CELDF’s “Community Rights” work proposes a paradigm shift. It moves away from coercive top-down forms of government and unsustainable practices that harm communities and towards protective forms of local self-government in line with higher-level change to the purpose of the law.
Through Community Rights we advocate for empowering residents to become decision makers while adding a layer of protection for people’s most basic rights and the rights of ecosystems. Furthermore, community rights proposes and advances a system of “power together” to displace existing “power over” relations. They include:
- environmental rights, such as the right to clean air, pure water, a livable climate and healthy soil;
- indigenous sovereignty;
- safety rights, like the right to be free from state-funded violence that is the function of policing;
- worker rights, such as the right to a living wage and equal pay for equal work;
- rights of Nature or rights of ecosystems, such as the right of ecosystems to flourish and evolve;
- democratic rights, such as the right of local community self-government, and the right to free and fair election;
- houseless rights, like the “right to survive” and to rest on public land
This work challenges the way state governments interfere in local democracy on behalf of corporate interests and the power of corporations to intimidate local communities.
We work with communities unwilling to submit to oppression by an unjust structure of law that the largest economic powers have created in their own favor. Together, we are joining a movement — one that recognizes, secures, and protects the rights of all those living within a community.
Real Change Whose Time Has Come
Communities across the country and planet are “told” that they don’t have the power to make critical decisions for themselves, particularly when corporate profits would be impacted. Communities are “told” they cannot say “no” to fracking or factory farming. They’re told they cannot raise the minimum wage. They’re told they can’t say “yes” to truly sustainable food or energy systems. They’re told they can’t raise protections for workers. They are told that police are “necessary” to keep the community safe, when in reality the first State Police department was created to suppress the workers rights movement in Pennsylvania!
Through “Community Rights” organizing, communities are working with CELDF to create a structure of law and government of all people, by all people, and for all people. That structure recognizes and protects the inalienable rights of natural and human communities.
We have a democracy problem. We live under a system of laws that doesn’t care what we want as a community.
How Does a Community Lose Its Voice?
- State and Federal Preemption – There are laws that allow large corporations to force harmful activities into communities – despite community opposition.
- Corporate Privilege – Our structure of law elevates corporate decision-making over community decision-making. Corporations have court-conferred constitutional “rights.” They wield these “rights” against communities to eliminate local efforts that may interfere with industry plans to expand their operations, regardless of the impact to communities and nature.
- The Regulatory Fallacy – Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Minerals Management Agency do not actually protect us. Rather, they regulate the amount of harm that is inflicted on our communities.
- Nature as Property – Our legal system grants landowners the right to damage the environment, even though the entire community carries the impact.
No matter what the issue, the problem is the same… Communities are stuck inside a box:
This graphic depicts how communities are boxed in by a legal system designed to protect corporate interests and limit their rights to local self-government.
The final blockade to community self-government is the Black Hole of Doubt. We think we’re not smart enough, strong enough, or empowered enough – we literally do not believe we have the inalienable right to govern. Sally Kempton, author and feminist, says, “It’s hard to defeat an enemy who has outposts in your head.”
CELDF realized it would take a people’s movement to establish rights for humans and nature over the systems that control them, and is now at the forefront of that movement.
Examples of a fixed system
Grant Township, PA
Residents are told they cannot stop the injection of toxic frack waste into their community. Why? Because the State has pre-empted them from doing so, and the corporation has the “right” to inject.
Residents are told they do not have federal Bill of Rights protections on the job. Corporate “rights” trump their rights to privacy and to free association.
Benton and Lane County, OR
Communities are told they cannot say “no” to the contamination of their farmland by genetically modified seeds and poisoning of their forests and waterways from pesticides. Their own state government protects these harmful practices and blocks communities’ efforts to move toward sustainable and just food systems.
After residents passed the historic Lake Erie Bill of Rights, the Chamber of Commerce wrote a law, which was passed by the Ohio General Assembly, to limit Rights of Nature representation in the courts.
Communities face the construction of a massive energy transmission project that will cut through the state’s most pristine landscapes. They are told they have no right to stop the project or to establish sustainable energy systems.
After communities pass laws to protect immigrant rights, raise the minimum wage, or introduce new environmental protections, top-down law-making frequently gets passed to outlaw these local efforts. We observe this across the United States.
States are also passing laws to attack protesters’ rights.
Communities across the country are told they have no authority to implement free and fair elections, ban fossil fuel extraction, heighten protections for workers, divest from fossil fuels, defend against gentrification, substantively govern the private economy – among many other issues – because such policies run up against corporate “rights” and preemptive state laws that interfere with local democracy at the request of wealthy corporate interests.
