Andy Douglas 2-17-16 PC op ed on Community Rights

Community Rights good defense against corporate overreach

Factory farms. Fracking. Pipelines. Though these and other unsustainable practices present unhealthy challenges to communities, in the last decade a movement has been growing to tackle these issues in a new way.

It began in Pennsylvania. A small community of farmers asked for an ordinance to ban factory farm hog lots locally. Their lawyer said it was illegal. “Write it anyway,” they said.

Soon, other communities tried a similar tack. A community in Maine banned Nestle from extracting water for bottling. The city of Pittsburgh prohibited fracking.

In each case, when citizens approached local governments, concerned about violations of the environment or health or workers’ rights, they were told they couldn’t do anything because corporate rights or state law trumped local regulations.

After years of using the regulatory system to try to protect communities, Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) had an epiphany. What is needed are Community Rights.

It’s a truism that our system political and legal systems work in favor of corporations. Corporations have been given legal “rights” and defined as “persons” by the Supreme Court in multiple decisions for nearly 200 years, and their influence on legislatures and environmental agencies often renders those bodies unresponsive to citizen needs.

But a broad-based Community Rights movement, spearheaded by CELDF, Paul Cienfuegos and others, is working to change this, through a process of “collective nonviolent civil disobedience through municipal law making.” This focuses on the right to local self-government, a right actually inherent in the Declaration of Independence and every state Constitution, which recognize that power resides with the people.

Two hundred municipalities across the country have drafted local ordinances banning unhealthy corporate practices. Only 5% of the 200 have been sued, few successfully, so 95% of the bans against harm still stand. “The beauty of this,” notes local organizer Miriam Kashia, “is that corporations don’t want the publicity.”

The Community Bill of Rights asserts an “already existing right to local self-government … and the inalienable rights of the people and the natural environment,” according to CELDF material.

Since such community ordinances face opposition on multiple fronts, and are often not recognized by state law, part of the strategy is to push for state constitutional changes as well that protect the right to local self government.

Four communities in Iowa are currently active in this movement — Fairfield, Decorah, Iowa City and Boone, which is focused on stopping the Bakken Pipeline.

In Iowa City, 100 Grannies for a Livable Future invited organizer Paul Cienfuegos to hold several workshops last fall. A few years back, Cienfuegos came to Decorah to help organize the community against frack sand mining.

One of his first steps is a weekend Community Rights workshop that trains people in this new “municipal ordinance” form of organizing.

Out of Cienfuegos’ visits grew the Community Rights Working Group (CRGW). I spoke with members Kashia, Deborah Dee, Bryson Dean and Katharine Nicholson.

Dee noted that a cultural paradigm shift is needed, and said she’s especially concerned with protecting the rights of nature, which are neglected by the overarching emphasis on property rights.

I asked if the local group is working on specific issues. Not yet, according to Dean. “We could look at single issues, or we could look at this as part of a broader movement. We’re focusing on the underlying broad rights to govern ourselves — a right to a livable future.”

The crux of the problem, of course, is that corporations have too much power. But as Kashia says, “Overturning Citizens United is not enough. There’s a whole history of law in this country in support of corporations.”

Corporations used to have limited charters for a limited time, Nicholson notes, and were designed to serve the public good for a specific purpose. Over time this has changed.

CRWG is planning house parties to spread the movement. Upcoming on Feb. 28 there will be a Bakken Pipeline Panel in Boone with Cienfuegos, followed by several Community Rights workshops in the region.

(More information can be found at

Corrections made to Andy Douglas’ OpEd by Paul Cienfuegos, Miriam Kashia, and Joyce Miller.

Andy Douglas is the author of “The Curve of the World.”

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