Leave ACORN Alone: A Message from a Disgruntled Ex- ACORN Community Organizer

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There has been a call from the McCain Presidential campaign and many on the political right to have Sen. Barack Obama explain his alleged ties to ACORN. McCain has even alleged that ACORN is working to “steal our democracy” and we have already the reports of voter registration fraud, etc.

Most Americans have probably never heard of ACORN and those who have may have gotten the impression that this grassroots community organization only exists to steal elections from the GOP.

So, before I tell you that I used to work for ACORN and have had mixed feelings over the years towards the organization, I would like to first explain to you what ACORN is and does.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is a grassroots community organization with chapters all over the country. It exists primarily in urban areas where it organizes in communities populated by the working poor. Some of the major issues that ACORN has worked on over the recent years have included the promotion of a living-wage, fighting predatory lending and redlining, health-care reform, and tenant’s rights. In many instances ACORN has also worked closely with labor. In all of these issues ACORN strictly focuses on class and labor issues and thus is an organization I see as having an important role to play in keeping the feet of the Democratic Party to the fire and to keep in check the cultural liberals in the Party who want to move away from issues of racial and economic justice to a Party that is more yuppie centered powered by the “netroots”.

I worked as a community organizer for ACORN in St. Louis and also for very brief stints in Brooklyn and Paterson, NJ. Organizers for ACORN work 60 to 70 hours a week meeting members and trying to recruit new members for low pay in order to serve the communities they are organizing. It is an often thankless job and you deal with a lot of rejection and hostility but at the end of the day the organizer can take solace in the fact they are helping to make our communities better for those most in need.

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Sarah Palin’s “Real America” and the One of Barack Obama

On Friday I had worked for 20 hours; only stopping for the essentials such as gas and jumma prayer. My day began around fajir and did not end till the wee hours of the morning on Saturday. After going to sleep for a few hours I got up in order to attend the Barack Obama rally on the grounds of the St. Louis Arch.

Along with me came my wife and her two children, but unfortunately we were not able to make it in time as we had been given some inaccurate information. We were told that Obama would speak at 1 and as we pulled up on Memorial Drive at quarter to 1 we could hear Sen. Obama wrapping up his speech with a “God bless you St. Louis”. For the next 30 minutes we sat in a traffic jam and moved about 100 feet. Democratic spokesmen estimated the crowd to be at around 175,000 people (one of the largest in American history).

I do not know the exact number of people who gathered in this battleground state yesterday, but what I do know is that the crowd looked like America. I saw the young and old, black and white, people of all faiths, and people dressed in many different ways. The diversity of this crowd represented a candidate, and a Party, that has on its agenda expanding the American franchise to all people. And, while the Party and candidate may not be perfect in all positions, it is the Party of inclusion. For me this means that I can show up at the rally as a white Muslim man who drives a cab and wears a big beard with my African-American wife in hijab and two children and not feel out of place  This does not mean that I am in complete unison with all of those in the crowd or that I have become a cultural liberal and an adherent to the San Francisco madhab (  as prominent Muslim leader who was here last weekend has saying with regards to homosexuality, and without one grain of evidence from Khitab and Sunnah,  ” what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms is not our concern…it is between them and Allah”).  What it means for me is that on all levels as a Muslim, as a working-class American, as someone in a multi-racial family, and as someone who grew-up poor and estranged from the mainstream of American society, I can feel at home at a Democratic rally even if I am with people who may not agree with me on a lot of things. The party has a big tent and I am cool with being under that tent with people of all walks of life.

I say all of this because the divisive campaigning of Sarah Palin has been eating away at me for the last several weeks. She is using the most divisive rhetoric of anyone on a national ticket since the days of George Wallace. This has been pointed out already by conservative writers such as Peggy Noonan and David Brooks; but both Noonan and Brooks came short in analyzing all of the connotations of the conservative populism of Palin.

Yesterday, while that diverse crowd of people gathered in St. Louis to hear Obama, Palin was busy saying that the “patriotic parts of America”, would support McCain implying that people in Blue States were somehow not authentically American.  Today Congressman Roy Blunt of Missouri followed up on that by saying American values are more apparent in small towns and rural areas as people “get ready for deer hunting season”. Indeed after the VP debate a few weeks ago Palin also had a rally and I sat in my cab for several minutes watching the crowd walk by before I saw one African-American woman and a Desi couple; but I saw many that could have been mistaken for deer hunters.

Real Americans, in the minds of Palin and Blunt, do not live in the Northeast, West Coast, or Upper Midwest. Real Americans also do not live in cities. The only places “real” Americans live, in the world of Palin and Blunt, are small towns, rural areas, and suburbia (and mostly the areas of exurbia that Karl Rove focused heavily on). These areas have become the strongholds of the GOP, and as was said in 2000 of Bush, “he won every county with a cow in it”.

These areas tend to have two things in common in that they are very religious and they are overwhelmingly white (and most of these areas in most states are around 100% white). So the subtext to the “real American” message of Palin is that real Americans only live in areas that are all white. So by default, the vast majorities of African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews and Asians are excluded from the privileges of being seen as real Americans by Palin and many conservatives.

While these areas Palin may find “the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans” it is also a fact that very few non-whites feel comfortable living in these idealized communities, and that most are highly suspicious of outsiders or people who think, look, or pray a little different than them. Because of this demographic reality, the populism of Palin and the conservatives becomes an ideology based on suspicion of the other as not being fully American and race becomes central to the outlook. Not that there aren’t non-whites who are swayed by this populism, of course there are and we even have Muslims swayed by this, but this is called delusion. People who just want to be loved and accepted often do not ask that they be respected first; it is the politics of house servants.

The white conservative populism is also fueled by Christian, mostly Evangelical, populism. This gives this movement not only a regional and racial component but a confessional one.

The forthrightness to which Palin brings this argument is new for mainstream politics. But all one has had to do for the last several years is listen to conservative talk-radio, watch FOX News, go to sites like Freerepublic and LGF, listen to country music, and it would be obvious that this populism is rampant.

Real Americans are white, real Americans pray to Jesus, real Americans drive trucks and SUV’s, real Americans support the war, and everyone else is a foreign enemy on this soil; so goes there thinking. People like my grandfather, who served as a marine in World War II and is a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa, have not got this message that they are not real Americans; because he is a Democrat, union member, product of the inner-city, and an Obama Supporter who cannot fathom how anyone would not see him as an American.

Unfortunately for people like me and my family, those who share the view of Palin are more than a few and we are going to need every vote to count come November 4th in order to defeat the white Christian populism of Palin and the GOP.

I will leave you with the words of General Colin Powell from today on Meet the Press who illustrates everything I have been trying to say in these brief words,

“Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that he is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

“I feel particularly strong about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star – showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn’t have a Christian cross. It didn’t have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.

And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life.”

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