Since a national emergency was called in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the governor of Kentucky signed a bill (HB 44) that seeks to over-criminalize climate protests, the governor of South Dakota signed a bill to punish protesters and climate activists, and Pennsylvania designated pipeline construction an essential service.

On the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has effectively been suspended, America’s largest corporate employers (those with 500+ employees) were exempted from paid sick leave mandates in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and government allies and corporate interests are treating the global pandemic as a business opportunity. Ahead of the emergency, members of Congress dumped their stocks—then made investments in companies that would benefit from a crisis (before alerting the public). Corporations are jacking up the price of potential treatments. BlackRock is facilitating the unprecedented government corporate bailout.

People are dying. The powerful are taking actions to protect themselves. And the government is doing their bidding.

Americans Denied Authority
Meanwhile, across issues, including pipeline construction, paid sick leave, basic public health policymaking, and many worker rights, American people are told they have no authority to act. In communities Americans call home, judges and politicians claim residents are powerless to make decisions that infringe on the “liberty” of corporations.

State and corporate interests sue Texas communities when they attempt to pass paid sick leave. Missouri communities are blocked from voting on local minimum wage increases. Ohio communities are told they cannot protect freshwater. Colorado communities’ authority to stop fossil fuel extraction is denied by the state. The list is very long.

Philly Climate Change March & Panel by Joe Piette, Flickr Creative Commons

 Authority Realized
People across the U.S. are facing the Covid-19 crisis. The government refuses to help but is willing to risk the lives of thousands – perhaps millions – to save an unjust economy. As more people realize that no one is coming to the rescue, they are forced to see their own authority.

The mass proliferation of mutual aid networks across the world is making headlines. Italians are on strike to stop all non-essential jobs. People are defining what is “essential.” Where governments are failing, people are filling the void and calling them to account. These networks of civic participation are multi-fold and often hard to notice. Local farms have launched local food distribution networks. Across the continent, neighbors are coordinating amongst themselves to provide for the most vulnerable. Formal and informal people-powered safe food delivery services are popping up around us. Local governments are taking action no one could have imagined a few months ago.

These are bold and necessary actions carried out by groups of courageous and dedicated people who are exercising their powers of self-governance. At their core is service to community. They exist because governments are not functioning in the way people want or need.

Where will this go?
As this crisis worsens, and as it begins to intersect with the multi-layered crises that preceded it, empowered and deliberate human governance in defense of life will be needed. It is a moment for transformative change. The actions of centralized governments give people no other choice but to develop heathy forms of local self-governance.

Over the span of two decades, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has partnered with 200 communities in the United States to advance a framework for self-governance that subordinates corporate interests to the public health and the health of life-sustaining ecological systems.

At the root of our work is a direct challenge to the dominant system of law and structure of government.

People are dying. The powerful are taking actions to protect themselves. And the government is doing their bidding.

It’s time to think big: A people’s offense

Together, we are working to change the purpose of the law – and to encourage self-governance in defense of what is really “essential”: life, not more commerce.

Today, local governments are showing they can — and will — fill the voids. The same week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was suspended, a new form of law made a historic gain. Last week, for the first time in U.S. history, a state was successfully pressured to enforce a local Rights of Nature law. The Grant Township, Pennsylvania local Rights of Nature law — backed up by organized community resistance — forced the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to rescind a permit for a toxic frack waste injection well that threatened local drinking water and ecological life. This local law directly challenged existing state and federal laws protecting the corporate activity. CELDF has been assisting Grant in fighting to protect their community law for over five years.

It’s Time to Scale Up: What You Can Do
From responding directly to Covid-19, addressing deplorable conditions in detention facilities, or correcting unfair wages and sick leave benefits – people can take action.

With a small but dedicated group of people, individuals can organize to create a Health Bill of Rights, a Prisoner Bill of Rights, or a Worker Bill of Rights. That means fighting for the system change we need, and implementing it in your back yard to establish things like new tenant rights, enforceable Rights of Nature, reasonable sick leave, and safe working conditions.

Is your community seeing an increase in the number of residents facing homelessness? Read up on a local initiative, the Right to Survive ordinance, which was placed on Denver’s May 2019 ballot. Denver community members advanced first-in-the-nation enforceable human rights for people experiencing homelessness.

Don’t expect – or even ask – your local government to do the right thing. It has to be you, your neighbors, and other local allies, working together to make it happen. This crisis calls for us to challenge the government system that is failing us. Now is an opportunity for radical collective action for healthier and more just communities.

Also published in Common Dreams.

Additional Resources