Unions

Community Organizing and Voting

A Brief History of Community Organizing in the 20th Century

Community organizing seeks better responsiveness of institutions to the needs of the community by addressing and restructuring decision-making processes. Community organizers recruit residents to take on powerful institutions in their community through direct, public confrontation and action. Respected figures such as Saul Alinsky and noted organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have advanced community organizing.

Saul Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940. The IAF is a grassroots organizing network involving people in over sixty cities in the U.S. that draws together coalitions of poor and middle class people to address poverty, housing, education, public infrastructure and many other issues. However, the IAF is not necessarily about issues: its aim is to build a culture of vibrant participatory democratic practices that gradually transform political and economic power. The IAF is an organization of organizations, drawing upon religious congregations, neighborhood associations, community centers, and unions. Issues tend to be chosen and negotiated with an eye to how they might strengthen and broaden grassroots democratic relationships. The IAF has been successful at drawing people into long-term democratic practices and bridging relationships that cross lines of complex difference, creating new political relationships that concurrently work with traditional and the emerging.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), like the IAF, is also a grassroots community organization of low and moderate-income people. Started in 1970 by Wade Rathke and Gary Delgado, the early version of ACORN helped people obtain clothing and furniture; it campaigned for schools to provide healthy, affordable lunches and promoted Vietnam Veterans’ rights. The organization then branched out into housing and workers’ rights advocacy and has helped thousands of working-class and poor citizens obtain home loans, register to vote and fight for better wages. ACORN differed from IAF in that it engaged in electoral politics as a way of gaining power and ddi not rely on support from organizations and churches, but on door-to-door solicitation and dues paying members. ACORN did not limit itself to local issues and campaigns; and was very particular about picking winnable issues. ACORN found that it could win on issues that are not just about welfare and the poor.

As the IAF expanded, Alinsky felt that the most essential element of organizing was relational organizing. To make IAF organizations more cohesive and assertive, especially when dealing with municipal government, Alinsky encouraged face-to-face meetings. He also believed in establishing local power through individual local leaders who organized and mobilized the poor. One of ACORN’s strengths is its combination of insider and outsider tactics and strategies: activists and leaders often work both inside the system (organizing the poor) and outside the system (protests and confrontation). ACORN did not shy away from using the in-your-face confrontational protest tactics. ACORN was unapologetic about its tactics because it helped draw attention to neglected issues and built membership.

One criticism of the IAF was the lack of diversity among the organizing staff. ACORN’s organizing staff was 90% white in the 1970s and 1980s, but the organization has made considerable progress hiring and retaining organizers of color. Regarding matters of membership and possible racial issues, both organizations approached it in somewhat similar ways: they essentially ignored it. IAF’s practice of multiracial equality presupposes that common religious values creates a basis for cooperation that over time could overcome longstanding prejudices and create a mutual understanding. IAF emphasized the economic and ignored the racial fearing that raising the issue of race could disrupt and divide their organization. ACORN rarely framed issues racially; therefore, it had difficulty forming alliances or coalitions with Black organizations. ACORN also did not organize around single issues such as desegregation, police brutality or the loss of needed public services.

Interestingly, The IAF and ACORN had chapters in some of the same cities that often work on similar issues, but they never work together. Because the IAF uses religious values as a unifying force, their local chapters usually had more members than ACORN’s, but it never sought to build an amalgamated organization that could have waged national policy campaigns. Interestingly, IAF’s Baltimore affiliate, BUILD, coordinated the first successful living wage campaign, but was not able to translate that into a national movement. ACORN, on the other hand, had used its amalgamated structure to build a national living wage movement, with victories in several cities.

While organizations such as unions have historically played an effective role in representing everyday citizens, those organizations now have weaker organizing power. What we have left are community-based organizations. The IAF and ACORN both sought broad-based constituencies that spanned race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and geography. But in this political atmosphere, can they survive?

The Mid to Late 2000s

In 2007, ACORN had field offices in 100 cities and 260,000 members, mostly from minority communities. ACORN helped register more than 1.6 million voters nationally between 2004 and 2008. In 2004, it initiated a successful ballot measure raising Florida’s minimum wage. But by 2008, Republicans were accusing ACORN of voter fraud, even though prosecutors across the country failed to find any evidence. Let us be clear that ACORN was indeed contributory in getting Barack Obama elected.

In 2009, workers at ACORN were secretly recorded by conservative hacks Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe. The videos were heavily edited to create a misleading impression of their activities.

