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Monday, June 15, 2009

Ratner and ACORN: Alinsky Would be Proud

Saul Alinsky, the author of Rules For Radicals, once said this.

In the politics of human life, consistency is not a virtue


It’s true I might have trouble getting to sleep because it takes time to tuck those big, angelic, moral wings under the covers.


The judgment of history leans heavily on the outcome of success or failure; it spells the difference between the traitor and the patriotic hero. There can be no such thing as a successful traitor, for if one succeeds he becomes a founding father

In other words, the accumulation of power is far more important that being true to your ideology. Saul Alinsky is the philosophical and strategic god father to groups like ACORN. Keep those thoughts in mind as I unravel this story.

In the second week of September 2008, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis came to board of ACORN looking for approval of a business transaction. Lewis had been able to secure a one million dollar loan from Forest City Enterprises as well as a grant of $500,000. While Lewis was long on details of the financial deal, she was short on details of who exactly is Forest City and how she came upon this deal.

The timing couldn't have been anymore...well...timely. As I reported last week, only months earlier then CEO, Wade Rathke, first informed the board that ACORN was about $2 million behind on both state and federal taxes. This was also a tumultuous time for ACORN on other matters. Two members of the board, Marcel Reid and Karen Inman, had filed a temporary restraining order against ACORN in order to stop the organization from destroying documents related to the embezzlement of Dale Rathke, the brother of Wade Rathke. The board was also struggling with whether or not that investigation should be allowed to move forward. In fact, the board had taken a vote on this matter only weeks earlier.

Within days, members of the board received a peculiar email. The loan and grant had been approved. This was curious since the board hadn't yet taken a vote on the matter. More curious even was the fact that the vote was almost exactly identical to the vote taken earlier on the TRO.

This peculiarity along with the evasiveness of Lewis forced some members of the board to further investigate. They first found out that Forest City is owned by Bruce Ratner. Ratner also owns the New Jersey Nets. When Ratner bought the Nets, he immediately made plans to move them to Brooklyn. He planned on building the stadium in an area that then housed low income housing.

ACORN's position on this stadium had also gone through say an evolution. Here is an article from 2004 that describes the "evolution".

In June 2004, inside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, a stage was packed with New York’s most important political, labor, community and religious leaders. One of them, Bertha Lewis, executive director of New York ACORN, leaned forward, stretched her arms into a “V” and bellowed to the audience of 1,300, “What do we want?”

Outside Borough Hall, protestors – mostly middle-class activists – accused Ratner of “Manhattanizing” Brooklyn and questioned ACORN’s backing. Why wasn’t ACORN – the leftist, poor people’s organization known for organizing campaigns against corporate abuse and political corruption – outside on the picket lines protesting against political cronyism and developer greed?

ACORN was being accused of “selling out” by supporting a deal that would funnel huge government concessions to a private development that will increase population, burden traffic, alter the Brooklyn skyline and bulldoze many residents through eminent domain condemnations.

This is a lot different than the stance that the same Bertha Lewis had made months earlier.

one of the earliest opposers of Bruce Ratner was actually Bertha Lewis, of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN). Years earlier, when Forest City Ratner had opened its Atlantic Center in Brooklyn, only blocks from the current Atlantic Yards project, Lewis staunchly opposed Ratner by organizing picketers, even storming his office. She demanded that the businesses located in the retail space of Ratner’s building pay their workers better wages, a fight she eventually won. And as new development has progressed in Brooklyn neighborhoods over the years, Lewis and ACORN have consistently muscled the developers into meeting ACORN’s demands for affordable housing and other benefits for their communities, seemingly as payback for the developers’ driving up the median income and housing prices.

Then ACORN suddenly signed what is known as a "memorandum of understanding" which included ACORN's support for the project. In return, Forest City would make a significant portion of the units "low income" and allow ACORN's, ACORN Housing, market many of the units. In return, the same pickets that ACORN lead against the project were now being lead in favor of the project. (the project has since run way over budget and still hasn't even gotten off the ground)

So, the same person who only years earlier had turned ACORN from an adversary to an ally was now giving a life line to the same group. The story doesn't end there. It turns out that the date on the loan was September 4th, 2008. In other words, Lewis had already signed onto the loan on behalf of ACORN before she even presented the deal to the board. Then, Lewis orchestrated a sham vote in favor of the same deal she had already put into motion. of course, before most of this could be properly investigated internally, most of those that protested were removed and are now members of ACORN 8.

Meanwhile, Ratner, for $2 million, some marketing expenses, and about a thousand underpriced units, was able to get the most effective grassroots group to organize in his favor rather than against him. ACORN, on the other hand, had just gained a long term powerful ally.

Alinsky believed that the accumulation of power is the most important thing. Ideology takes a back seat. In this case, the fate of the poor, who's housing would be demolished in favor of this project, were nothing more than collateral damage in the pursuit of that which Alinsky believed most important: power.

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