The Cultural Reemergence of Democracy | - April 24, 2012

"...local governments and private citizens are teaming up to rewrite the basic laws that govern how corporations and extractive industries do business"

In these challenging, if not fascinating, times, there is opportunity for advancing ourselves individually and as a culture.  The sense of powerlessness that comes with scarcity, is readily offset by a creative resolve and the reinvention of one’s personal status quo.  When it comes to the larger cultural phenomenon of citizens and communities taking back the inherent, inalienable rights upon which our republic was founded, this grassroots effort demonstrates that democracy may be alive and well.  The progress toward personal and community empowerment is being driven by what is just and sustainable for the future of our children and our environment. 

In an effort to protect our water, air and quality of life, community organizations, local governments and private citizens are teaming up to rewrite the basic laws that govern how corporations and extractive industries do business.  When a corporation moves to exploit the resources from a municipality, county or region, begins fracking operations or sets up a toxic waste incinerator or factory farm, the legal deck has been so stacked in their favor they virtually always win out.  The community is left to pick up the pieces. 

For well over a century the basic thrust of constitutional law has placed the power in the hands of business, in the name of commerce, dictated by the states or federal government, and leaving local communities without a legal basis with which to resist.  What the state allows the community cannot, traditionally, prohibit.  And, typically, the threat of lawsuits and financial retribution, whereby the corporation sues the municipality (with constitutional law on their side), wins the ruling and then goes after retribution, including all legal fees, potential fines and lost profits.  So, the fear of losing a lawsuit often deters legal action from occurring, as the odds are so mightily in favor of the alien business entity that looks to exploit the community.

The corporations have a tool bag of legalities that were designed  to help override the collective will of communities. The highly publicized Citizens United Case has given corporations the same rights as private persons, with no differentiation between people and corporate personhood.  This concept, however, is not new, but has been spooling up for decades.  The evolution of corporate driven laws was poised for the conservative makeup of the current Supreme Court.

Typically, if a community bans a big box store in favor of real persons who are merchants in the community, it is now considered unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment (equal protection clause).  In Washington State, this prohibition regarding local governance has gone as far as overruling local bans on plastic bags. That’s right… the placing of a ban on the banning of plastic bags!  The established legal precedent allows state laws to supersede municipal laws and ordinances, granting a free reign to mining, drilling and other corporate interests who’ve long been riding this gravy train of the profit driven, business friendly, legal system.  The current structure is camouflaged to most, other than to those who are reluctantly impacted. If the factory farm moves in next door, or a fracking operation begins pumping millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the ground across the street, persons turn to the system for help.  At this juncture they discover that the system is solely designed to help the corporations.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is now providing free legal services to communities around the country. Given that there are only 200 full time public interest lawyers in the United States, the same number as there was 15 years ago, this vital service couldn’t have come along at a better time.  This is especially true given the national campaign, with accompanying propaganda, to extract natural gas wherever possible with the latest, unregulated, chemically infused fracking processes. This campaign even goes so far as touting natural gas as our “truly renewable resource”.  Profits are huge, and as it turns out, there isn’t much that is renewable about this fossil based source of energy.  The fracking process has shown to cause a serious threat to water tables and the methane gas released into the atmosphere as a part of this extraction process, turns out to be the most detrimental of the greenhouse gases.

The CELDF mission is to change the very fabric of our constitutional law, whereas communities, municipalities and local citizens would have the ultimate control over their own land, resources, water tables, watersheds, lakes and streams.  Doesn’t this sound like the way it should be?  The evolution of this movement is not only timely but will, potentially, shift the power back into the hands of the citizenry and local communities to be able to determine their own destiny.  CELDF is now working with city councils to pass ordinances that assert a community’s right to self-governance and declare that within their jurisdictions corporations would no longer enjoy the rights granted to “real” people. 

This Democracy School movement, and the application of local community based ordinances, has been applied in more than 140 communities in six states, with municipalities as large as Pittsburgh joining in and creating these new legal parameters that aligns with community self-determination.  Though this movement has been occurring mostly in the East, Midwest and various locations in the Northwest, such as Washington State, we’re now seeing some strong activity close to home.  Mora County and the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico, are the first in the Southwest to move this process forward. 

Sponsored by Las Vegas City Councilman, Andrew Feldman, the Las Vegas Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance was recently passed by the City Council.  And, now, the legalities and potential lawsuits will, no doubt, begin in earnest.  Why?  Because, essentially, this process involves changing the current constitutional law in order to shift the power back to the “real” people.  Thomas Linzey, executive director of the CELDF says, “corporations not only have personhood rights, but non-personhood rights under the commerce clause in the constitution, which gives them the right to override community law making when the issue pertains to interstate commerce in the United States.” Since corporations have all the ammo, the citizenry is left with no choice but to revamp the current constitutional legal precedent.

 Various fundamental changes in our constitutional legal structure were brought about in the past by various movements of active citizens looking to assure a true democratic process.  A prime example includes the Suffrage Movement, which brought about the constitutional right for women to vote.  I have to scratch my head and ask, "Shouldn’t this have been part of the constitution to begin with?"  We tend to forget that the founding fathers were rich, slave owning, white males…James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were very much a part of the original 1%.  It appears that the current GOP leadership see themselves as the embodiment of that original elitist model. 

. . . . “We work with communities to establish the greatest degree of local self- governing authority possible,” says Ben Price, CELDF. “If we want people to be the stewards of the environment and to create sustainable communities, first off it can’t be illegal to do so.”  You heard that right.  It is basically illegal to create sustainable communities based on the current legal model.

We will be watching closely the process in Las Vegas and Mora County in the months ahead.  It is time for New Mexican citizens who prize their environment, to participate in this leading edge activism.  This entails taking over municipal government or working hand in hand with local government to restructure the local legal system.  In the case of communities, civil disobedience may not be enough.  Civil, municipal disobedience is what it takes to change the law. Power to all the people, and communities, who are working hard to bring about this fundamental change. 

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