I first experienced ACORN in post-Katrina New Orleans. I was part of a relief organization, Common Ground Relief, which had been delivering much needed aid to the 9th Ward, an area that had been hit especially hard by the flood waters and by neglect. Rumors immediately began surfacing, questioning our motives and intentions. I was very confused by these rumors. Who was behind them? How could anyone question the vital work we were doing in the community? We lived and worked in the 9th Ward. We suspended our regular lives and, in many cases, left our families to travel to New Orleans to help those affected by Katrina and poverty. We slept on dirty plywood floors and shared everything we had with the residents. Most of us were white. Was our skin color the issue? I knew from personal experience that the majority of the Black 9th ward residents didn’t care what color our skin was. It took me awhile to get over the hurt I felt at such allegations and to find out where they were coming from.
In the following weeks, I was made aware of the fact that ACORN had reopened its New Orleans office (several months after the storm). Various groups from around the city informed me that Acorn was upset with us because we were in “their” community and had not sought approval from ACORN to operate there. I was told that ACORN said that we were “privileged white people who had come to a Black community as saviors and we refused to work with local Black leadership.”
The more I pondered the matter, the more I realized what was happening. As usual in marginalized and impoverished communities, a small group of radical self-proclaimed leaders was insisting that all local aid and relief came through them–even if they were AWOL for several months. Though the majority of residents either hadn’t heard of ACORN or simply disagreed with their politics- ACORN insisted that they were THE Black leaders. This was upsetting to me. Sure, the local pastor we worked most closely with was Black; but that didn’t matter to ACORN. It was as if Pastor Johnson didn’t count because he didn’t evoke the name of Elijah Mohammed or Malcolm X. It was as if Pastor Johnson didn’t count because he didn’t submit to ACORN’s mandate that ACORN was the sole leadership of Black New Orleanians.
As then director of Common Ground Relief’s 9th Ward project, I was warned by many that ACORN would ruin me politically if I didn’t submit to their leadership. I believed in what I was doing and how I was doing it. I refused to submit. The political fallout was almost unbearable. I just kept my eyes on meeting the needs of the community. When confronted by adherents to ACORN’s brand of race analysis, I pointed out that ACORN was not there immediately after the storm, so I could not have sought their leadership even if I had wanted to.
Over the following years, that particular style of political attack was prominent in New Orleans. Anytime that ACORN was displeased, the other party was deemed a racist. If the other party disagreed with the label or with ACORN’s agenda- they were met with “of course you feel that way. You are a racist.” Though it is clearly woefully inaccurate and unethical to use such an accusation as a political attack and as a means of shutting down philosophical debate and discourse, some at ACORN didn’t let that stop them. I refused to submit to it. I believed in listening to the majority of the community, who were desperate for our help, and not only to the self-proclaimed leaders. I paid a dear price for it.
I returned to Texas after a couple of years adminst the political quagmire of post-Katrina New Orleans. My experience there with various groups was educational and life-changing, though some of these groups concerned me. Eventually I began to see some of them as dangerous and deceitful about their missions. This, along with a growing appreciation of my country helped lead me to work with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
I was as proud of this new era in my life as I was of my time in New Orleans. I had the privilege of participating in efforts where lives were saved; both in the United States and in Israel. While working undercover with the FBI at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, I helped to uncover a bomb plot. Two men had made firebombs with a homemade napalm mixture of gasoline and oil. Their initial targets were Republican delegates. These bomb-makers (domestic terrorists) later decided to attack a staging area for the Secret Service and other law-enforcement agencies. Fortunately, they were stopped and arrested.
I was asked, and agreed, to testify against them. As was expected, the more radical elements of the media began to attack both me as an individual and the FBI as a whole. One of the men accused plead guilty; the other hired an expensive defense attorney and concocted a story about the FBI building these bombs to “set up left-wing activists” and stop dissent. But once the facts became clear, the defense changed their story and instead tried to blame the FBI for “influencing” the terrorists. Thankfully, after one hung jury and many months of intense media attacks against me, the other bomb-maker (domestic terrorist) decided to come clean and admitted to the judge that he had invented the whole story.
What does any of this have to do with ACORN? I wondered the same thing on January 31st of 2009 when I was reading an ACORN blog that is run by Wade Rathke (the man who claims credit for founding ACORN). He devoted an entire page to my work with the FBI. How did he describe the FBI’s effort and success in preventing innocent Americans, local police and federal agents from being burned, maimed and/or possibly killed by firebombs? He wrote that it’s “one thing to disagree, but it’s a whole different thing to rat on folks.” That is what ACORN’s founder had to say about my role in stopping a bomb plot.
I was even more shocked as I continued reading the article. ACORN’s “founder” went on to mention that another self-proclaimed “radical” activist who had worked closely with him was also involved in my story. Her name is Lisa Fithian. I first encountered Ms. Fithian in New Orleans. She came to town after Common Ground Relief had started operations. She assumed a position of prominence and continuously challenged my work and leadership. During the RNC bombing trial, she cooperated with the defense of the bomb plotters and led media attacks on me and the FBI.
Ms. Fithian has been quoted in various mainstream news articles as saying, “Nonviolence is a strategy. Civil disobedience is a tactic,” and “Direct action is a strategy. Throwing rocks is a tactic.” She is also quoted as stating that “When people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I say, ‘I create crisis’, because crisis is that edge where change is possible.”
ACORN receives tens of millions of dollars from taxpayers to promote their agenda. Free speech is sacred, of course. However, it is clear that ACORN has made a practice of blurring the lines between free speech and tax-payer-funded activism. Fortunately, our federal government is adept at investigating and identifying the misuse of federal funds. It will be interesting in the near future to see how Mr. Rathke and his ACORN associates stand up to the same scrutiny they have focused on our military, the FBI and other governmental groups and agencies.