Ending Corporate Rule: the Citizens’ Rights Movement

Article by Stuart Bramhall.


There is lots of media speculation about the fate of #OccupyWallStreet (OWS) over winter. Wall Street and Washington politicians are hoping OWS will simply vanish with colder weather. At this point, I think this is highly unlikely. I suspect the size of public occupations on the East Coast will likely shrink, especially with the advent of frost and snow. Occupations will be easier to maintain in the South and on the West Coast, where winters are milder. At the same time, I’m skeptical that any former OWS activists will return to their former apolitical lives. With the growing collaboration between OWS and unions and existing environmental, peace and justice and citizens’  rights groups, I expect OWS protestors who leave public spaces over winter will be drawn into the important anti-corporate work of other movements. In this way they can continue their commitment to fighting corporate rule, while reserving the option to reoccupy public spaces in the spring — or sporadically over the winter months in response to outrageous corporate or government behavior.

One very successful anti-corporate movement that receives virtually no mainstream or alternative media coverage is the eleven year old citizens’ rights movement. With the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF — http://www.celdf.org/) and Global Exchange (http://www.globalexchange.org/communityrights/campaigns/RBO), more than 100 communities across the US have enacted ordinances establishing local citizen rights that can’t be usurped by corporations. They have done so despite corporate claims that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause and state constitutions deny local municipalities the right to pass laws harmful to business interests. Yet as with OWS, their strength lies in numbers. In Pennsylvania, for example, when the state attorney general threatened to sue the town of Packer for prohibiting corporations from dumping sewage sludge, six other towns promptly adopted similar ordinances and 23 adopted resolutions of support.

Banning Factory Farms, Toxic Sludge, Fracking and Aquifer Depletion

The citizens’ rights movement was born in 2000 when Belfast, in traditionally conservative rural Pennsylvania, passed a law prohibiting factory farms from operating within their township. In 2005 this law was upheld in court, and twelve other Pennsylvania townships in five counties now have similar ordinances. In addition to laws banning factory farms and sewage sludge, one community has banned mining and four have passed laws establishing ecosystem rights (establishing, for example, that preserving trees trumps corporate rights). In 2010 Pittsburgh became the first major city to reject corporate rights after their city council passed a CELDF-drafted citizens’ bill of rights, as well as a law banning drilling for natural gas within city limits.

Barnstead New Hampshire has passed a similar ecosystem rights ordinance, while five towns in New Hampshire and two in Maine have passed laws prohibiting the corporatization of water resources and aquifer depletion. Serious drought conditions in many regions of the US have greatly heightened national concern about impending water shortages, owing to the failure of rainfall to replenish the ground water stored in rapidly shrinking aquifers. The CELDF is also hard at work in communities on the Marcellus Shale (in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland) to pass anti-fracking laws similar to Pittsburgh’s.

Enacting Penalties for Chemical Trespass

Meanwhile on the West Coast, tiny Mt Shasta has successfully banned energy giant PG&E from engaging in local cloud seeding and Nestle from withdrawing water from their aquifer for a bottling operation (seehttp://www.tikkun.org/article.php/jan2011kanner). The Mt Shasta Community Rights and Self Government Act asserts the right of the people of Mt Shasta to natural water systems and cycles and establishes strict liability and burden of proof for chemical trespass. Chemical trespass is defined as the involuntary introduction of toxic chemicals into the human body. It’s based on a novel concept promoted by the CELDF and local democracy activists that corporations don’t have the automatic right to load our bodies up with scores of toxic cancer-causing chemicals. Halifax Virginia and three towns in Pennsylvania have also passed laws imposing penalties for toxic trespass.

In Washington State a bipartisan coalition called Envision Spokane seeks to make Spokane the second major city to elevate the rights of workers, neighborhoods, people and nature above those of corporations (http://www.envisionspokane.org/2011/8/31/derrick-jensen-an-idea-whose-time-has-come). Their 2009 ballot initiative to enact a Community Bill of Rights was defeated, owing to a deceptive ballot that erroneously led voters to believe it would lead to a tax increase — and a $300,000 campaign by Spokane business interests to defeat it. Spokane voters had another opportunity to vote on the Community Bill of Rights on November 8. As of November 12, the outcome was still close to call. Proposition 1 was trailing by only 115 votes, with the final outcome to be announced on November 16 (http://www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol/).

Other recent citizens’ rights initiatives include the rejection by Orland California of a Crystal Geyser bottling plant and the refusal of Flagstaff Arizona to sell water to a Nestle facility. Meanwhile a strong citizens’ rights group in Santa Monica is lobbying for an ecosystems rights ordinance, while People vs. Chemical Trespass in Santa Cruz is organizing for a 2012 ballot initiative enacting a local chemical trespass ordinance.

How to Fight Corporations in Your Community

CLEDF currently conducts local democracy schools for communities all over the US seeking to challenge corporate rights via local citizen rights ordinances. Where states have balked at recognizing the legality of locally enacted anti-corporate laws, cities and towns have either passed stronger laws or changed their legal status (ending their Second Class Municipality Status) by enacting home rule charters and new constitutions (http://stirtoaction.com/2011/03/29/a-community-bill-of-rights/). People interested in ending corporate rule in their own communities can contact the CLEDF at http://www.celdf.org/

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