Tools of Oppression
Public schools in this country teach us a glorified settler-colonial history of the three branches of the U.S. government. Let us take a look at how each branch protects the ability of the wealthy few to exploit the labor, autonomy, and safety of the rest of us, and the planet.
State and federal elected officials cannot ascend to power without the necessary backing from corporate interests. Double-speak is an inherent, inescapable feature of all legislative action: the appearance of protecting the public interest, while simultaneously maintaining systems of property ownership and racial capitalism that allow people and nature to be turned into profit. Lawmakers pass laws with titles designed to convince the general public that the laws have beneficial effects. Meanwhile, the halls of power remain closed privileged spaces that carefully regulate how and when the public can participate.
Judges are appointed from a pool of people predisposed to issue decisions, disguised in “neutrality” and “precedent,” that protect the status quo of environmental destruction and human exploitation. To qualify for this job, judges must believe that the law is “neutral” and somehow related to justice, and thus must have the privilege to comply with the myriad of laws that criminalize poverty, Blackness, disability, and intersections of those and other identities. Courts are bound by the precedents1 that have accrued for centuries in a country that was built on racism, violence, and degradation — ever since the early settlers created the concept of property ownership and imposed it upon land formerly stewarded by people who recognized our interdependence with it. Overt racism may have been eradicated from much of our legal landscape, but the underlying sentiments have only found ever more insidious ways to disguise themselves as “neutral.”
The law, and the institutions that enforce it, hide behind the ostensible purpose of upholding “public safety,” but in reality exist, by design, to prop up human and envi-
ronmental exploitation. To really understand the purpose of these laws, we ask ourselves: what does the law protect? And who does it serve? We witness how police protect corporate interests and legacies of colonization, from democracy. They arrest Water Protectors. They evict encampments of unhoused people from “business districts.” They brutalize striking workers. They imprison. They deport. They stand to the side as white supremacists assault the workers at the U.S. Capitol. They criminalize historically marginalized and oppressed communities. They fuel the suppression of political rights through selective enforcement of anti-Black, racist, classist, xenophobic laws. They criminalize and control communities — stifling self-governance. This does not keep the public safe.
A Modern Movement
The power of communities to defend against exploitation has been under attack since the settlers landed in what is now called the United States, bringing with them the colonial mindset that Europeans first developed during the Crusades and the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. Throughout the intervening centuries, this top-down system of oppression finds evolving ways to neutralize efforts of communities to build power together and say “no” to exploitation. Corporations have hijacked our state and federal constitutions, routinely wielding them to force harmful environmental and economic activities into communities that don’t want them.
Since its inception, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken decisive action to blanket corporate interests with constitutional protections.
Corporate “personhood” was invented to protect the wealthy from possible redistribution of power and wealth following the United States Civil War. In arbitrarily granting “personhood” to corporations, the courts used law to insulate oligarchic interests from the democratic movements that erupted in the years following the Civil War.
Despite this, communities continue to resist and forge a new path. Over the past decade, and despite overwhelming opposition from large, multinational corporations, hundreds of municipalities across the country have moved to claim and assert powers to defend air, water, soil and democracy.
CELDF has worked with nearly 200 communities to advance lawmaking to reorient the purpose of the law and the locus of power in society to those most impacted by lawmaking. This activism and the law it advances protects the most basic rights, which are currently disregarded by the colonial legal system we have inherited. To enforce these rights, communities ban harmful corporate activities, ranging from coal mining to factory farms to fracking to the dumping of sewage sludge. This activism creates the conditions for specific rights to be enforced against corporations, which are currently constitutionally exempted from respecting humans’ rights and those of ecosystems and the biosphere.
While the issues may differ, the DNA of these laws is the same: to recognize the rightful leadership of local self-government within a more just government system that serves people and Earth, to afford local communities the right to strengthen the floor of rights and protections recognized by state and federal government.
Communities are moving forward to determine a future of their own making – a future not determined by corporations, but rather by the people who inhabit these communities. By doing what is necessary, their activism is pushing the boundaries of what many people think is possible.
A 2014 Ordinance passed in Grant Township, Indiana County, PA, demonstrates language common to Community Rights laws:
“All residents of Grant Township possess the right to a form of governance where they live which recognizes that all power is inherent in the people and that all free governments are founded on the people’s consent. Use of the municipal corporation “Grant Township” by the people for the making and enforcement of this law shall not be deemed, by any authority, to eliminate, limit, or reduce that sovereign right.”
Grant Township, Public Herald, May 4, 2016
In 2020, Grant Township residents successfully pressured the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to recognize their transformative lawmaking in rejecting a permit to inject toxic fracking waste that threatens ecosystems and the local water system.
