By Stoney Bird, Living Democracy Initiating Group

In Bellingham, Washington, a dedicated group of community leaders came together about a year ago in an attempt to understand why so many major policy decisions in Bellingham are made by a relatively small group of remote decision-makers, rather than by community majorities. Calling ourselves the Living Democracy Initiating Group, we came together to figure out why corporate decision-makers who don’t even live in Bellingham have more rights than the people who live here.

This is not just about newly unlimited corporate campaign contributions; it is about direct corporate decision-making in our communities.

In Bellingham, a specific corporate proposal has galvanized people across a broad spectrum to engage in the same inquiry. SSA Marine, a Seattle corporation owned in part by Goldman Sachs, has applied to build the Gateway Pacific Terminal just north of Bellingham. The primary purpose of the terminal is to receive coal mined in Wyoming and Montana and to load it on the largest freighters that there are. These will carry the coal to China, where it will be burned in power plants, spewing out greenhouse gases, mercury, and other pollutants. For all those along the route from the mines to the terminal, think coal dust with threats of cancer and respiratory diseases.

Think noise. Think delays at rail crossings, not just for regular traffic, but for police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. Think of the increasing toll on the climate. Think of the increased risk of collisions and pollution from all those huge freighters operating in Puget Sound.

We wondered why the people of Bellingham should be required just to sit by while these massive disruptions of our plans and hopes were imposed on us. After being told that state and federal law preempts Bellingham from deciding whether those railroad shipments take place, and after being informed that the corporation’s “rights” would be violated if Bellingham took such action, we’re left wondering what became of the idea of local democracy, or of democracy and  republicanism at all.

Those trains aren’t just scheduled to run through Bellingham, of course. They will run from Wyoming directly through Spokane, and the people of Spokane can expect all the same problems as we will have in Bellingham.

In Bellingham, we’ve drawn inspiration from Envision Spokane’s efforts to qualify and adopt the country’s first ever Community Bill of Rights in 2009, and its recent qualification of a new, shortened Community Bill of Rights that will appear on the November, 2011 ballot. That initiative would guarantee neighborhood rights, worker rights, and environmental rights over corporate “rights”.

In Bellingham and in other communities in Western Washington, we are preparing our own initiatives for self-rule. Communities across the country are doing the same. Unaccountable corporate control and unwarranted corporate “rights” are standing in our way. We need to have actual self-government in this country, not just lip service for it.

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