by Wade Rathke
October 23, 2020
Little Rock About twenty Georgia State University School of Social Work students watched the film, The Organizer, in Atlanta recently. I zoomed in for a questions-and-answers session after it finished. The first question was straightforward: how would I compare the work of ACORN with the Black Lives Matter? The answer isn’t simple or short, because it involves breaking out the differences between an organization and a movement. ACORN is a mass organization. Black Lives Matter is a mass movement.
As chief organizer, I was always clear that ACORN was not a movement, but we were building a mass membership organization that would be ready and able to align with movements because we believed in the capacity of movements to make change quickly, where building organization was often a slower and more methodical process. As an organization we would take action, engage issues, develop leadership, train organizers, and fight and sometimes win campaigns, elections, and other struggles both local and national, but we would also create the capacity and resources to serve as the scaffolding and support for mass movements that involved our members as they occurred. I wish the Black Lives Matter movement had arisen a dozen years ago at the apex of ACORN’s strength in the United States, when we could have helped implement the program and demands where we had members ready to respond and some power to exert pressure and sustain the campaigns.
The power and impact of a movement is inestimable because of its range and ability to inspire and motivate people to act on deeply felt grievances. An example I gave to the students is repeated in the daily news. It’s one thing to see people hit the streets to protest police brutality in New York City, San Francisco, or Portland. It’s another thing to see large and sustainable protests demanding an end to police brutality and achievement of racial justice in places like Jonesboro, Arkansas, Kenosha, Wisconsin, or now, Waukegan, Illinois, just as history has shown the penetration of the civil rights movement in towns and cities throughout the country during its time. An organization, like ACORN, might be able to create the capacity to develop chapters and offices in more than one-hundred cities, but it is unimaginable that it would have been able to do the same in smaller communities where a dues-base would not have been sufficient. In a movement, people know that they can raise the banner in their own name and take the streets whenever needed and make change with their own hands, voices, and feet.
I would place a safe bet that today in the United States there is no police department, literally none, that do not realize that if one of their cops shoots a black man, woman or child, that they will be met with protests and held to account. A lot of efforts claim the mantle of a movement, but when one happens, as we are seeing now with Black Lives Matter, there is no argument about what it is, and the ability to say its name. ACORN knows its role and plays it fully, but the capacity to create change in a time of movement is limitless, even if it is temporary, and demands that we seize the time while we can.
Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.