CELDF

Community Organizing in Pennsylvania

My phone rings, and a very worried woman on the other end tells me that she is outraged that a large energy corporation has applied for permits to drill for natural gas in her Township. She says she and her neighbors don’t want their community transformed the way others have been, from a livable, appealing and safe environment into a poisoned moonscape. The Township’s attorney has been quoted in the local newspaper saying that there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening. Another call comes in, and I hear from a local official that a corporation using a landfill the community has been trying to shut down for over twenty years has been dumping toxic material, and has asked the state environmental agency for permits to expand operations. Over the objections of the community, the state has repeatedly issued all requested permits. Yet another call comes in, and it’s a story about sewage sludge being dumped, for the third time in as many weeks, on a nearby field. Neighbors are complaining of rashes and respiratory problems. State representatives have been called, but they say the citizens must prove their ailments are directly linked to the sludge, or the dumping will be allowed to continue. Township Supervisors are sympathetic and willing to act, but the legal advice they’re getting indicates that the people have no authority to ban the poison-laden swill from being imported for disposal in their municipality.

Common to many of the recent calls coming into my office has been a recitation of heroic attempts by citizens to stop unwanted corporate assaults by challenging permits in regulatory hearings and in the courts. These first-call conversations generally come to a fork in the road and veer off in two distinct directions: either the community has reached the end of the line and the people are convinced that the regulatory system regulates communities, not corporations; or the community group continues to feel that regulation is the only game in town, but they’re looking for advice on how to make the system work for them instead of their corporate opponents.

Predictably, regulatory law and its state-mandated “mitigation” of egregious violations of upper limits on permitted harms prove unsatisfactory for communities determined to stop corporate assaults. Even more predictably, long-time environmental and land use-attorneys and activists stay with the regulatory process, even though it means their battles are never conclusively “won,” only conclusively lost or, when lucky, temporarily stalemated. What is not always predictable is how soon first-time activists will catch on that the permitting process assumes most projects will go forward, no matter what the community wants or the regulators pretend is possible. And it’s not always certain how people will react once they’ve arrived at this realization.

In thousands of counties and towns, boroughs and cities, people gather together with their neighbors to discuss what can be done to stop unwanted projects that the local citizens have determined will be harmful, if allowed. Landfills, mining projects, ground water withdrawal for commercial marketing, factory farms, sewage sludge dumping, waste incinerators, giant chain store sitings, and thousands of other schemes destined to transform communities into resource extraction and waste-disposal colonies for corporate profit horrify the people living in areas targeted for abuse. What they are told by state agencies, environmental and land use attorneys and other “experts” to whom they turn for help is that saying “no” is not an option. Each of these “uses of land” has been determined by their state legislatures to be legal and, being legal, they may not be denied a place in the places where we live and raise our families. The best we can do, so we are told, is work diligently to ensure existing legal regulations are enforced and adhered to, and in this way we can minimize, to the extent legally permitted, the amount of harm we are required to endure. But it is illegal, under regulatory law, to simply say “we consent to no harm at all.” It is illegal to say “no.”

But it is difficult to hear this. It is an unwelcome message. Few want to believe that the State intentionally usurps local self-governing rights from the People. Not immediately discernable is the deprivation of community self-determination through a regulatory scheme that diverts attention away from the denial of so fundamental a right. The cacophony of bureaucratic noise, in the form of public hearings and the exchange of data among the “experts,” distracts us from goals we set for our communities and tricks us into chasing non-existent legal “solutions” and “remedies” to legalized corporate assaults on our health, safety, welfare, quality of life, and environment.

But it is not difficult to demonstrate the truth of our corporate initiated and state-sponsored deprivation of fundamental rights. In a legal brief filed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, the People’s top legal representative wrote in bold letters these words: “There is no inalienable right to local self-government.” Then, turning to dead judges and moldering legal scholars once alive in their jealousy that elite privileges might have to be shared among the rabble, the State Attorney General resurrected old “case law” in support of his view that the People are subordinate to, not the sovereigns of the State. What was the occasion for this legal tantrum? Under the misguided belief that a state law passed two years ago authorizes the Attorney General to sue local governments for daring to interfere with the ongoing corporate monopolization of agriculture, his office brought suit to overturn a Township ordinance that prohibits corporations from engaging in the land dumping of sewage sludge.

This attitude of power as a top-down monopoly over decision-making is not unique to Pennsylvania. It is, rather, endemic to our systems of law and governance, in every State, and is the object of our attention and work.

I mentioned that there is some predictability in the attitudes and behavior of first-time callers to my office. Some, who have difficulty believing there exists no remedy under existing law for corporate destruction of our communities, will continue to rely on regulatory agencies and “experts” who they hope will succeed in manipulating scientific data to their advantage. They will persist in seeking out all available avenues for relief, but will avoid considering the possibility that, under current law, all apparent remedies are illusory. Others who have witnessed and understood the denial of human and natural rights and the elevation of corporate “rights” above community rights by State agencies, lawmakers and courts, have begun to question their strategies for safeguarding what remains, and for claiming what has been illegitimately denied all along.

It is these callers with whom I am likely to engage, to explore next steps, to commiserate about what they and their neighbors want, and what they don’t want. It is these conversations that are full of vibrant possibilities for communities to assert the right to govern and decide all questions on issues that affect members of that community directly. Here is where Rights-Based Organizing can begin.

And so a kind of triage ensues. The Legal Defense Fund has staked out its mission to assist communities and community governments to establish and assert currently denied self-governing rights and authority. The questions I ask everyone who contacts the office seeking help with saying “no” to corporate and state abetted assaults are two: 1) in your community, when it comes to making decisions on issues which directly affect your community, families, neighbors, environment, future generations and quality of life, is it the people affected who make those decisions? If yes, then self-governance and consent of the governed are alive and well where you live. If not, then fundamental rights are being denied you and your community. 2) If the answer is no, then are you prepared to change that, to assert your rights, overcome injustice and establish self-government and consent of the governed where you live, for yourself and for future generations?

Make no mistake. Lost rights and community destruction cannot be overcome by relying on rules and regulations the state “permits” us to use under current law. Whether or not people are prepared to understand and act upon the gravity of our situation is by no means irrelevant. Even among those not yet ready to take a stand and assert local self-governing rights there is little apathy for our plight, but often there is residual hope that by deftly pleading for our rights, the corporate-run State will yield them up to us. Lack of clarity and fear of asserting rights are the main obstacles to creating a People’s Movement to establish and perpetuate fundamental rights. Not everyone is ready to take the necessary bold steps and live up to their obligation to neighbors, the natural environment that sustains all life, and to future generations.

For communities and first-time activists who decide to try again to win a hand at the regulatory blackjack table rather than stake the future of their communities on the judgment of their neighbors and fellow citizens, experience is the best teacher. It can be painful, and repetitive self-abuse can even be addictive. But I don’t think we can afford to close doors on anyone who is not yet persuaded by hard knocks and the wisdom that comes only with first-hand knowledge of imprudence; I for one expect to hear from many one-time callers again, once reality sinks in and all illusory remedies are tried and found wanting.

And so we put our resources and energy where we think it will be most effective: in communities where the People have recognized the face of oppression behind the mask of false promises by the corporate state. Our hope is that the inclination to be free is strong enough to finally overcome the inclination to obey illegitimate power while enduring injustice. If that’s the case, strategic triage over where to put our efforts won’t be necessary for long. The time is coming when it will be the rule, not the exception, that communities are ready to assert Rights and establish local self-government at consent of the governed.

Ben Price
Projects Director
benprice@celdf.org
(717) 254-3233

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