In September of 2009, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to ban the ACORN from receiving federal funding. Here’s how the Democratic leadership voted on the “De-fund ACORN” amendment (A “yes” is a vote to de-fund”):

  • Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: did not vote.
  • Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen: Yes
  • Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: Yes
  • Majority Whip Jim Clyburn: No
  • Senior Chief Deputy Majority Whip John Lewis: No
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip Maxine Waters: No
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip John S. Tanner: did not vote
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip Ed Pastor: Yes
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip Jan Schakowsky: No
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip Joseph Crowley: No
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip Diana DeGette: No
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip GK Butterfield: No
  • Chief Deputy Majority Whip Debbie Wasserman Schultz: Yes
  • Democratic Caucus Chairman John B. Larson: Yes
  • Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra: No
  • Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair George Miller: Yes
  • Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair Rosa DeLauro: Yes
  • Organization, Study, and Review Chairman Michael Capuano: No

In December of 2009, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report on ACORN activities, commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee. It noted that ACORN has not been found to violate any federal regulations in the past five years. The report’s other findings included that there were no instances of voter fraud by people who were allegedly registered to vote improperly by ACORN or its employees, and no instances where ACORN violated terms of federal funding in the last 5 years. In fact, the CRS found that O’Keefe and Giles may have violated Maryland and California laws banning the recording of face-to-face conversations without consent of both parties.

Postmortem Denouement

I can’t help but wonder how could an organization that had become a force across the country, mobilizing low- wage minority workers and Democratic voters, be pushed to its downfall by its beneficiaries? Alinsky wrote, in the afterword of his Reveille for Radicals (on page 225), “A political idiot knows that most major issues are national, and in some areas international, in scope. They cannot be coped with on the local community level.” He also warned against jumping directly to a national organization while skipping “the organization of the parts” (page 226). Is this what happened to ACORN? Were they not firmly rooted in the communities they worked in? If they were, would politicians have been less inclined to throw them under the bus?

Speaking of politicians, I want to single out Debbie Wasserman Schultz as one glaring example of what is wrong with the Democratic Party.

In 2011, she missed 62 votes of Congress. In December 2015, Wasserman Schultz was one of 24 co-sponsors of H.R. 4018, authored by GOP Congressman Dennis A. Ross, which would delay the implementation of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulations. Wasserman Schultz was among a dozen Florida representatives who cosponsored the legislation that would delay the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s payday lending rules by two years. The fees for these loans, over the course of a year, can add up as high as the equivalent of a 300% APR.

The following year, during the 2016 presidential primary, Wasserman Schultz only scheduled six debates, significantly fewer than in previous election cycles (and half as many as the Republicans counterparts). Some of Wasserman Schultz’s actions that the media covered during the primaries included:

  • halting the Sanders’ campaign’s access to DNC databases;
  • defending the superdelegate system used in the Democratic primaries;
  • rescinding a prior ban on corporate donations;
  • and accusing Sanders supporters of violence at the Nevada Convention.

The following story from Politico is an advisable read: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/11/02/clinton-brazile-hacks-2016-215774

The right wing’s efforts to demonize ACORN had made the organization a discomfiture to Democratic leadership, and it was far easier to throw ACORN under the bus than it would be to stand up for fundamental fair play and justice, and actually investigate the charges before deciding what the appropriate response might be. After the debacle of the 2016 election, as well as later this year, Democrats like Wasserman Schultz will wish they hadn’t been so cavalier especially if the GOP continues to prevent those who put them into office from voting.

Edwin Roman

https://edwinroman.com/index.html

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in.

The Pusillanimous Art of Lucien Smith Burns the Bronx

Artist Lucien Smith misses an opportunity and simply creates novelty art for the 1%. 

How did the Bronx become the poster child for urban decay in the 1970’s and 1980’s?

Generally speaking, individuals like Robert Moses siphoned monetary resources out of New York City to build up the surrounding suburbs while concurrently fostering the automobile and neglecting mass transit. The Cross-Bronx Expressway has NEVER benefited the Bronx and actually contributed greatly to the destruction: people once lived where this roadway now stands. And then the 3rd Avenue El, which had played a significant role in the creation of entire neighborhoods, was razed, leaving many isolated from public transportation and further devaluing real estate. Industry fled for various reasons that included moving to southern states that outlawed unions via “right to work” laws. The middle class tax base moved away and the poor and people of color moved into their former neighborhoods, which were subsequently redlined by banks and investors (Harlem, for example, had been red lined since the 1920’s). The media portrayed people of color as gun totting, drug-using savages who burn and vandalize their neighborhoods. They are bad for real estate, a stigma that has had an almost mythic impact. The fact is that the landlords of these redlined areas paid arsons so that they could collect insurance. I am fairly certain that artist Lucien Smith or his recent benefactors, Somerset Partners, are cognizant of these facts or bothered with any research.

