this story was interesting.  There is agreement between those at the dialogue and scholars that the occasional intersections with New Orleans culture are important and interesting, regardless of whether or not the show makes this a tourist film and musical minstrel show of “Disneyland on the Mississippi.”
  • Perhaps most interestingly, Professor Mayer shared that many looked at the show as an allegory for the “prototypical neoliberal city” where “citizens take care of the city” develop as local entrepreneurs who are in “training for how to be a good citizen.”  The subliminal message of the show in some ways, Mayer said, is that citizens “can’t count on the city to do anything.”  Wow – right on! I knew I resented this part of the show, but was grateful to Mayer for putting a name to it!

This being New Orleans, there was a lot of discussion about how poorly the show dealt with women, power, and race and how they worked in reality as opposed to in Simon’s Treme.  One dialogue participant told a story of being an extra in a Treme neighborhood joint she frequented and being asked along with others to leave during the filming, because the club scene wasn’t “black enough.”  At the same time person after person at Fair Grinds told how the show “spoke” to them because of a street here or a restaurant there or something that was still a “marker” of home, particularly for many now recently returning from the New Orleans diaspora after Katrina.

There was also a hearty discussion not often heard in New Orleans about whether the burgeoning film industry is “paying back” to the city.  The huge tax credits that are writing off 1/3 or more of film costs are the most lucrative for the industry in the US now, but here there was criticism and mourning about how little was being done to train and develop long term jobs in the industry and deepen the skills and connections for a film industry in the Crescent City for the future.

Perhaps that point deepens the theme of the neo-liberal, global city.  Industry comes here in a race to the bottom for wages and work, and never sets root so they can easily flee to the next place in the future without leaving any skills or infrastructure.  Best that Treme not talk about power, because there should be popular and political accountability at the city and state level in Louisiana about who could have allowed the city and its citizens to be exploited once again as if we are little more than a third world Jamaica without a beach and a China of little labor standards and migrant, transient workers.