Organization Trends

Subversion Inc.

The Real Story of ACORN

(PDF here)

Special Report: This paper contains excerpts from the author’s new book Subversion Inc.: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts Are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers (WND Books, 2011). Capital Research Center has been tracking ACORN since 1998. ACORN was most recently profiled in the November 2010 Organization Trends and in the November 2008 editions of Foundation Watch and Labor Watch.

Summary: Reports of ACORN’s death have been greatly exaggerated. More than a dozen of the infamous group’s chapters have broken off and separately incorporated themselves in order to evade authorities. Vadum’s new book examines ACORN’s history of corruption and lawbreaking along with its brutal anti-social goals and tactics. It also examines the group’s intimate relationship with the Obama administration.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is part political group, part crime syndicate, part terrorist organization. Much of the time it operates outside the legitimate political process, waging war against the framework of society. ACORN is in the business of subverting the American system, so what Americans saw on the undercover “pimp and pro” videos released in 2009 was just another day at the office at ACORN. But the darkest side of ACORN has remained largely unexplored – until now.

ACORN, which until it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last year was America’s largest poor people’s group, was founded on political violence and intimidation. ACORN grew out of another notorious group called the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). NWRO was founded in 1966—the same year Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven’s seminal article “The Weight of the Poor” was published in the Nation magazine. The so-called Cloward-Piven Strategy called for activists to double America’s welfare rolls in order to destabilize the American system of government.

Placing impossible demands on states and localities would force them to ask Congress for a guaranteed annual income scheme and thereby set in motion the transformation of America into a socialist state. NWRO grew out of the organizing efforts of Rules for Radicals author Saul Alinsky and other veteran radical agitators. Cloward and Piven also helped bring NWRO into the world. They acknowledge they “were intimately involved in the affairs of NWRO: we participated in discussions of strategy, in fund-raising efforts, and in demonstrations.” In the late 1960s Wade Rathke signed on as an organizer for NWRO’s chapter in Springfield, Mass.

A few months after arriving in Springfield, Rathke had built up a local empire of activism. He constructed an influential welfare rights organization consisting of 20 neighborhood groups with a combined membership of more than 2,000. The Springfield chapter of NWRO secured millions of dollars from the local welfare agency and encouraged hundreds of non-members to seek welfare benefits. NWRO was also doing its best to swamp welfare departments nationwide. Between December 1960 and February 1969 the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare program had grown 107 percent but in the 15-month period from February 1969 through October 1970 the program grew a staggering 55 percent as an extra 1.5 million families joined the rolls. Rathke was arrested after he led an invasion of the Springfield welfare office with 250 or more women and students armed with signs reading “More for the poor, less for the war.” The welfare director refused to give in to the crowd’s demands for winter clothing, benefits to which they were not entitled.

That provoked two days of unrest in which millions of dollars of property was destroyed. The Soviet government used Rathke’s riot as anti-American propaganda, publishing an article about it in Pravda. Rathke’s experiences “reinforced his belief that one important resource for poor people was their ability to disrupt.” He realized that despite the failure of the action to achieve its objective, his followers felt empowered by violence directed against the system. This empowerment by rioting became a staple of ACORN’s playbook.

Meanwhile, over time Rathke came to agree with Alinsky that single-issue organizations were doomed to fail. A multifaceted approach was needed to radically transform the nation. Rathke moved to Little Rock, Ark., and got down to work trying to turn the Natural State upside-down. ACORN was born with Rathke in place as its chief organizer, a position he was to hold for almost 40 years.

Saul Alinsky and Violence

For ACORN, anything goes, from rude protests to crude intimidation and violence. The bigger, the louder, the more obnoxious, the more destructive, the better. Rathke summed up ACORN’s approach to doing business in a single sentence: “One can almost taste the adrenaline when people take a crowbar to a door and pop it open to begin squatting.”

ACORN leadership doesn’t care if people get hurt or property is damaged: as long as the action advances the cause, it’s fair game. “ACORN protests have turned violent, at times as soon as the rallies began,” writes Sol Stern of the Manhattan Institute. “Some protests disrupted Federal Reserve hearings and busted into closed city council meetings.” In Stern’s opinion ACORN embraces “undisguised authoritarian socialism” when it demands that large companies that desire to leave the community be coerced into getting “an exit visa from the community board signifying that the company has adequately compensated all its employees and the community at large for losses due to relocation.”

