Pearl River There are so many things about the response to the coronavirus crisis that remind me of the response to Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast. Mostly, that’s not a good thing, because the governmental response was horrifically bad. It was the nadir of George W. Bush’s presidency, just as it has already become the lowest point, despite stiff competition, of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. An organizing colleague for years has had a watchword expression: “you gotta learn!” It doesn’t seem like we have.
Almost a decade ago, I wrote a book about ACORN’s experience in responding to Katrina as a cataclysmic event, The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster. One of the lessons is that a membership-based organization has an inviolate obligation to serve and support that membership and its community. ACORN’s response to Katrina proved that over and over.
Even in these early days of the coronavirus nightmare, we’re seeing that in ACORN’s response once again.
ACORN United Kingdom immediately launched a petition to stop evictions for tenants and within days gained 25,000 signatures pressuring the government to finally act. ACORN Coronavirus Community Support was launched almost simultaneously. More than one-hundred volunteers were recruited within days to assist members in the community most susceptible to the virus with grocery shopping, pharmacy stops, and other tasks. Volunteers and members mobilized to leaflet ACORN communities in order to bridge the digital divide in Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester, and other branches so that people could reach out. ACORN members were solicited to help other organizations who were overwhelmed not only in those cities but in chapters in Liverpool, Leeds, Brighton, Lancaster, and Nottingham as well. Other chapters in places like Cambridge and Birmingham stepped up their effort to stop evictions. As ACORN said in the call, “ACORN is dedicated to the protection of our communities. Members around the country have begun referring to us as the fourth emergency service!”
They weren’t alone of course. A Community Voice, the former Louisiana ACORN, and an ACORN affiliate in the United States, had led the fight after Katrina in supporting our members in first protecting their neighborhoods, then winning the right to return to them, and still in the process of rebuilding. Now they are mobilizing to assist members in applying for unemployment, food stamps, and any new enrollment period for health care as well as mobilizing volunteers once again. ACORN Canada moved forward quickly with a petition as well to block evictions.
One of the greatest membership surges in ACORN’s history occurred in New Orleans in response to ACORN’s work after Katrina with thousands of new members joining because they finally understood what it meant to be part of a real, fighting membership organization. It was not surprising to hear reports from the United Kingdom that even with people homebound, membership is rising.
There’s nothing good about this tragedy. Unlike Katrina, it won’t wash over quickly. We haven’t hit the bottom yet. Nonetheless, ACORN as a membership organization of low- and moderate-income families knows that this is when our members need us most and expect us to be up for the fight.
ACORN members do what needs to be done in this fight, like every other.
Thanks to WAMF.