A little over 10 years ago, a small, rural township in central Pennsylvania banned corporate factory hog farms from their community. A couple of years later, several New Hampshire and Maine towns banned Nestle and other corporations from extracting water for bottling operations. In November 2010, the City of Pittsburgh adopted a law which prohibited fracking for shale gas within its boundaries. And just two months ago, at the start of May, Mora County, New Mexico, banned all drilling for oil and gas within the county.
While on their face these issues may appear to be different – ranging from corporate agribusiness to energy extraction – the communities on the receiving end of things all have at least one thing in common: they’ve given up hope that their state or federal government will act to protect them.
And so, they’ve stopped waiting – for new laws that will protect them, or for newly elected officials to act differently than ones who have been in office for decades. They’ve stopped waiting because they don’t believe that the state or federal government is their own anymore, or that those governments will ever act against the economic forces that put them there.
And there’s something else these communities have in common.
When they began to confront the corporations that were affecting them, both corporate and governmental officials told them that they couldn’t do anything – that they were helpless to protect their communities from being fracked, drilled, drained and destroyed.
Those officials informed them that only the state and federal government had the right to adopt laws governing those industries, and that, if a community did pass a law, that they would be sued for violating the corporation’s “constitutional rights.” Further, they explained that the community could then be held liable not just for the cost of the corporation’s lawyers, but also for potential future corporate profits lost as a result of the law’s adoption.
Historically, in the face of such financial threats, cities and towns across the country have simply thrown in the towel, abandoning any hope of elevating their own vision for their community’s future over the interests of those corporations. Thus, local laws are thrown into the shredder even before they emerge from governmental committees.
But in early 2000, something different began to happen. Communities began to stop backing down – perhaps because real change only occurs when there’s nothing left to lose. It was then that local elected officials and community leaders (mostly in Pennsylvania) began to grapple with the grim reality that our governments have not only failed to protect our rights, but now assist corporations to violate them.
Many have now concluded that our legislatures, environmental agencies and courts have all been privatized – and are now used by a corporate minority as just one more means to get oil and gas out of the ground, to run family farmers out of business, and to take everything of value that our communities have.
Why Liberals and Progressives Have Run Out of Gas
Cries about the corporatization of government, of course, are not new. Liberals and progressives have been screaming about it for years. They’ve never seemed, however, to invent a new kind of activism that isn’t completely dependent upon the very institutions and systems that have themselves been corporatized, to provide some kind of relief. Thus, liberal and progressive activism has been about asking regulators, politicians and judges to somehow rule against the very forces that live within those institutions.
Their tired activism remains one of pressure politics – that if you can mobilize enough people at the right time, those people can pressure the real decision makers to make different decisions.
But as communities have begun to move on their own, they’ve begun to ask some really tough questions of progressives, such as: if we really have government of, by, and for a small corporate minority, then does sending letters, filing lawsuits, or trying to elect the right people make any kind of difference at all?
It is here that these communities have departed from exhausted liberal beliefs – namely, the belief that we live in a democracy, and all we have to do is find a way to activate it so that it works in our favor. Instead, these communities – and the brave elected officials and community leaders who are now walking hand-in-hand with them – have seen this myth for what it is, and have begun to plow an entirely new path.
They’re seeking an activism that isn’t reliant upon the same institutions that created this mess. An activism which understands that the status quo powers will attempt to wield “the people’s” own institutions – all branches and agencies of government – to stop any movement that shows potential to replace the existing, unsustainable mechanisms of power with ones that are economically and environmentally sustainable.
In short, they’re seeking democracy, with the understanding that without the emergence of a movement which seizes authority to make decisions about food, water, and energy, we will continue to live in a place where those decisions are made by interests which benefit from continuing the destructive practices.
Pioneering a New, Independent Activism from the Ground Up
Envisioning what that “new” activism looks like has taken a lot of thinking, courage and planning. It has forced communities to examine how people who came before them – like Abolitionist Ted Weld and Suffragette Alice Paul – actually built movements of people in the face of a system of law that didn’t recognize those people as people.
And how they forced the system to enforce its own inherent contradictions in a way that made its downfall inevitable.