On October 29th, in a former South Bronx piano factory, a rave took place that was hosted by real estate developers Somerset Partners. The rave was to launch the re-branding of the South Bronx as the “Piano District” in the tradition of DUMBO, Hudson Heights, iTri and East Willamsburg. The event, which was curated (or decorated, depending on your source) by Mr. Smith, included flaming garbage cans and bullet-riddled cars. From the photographs I have seen, it was essentially disaster porn.

Much has been written about the rave and perhaps the best source is Ed García Conde’s oft quoted blog Welcome2TheBronx. As a fellow artist who works in the Bronx, I found myself wondering why Mr. Smith would produce something so utterly jejune.

Earlier this year, The New York Times Style Magazine interviewed Mr. Smith where he noted:

“I reached a point when I was independent financially and I was able to take a step back. I was producing work like a madman—I wanted to be this “superartist,” and I saw artists going down that road, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to find a more honest approach to making art.”

When asked about future shows he responded:

“As far as future shows, I don’t have anything on my plate. I’m being very careful about what I do now.”

This interview was published in July of 2015. If Mr. Smith was being truthful, he was not working on the rave yet — an indication that it was simply thrown together. In response to the criticism, Mr. Smith noted:

“…people are always going to have their own interpretation. Let’s just remember New York, in its entirety, is a city that has and still struggles with violence and poverty, not just the Bronx.”

Mr. Smith, of all people, should understand the mythic power that images can have and missed an opportunity to use his fame to elevate those who struggle with violence and poverty. It was also an opportunity to convey how struggle creates great art. The late, distinguished CCNY Professor of Political Science, Marshall Berman, once said:

“Grace Paley, one of the great New York writers, has a story written early-’70s South Bronx. And one of the characters, who’s like a community organizer there, says, “The buildings are burning down on one side of the street, and the kids are trying to put something together on the other.” And this could be a parable of one of the great achievements of that period from a lot of the neighborhoods that were most devastated in New York. The earliest form in which most people who weren’t part of that neighborhood saw it were the graffiti that appeared on the subways in the ’70s. And this was on a very rickety, decaying generation of gray trains, they painted enormously exuberant, colored names and reliefs and mottoes. And you can see many films now: a gray day, a gray neighborhood, an El train. And suddenly, the El train, it’s like a rainbow! And it’s thrilling. The next incarnation was rap. The earliest form that people saw would be there would be one kid rapping with small speakers and a drum track in the subway, you know, with a hat open for money. And, you know, these are parables of a city that’s being ruined, that’s being destroyed, and that’s saying, “We can rise again. We come from ruins, but we’re not ruined.” And, I mean, in 15 years, it’s become the basic form of world music. So it’s a thrill, but it’s important to understand that it came from totally burnt-out, ruined districts, and that’s where it was born. And that it was born out of this suffering and misery, and that a lot of the creativity that New York has always had has come from the cellars, from the ruins, from how the other half lives.”

Picasso’s Guernica was painted as a reaction to the Nazi bombing on the unarmed Basque town during Spanish Civil War. It has since become a symbol for peace. Columbia University Art History professor, Simon Schama, once said that Picasso with Guernica “…rescued modern art from the curse of it’s own cleverness, from the curse of novelty. Guernica has always been bigger than art, uncontainable by mere museum walls. It is one of those rare creations that gets into the blood stream of common culture.” In other words, it does what great art should: communicate to everyone regardless of education or economic status.

In August of 2014, Mr. Smith gave a TEDx talk at Columbia College where he discussed how discovering his father cheating on his mother created a fear of failing that has fostered his career. His father responded to this by calling his son a “gold digging bitch” and noting “My ex-wife, who shares his lust for superficiality and materialism, raised him.”

What Mr. Smith has done with this show in the South Bronx is to further foster gentrification by creating novelty art that is exclusively for the 1%: it is their view of the Bronx and is nothing short of pusillanimous.

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Please note that the featured image of this blog entry was not part of the South Bronx re-branding event. I discovered it on Mr. Smith’s website while doing some research and have been wondering why, as a man of color, he felt compelled to paint this.

Racist Cartoon, 2015. Oil on linen. 9 5/8h x 13w in. http://www.luciensmithstudio.com/?s=ls-581-racist-cartoon