Anatomy of a STATE And Corporate Attack on a People’s Movement

Since its inception, a state-wide movement in Ohio has faced a state and corporate attack that amounts to concerted opposition from all branches of state government, corporate lobbies, private law firms, and both political parties. The entire repressive apparatus has revealed itself in 2019, for all to see.

The People’s Movement

The story begins in 2012, when residents outside Cleveland, Ohio, in Broadview Heights, started a group called Mothers Against Drilling in Our Neighborhoods to oppose fossil fuel extraction in their community. They soon learned that Ohio’s regulatory process essentially empowered the involved corporations, while disempowering affected residents. In effect, prevailing laws barred their group from any meaningful democratic participation that would challenge the fossil fuel industry. 

This led the group to partner with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), and step outside the bounds of conventional environmental law. They organized their efforts into a coordinated strategy for addressing state and federal legal doctrines that stood in the way of their community goals.

Step 1: Setting an Example

Current legal doctrines allow state and federal governments to prevent cities and counties from expanding protections for civil and human rights. This insulates corporate interests from city and county laws.

The Ohio mothers and other community members could not ignore the potential state and corporate attack allowed by these doctrines. Therefore, in partnership with CELDF, they drafted a Community Rights citizens’ initiative. This local measure motioned to ban fossil fuel extraction as a violation of the community’s rights to clean air, water, and self-government, and of the Rights of Nature to exist, flourish, and evolve. 

Sixty-seven percent of Broadview Heights voters adopted the measure in the November 2012 general election. However, powerful interests quickly got involved, showing the community that all too often, state and federal agencies that establish environmental protections are more interested in the economic benefits of exonerating the very industries which they regulate. The state places a “ceiling” on local governments, preventing them from directly governing corporations in their communities. The Broadview Heights law was later struck down by the Ohio courts. 

In response, CELDF, assisted local residents to file a class action lawsuit against the drillers, and the State of Ohio. While the courts ruled in favor of the corporate “persons” involved in fossil fuel extraction, the community’s determination to protect itself, its families, and its neighborhoods did succeed in chasing out corporate drillers. No new wells have been drilled in the community to date. 

Further, the community’s efforts sparked a movement throughout the state.

Step 2: Building a Movement

Since 2012, 20 Ohio communities (and counting) have joined together to create the Ohio Community Rights Network (OHCRN) to initiate systemic change. In partnership with CELDF, the network advances laws to protect the Rights of Nature, together with community members’’ rights to a livable climate, clean drinking water, and healthy ecosystems. The laws halt pipelines, hydraulic fracturing, underground fracking waste injection wells, and corporate campaign finance.

To date, OHCRN members have proposed over 40 laws and county charters aimed at accomplishing these goals. Of these, 12 have been put to vote and six passed. 

Step 3: Advancing Fundamental Change

The movement aims to accomplish structural change to constitutional law and legal doctrine. Their purpose is threefold:

  • Redefine state law as a “floor” instead of a ceiling. Just as federal law acts as a floor upon which state law can add additional protections, so should state law be the floor upon which local governments can build new protections for civil and human rights in the community. 
  • Allow local governments to regulate private corporations’ legal privileges within their jurisdictions.
  • Recognize the rights of ecosystems and nature. 

In Ohio, the OHCRN is currently advancing a Right to Local Self-Government amendment to the Ohio Constitution, which embodies all of these demands.

Step 4: Making Headlines

In 2019, CELDF’s and OHCRN’s sustained efforts began to make national and international headlines (The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters, Vox, Le Monde, Salon, Bloomberg, Mother Jones, Democracy Now!, CBC, CNN, The Daily Show, among others).

  1. CELDF partner and OHCRN member Toledoans for Safe Water, a Toledo-based community group, worked to pass the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in their February 2019 municipal election. The law recognized the lake’s enforceable rights to “exist, flourish and naturally evolve,” local residents’ rights to a clean and healthy environment, and elevated those rights above claimed “rights” by corporations. Lake Erie is the city’s sole source of drinking water, and the law would help protect drinking water for over 11 million residents in Ohio alone.
  2. CELDF partner Williams County Alliance, another OHCRN member, gathered sufficient signatures to place a county charter on the Williams County November 2019 ballot. The charter’s purpose was to prevent privatization of the Michindoh Aquifer. It recognized the aquifer’s right to exist, the locals’ right to clean water, and elevated those rights above corporate “rights.”

