A Community Bill of Rights

In Articles on 29 March 2011 at 9:28 pm

by Ben Price

As projects director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), I hear from people every day, asking for help to protect their right to live in self-governing communities instead of municipal resource colonies handed over to powerful corporations by way of government “permits” and licenses. Government representatives and local attorneys repeatedly tell them that they can do nothing to stop unwanted corporate projects from destroying their communities and quality of life. “The law is clear,” they are told. “The corporations have a right, and you have no authority to stop them.”

Whether it is a proposed “big box store,” a land-fill, a coal-fired incinerator, the siphoning of a local aquifer by a water bottling operation, gas drilling or coal mining, those directly affected believe they must be the ones to decide if a state-chartered corporation will be permitted to inflict harm on them in order to create profit for a few. They say they have a right to self-determination and consent of the governed.  They say the state has no authority to license the violation of their rights.

Mount Shasta: After residents created their own ordinance, the town successfully prevented Nestle from taking up to 100,000 gallons of water per day from their local aquifer. Photo by Gary Trinity on Flickr.

People in communities across America are struggling to stop corporations from wielding the law of the land and colluding with government officials to deny people’s fundamental right to govern their communities. When they try to resist, using regulations and administrative law, communities quickly learn that the rules, the hearings, the testimony before bureaucrats and judges all come to nothing. They walk away, wondering what they did wrong, seldom learning the truth: that the law has been from its beginnings rooted in privilege, property and private “rights,” not the public good. When they appeal to government to protect the rights of people rather than the privileges of corporations, they find that only monetary and property “rights” have the ear of blind justice. Their human and civil rights are legal irrelevancies in the face of procedural “justice.”

Throughout all these legal dramas, corporate directors wield laws engineered by corporate attorneys, and steal the people’s governing authority. Majority disenfranchisement is accepted as the norm. Even lawyers hired to represent local governments and community groups say that’s the way things are supposed to be.

The ritual is repeated solemnly as local civic groups come together; scrounging whatever money they can to pay lawyers whose goals are limited to making corporate plans for their community a little less horrible. They hire traffic and lighting experts, environmental, hydrology, geology and engineering consultants. If a group is exceptionally lucky, maybe an old zoning ordinance or a newly discovered wetland will temporarily fend off a corporation. More often than not, however, corporate lawyers will use assorted zoning ordinances and procedures to back citizen groups into a corner, demean the legitimacy of their claims, and deny the authority of their testimony. In either case, people accept that “the law” denies majorities of people the authority to keep corporate assaults from destroying their communities.

It’s hard to find fault with people who fight so persistently and courageously against injustice. Many activists believe in and perform well the roles they’ve been taught to fill. They master the fine points of regulatory law, learn every detail about the corporation’s policies and record, and educate large segments of their communities. They flood the hearing rooms, file appeal after appeal. They publicize the corporation’s record of violence and law breaking and give thousands and thousands of dollars to lawyers. They hold onto the hope that if their lawyers make the right presentations and marshal the best evidence, then the good people working at regulatory agencies and in local government will take note and protect their communities. To this end, many valiant people invest years of their lives, only to watch corporations triumph by wrapping themselves in the people’s Bill of Rights.

Some who have lived through this disheartening process have come to understand that resisting corporate assaults by opposing their many permit applications, and trying to zone them away, is simply a waste of time. Some have begun to look for — and forge — different goals and different strategies.

In Pennsylvania and neighboring states, I work with people who are saying ‘No!’ to unwanted corporate projects. Here, people are joining forces to assert their sovereign authority to make the rules for determining what happens in their communities. They are learning that saying “no” requires that community majorities contest corporate claims to constitutional authority. They are learning that saying “no” requires majorities to challenge public officials who illegitimately enable corporate directors to deny people’s fundamental rights.

To date, people in more than one hundred municipalities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire and Maine have forced their local legislators to pass laws banning certain kinds of corporations from doing business within their borders. Two dozen townships and boroughs have passed laws explicitly refusing to recognize corporate claims to power and authority rooted in the United States and Pennsylvania constitutions – not as an abstract organizing concept, but to protect and vindicate their authority to say “no” to corporate assaults. The Pittsburgh City Council, in November 2010, joined smaller communities and became the first major city to adopt a CELDF-drafted local Bill of Rights that asserts the right to local self-government, the rights of natural communities and ecosystems and the right to set aside corporate privileges if used to trump community rights. It also bans corporations from drilling for natural gas in the city – as a protection of those rights.

Because these are not nice-sounding, ineffectual “resolutions,” but real laws which local sheriffs and courts must enforce, our corporate-run state legislature has taken steps to preempt, and nullify, some of these local laws on behalf of corporations, and against the consent of the governed. Several townships have responded to this legislative preemption by adopting even more forceful local laws, or by beginning the process of changing their legal status as subordinate Second Class Townships and adopting home rule charters—that is, they are writing their communities’ new constitutions. With these constitutions and tougher local laws, people will do what the corporate class has been doing for well over a century in legislatures and judges’ chambers: make the rules for making the rules.