ACORN’s legacy of destruction and lawlessness traces directly back to the fiendishly brilliant Saul Alinsky. Born in 1909, the group’s spiritual sherpa into the abyss of planned anarchy was always fascinated by violence. His defenders present Alinsky as an advocate of civil disobedience who rejected violence as a political tool. This is rubbish. Alinsky adored violence. By the time he died, Alinsky had created an astounding 44 community organizations that aspire to pulverize the American system. ACORN founder Rathke worked with Alinsky, who trained activists from the Massachusetts chapter of ACORN’s parent organization NWRO and other groups before he died in 1972.

Alinsky “had done sessions with my staff at Massachusetts Welfare Rights in early 1970 and various other things,” Rathke blogged. According to one of Alinsky’s senior organizers at the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), Nicholas von Hoffman, Alinsky played no direct role in the creation of ACORN but believes the master, had he lived to see it develop, would have approved of ACORN’s approach to agitation. The group’s “cheekiness, truculence and imaginative tactical tropes have an Alinskyan touch,” according to von Hoffman, a journalist who wrote a particularly nasty biography of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s counsel Roy Cohn. Von Hoffman soft-pedals the damage that Alinsky-style organizing does to the body politic, claiming Alinsky was sounding “the trumpet blast for democracy.” If democracy includes “conking” picket line crossers on the head—something he admits Alinsky favored— then he’s right. Alinsky shied away from praising violence in public because “[t]he subject was too touchy and to bring it up was to invite misquotation and distortion.” But in private “he would say that violence has its uses.”

All of this was not lost on Rathke. He is usually quite careful about what he says in public. Rathke soft-pedals his radicalism with positive-sounding phrases such as “citizen wealth” and “participatory democracy,” but from time to time even a master manipulator can slip up. His essay “Tactical Tension” is a case in point. It dates back to mid-2001 when the Left was in a stupor. Liberal and radical activists were angry and demoralized because their would-be savior, Democratic candidate Al Gore, had just barely lost the presidency to George W. Bush.

Although there has never been any credible evidence that Republicans stole the election, it became an article of faith on the Left that the GOP had deprived the American people of their rightful president. Many on the Left had high hopes for Gore after Bill Clinton tacked toward the political center and now those hopes were dashed. To this perceived affront to democracy, Wade Rathke offered his comrades a declaration of war. His militant rant is very revealing. Rathke argues that the Left is losing and needs to get more aggressive. “We need an edge, some harder steel on the rim,” he writes. “If some day we want to make more just laws, then today we may have to just learn to break more laws.” In a “wish list,” he includes “[t]actics that include civil disobedience and political defiance” and “[t]actics that include extra-legal activity.”

He praises the rioters in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting as “progressive forces.” Their civil disturbances were “a colorful, exciting, smoky, hazy amalgamation of helmeted police, broken glass, and righteous rage.” He continues admiringly, “Dispersed affinity groups operating on ‘street’ consensus [were] making a range of tactical decisions and holding ground in a way that made the momentum of the actions impossible to immobilize in spite of rain, gas, and cops.” Rathke then attempts a delicate rhetorical balancing act, denouncing violent tactics in general while at the same time advocating specific examples of it: “We do not embrace violence, quite the contrary, but we need to create chemistry containing the elements of more explosive combinations in order to create more force and power through the equations of action and reaction that we push to the target.” Despite this perfunctory condemnation of violence that fosters an illusion of respectability, the rest of the essay is filled with explicit endorsements of violent and illegal tactics. He praises the violent Black Panther Party of the 1960s and longs for some computer hackers to come to the aid of the labor movement.

Crazy, computer viruses are started by young kids around the world or hackers bored out of their skulls that live right down the street. As union organizers we are still doing 8 point difficulty dumpster dives for alpha lists of employees, when theoretically some good geeks could tap in, load up, and download the whole thing and throw it over our transom window. What a waste of talent when such a huge contribution could be made to the labor movement.

“Simply put, why isn’t there more ‘monkey wrenching’ in our world? Where is our Earth First!” he writes. Monkey-wrenching is a form of eco-terrorism or ecotage (eco-sabotage) that consists of harming the economic interests of those who are perceived threats to the environment. It might be arson, destruction of crops or sport utility vehicle dealerships, bombing, or tree-spiking, in which an activist drives metal rods into trees in order to prevent them from being cut down for commercial use. Tree-spiking has led to the injury and death of lumberjacks. It further enrages Rathke that some of ACORN’s targets have not only defended themselves but have dared to fight back. ACORN’s founding Intimidator-in-Chief, whose stock-in-trade is thuggery, denounces these acts of self-defense as “intimidation.” Some targets filed lawsuits against ACORN “designed to sap resources and chill membership organized campaigns,” he huffs.