In our current corporate state, we must follow a similar path – implementing a form of political and organizing jujitsu that enables us to cut through the corporate culture in which we live, slicing our way through layers of law concocted for no other reason than to make us bystanders as our communities are slowly and inexorably flattened.
Over 150 communities in eight states have begun to make that road by walking it – applying the hard-earned lessons of the Abolitionists and the Suffragists and setting their sights not just on gaining a place at the table, but on building a new one.
This means changing the structure of how the system works, rather than just trying to get the system to act in their favor. It means supplanting corporate minorities with community majorities.
And although the threats these communities face may seem different on the surface, they are enacting local laws that are eerily similar. For in trying to stop these different threats, communities are running headfirst into the very same structure of law which says that they can’t.
Thus these laws not only prohibit fracking, drilling, corporate water extraction, sludging, or factory farms – they also establish local bills of rights – which recognize the rights of residents to clean air, clean water, a sustainable energy future, sustainable energy use, and sustainable agriculture. In banning fracking, drilling and other activities, these laws are necessarily prohibiting those activities which would violate the rights of residents.
From there, these laws openly and frontally challenge corporate and governmental powers that conflict with the authority of the community to recognize those rights and create those prohibitions – by refusing to recognize the validity of state and federal permits that would violate the local laws, and openly eliminating corporate “rights” that interfere with these laws.
In essence, these communities have come to recognize that environmental and economic sustainability cannot be attained without fundamental changes regarding who the structure of law recognizes as the legal authority to make the rules within those communities. Attaining that structural change means openly defying the laws that got us here in the first place.
These communities have recognized that their own visions of governance are meaningless until they first get their own governments, and the corporations that run them, off their backs.
They’ve even come up with a name for their brand of activism – collective, non-violent civil disobedience through municipal lawmaking. The shorthand is, they’re sitting down at the lunch counter together and they aren’t budging.
Of different political stripes and backgrounds, the people seizing their own municipalities to make these laws have one overriding belief – that they should be the ones that decide the future of their own communities. That they have a fundamental right to govern themselves. That they have a right to local self-government.
The Right to Local Self-Government
It is that right to local self-government – a right that we’re told that we already have, but which people discover is not there when they need it most – that serves as the guide-star of this slowly gathering movement.
To stop them, corporate and governmental officials will be forced to slay their own sacred cow – the “rule of law” – which they have used since time immemorial as their own version of “God said so.” Thus, governmental and corporate officials will be forced to bring the power of the system’s own courts, legislatures, and regulators crashing down on them, in the face of clear and overwhelming evidence that our food and water systems, our energy systems, and our global climate are themselves crashing as a result of policies created by those very same institutions.
In short, this organizing must reveal our governments and corporations for everything that they say that they aren’t. By building a sophisticated trap – that makes their power and actions their own undoing (much like the slaveowners of the 1840’s and anti-suffrage activists of the 1890’s) – we just might be able to pull ourselves out of this mess before we finally go over the cliff.
It is the communities that have gone first – like Wells Township in Pennsylvania, Barnstead in New Hampshire, and Mora County, New Mexico – who are now calling on other communities across the country to begin the long, hard road toward creating government that protects the rights of everyone, not just the few.
These communities’ new rule of law – made in the name of environmental and economic sanity – believes that people and nature have rights, not corporations; that new civil, political, and environmental rights must be recognized; and that we must stop (immediately) those corporate acts which harm us.
Now they are joining with other communities in Pennsylvania, Washington State, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Ohio to formCommunity Rights Networks to begin to force statutory and constitutional changes that protect the right to local self-government. These burgeoning community networks are beginning to speak in a new, forceful language – one focused on doing whatever is necessary to protect rights and self-governance.
After all, similar language was driven over two hundred years ago into almost all of our state constitutions, like Pennsylvania’s, which declares:
"All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform, or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper."
It is time to make these words real. It is time to join these pioneering communities to drive thousands of local laws that build a people’s movement with the capacity to drive a right to local self-government into our state and federal constitutions.
That’s the dream. And for those who for the past 10 years have said that the dream is impossible; that these communities ask for too much, too soon; and that we must play within the existing system of law and culture as a child within a sandlot – one simple refrain answers them all: If not us, who? If not now, when?
Thomas Linzey is Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which provides free legal services to community-based conservation groups and municipal governments. The organization can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.celdf.org.