The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is pleased to share some promising news in the growing Community Rights Movement, as we organize to secure and protect local, democratic rights and self-governing authority.
In Spokane, Washington, where CELDF has been organizing for many years in partnership with Envision Spokane, corporations and government have joined forces to suppress the democratic rights of people.
In 2013, corporations and Spokane County brought a lawsuit against Envision Spokane. They sought to keep Envision Spokane’s Community Bill of Rights citizens’ initiative off the ballot.
In Spokane and other communities, corporations have determined that it’s no longer enough that they have vast power and wealth to influence how we vote, now they want to decide whether or not we can vote.
In a rare victory for local democracy, last week the Washington Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling which had blocked the initiative from appearing on the November 2013 ballot. In its ruling, the Court found that corporations and the county don’t have standing to keep the initiative from the ballot. It ordered the initiative to be placed back on the ballot for a vote of the people.
The Right of Citizen Initiative & Direct Democracy
The right of citizen initiative – that is, the right of the people to directly make law “independent of the legislature” – is enshrined in the Washington State Constitution.
Nearly half the states in the U.S. have some form of citizens’ initiative, whereby the people can propose, qualify, and vote on new laws. Frequently described as a form of “direct democracy” – exercising their initiative rights is often the only way people can advance laws of critical importance, particularly and precisely when their elected officials fail to do so.
The right of initiative is, in many ways, much like the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution – intended to protect us from government. For example, whereas the First Amendment is intended to protect our right to free speech from government infringement – the right of initiative protects our right to make law without having to receive approval or be interfered with by government.
Thus, the initiative expands the authority of “we the people” to make decisions about what happens in our communities and states.
In a time when approval ratings for Congress are at an all time low, and corporate contributions to politicians are at an all time high, it’s no wonder that we are seeing more people in more communities look to the initiative to protect people, communities, workers, and nature.
The First Community Bill of Rights – Spokane
For many years, CELDF has been working closely with Envision Spokane to expand and secure rights of neighborhoods, workers, and nature, and elevate those rights over corporate “rights.”
In 2009, Envision Spokane qualified a Community Bill of Rights citizens’ initiative – the first CELDF worked to draft – to the citywide ballot. Twenty-five percent of voters supported it. In 2011, Envision Spokane qualified a new Community Bill of Rights to the ballot, this time gaining forty-nine percent of the vote.
In both 2009 and 2011, corporations mounted opposition campaigns, claiming that expanding rights of people to make decisions about their own neighborhoods, for example, was harmful. Local elected officials joined them in opposition.
In 2013, Envision Spokane again qualified a Community Bill of Rights initiative to the city ballot. Understanding that an increasing numbers of people in the city supported elevating community rights over corporate “rights,” and that throwing money into an opposition campaign may not be enough to stop a majority of residents from voting “yes,” opponents took a new tact.
Corporations and Government Seek to Suppress Democratic Rights
In the summer of 2013, corporations joined with Spokane County to sue Envision Spokane to keep the Community Bill of Rights initiative off the ballot.
Across the country we are seeing efforts by both corporations and government to suppress our right to initiative. They are, as in Spokane, seeking to keep citizens’ initiatives – with which they disagree – from ever reaching the ballot.
Perhaps it is not surprising that in addition to using their vast wealth to influence elections and for whom we vote, that corporations are also seeking to determine whether or not we actually can vote.
Perhaps what’s worse is that our own government is doing it too. Thus, as in Spokane, we are seeing municipal governments actively working to block citizens’ initiatives from the ballot. Whereas the initiative power is supposed to expand our democratic rights – something that corporations have long sought to restrict – government is also working to prevent citizens’ from exercising these rights.
For well over a century, government has been expanding corporate “rights” and powers. As corporate power has increased, the rights of the people have decreased. We experience this every election cycle, at every regulatory hearing, every time a bill is proposed in Congress.
The domination of corporate interests over our so-called “democracy” is only growing, and comes at the hand of our own government, such that the courts, Congress, state legislatures, and regulatory agencies have all actively expanded the influence, power, and control of corporations.
When our own government seeks to suppress our democratic rights, we must ask whose interests it really represents.
Citizens United & Corporate Personhood Aren’t “The” Problem
But let’s be clear. This isn’t just a problem of corporations having “personhood” rights or the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United.
Well before Citizens United – in which the Supreme Court declared that corporate First Amendment free speech “rights” were violated by federal law which limited corporate spending in elections – the power and influence of corporations over politics, law making, elections, and governing was well known.
Citizens United carved out even more power for corporations. In so doing, we can hope that it helped shine a stark light on corporate power and the need for change.
Yet the problem isn’t simply the money that corporations are able to wield over the electoral process. They also have the ability to use other levers of government to advance their interests, pushing their agendas through city councils, state legislatures, in the regulatory arena, as well as through the courts. They use every avenue possible to ensure that our law, policy, regulations, and governing are steered toward protecting and expanding their interests.
Moving Forward to Make Change
Given this, it’s no wonder that the American people don’t approve of Congress. And it’s no wonder that there is low voter turnout. More and more, people are realizing that it doesn’t matter who’s in office, because they don’t represent our interests anyway.
And, it’s no wonder that while there was outrage after Citizens United, and the majority of the American people believe corporations have too much power, that people aren’t taking to the streets. They don’t believe they have the power to make change.
But in fact, it’s in the streets, in our own communities, that the seeds of change are being planted. Close to 200 communities across the U.S. have now partnered with CELDF to establish community rights to self-governance and say “no” to harmful corporate activities such as fracking. More and more, these local organizing campaigns are directly addressing corporate “rights” – ensuring that the rights of communities, people, and nature are elevated above corporate “rights.”
In Spokane, community members have watched as corporations and their own government worked to suppress their democratic rights, trampling over them in broad daylight.
It’s in communities like Spokane, when things become so clear, that we are seeing the building of a new movement.
It’s not just a movement to curb corporate power. Rather, it’s a movement that understands that the problems we face run much deeper, reaching into the very underpinnings of our legal system. Because it’s not just corporations running amok, it’s about our own government and legal structure which is so very clearly not serving “we the people.”
The Declaration of Independence states that governments derive their power from “the consent of the governed.” And, that whenever government is no longer serving the governed – i.e., “we the people” – that we have the right to change it.
The people of Spokane and in communities across the country are no longer giving their consent. It’s time we joined them.