Bertha Lewis on Life After ACORN

The former president of the defunct community-organizing group is back with a new venture. She talks about the video scandal, lambastes Democrats with "no spine and no courage" and explains how the conservative right actually helped her move forward.

Karen Bleier/AFP
Karen Bleier/AFP

BL: I don’t say that we didn’t put up much of a fight. We were outgunned and outmanned. We said from the beginning, “These tapes are doctored; we are under attack.” It was like crying out in the wilderness. The so-called progressive, liberal-left community didn’t rise up as they did in the cases of NPR, Planned Parenthood and Shirley Sherrod.

When we had a never-ending echo chamber of right-wing media and millions of dollars spent going after us, and then not having the resources and allies to defend us, we were just swamped. We didn’t have millions of dollars to do elaborate PR campaigns and fight the 24-hour news cycle. We could never get our message out. A year later, folks are waking up and saying, “Ohhhh, now we understand.” Well, where were you? Why weren’t we believed when we were vilified and asked for help?

By the time we were vindicated, and the district attorneys in New York, California and one place after another said these videos were doctored, the damage had been done. Our board said, “We’re either going to expend our resources fighting something that is overwhelming us, or we need to keep our eyes on the prize.” We made new entities with good structure and financial management, and we went on.

TR: The videos later proved to be misleading, but how do you explain the outrageous discussions on the tapes to people who only saw the edited versions?

BL: That’s what you thought you saw. In one video they’re talking about young girls from El Salvador, and [an ACORN worker] played dumb and just went along with what they said. He was suspicious of them from the moment they came in, and what you didn’t see is that he immediately called the police after they left.

The unedited tapes show that conversations were spliced out of context. They show [O’Keefe] saying that he was [Giles’] boyfriend and that they were afraid of her pimp. In New York the counselor told her places to go for help. We had to do our own investigation, but our vindication didn’t make headlines, and media was not interested in following up.

TR: The decision to cut off funding for ACORN is usually framed as a Republican effort, but it happened while Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. How do you feel about the Democrats’ response to the video scandal?

BL: I think they should be ashamed of themselves. This is where we saw fearful Democrats with no spine and no courage. But not all Democrats loved ACORN — the Blue Dogs couldn’t stand us. So when Republicans already had their votes, there were Democrats who were happy to see ACORN be brought down so they didn’t have to deal with us in their city or state.

But I will always commend the Congressional Black Caucus because they stood up for us and did not take that vote. There were other progressives who stood up for us, like [New York Senator] Kirsten Gillibrand, but then we had so-called progressives who were like, “Oh, this is too embarrassing!”

TR: Your new organization, the Black Institute, has a focus on immigration reform, but you look specifically at black immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. Are they facing issues of documentation and deportation that typically surround the immigration-reform debate, or are the challenges different?

BL: The Black Institute looks at any given issue through a black perspective, so for us this is not a border issue. Immigration has been framed as Latino, borders and documentation, and I was frustrated that we never saw a black face of immigration. Our “Broken Promises” campaign focuses on international teachers who were recruited across the country from the Caribbean, with promises of the good American life and a path to permanent residency.