New Orleans is — or was — the home of the national headquarters of ACORN, and the organization that advocates for low- and moderate-income people shares in the disaster that struck the city. “We’re looking for our staff,” Neil Sealy of Little Rock, head organizer of Arkansas ACORN, told us. “They’ve scattered. We don’t know the status of the office, but it’s probably destroyed. It was in the area that was struck first by the floodwaters when the levees broke. We know that some of the national operation has gone to Baton Rouge and is trying to regroup.”
ACORN’s top staff member, former Arkansan Wade Rathke, got out safely, Sealy said. He saw Rathke at a meeting in Denver Tuesday, Aug. 30. Rathke founded ACORN at Little Rock in 1970, later moving to New Orleans as the group’s chief organizer. ACORN has considerable influence in New Orleans. The group helped pass an initiated ordinance raising the minimum wage in the city, but the Louisiana state legislature overrode the ordinance.
ACORN has many local chapters and thousands of members in New Orleans, Sealy said. He said Arkansas ACORN was studying ways it might help them.
Later that day, ACORN President Maude Hurd of Boston issued a letter: “Houston ACORN members are preparing to host fleeing ACORN members in their homes, and volunteering to help with other evacuees. ACORN Housing will help fleeing homeowners contact their mortgage lenders and arrange temporary forbearance on mortgage payments until insurance claims are sorted out. A message board on our website will help members and staff reconnect.”
Despite the destruction in Louisiana, Arkansas ACORN continued on its appointed rounds. We observed a fairly typical ACORN demonstration Thursday, Sept. 1, at the Harvest Foods store at 12th and Lewis streets. About 15 ACORN members, all of them black, gathered at curbside in blistering heat, waving signs that said “We Deserve Better!” and “Meat We Can Eat” and “We Want the Good Stuff.” Many motorists honked as they drove by.
Donna Massey, chair of the Oak Forest neighborhood ACORN, told reporters that ACORN had surveyed 486 residents of the neighborhood about the quality of their grocery store. Fifty-nine percent of them rated the produce either “horrible” or “poor,” she said, the rest rating it either “average” or “good.” Sixty-nine percent of the respondents rated the meat sold at the store either “horrible” or “poor,” Massey said, and 64 percent said the upkeep and maintenance of the store was horrible or poor. Most people in the neighborhood don’t want the store to close, but they do want dramatic improvements, she said.
A smiling store employee came out to the curb in his apron to read the signs and hug Massey, who said she’d known him for years. She said she blamed the store’s shortcomings more on corporate executives than local management.
Eventually, the group went inside the store, carrying their signs and chanting ACORN slogans about the power of the people, but most of them left after store manager Randy Bettis said he’d meet with only a couple. Bettis, who is white, wouldn’t talk with those two in front of The Observer, saying that reporters would have to take their questions to corporate headquarters. (Corporate headquarters had not responded to The Observer’s call as of press time.) Bettis escorted Massey and Sandra Phillips to his office. They said later that they gave him a copy of the survey and a letter to John Miles, chief executive officer of Affiliated Food Stores, owner of Harvest Foods, asking for a meeting and for improvements at the 12th and Lewis store. Bettis said he’d pass the material along to corporate headquarters in Little Rock, and he gave Massey and Phillips the names of a couple of corporate executives.
“We plan to give them two weeks to respond,” Phillips said. If there is no meaningful response in that time, “We’ll be back.” High water can’t keep ACORN from raising hell.