Independent Lens: ACORN and the Firestorm

(Rochester, NY) -- For 40 years, the controversial community organizing group ACORN sought to empower marginalized communities. Its critics, though, believed ACORN exemplified everything wrong with liberal ideals, promoting government waste and ineffective activism. These competing perceptions exploded on the national stage in 2009, just as Barack Obama became president. Fueled by a YouTube video made by undercover journalists, ACORN’s very existence would be challenged. Produced and directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard, ACORN and the Firestorm, airing Monday, June 8, 2020 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV, goes beyond the 24-hour news cycle and cuts to the heart of the great political divide. 

In 2008, with a 400,000 strong, grassroots membership in 38 states, ACORN stood at the height of its power, having won a lobbying campaign that led to an increase in the national minimum wage, saved thousands of people from foreclosure, and fought against predatory lending. ACORN also operated on a local level, helping clean up parks, put stoplights at dangerous intersections, and working to improve neighborhood schools.

Leading up to the 2008 election, ACORN helped to register 1.3 million voters, mostly low-income minorities in swing states. When some of those registration cards appeared fraudulent, conservative activists and politicians singled out ACORN as a conspiratorial criminal organization and strategists and pundits joined the chorus. Bertha Lewis, who became CEO just before Obama's election, was confident that they could weather the attacks, and with an ally in the White House, she believed that actual systemic change might be possible. But nothing could have prepared her for what was to come.

When twenty-year-old journalism student Hannah Giles heard about ACORN in the news, she and James O’Keefe, a conservative political activist, orchestrated an investigation into the organization. Using a hidden camera and a fake prostitute, they created a series of YouTube videos which suggested that ACORN staffers were encouraging criminal activity. The videos and Giles became a media sensation. 

ACORN and the Firestorm unfolds through the stories of Giles and Lewis, two women on opposite sides of the political spectrum, as well as through the eyes of ACORN staff, including founder Wade Rathke, members Travis Munnerlyn and Maude Hurd, and ACORN’s opposition, including Republican Congressman Steve King. 

Photo:New York ACORN protest
Credit: Courtesy of ACORN

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