One year after the community-organizing group ACORN disbanded — after an undercover video scandal and a denial of federal funds by Congress — the organization's former president is back. Today Bertha Lewis is at the helm of the Black Institute, her newly created "action tank" dedicated to immigration reform, environmental justice, education and economic fairness.
While Lewis is optimistic about her latest endeavor, she still can't escape the controversy surrounding ACORN. Once the nation's largest grassroots network for the poor, it provided employment services and advocated for affordable housing. But the organization acquired notoriety during the 2008 campaign when it registered more than 1 million low-income voters but submitted thousands of registration cards with phony names and addresses.
Although ACORN workers had themselves flagged and reported the suspicious cards, the organization was peppered with accusations of voter-registration fraud, and became a target for Republicans convinced that it was a criminal enterprise.
ACORN shut its doors last year, following broad condemnation over videos posted on Andrew Breitbart's website. The undercover videos, made by conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, showed the pair dressed as a pimp and prostitute and appearing to get help from ACORN workers for child trafficking and other illegal activities.
Several investigations, including probes by the California attorney general and Brooklyn, N.Y., district attorney, proved that the tapes were heavily edited to be completely misleading, and found that ACORN employees had not facilitated prostitution or otherwise violated the law. The exonerations, however, didn't come until after the U.S. Congress had already stripped the group's funding. (Later still, Congress' own investigation further cleared ACORN of any wrongdoing.)
For her part, Lewis is looking ahead. She talked to The Root about how her former colleagues are doing their old work under new names, her current efforts to get more African Americans behind immigration reform and why she's annoyed by many progressives — and surprisingly grateful to the conservative right.
The Root: After ACORN disbanded, many chapters reorganized under new names. How are they faring a year later?
Bertha Lewis: There are 18 independent organizations around the country. Some of the old ACORN chapters were combined, with several states becoming one entity. We learned great lessons from our tribulations, and we decided that organizing by any other name is still organizing. The former chapters and their boards incorporated themselves, renamed themselves and made sure that the reforms I had been putting in place around structure, financial management and operations were carried on. I'm happy to say that they're very strong, and we're in about 25 states.
Glenn Beck and the conservative right actually helped us create 18 bulletproof community-organizing Frankensteins that they're going to have a very hard time attacking. We owned up to what our weaknesses were, we were realistic about our strengths, and so these new entities are carrying on ACORN's work of organizing low- and moderate-income folks. Thank you very much, Rush Limbaugh.
TR: ACORN seemed to shut down so quickly, without putting up much of a fight. Why?
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.
The New York City teachers have been here for 10 years, and none of the promises made have been fulfilled. If they don't get a letter from their principal recommending an extension of their visa, they're done. Their children are aging out and can't go to college, and their spouses cannot work here, so families are getting separated. Because the bureaucracy in the New York City Department of Education does not work properly, some of them are getting a knock on the door and being deported.
This is a face of immigration that hasn't been seen. Let's look at the temporary protected status of Haitians who came here after the earthquake — it expires in June. Already Haitians have been deported back to Haiti, where there's nowhere to live and conditions are in a devastated state. Why is it that Haitians are treated differently from Cubans, who have perpetual protected status? We believe that if the black face of immigration is visible, then that shifts the whole paradigm of the immigration-reform discussion.
TR: Many African Americans are ambivalent at best on immigration reform, viewing the presence of so many undocumented immigrants as harmful to employment for black Americans who are less educated. Jobs in construction and food services, for example, could go to unemployed blacks. What's your position?
BL: My position on that is you've been hoodwinked. This is the narrative of white America that has been fed to African Americans. So they're taking your low-wage job? Wait a minute — who's at fault here? It is the employer who knowingly employs and exploits an undocumented worker, because then he does not have to employ an African-American worker, who is certainly going to ask for a minimum wage and benefits and to be treated fairly as a citizen. If we're talking about enforcement, well, it's supposed to be against the law to employ someone who's undocumented.
Demographics are changing, and we're going to be a majority minority country. The political force of black and brown folks coming together would be overwhelming to those in power now. African Americans have been fed a narrative, of a mythical job being taken away from you, which only works to the advantage of the ruling class.
TR: You just said that exploitative employers don't want to hire black citizens who would demand a fair wage. In that regard, even while disagreeing with exploitation, many African Americans still see undocumented immigrants as the source of the problem.
BL: Let's think this through. If you were to cross the border undocumented, and no one would employ you or hire you — then why are you crossing the border? One of the things that drove me to create the Black Institute was being angry about how African Americans were being manipulated, especially on this question of immigration. This has been a narrative fostered by Wall Street and corporations because it is to their benefit not to look a little deeper. Part of what we want to do at the Black Institute is to really give black folks the research and data to change this narrative, because they're being used.
TR: You're such a polarizing figure that, no matter where you work, you'll be viewed with suspicion. Are you anxious about defending yourself against more allegations?
BL: I will forever be the ACORN Lady, and I will never run away from it. I hope they do come after me. I cannot wait. Maybe then, all of the legal vindication and evidence showing how they trumped up stuff can finally be opened up. But I think that if they come after me — digging up a corpse to trot out and debate — then they will be engaging in political necrophilia. So all political necrophiliacs, bring it on. [Laughs.]
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.