New Orleans and the smearing of ACORN

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(Food Circle market on North Claiborne in New Orleans in September, 2005; February, 2006; and October, 2008)

I used to shop at the Food Circle Store back when I lived in New Orleans in 1994 and 1995. Dirty and overpriced, it was the only supermarket in the area, and I remember thinking it was an example of what inner city residents had to put up with. (Now another memory kicks in: The bank that owned all the cash machines in the city would allow you to overdraft through its ATMs rather than tell you you had "insufficient funds," charging a penalty when you did.)

Still, the fact that the store hasn't reopened since Katrina is distressingly symbolic. Driving around the city last weekend (after my friend Machelle's wedding in City Park), I found New Orleans still eerily quiet and empty two and a half years after my last visit, even in tourist spots. There are signs of progress and rebuilding in the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward. For starters, the stoplights work, and there are no houses in the middle of the street. But there are the same ravaged buildings beside newly painted ones. And keep in mind, this was a federal disaster.

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Two years from now, most people won't remember last week's absurd smear campaign against ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which I watched on CNN and Fox News from my hotel room in the French Quarter. At a moment when the international financial collapse had the surreal quality of the sun dying in the sky, the noise on TV had the comforting merit of being untrue. I trust you to know already that the voter registration fraud in question was committed against ACORN, not by it (and that the organization itself identified the problems). You might even know that ACORN is one of the good guys when it comes to New Orleans and the related problems at the heart of our deepening economic crisis: buying homes and fighting blight.

The big and small lies will fade, but I hope people remember John McCain's part in spreading them, and his performance at the final presidential debate Wednesday, during which he said ACORN was "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy"--a statement so fantastic, and so provably disingenuous (McCain was an ally of ACORN), that any benefit of the doubt I gave the old man went out the window. Even if his image is entirely cultivated and wafer-thin, McCain is still the most likable Republican presidential candidate in my lifetime, coming across humbled by flaws in a way Ronald Reagan faked being. You can imagine McCain hating the lies he rehearses and hating those calling him on it even more, which might be why his head looked like it was about to explode when, during the debate, he had to endure even a few seconds of comparison to cynical '60s segregationists--racists of opportunity who played to the fascist wings he now needs. McCain has been careful to alert this fringe without once crossing the line into time-honored racial code: How dare anyone suggest he hasn't!

I was going to write that in another era, ACORN would have been called Communist and various racist terms of abuse--except that they're actually being called those things right now, in a fevered campaign that resembles the "protests" greeting the Florida recount (subject of an excellent HBO film I just saw), and with the same goal. Why on earth would McCain turn off that faucet? The anti-American thing is just gravy. (See Exiled on our state as a center of wackdom.)

This is something more than sore-losing in advance or taking your enemy down with you. As Jeff Chang puts it:

Voter registration fraud doesn't mean that Mickey Mouse will show up and try to vote on November 4th. Voter suppression, however, is an active Republican strategy that's been in place since the 1964 Voting Rights Act expanded enfranchisement. Is there any wonder why election protection groups feel they need to be in communities of color, working-class people, immigrants, and not in, say, Salt Lake City?

Coda:

On a happier note, new murals are going up over the reopened Mother-in-Law Lounge of the late "Emperor of the Universe" Ernie K-Doe, just a couple blocks from the Food Circle.

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