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This is what happens when James O’Keefe succeeds

While you're laughing at James O'Keefe this week, don't forget what happens when actually competent people take up his tools.

A protester faces off with a line of riot police during a demonstration on Inauguration Day that has since led to hundreds of people facing felony charges for rioting. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo
A protester faces off with a line of riot police during a demonstration on Inauguration Day that has since led to hundreds of people facing felony charges for rioting. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — James O’Keefe failed to salvage the reputation of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore earlier this week, putting the right-wing hack back in the spotlight.

That light mostly casts O’Keefe as a fool, an incompetent jester at the margin of King Donald’s court. His hamfisted attempt to “sting” the Washington Post by feeding them salacious, fake accusations against Moore is indeed a fool’s jape. But to treat O’Keefe and his Project Veritas minions only as dweeby incompetents risks forgetting an important lesson about how dangerous his failures can be to the causes of economic justice, gender equality, and even democracy itself.

As the world points and laughs at his failed attempt at rescuing Moore, O’Keefe is perhaps on the verge of a similar gloomy triumph to the one that made him a political microcelebrity back in 2009. Roughly a mile east of the Washington Post building, inside Courtroom 203 of the D.C. Superior Court, the danger O’Keefe poses has been on full display.

Federal prosecutors are using undercover Project Veritas videos from inside organizing meetings for the “Disrupt J20” inauguration protests to persuade a jury that street medics, photojournalists, and bystanders should be jailed for decades because they were nearby when other people smashed up bank windows and tussled with cops.

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Police and Project Veritas each separately infiltrated the meetings, but O’Keefe’s tapes are a vital part of the odd bank-shot case prosecutors are making here because undercover police officer Bryan Adelmeyer recorded no audio or video. That leaves film produced, edited, and disseminated by the notorious right-wing huckster at the center of a case that threatens to shake the foundations of the First Amendment.

Anyone who was paying attention to O’Keefe’s first public victory in 2009 should remember how this goes. His work tends to become genuinely effective when taken up by more competent hands. O’Keefe is dangerous specifically because his deceitful editing tactics and open contempt for facts and evidence can provide ammunition to people smarter than him — and bent on harm.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Kerkhoff is one such smarter, more capable operator. And now she’s armed with O’Keefe’s weapons.

Adelmeyer had never heard of O’Keefe or Project Veritas when he was first shown a brief snippet of the group’s video from the meeting he attended on January 8, he testified Wednesday on cross-examination. After searching the group online, he said, he learned “they side very far to one side, that being the [political] right.”

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Asked about O’Keefe’s criminal conviction for entering a federal building under false pretenses, Adelmeyer said he had not known about the right-wing trickster’s criminal past until defense attorney Jamie Heine asked him about it.

“Project Veritas has been criticized for selectively editing its videos, correct?” Heine asked.

“I guess, yes,” Adelmeyer said.

Later, another defense attorney asked Adelmeyer if it was possible that Project Veritas had sent more than one infiltrator into the meeting he attended — and if other O’Keefe employees might have been speaking up in the meeting and had their input on the Disrupt J20 planning process captured in the video Adelmeyer’s supervisors showed him.

That is a standard tactic for O’Keefe — send in disguised employees who lead conversations toward criminality or scandal, then release videos that mask his team’s role in pushing the chatter that direction to instead portray his targets as having originated the scandalous ideas themselves.

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In fact, that is exactly how O’Keefe managed to destroy ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, back in the early days of the Obama presidency.

O’Keefe and an accomplice went into an ACORN office in normal business-casual clothes to ask staffers for help with income taxes and housing purchases. Their hidden cameras capture only the staff members, not the hoaxers. O’Keefe then clipped together snippets of those conversations with b-roll footage shot separately in which he is dressed in a fur and top hat — the stereotypical attire of a pimp — while his accomplice is dressed in revealing, gaudy attire.

The videos created such a roiling media storm that the truth of what happened never really got out to a mass audience. O’Keefe was able to convince enough people that he’d walked in dressed as a pimp and walked out with advice on furthering a criminal enterprise from a non-profit, tax-exempt organization.

Fox News and other right-wing media sprinted with the trumped-up scandal. Republicans in Congress howled for ACORN’s very soul to be ripped out. The organization folded not long after — succumbing after years of right-wing attacks aimed at suppressing the group’s work registering minority voters from underprivileged neighborhoods, to a ginned-up scandal that modeled “fake news” years before the phrase became central to Trump’s rhetoric.

“Did you have an expert review the video to see if it had been tampered with?” Heine asked Adelmeyer on Tuesday. The officer didn’t know.

“Was forensic analysis done on this video?” she asked. “I don’t know,” Adelmeyer again replied.

Then, she played two moments in the government’s video where someone — either O’Keefe’s team or the prosecutors themselves — edited the tape.

In one instance the screen flickers to black for a second and the timestamp has jumped ahead several seconds by the time the picture comes back up. In the other, the timestamp is entirely cropped out for the remainder of the prosecution’s videotape.

Defense attorneys will get their turn, eventually, to argue that the government is pursuing a guilt-by-association logic against these first six defendants. Kerkhoff’s decision to spend nearly the entire day Tuesday on O’Keefe’s tapes may yet come back around to harm these prosecutions, if her counterparts can persuade jurors her case rests on a dubiously sourced video in which people not currently on trial appear to plan an organized demonstration around the potential for property damage.

But if not — if they fail to rise to O’Keefe’s challenge as Democrats in Congress did back in 2009 — much may again be lost.  ACORN had built hundreds of local chapters with hundreds of thousands of total members over 40 years of slow, diligent, nose-to-the-ground organizing work. Those members — overwhelmingly women of color — helped win living wage fights, held local officials accountable in neglected communities, and played a key role in wrestling control of the House of Representatives away from former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) in 2006.

ACORN’s fine-grain activism vibrance gave it the standing to eventually become a significant left-leaning voice in larger public policy debates. What organized labor was to working people at one time, ACORN was to the predominantly-black urban cores of the country. The group was a leading voice in the push for stricter accountability for bankers when the housing bubble Wall Street created finally burst, for example — and a canary in the mine years before the crisis.

But in a matter of months after O’Keefe’s trickery hit wide distribution, all that was over. The group was forced to shutter, its constituents and organizers left to start over or give up.

O’Keefe is a rube, a fool. But fools can be dangerous — especially when the fruit of their folly is picked up by more competent hands.

James O’Keefe didn’t bring down ACORN. The Republican Party did, by using the material O’Keefe furnished. The Democratic Party mostly stood by and watched it happen, intimidated by the more complex task of rebutting false attacks. Although the core conceit of O’Keefe’s ACORN stuff was always fake, explaining precisely why takes far more time and thought than railing about pimps and taxpayers.

Democrats turned and ran from that fight. And a grifter with powerful, unscrupulous, clever friends destroyed an institution central to the material work of making housing affordable, combating discrimination, and fostering a sense of community power in corners of the country long neglected and frequently disenfranchised.

The same scenario is unfolding today in Washington, just down the street from the Capitol where Republicans railed against ACORN’s supposed crimes less than a decade ago. This time, the clever people turning O’Keefe’s tomfoolery into potent weapons are federal prosecutors working for an attorney general and president who openly despise being criticized in the streets.

This time, the target is not a specific organization but the very concept of peaceable dissent against one’s government — a value so central to the American republic that it was the very first edit anyone bothered making to the Constitution.