founder and president of the National Housing Institute. He is author of the forthcoming book Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group.
A federal judge has reaffirmed her earlier ruling blocking the congressional effort to defund the anti-poverty group ACORN. On Wednesday, Judge Nina Gershon cemented a decision from last year that such action amounted to an unconstitutional “bill of attainder.” Judge Gershon has asked all federal agencies to allow ACORN funding without delay. We speak with National Housing Institute president John Atlas, author of Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: A federal judge has reaffirmed her earlier ruling blocking the congressional effort to defund the anti-poverty group ACORN. On Wednesday, Judge Nina Gershon cemented her decision from last year that such action amounted to an unconstitutional bill of attainder. Judge Gershon has asked all federal agencies to allow ACORN funding without delay.
The congressional vote followed the release of videos appearing to show ACORN staffers offering advice to two right-wing activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute. ACORN has long been a target of right-wing scorn for its work helping low-income Americans with voter registration, tax problems and foreclosures.
AMY GOODMAN: John Atlas is the founder and president of the National Housing Institute and author of the forthcoming book Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He joins us here in our Democracy Now! studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of Judge Gershon’s decision.
JOHN ATLAS: I’m going to talk about that in a minute, but the first thing I want to say, that needs to be said over and over again, is that the act of defunding ACORN by Congress is a national disgrace. We should all be outraged about that. Basically what happened is Congress bowed to Fox News, Glenn Beck, the rest of the right-wing echo chamber — we’re talking about the United States Congress — and then scapegoated the most effective anti-poverty organization in the country. That’s a scandal of enormous proportions.
ACORN has a record of helping poor people in these hard times. They help them get homes. They help them stop foreclosures. They help them fight predatory lending. They help them register voters. I’m talking about minority voters, people who ordinarily don’t vote. Very hard to get that kind of voter registration work done. And in short, all other studies, including mine, have documented how effective ACORN has been and how important it’s been to low-income people, especially the working poor.
OK, now, with the significance of the decision, first people have to understand the context. This was a case in which the Congress defunded ACORN, and they claimed they had to defund ACORN to protect the taxpayers. ACORN brought a lawsuit. They brought it against the United States government, the Office of Management and Budget, the Secretary of HUD, and the Secretary of Treasury. They had to bring a lawsuit against them because these were the people who issued orders, pursuant to the vote by Congress, to not allow ACORN to get any funding that it was entitled to, but didn’t get, and they could not, in the future, apply for federal funding.
AMY GOODMAN: And remind us why they were defunded. I mean, what was the incident that precipitated this?
JOHN ATLAS: Well, as your opening said, which we can emphasize again, the immediate trigger — I’m talking about the immediate trigger — was the release of videos that appeared to show that ACORN staffers were giving advice to right-wing activists who looked like a pimp and a prostitute. And they were giving advice to them which was outrageous, which we should go into, after we talk about this case, because it turned out that that was completely misleading, that in fact he never — the guy who was posing as a pimp never showed up in this outlandish pimp outfit that we all associate with those videotapes. You know, the guy in the top hat, the cape around his shoulders, with his cane, the dark glasses, you know, he looked like a 1970s African American —- you know, stereotype African American pimp. He went on TV. He said, “This is what I looked like when I was in the office.” Turned out, not true. And we should go into that, because -—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain. How, then?
JOHN ATLAS: Well, it’s not true, because he edited — they took those pictures of him dressed that way, and they edited him into the tapes.
Now, before we get back into the decision, let me say this, that this reporting was done by not just the right-wing press, but every one of the mainstream press, and I’m talking about the Washington Post, the New York Times. Before I came here, I actually put together a list — I can — of times that the New York Times reported that fact, that this man was dressed like that when he was sitting in the office. And the New York Times has refused to retract this. And there’s a whole movement out there now trying to get the public editor to go on record saying the Times botched the story.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Despite the judge —-
JOHN ATLAS: So that was the trigger for the decision.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But despite the judge’s decision, obviously, the damage has been done. I mean, there were foundations that pulled money, as well, from ACORN. And in recent weeks, apparently, ACORN has been forced to go through a reorganization. Could you talk about that reorganization and what it means for the ability of ACORN to continue to do its work?