ACORN Is Illegitimate

ACORN’s anti-democratic, un-American activities are not legitimate political advocacy protected by the First Amendment. They cry out for prosecution under federal racketeering laws. [The push for a racketeering probe got a boost in April 2011 when ACORN was convicted in a massive voter fraud conspiracy in Nevada. The felony conviction came too late to be included in the book. –Editor] Former Chicago ACORN leader Madeline Talbott is a master of the bank shakedown. She bragged about “dragging banks kicking and screaming” into questionable loans. Talbott thought highly of Barack Obama’s organizing work in the Windy City and invited him to lecture her staffers. She also led a mob attack on the Chicago City Council during a “living wage” debate. ACORN demonstrators “pushed over the metal detector and table used to screen visitors, backed police against the doors to the council chamber, and blocked late-arriving aldermen and city staff from entering the session.” Six people, including a defiant Talbott, were led away in handcuffs.

Then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had a taste of ACORN’s stormtrooper tactics in 1995, when about 500 ACORN activists took over the Washington Hilton, forcing Gingrich to cancel a speech to 2,500 county commissioners. Demonstrators chanting “Nuke Newt!” grabbed the microphone and commandeered the head table, then cheered when the speech was cancelled. “ACORN is part of the enforcement wing and the intimidation wing of the left,” Gingrich said in an interview.

Members of ACORN assaulted New York state Sen. James Alesi, a Republican, and his chief of staff, during a raucous 2009 protest. Alesi said an angry mob nearly knocked him to the floor of the chamber and spat in the face of his chief of staff. ACORN was protesting after two Democratic state senators switched parties giving Republicans control of the New York Senate. ACORN’s political party, the Working Families Party, had invested considerable resources in state senate elections in the Empire State. WFP took credit for ending “30 years of right-wing Republican rule” in 2008.

Republican Mike Huckabee is another of many Republican officeholders to be terrorized by ACORN. In 1998, while governor of Arkansas, Huckabee prepared to deliver a speech on civil rights. Like Gingrich he was silenced by hundreds of screaming ACORN activists armed with bullhorns who stormed a Little Rock hotel conference room and drove him away. “They surrounded not only the outer walls, but then, much to the dismay of the state troopers who were with me, they then mounted the stage,” said Huckabee, who cut the speech short and left abruptly. “It was a very tense moment. It was totally unnecessary.” During the anti-Huckabee demonstration, Johnnie Pugh, head of ACORN’s Arkansas chapter, seized the microphone. “We want justice,” she said. ACORN is “trying to get the bills paid and make a living wage and welfare reform is not working.” ACORN members chanted “The people united will never be defeated,” “Justice for welfare; Huckabee don’t care,” and “We’re fired up; we’re not going to take it no more.” A dozen ACORN activists ran after Huckabee. Some jumped on the governor’s car and pounded on it as others attempted to prevent him from leaving. When Arkansas State Police investigated to determine if the demonstrators had broken any laws, Pugh called the probe “retaliation” and a “witch hunt.” She even threatened to hit Huckabee again with more in-your-face protests. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she said.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of ACORN’s wrongdoings. Radicals believe their goals warrant criminal means and “can be relied on to lie, steal votes and justify murder when committed by their political friends . . . because they are engaged in a permanent war whose goal is the salvation of mankind,” according to former radical-turned-conservative David Horowitz. “In this context, restraint of means can easily seem finicky.” ACORN’s violence inciting techniques still flourish, practiced out in the open by organized labor and countless other radical groups. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, an ACORN ally, is unashamedly pro-thuggery. He told members of the United Mine Workers in Illinois to “kick the [expletive] out of every last” worker who violated the sanctity of his picket lines.

The outrageous behavior tolerated by police today would have landed a person in jail earlier in America’s history. Political incitements to riot, which occur almost exclusively on the Left, fail to move law enforcement. Why? Because as a society we have gradually become inured to these evil tactics. It is “defining deviancy down,” to borrow a phrase coined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan to discuss the process by which society grows accustomed to antisocial behavior, rationalizing it away over time and redefining it: “[T]he amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can ‘afford to recognize’ and that accordingly we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is abnormal by any earlier standard.”

