With the oil still flowing in the Gulf and two active wars in the Middle East, Barack Obama may be looking around for allies among progressives soon. If Vanderbilt University Press’ Seeds of Change is any indication, there won’t be many to be found among anti-poverty activists. Author John Atlas offers what he hopes will be a definitive treatment of the rise and fall of the activist group ACORN. The group’s rocky relationship to Obama is A central theme.
In the much-ballyhooed Obama-ACORN relationship, at least as Atlas presents it, ACORN plays the scorned suitor. In the introduction, he describes ACORN head Bertha Lewis as being “dismayed” at then candidate Obama’s refusal to recognize the connections he had forged with the group after being pressed by the right wing. “For Obama,” Atlas writes, “defending ACORN would play into the Republican strategy of diverting public attention away from his legislative agenda.” Yet, by not doing so, Obama may have contributed to the decline of his powerful ally while marking a symbolic distancing between his presidency and the progressive base that helped get him elected.
Seeds of Change is about more than Obama. Atlas documents ACORN’s rise from obscurity to a mass organization of 250,000 members effectively by employing the insider view gained during his 40-year career as an anti-poverty campaigner and lawyer. The formation of the group, he argues, was part of a counter-narrative emerging out the 1960s. Atlas holds up group founder Wade Rathke’s rejection of a ticket to Woodstock in favor of a community-organizing rally in Springfield, Massachusetts as a symbolic break from the “drop-out” ethos of the hippies. From here, Atlas documents Rathke’s innovative attempts to build an organization that drew mainly white middle-class organizers from universities and primarily African-American members from poor communities.
Along the way, there are some amazing victories. Atlas documents the group’s remarkable successes in the 80s in using the Community Reinvestment Act as a means to build grassroots organizing campaigns. Persistent community efforts broke down the wall of redlining, facilitating the flow of millions of dollars in private financing into poor communities. Simultaneously, in urban areas like the South Bronx and East New York, ACORN organized militant homesteading programs that empowered poor people to seize housing and reverse the tide of urban blight. Atlas’ presentation of Jacinto Camacho, a squatter who enters an abandoned building, renovates it and then holds out against New York politicians who wished to sell it to real estate speculators, brings the democratic impulse of this ACORN campaign to life.
Atlas’ treatment of the great debate that ensued over ACORN New York’s controversial support of the Atlantic Yards development project is less endearing. Here, it is author turned lawyer, as he seeks to justify the group’s decision to side with a real estate magnet using eminent domain laws for personal enrichment. Atlas does not attempt to frame the conflict as part of a larger struggle over real estate in the city or to mark the political distance traveled from the radical homesteading projects of the 80s. Instead, he summarized ACORN’s stand using the phrase so often employed to justify a political sell-out, “Unlike ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum, ACORN knew that the perfect is often the enemy of the good.”
The book closes with an examination of the tragic ending of one of the largest progressive groups in U.S. history. An embezzlement scandal involving the Rathke family, charges of voter fraud leveled by Conservatives and the media flash following the prostitution scandal, all serve to undermine the group’s mission of empowering the poor. The great tragedy of this decline, Atlas argues, is that it limited the possibility of creating the “maneuvering room” necessary for the Obama presidency to be transformed into something like that FDR’s New Deal administration. Like a tragic play, the scorned suitor faces their demise.
Seeds of Change is the latest offering in what is sure to be multiple post-mortem dissections of ACORN. There are contributions made here especially where Atlas provides readers with his insider perspective. However, questions remain. For instance, a serious examination needs to be made of the link between ACORN’s anti-redlining campaigns and the rise of the finance-capital in the US. Was ACORN the unwitting grassroots water-carrier for a rising financial elite? Did ACORN’s seeming breakthroughs in unleashing credit to the poor serve to paper over the class transformation being initiated by Reaganism? And, for those willing to take a counter-factual leap, could a different kind of class struggle have been carried forward in this critical period? Seeds of Change doesn’t answer these questions, but provides the useful bits of information needed to approach them.
BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org