While 50 ACORN members were in the Illinois Republican Party headquarters, the phone rang, and an ACORN member answered it “ACORN, Can I help you?”
On the other end, they said, “What, ACORN? Wait a minute, this is the Republican Party in D.C. calling the Republican Party in Illinois.”
The ACORN member said, “ACORN has taken over the Republican Party in Illinois. Can I help you?”
The response: “Oh my God.”
The winter of 2003 was a cold one and my third year working as communications coordinator at ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. One afternoon in January three elderly women out of a group of 50 protesters were arrested in Illinois Republican Party headquarters in Chicago where they had settled in with blankets and declared that they were spending the night.
Why would they do such a thing? Why reform Now, and not reform When It’s Convenient?
These families, many without heat in their homes, were demanding that President Bush release money for energy assistance and not slash funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). At least the jail had heat. It doesn’t take many days to freeze and die in an unheated home in Chicago.
Bush was scheduled to be speaking in Chicago the next day about how he would pretend to try to stimulate the economy without doing the only thing that might have worked, namely putting money in the hands of people who needed it. (We know how well his approach succeeded.) Bush believed that those who worked for a living should go on being taxed even if they had to freeze, but that money gained from investments in the stock market should not be taxed. He was willing to throw away $600 billion on people rich beyond comprehension, and to come to a city with crumbling schools and unheated homes to talk about it.
Mahaley Somerville, 81; Gwendolyn Stewart, 68; Beatrice Jackson, 53; and Virginia Goldman, a 27-year-old staff organizer, were arrested for trespassing at 32 W. Randolph, 17th floor, the offices of the Illinois and Cook County Republican Party when they went there to call on President Bush to rescind his proposed cuts in federal energy assistance.
“I’m 81 years old, and these old bones would be more comfortable in my own bed tonight,” said Mahaley Somerville, longtime leader of the local ACORN chapter and organizer in Chicago’s Westside Lawndale community. “But as long as there are other senior citizens living without heat tonight, we will not stop until the president hears us.”
Because President Bush would be making his national speech on the economy in Chicago the next day, ACORN members called on him to add two things to his speech: Release $500 million in emergency energy assistance funds that were at his disposal; Fund the Low Income Home Energy Program (LIHEAP) at the same level as the previous year: $1.7 billion (instead of the $1.4 billion or less that Bush had threatened).
“It’s too bad when the Republicans have to put senior citizens in jail and leave other seniors without heat,” said Beatrice Jackson, president of Illinois ACORN. “But we won’t stop until Bush understands that a leader should not let his people freeze.”
More than 50 members of ACORN joined in the sit-in at Republican headquarters. The security guard in the lobby just watched as everyone trooped in, got in elevators, and headed to the 17th floor. The ACORN members went in, put down their blankets and pillows, and announced they were spending the night.
The leaders, Mrs. Somerville, Gwen Stewart and Bea Jackson, made statements. “We’re willing to go to jail if that’s what it takes to win heating assistance for seniors and children and families who are freezing,” they said.
Doris Rodgers spoke. She was 81, had been without heat for two years, and still owed $2,400 on her bill, though she had been paying every month.
The police arrived and arrested three ACORN leaders and one staff organizer on charges of misdemeanor trespassing, but not before they took the place over and answered the phone as ACORN.
And not before the media filmed and recorded and transcribed. When Bush arrived in Chicago the next day, the only story all over the local news was that he was trying to freeze old ladies to death.
Some excellent organizations in Washington, D.C., had been working for many months to win higher funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). They had fact sheets, lobbyists, forums, and brochures. They made phone calls and churned out press statements. But none of them actually raised the funding, provided the heat, and saved lives. Old ladies with sleeping bags and a lot of courage did that. Following Bush’s trip to Chicago, he released emergency funding, and Congress refused to slash regular funding as he had requested. Everything changed when ACORN members used direct action.
David Swanson was communications coordinator for ACORN from 2000 to 2003 and is the author of the new book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press. You can order it and find out when tour will be in your town: http://davidswanson.org/book