CELDF’s partner communities are enacting local rights-based laws that explicitly demand action at the state and federal levels. For example, in 2017, Lincoln County, OR adopted a ban on aerial spraying of pesticides in the name of public health and nature’s rights. The effort for the local law was driven by Lincoln County Community Rights and supported by CELDF. For the two years the law was in effect, corporate timber operations were forced to utilize more targeted means of pesticide application or cease spraying altogether.
CELDF supports the grassroots volunteer group Lincoln County Community Rights and the Siletz River Ecosystem in their defense of the ban on aerially-sprayed pesticides. The pesticide industry wants to get rid of the law, arguing a corporate-drafted Oregon law prohibits the people from protecting health and the environment. But the community is mounting a historic defense, advancing a new theory of state and local law to prevent the state from interfering with local democracy on behalf of corporate interests. The defense folds in work on the right of local community self-government, as well as new preemption law theories.
Moving Up From the Local
Movements begin at the local level. The movement for women’s suffrage didn’t start with a dictate from the U.S. Supreme Court. Rather, the struggle for women’s right to vote started when the new U.S. colonial government inserted its legitimacy over the original systems of government on this continent, many of them matriarchal and/or egalitarian in governance, and continues to this day. The fight to win womens’ suffrage included over 400 local and state laws that recognized the right of women to vote. Townships and states began to adopt these laws long before the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment that ensconced that right in the U.S. Constitution, and the fight for equal access to the booth continues to this day as people in power try to dilute the votes and reduce poll access for Black, indigenous, immigrant, disabled, poor, trans and other women.
We also learn from prior movements that organizing solely at the local level will always leave communities vulnerable to attack from corporations and state and federal governments. Part of CELDF’s work is to help communities harness the momentum from local, grassroots organizing, and channel that energy into state-based organizations to drive larger structural legal change.
Moving to State-Level Change
To build up from the local level, CELDF has assisted communities to join together to form “Community Rights Networks (CRNs)” to drive state-level organizing and constitutional change. These CRNs are hubs, facilitating and amplifying the energy and resources from community organizing. They support Community Rights organizing locally, helping communities protect themselves from immediate threats. They also serve to channel the growing energy of these communities into a collective force that can form coalitions with others to bring about the structural change needed at the state level.
In 2014, the Colorado Community Rights Network circulated a petition for a state constitutional amendment recognizing the right of Colorado communities to protect their health and safety by prohibiting harmful corporate activities. Corporate challenges interfered with the signature-gathering process, making it difficult to gather the required number of signatures. Eventually, the oil and gas industry pushed their own reactionary state constitutional amendment to make it more difficult for grassroots groups to change the state constitution.
In February 2016, a constitutional amendment to allow communities to strengthen existing protections and establish new rights-based protections for ecosystems was introduced in the New Hampshire legislature. In 2018, one-third of the New Hampshire House of Legislators voted in favor of advancing the state constitutional change, and in 2019, it was introduced into the legislature for a third time.
In 2019, a state constitutional amendment was introduced into the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Amendment language contains: “The right to local self-government includes, without limitation, the power to enact local laws: (1) protecting health, safety and welfare by establishing the rights of people, their communities and nature and by securing those rights using prohibitions and other means; and (2) establishing, defining, altering or eliminating the rights, powers and duties of corporations and other business entities operating or seeking to operate in the community.”
Moving Community Rights to the National Level
Movements to decentralize power and to establish protective forms of local self-determination are blossoming. Formed in 2014 a “National Community Rights Network” is making important contributions to this societal trend.
Take Action: Your Community’s Rights Begins With You
If corporate or government harms threaten you or your community, contact us and learn how to take action to protect your community.
You and your community have rights, and CELDF is here to help you fight for them. Click here to learn more about where we work and how you and your community can get involved — or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out CELDF’s “Do-It-Yourself Guide to Community Rights Law-Making” for communities and local government representatives!
The DIY Lawmaking Guide explains why many communities and local governments are taking a direct stand against corporations and the legal and governing structures that enable them. It explains how they’re taking that stand – by enacting laws that expand rights, health, and safety protections for people and ecosystems. The Guide provides guidance on drafting, enacting, and enforcing Community Rights laws.
1 We like to think that precedents can change if only we can get a “good” person on SCOTUS. But the protection of property is so integral to the function of courts it becomes irrelevant who writes the opinions. City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of NY, decided in 2005, held that even if a First Nation bought back land after they were forced off it centuries ago, they still cannot restore tribal sovereign government to that land because of the doctrine of the discovery, which says that once Europeans claimed land from indigenous people it became theirs by law. This was a Ginsburg opinion, which just goes to show that the whole legal system is so baked and rooted in colonialism that even our ostensible heroes embody the immorality of the system they’ve had to adapt to in order to rise in power.