John McCain

The Real ACORN, in Brooklyn

John McCain
John McCain

Last Wednesday, on the evening of the final presidential debate of this cycle, held at Hofstra University, Senator John McCain alleged in the most cautious terms he could muster, that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

Nearby, in the Uniondale section of Hempstead Iona Emsley cringed.  For the last 19 years, Ms. Emsley has worked with various chapters of ACORN—in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island—to fight for social, housing and immigrant rights.

“All the negative impact on the organization, for all the hard work that we’ve done, it’s like we did it in vain – for just one night,” she told me. “For somebody to spread our name like that across the country – I was so mad I almost wanted to punch the wall when McCain said what he said just to malign us.”

We were sitting in a drab room whose white paint had long since turned yellow on the second floor of an outdated office building on North Franklin Street.  Plastic chairs were scattered chaotically. It was four days after the debate and the occupants of those chairs had just wrapped up a workshop for new Americans about how to get out the vote come election day, just two weeks away.

The coalition of groups working on registering voters, especially new Americans, in Hempstead and surrounding areas include a plethora of acronyms that few people bother to decipher, including the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, the Central American Refugee Center, and of course the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. So far the project has netted 3,000 new registrants.  Now it’s up to community organizers to help get them to the polls on election day.

ACORN in Brooklyn has worked with communities on a variety of fronts, most notably on Starrett City, the nation’s largest federally subsidized housing complex comprised of 46 brick towers in Canarsie, where the majority of its 14,000 residents earn less than $40,000 per year. When a bid to purchase the complex for $1.3 billion came up in early 2007, ACORN organized tenant organizations and garnered the support of local, state and federal officials to oppose the deal, which would have removed the complex from the Mitchell Lama program and inevitably raised rents. The owners of the complex later came to an agreement with federal, state and city officials on the sale, which was conditioned on preserving the complex as affordable housing.

Back in Hempstead, Alexandra Garcia, a young Ecuadorian organizer had commuted from Crown Heights to facilitate a Spanish workshop for New Americans on how to get out the vote. We had been discussing the recent republican attacks on organizers going back to Rudy Giuliani’s lamentable scoff at Senator Obama’s experience as an organizer at the Republican National Convention.

“In the local economy,” she said, ”immigrants contribute a lot, we are hard workers and it’s about time that our rights are defended – and publicly – so that they feel like everything that is regarding immigrants isn’t just in some obscure corner of every house in every city and every town.”

At the end of the workshop participants took home lists of newly registered voters to call about getting out to vote, and all had opted to be part of the calling program.

Back in Manhattan the day after the debate, as is tradition, both presidential candidates attended the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, where they participated in a self-deprecating roast at the Hilton-owned Waldorf Astoria hotel.

“We all know the press is an independent, civic minded, non partisan group,” Senator McCain joked. “Like ACORN.”

The event was a humorous glimpse into the souls of two men who have been forced to stay so rigidly on message during their campaigns, yet Mr. McCain, showing little humility, joked about the two groups his campaign has maligned most in recent days: the press and community organizers.

“We had gone back and forth, back and forth to our politicians and they gave us the runaround,” said ACORN organizer Atlanta Cockrell, of her fight against a negligent landlord in Hempstead during the early 1990s. “Someone told us about ACORN in Brooklyn, so we jumped in our cars after work and said let’s go to the meeting and see what’s going on. We found out what was going on and we liked it, so we left and asked if we could have a chapter of our own.”

Empowered by her newfound ability to organize people, Ms. Cockrell and her associates later convened a meeting with their landlord. ”We went to his office and danced on his table,” she laughed. “Everything we asked for, we got it.”

For organizers working in under served communities in New York and across the country, life is never really about the distant goal of winning a war, but at the very least a battle here and there.

“We’re working for all people,” Ms. Emsley chimed in. She wore a bright red ACORN shirt and visor with the slogan ‘The People Shall Rule.’

“If the garbage pick up is not made on time, or if they’re neglecting our streets to clean them; it’s affecting all of us in the area that we live.  So ACORN is not about singling out for Obama or whatever, we’re just making sure that the people who have the opportunity to vote get that opportunity. As a citizen it’s your right to vote, so that’s all we’re about, getting the people registered and to vote.  Forget about all the other little politics and everything else, we’re not about that.

“We’re about getting people registered – who can tell that there isn’t quite a number in there voting for McCain?”

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