Moynihan warned ominously that “we are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us.” Early twentieth-century Americans were horrified by anarchist and labor union-initiated violence. Many labor organizations at the time were revolutionary terrorist groups. They killed people, incited riots, and fomented rebellion. But over time corporations and governments began to ignore the cardinal rule: don’t negotiate with terrorists. They took a short-term perspective, deluding themselves into believing they were buying peace by caving in to terrorists’ demands, all in the hope of gaining market share or a few extra votes on Election Day. The left-wing, pro-radical media has played a role too, lulling Americans into complacency by telling them nothing’s wrong.

Leftists using ACORN-style tactics are portrayed as well-intentioned mainstream activists, noble crusaders for social justice who have everyone’s best interest at heart. Activists may get out of hand every once in a while, according to journalists, but they mean well. Of course when patriotic Tea Party activists, alarmed that America is being transformed into a socialist state by the nation’s Community Organizer-in-Chief, express their well-founded concerns by merely booing a few congressmen and holding protest rallies, the media labels them heel-clicking fascist storm troopers. If there’s one thing the Left cannot tolerate, it is diversity of opinion and freedom of speech.

Americans have become so desensitized to in-your-face protest and shakedown tactics that ACORN’s jackboot activism, which rightly horrified society in past years, hardly registers today. Unless ACORN or its lawless brethren in the so-called progressive movement are wrecking front lawns, obstructing businesses, burning bankers in effigy, or chasing politicians from a stage, such groups are boring to Americans. Maybe that’s why, in the words of former ACORN national board member Marcel Reid, it took “a half-naked 20-year-old” to spark the nationwide backlash that erupted against the group in 2009. Without the undercover videos masterminded by conservative activists James O’Keefe III and Hannah Giles that showed ACORN employees offering advice on establishing an illegal brothel employing underage Salvadoran girls, Americans’ concern about the group’s persistent lawbreaking might never have reached a fever pitch that forced Congress to defund the group in September 2009, beginning its final slide into bankruptcy. ACORN was only conducting business as usual, but the videos provided graphic evidence that the group’s business was not only unsavory but illegitimate.

Matthew Vadum is a Senior Editor at Capital Research Center. His book, Subversion Inc.: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts Are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers, will be published this month by WND Books. The book and this article are Copyright © 2011 Matthew Vadum. All rights reserved.




Unless they see a public relations advantage in going public with the fact they’ve been victimized by ACORN, corporations don’t necessarily relish the prospect of letting the public know they’ve been pushed around. In such cases, detecting the group’s corporate shakedown campaigns can be hard work. Regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sometimes reveal financial agreements between ACORN and corporations.

Sometimes the documents disclose lawsuit settlements. ACORN usually sues its targets not because a wrong needs to be made right but because the group wants to extract money from a deep-pocketed business. ACORN’s lawyers might as well be members of its development department.

What follows below is a small sample from ACORN’s corporate blackmail portfolio:

Bank of New York

Capital One


Countrywide Financial

Exelon Corp.

Household Finance Corp.

H&R Block
HSBC Finance

Liberty Tax Service

National Paint & Coatings Association

Orkin Exterminating Co. 

Roosevelt Financial Group Inc. 


TCF Financial Corp.



ACORN Housing Corp. changed its name to Affordable Housing Centers of America Inc.

State-level chapters that have incorporated as new nonprofit corporations:

Arkansas: Arkansas Community Organizations

California: Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE)

Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island: New England United for Justice

District of Columbia, Maryland: Communities United, Communities United
Training and Education Fund

Louisiana: A Community Voice

Minnesota: Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change

Missouri: Missourians Organizing for Reform & Empowerment (MORE)

New York: New York Communities for Change

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Neighborhoods for Social Justice (PNSJ) and
Pennsylvania Communities Organizing for Change (PCOC)

Texas: Texas Organizing Project and Texas Organizing Project Education Fund

Washington: Organization United for Reform (OUR) Washington

Sources: author research; “ACORN Political Machine Tries to Reinvent Itself,” U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, April 1, 2010, available at http://republicans.


Tags:  ACORN, Wade Rathke

Matthew Vadum

The author of Subversion Inc.: How Obama’s ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers (WND Books, 2011), Vadum, former senior vice president at CRC, writes and speaks widely…
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