What distinguishes these people from those still putting their hopes in zoning and data and resistance to permit applications? For some, the answer is simple: they have attended Democracy Schools, launched in Pennsylvania by Richard Grossman and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. At these weekend gatherings, people have been exploring how corporate leaders mobilized long ago to direct government to deny people’s rights, and how they put today’s elaborate Regulatory System in place to divert people from demanding (or even aspiring to) democracy, self-governance, and corporate subordination.

At Democracy Schools, folks look at the apparently endless “single issue” corporate assaults that communities across the country have been resisting. The focus is not just one issue at a time, such as corporate chain store invasions, corporate toxic dumps, incinerators, factory farms, clear cutting of forests, cyanide mining, power plants, superhighways, quarries, urban sludge spreading, aquifer seizures, corporatization of the commons, microwave cell phone towers, landfills, corporatization of prisons, education, hospitals, and every aspect of what once passed for public endeavors. These folks examine key threads running through all the apparently “single issues,” and examine questions like: who gets to use the law against whom? And: how did a few corporate directors get to wield the Constitution to get their way?

People in Pennsylvania and in New York, Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Washington and elsewhere are using Democracy Schools to begin changing how they think about the problems facing their communities, about the goals they want to achieve, and about walking away from regulatory laws and arenas. They have been coming together to look into the past and figure out how our communities got into such a jam. And they have been learning to reframe past defensive campaigns into offensive struggles, to pass laws asserting people’s fundamental rights to define their own communities, to write the rules for democratic self-governance with authority, and to define the very nature of corporate entities.

Illustration by Dan Piraro

Imagine if people in hundreds of towns in one state, then another began taking a closer look at US history, leaving regulatory hearings behind, and passing laws to assert their communities’ authority to make the rules. What if the passion, energies and resources which environmental, labor and community organizers have been pouring into bottomless pits of regulatory processes and expensive court appeals started coalescing around challenging the denial of people’s rights and the wrapping of corporations in the Constitution?

What if people in thousands of communities around the nation began exercising their rights to pass laws explicitly defining the terms under which corporations could enter into their jurisdictions? What if they denied corporate claims to constitutional power and privilege while tossing out public officials who won’t get on board?

This will take hard work. There’s much to learn about corporations and the Constitution, about law and history, about rights and local governance, about past people’s movements, and about giving meaning to the words ‘We the People.’ There may be even more to un-learn than there is to learn about this country: laws and customs that empower corporate directors and deny people’s rights have been accumulating for generations, and there are many barriers to break down.

But it will take no more work to be successful than it has taken to fail. It will take thinking differently, and that’s one of the hardest tasks there is! Doing battle in the Regulatory System, while conceding Constitutional power and authority to a privileged corporate few, also ranks right up there. No one shows more passion for justice or spends more energy in its pursuit than community organizers who invest years in zoning and planning and environmental boards and in local, state and federal courts. The question is: can we figure out together how better to direct our energies, passions and resources, so that when we win a struggle we not only stop an imminent harm, but also expand the scope of people’s rights and democratic self-governance?

Exciting and energizing as they are, Democracy Schools are only a beginning. Corporate usurpations of people’s rights remain largely unacknowledged and, since the days of the Populists, minimally contested. One lesson we’ve learned from trying to organize without challenging basic premises of who has the right to govern and use the law is that when we don’t we lose.

If we do not challenge corporate and government leaders who wield the law to deny people’s rights, we will continue to fail, because we have yet to engage our movement in the aspirations for self-governance pioneered by the American Revolutionaries, Abolitionists, Women’s Suffragists, Knights of Labor and the Populists, who consciously labored to turn our property and commerce Constitution into a human rights and liberty Constitution.

Today, new passions against corporate hegemony are rising. But as long as we let corporate leaders, town solicitors, judges, newspaper editors, politicians and Washington DC labor and environmental insiders flood us with ready-made thoughts and ideas, tell us what to yearn for, and what the law says, we will fail.  As long as we let these ‘experts’ channel us into zoning boards and planning boards and environmental boards and permit appeals begging for crumbs, we will remain forever chained by the corporate culture that has not only invaded our towns, but also has taken over our minds.
We are ‘We the People.’  We must write the laws. We must enforce them. There is no one else.

Ben Price is Project Director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) based in Pennsylvania, U.S. A. He can be contacted at

For information on Democracy Schools, contact The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

  1. […] Earth is what gives us life and love, perhaps we should treat her like ourselves. She deserves rights that we enjoy, and the reverence we have for our […]

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