How Did the Media Fail ACORN and Organizing?

Organizing has been under attack for years, but this time around, the media has been directly complicit in severely damaging one of most influential advocates for low- and moderate-income families in the country. How did the media miss the real story behind the assault on ACORN?

Claire Haas, ACORN’s North California organizer arrived on her bike near sunrise wearing two sweatshirts and a red jacket to stop the eviction of Eddie and Martha Daniels by the Alameda County sheriff.

The cold air stung her fingers, but by 6 a.m., and despite the weather, more than 30 members of ACORN joined Haas in front of the Daniels’ West Oakland residence armed with prayers, cell phones, and coffee.

The Daniels family, known in the community for their volunteer work at the homeless shelter at the local church, had always paid the rent on time. But their landlord, unbeknown to them, had failed to pay the mortgage on the house they rented and in 2008 Citibank, the mortgagee, foreclosed. Because of a successful campaign waged by ACORN in 2001, Oakland passed a Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance, which gave the Daniels the right to stay in their home after a foreclosure.

The Daniels family attempted to purchase the house and, at the advice of Citibank’s real estate broker, they waived their rights under the eviction law in order to facilitate the purchase. While they struggled to get a mortgage, Citibank began the eviction process. Following a court order, the sheriff scheduled a February 4 eviction and the Daniels family was set to become another statistic in the national foreclosure catastrophe.

Roughly 2.3 million families faced foreclosure in 2008, and economists predicted 2009 would be worse. Credit Suisse predicted that there would be between 8 and 9 million foreclosures in the next four years, at a potential cost to the economy of $702 billion. Oakland had the country’s tenth-highest foreclosure rate for a metropolitan area. So millions of homes were lost while banks got billions of dollars in government bailout money. ACORN understood that a successful economic recovery that helped the working poor would be impossible without addressing rampant foreclosures.

Pushing Back Against Eviction

Martha and Eddie Daniels did not want to be another statistic. In January 2009, they decided to attend an ACORN Foreclosure Fighters meeting. Their story prompted Annie McKinzie, an East Oakland resident who had lost her home six months earlier, to speak about her neighborhood, with its 150 homes in foreclosure. Many of the properties had all the tell-tale signs of the foreclosure crisis: foot-high grass, properties littered with trash and old mail, and houses-cum-havens for drug dealers. “We can’t let this happen to the Daniels,” she said. After explaining to meeting attendees what the sheriff does in an eviction, ACORN members formulated the plan to stop the Daniels’ eviction.

Days before the scheduled eviction, a delegation of ACORN members visited a local Citibank office urging its officers to stop the eviction. They delivered a “Thank You in Advance” card and asked the local bankers to send it to the executives in charge of making the decision. ACORN Foreclosure Fighter President Merlyn Amaya convinced a radio station to broadcast the eviction live from the Daniels’ home.

The day of the eviction the station began broadcasting live updates on the air every 15 minutes telling what had happened and encouraging listeners to phone the sheriff. Demonstrators and radio listeners flooded the sheriff’s office with calls urging compassion and forbearance of the scheduled eviction.

Late in the morning, the crowd grew and many neighbors came out to observe and join in to lend their support singing and chanting. “They are good neighbors and always helpful,” said neighbor Khalil Louis to the onlookers. “We need to help them, because they would do the same for us.”

After more than 50 ACORN members, neighbors, and allies came to physically oppose the eviction, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office called the Daniels family saying they would not evict that day, and requested that people stop calling their office. Martha Daniels rushed over to Amaya, hugged her and almost fainted in her arms. Later that month, Martha Daniels and Amaya would be elected the co-chairs of the Foreclosure Fighters chapter in Oakland. Maud Hurd, ACORN’s president, said in a press release, “This shows the power of communities coming together to fight back against the foreclosures that are taking our homes and ruining our neighborhoods.”

Later in February, ACORN’s board of directors launched a national effort modeled on what happened in Oakland. Called ACORN Home Defenders, it was aimed at keeping families in their homes and putting pressure on elected officials to address this root cause of the economic collapse.

The campaign echoed the sentiments of leaders like Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur who said, “Stay in your homes. If anybody out there is being foreclosed, don’t leave.”

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