“ACORN and the Firestorm”

A New Documentary

Amos Lassen

ACORN (The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has had its problems but it has also done a tremendous amount of good as we see in this new documentary. When the film begins we see an older man sharing how ACORN helped him when he was on the verge of losing his house and we cannot help but notice that he speaks about the past. The camera then cuts to a picture of ACORN’s main headquarters which are just a dark and empty office. From here we go to what happened.

ACORN was founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1970. Off and on we see a young woman named Hannah Giles, but do not understand yet that her role was in bringing down the organization is unclear at first.

Film directors Reuben Atlas and Samuel D. Pollard introduce us to a number of volunteers who suspiciously do not speak directly to the camera, but we hear them off camera. They speak with passion about ACORN in which their passion for ACORN but the use of voice-over gives the impression that the subjects themselves are dictating which direction the narrative moves in. This is fine since the organization was largely democratic, with members at the street level determining what issues each chapter focused on.

The heart and soul of ACORN is Bertha Lewis, who eventually becomes the first African American woman to head the group. We see that she is a no-nonsense woman and she is totally credible. She was not new to tenant advocacy as she had been heavily involved in it in the Bronx. Once she becomes part of ACORN, she becomes a force. She leads sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience, and was even arrested in front of the U.S. Capitol building.

The film then shows us the organization’s victories as far as helping to influence legislation on behalf of lower-income and working-class people, such as advocating for a higher minimum wage. ACORN used some very ugly tactics and the directors of the film do not hide this. We become aware of the group’s storming private offices and getting into yelling matches with political flacks and admires of ACORN did not like this. Because they could come on strong and they were anti-corporate and aligned with the Democratic Party, they were quick to make enemies with private businesses, bankers, and Republican politicians. It was U.S. Representative Steve King from Iowa, who helped lead the charge that ACORN committed voter registration fraud during the 2008 presidential election.

These accusations were the first real attempt to dirty the organization’s name but it was the second that did the organization in. Giles posing as a prostitute seeking advice on how to set up a brothel for underage girls she planned to smuggle in stateside and this was what brought the death of ACORN. From the beginning, the filmmakers insinuate something fishy about the hidden-camera footage Giles and her accomplice, James O’Keefe, took during the meetings. Over the course of the film, we get more hints and by the time the film ends, we are not as shocked as we are feeling shocked so much as we are upset that the organization could fall victim to such an underhanded smear campaign.


The film is actually about events that happened about ten years ago, but we can see how the future would be affected, especially in the way that Giles’ and O’Keefe’s story was handled by Andrew Breitbart. The anti-government theme that came to mark his later work is already present, as is racism.

The film works on three levels—- as a real-life tragedy, a twisty thriller, and a critique about how the media covers minorities. However, above all else this is a comparison of two women, Lewis and Giles, who were totally different from each other, especially in how they represented pragmatism versus cynicism.

During ACORN’s 40-year history, its mission was the empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised whose political voices went unheard, alone, yet became a force when unified. ACORN worked on the same principle as unions, believing that collectives are more powerful than individuals. Like unions, ACORN earned the anger of conservatives in the United States, who saw its organizational know-how as a major threat to the existing power structure (and it was). With the victory of Obama in 2008, that was propelled by the new coalition of progressives, voters of color, and young voters and helped in part by massive voter-organization efforts (led in many places by ACORN), the Republicans’ response to their defeat, was to take down the coalition and the voter registration efforts that brought more voters to the polls. The first target, naturally, was ACORN.

The film is the sordid story of the takedown of this agency that had been so successful and proud. Some of was ACORN’s own doing but even universally good management would have struggled to overcome the attacks on ACORN after 2008, exemplified by the undercover pimp/prostitute duo of James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. Their videos, posted online, purported to show employees of ACORN doing everything they could to help the two set up brothels, even ones with underage women. A later investigation, discussed in this film (including the courtroom depositions), revealed that O’Keefe had altered the reality of the situation through his editing.

The damage was done, and O’Keefe’s work, along with some unfortunate voter-registration irregularities by low-level workers, led the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress to defund ACORN, which shortly thereafter declared bankruptcy. No matter where one stands on the ideological spectrum, this movie is an excellent bit of documentary history and journalism. Though the filmmakers show their own pro-ACORN feelings, they include many different points of view, and do not spare ACORN’s management.

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