JOHN ATLAS: Yes. I’ll answer that. Let me answer your question first: what is the significance of this decision? The significance of this decision is it, once again, exonerates ACORN from any wrongdoing by an official agency or by an independent study.
Prior to this decision, there was a thing called the Harshbarger -— Scott Harshbarger report. This was an independent study done by the former attorney general of Massachusetts, who went around and interviewed every office. By the way, I did the same thing. I interviewed the offices to find out what happened when they appeared, when those right-wing activists appeared, at the ACORN offices and they were — and getting this advice from ACORN staff about how to avoid the law and stuff about, you know, underage prostitution. Well, the Harshbarger report came to two conclusions: one, ACORN did nothing wrong, and two, the tapes were misleading, highly edited and did not portray what really happened there.
The second time that happened was when the Congressional Research Service did the same kind of analysis, did a research into what happened. They came to the same conclusion: ACORN did nothing wrong, the tapes were misleading and edited. Recently, the DA, Joe Hynes, did an investigation. He’s been investigating ACORN since September to find out what happened when these right-wing activists came in dressed up as — the fake pimp and prostitute came into ACORN offices. He also came to the same conclusion: ACORN did nothing wrong, and the tapes were misleading and highly edited and were unreliable.
So now we have the judge again exonerating ACORN from any wrongdoing, saying that Congress passed this act, but there was nothing in the record that showed that they did anything wrong, they have never been convicted of a crime, and Congress can’t pass a law singling out one individual and then punishing them. The Congress can’t be the judge, the jury and the executioner.
So, your question is what —-
JUAN GONZALEZ: The reorganization that has occurred, the damage that’s already been done to the organization and to -— and how effective will it continue to be with this new reorganization.
JOHN ATLAS: Well, you’re absolutely right. The videotapes that people saw — and I’m talking about foundation executives — when they saw those videotapes, the highly edited, doctored videotapes, when they saw ACORN giving advice to this pimp, they thought, “Well, either ACORN is — they’re stupid, and they don’t realize that this is a cartoonish character, or here they are giving advice to criminals, known criminals. We can’t fund this group anymore.” Then when Congress — some said that when Congress then defunded them, that put the imprimatur on ACORN being an evil organization, and their funding unraveled at that point. So they have been effectively forced to reorganize and rebrand.
So, what they’re doing now, each state organization, with its own grassroots board members, are deciding what to do, how to stay affiliated with ACORN, if not, when to disaffiliate, how to disaffiliate. And the important thing is this, that these new state organizations — and New York has already gone through this reorganization. I forgot the name of it, but they have a new organization in New York. There’s a new organization in California. There’s a new organization in New England. The important thing is that they follow the strengths of ACORN’s tactics and strategies, but become more transparent, more democratic, and avoid the mistakes that ACORN made in the past. So they’re all going through their own individual reorganizations, trying to figure out how to keep the strengths of ACORN —-
AMY GOODMAN: Which are?
JOHN ATLAS: Which are having a dues-paying membership organization -— don’t forget, ACORN, at one point early on, 80 percent of its funding came from its membership dues, up to $120 a year from working poor. People say you can’t get money from — you can’t charge dues to poor people organizations. ACORN has proved that you can, if you deliver. And you have to win victories for them. So you’ve got to have that.
It’s got to remain cross-class. You know, ACORN’s members are poor, welfare, working poor, middle-class, teachers, runs the full gamut. It’s cross-racial. It’s mostly African American and Hispanic, but it does have white members. That’s very, very important.
And that you’re able to effectively organize, at this point, at the local level as well as the state level. But you have to have real members, and you have to produce results and use the — some of the key elements of the Alinsky organizing, which is combining a variety of tactics, including direct action, in-your-face marching, all that, but also using electoral politics, which always distinguished ACORN from the rest of the community organizing networks. So they’ve always been involved in voter registration and elections. So you’ve got to keep that stuff.
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
JOHN ATLAS: Be accountable to people — yeah, so that’s —
AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Atlas, I want to thank you for being with us, founder of the National Housing Institute. His forthcoming book is called Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group.