State and Corporate Attack and Opposition

Since its inception, the state-wide movement has faced an ongoing state and corporate attack from the Ohio State Legislature, Ohio Supreme Court, the Office of the Ohio Secretary of State, local boards of elections, the Office of the Ohio Governor, corporate lobbies, private corporate law firms, both political parties, and corporatized union management. Even environmental groups that follow a more traditional approach have objected to OHCRN’s methods. We see all this resistance as the 1% fighting to retain power and control of Ohio.

The entire repressive apparatus revealed itself in 2019 for all to see, as various entities within the State of Ohio passed and signed new laws, intervened in court cases, and issued legal opinions to continue the state and corporate attack on this people’s movement. Below you can follow two peoples’ initiatives, and the attempts to stop them.

Opposition to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights:

  • Corporate Campaign Financing: British Petroleum North America financed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights opposition campaign with over $300,000. In contrast, the community group’s budget was $6,000.
  • Corporate Lawsuit: The day after the Lake Erie Bill of Rights was passed by voters, Drewes Farms filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Toledo. The corporate farm argued that the law violated its corporate constitutional rights.
  • Office of the Attorney General: In May 2019, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost officially entered this lawsuit against the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, but not on the side of the people and the Lake. He sided with the corporate polluter.
  • Excluded from the Courts: Affected residents were denied entrance into the case against the Lake Erie Bill of Rights and so prevented from defending their law with lawyers. Three Toledo petitioners instead filed their own lawsuit against the State of Ohio without lawyers. The lawsuit argued the state had violated the basic contract between residents and their government for protection of rights, environment, and drinking water, and residents’ right to self-govern. The State of Ohio filed a Motion to Dismiss this lawsuit.
  • Ohio Legislature: The 2020-2021 state budget included language with the aim of stripping citizens and any government of the right to file lawsuits or legal arguments on behalf of nature or ecosystems. It also declared that Nature has no enforceable rights in Ohio.
  • Ohio Chamber of Commerce: authored anti-Rights-of-Nature language for the Ohio budget bill. Email correspondence uncovered by OHCRN showed that this was a direct effort to block future efforts similar to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.
  • Office of the Governor: in July 2019, Governor Mike DeWine signed the 2020-2021 state budget despite its aforementioned undemocratic language.

Opposition to the Williams County Alliance initiative against water privatization: 

  • Corporations: The Ohio Farm Bureau, wrote an amicus brief asking the Ohio courts to keep the people’s initiative off the ballot. The American Petroleum Institute, Ohio Oil/Gas Association, Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation Ohio, Mahoning-Trumbull AFL-CIO, and the County Commissioners Association of Ohio have similarly written briefs to oppose other qualified OHCRN initiatives from reaching the ballot.
  • Ohio Legislature: In December 2016, the Ohio Legislature made a last-minute insertion into a larger foreclosure bill (HB463), with the goal of quelling citizen-led initiatives, which the OHCRN has relied on to advance laws. That bill has been applied repeatedly to remove citizen initiatives from ballots across the state, including the Williams County Alliance initiative.
  • County Board of Elections: In disregard of the limits on their power as an administrative branch of government, tasked only with facilitating elections and election procedures, the Williams County Board of Elections deemed the Williams County Alliance initiative unconstitutional. They claimed this authority based on the 2016 state bill, and refused to place the initiative on the November 2019 ballot. The Board carried out their decision despite petitioners gathering the required number of signatures. (Twelve other OHCRN-proposed county charters have similarly been taken off their respective ballots, since 2015.)
  • Ohio State Supreme Court: The case went to the Ohio Supreme Court. Despite their role as the ultimate interpreter of the Ohio Constitution, the justices based their ruling – against the initiative – purely on technical grounds and variable administrative requirements. They have similarly used these erratic requirements to remove 15 initiatives from the ballot, while avoiding constitutional arguments. The judges’ capricious opinion and lack of clarity drove citizens in seven communities to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the local boards of elections and the State of Ohio. The case alleges that the state and court rulings have caused voter suppression and violated the people’s rights to free speech, petition their government for redress, due process, and separation of powers.

You can view a succinct summary of significant developments within the state-wide movement since 2012, here.

What is the reason for such systemic resistance to local democratic movements? The answer is corporate interest. As proven in the examples cited, corporations have ghost-written state legislation, filed lawsuits and amicus briefs, and poured money into elections and campaigns to oppose the movement.

OHCRN’s stated aim is to change the Ohio Constitution for the better. To protect people and nature by recognizing their right to have a voice in the governing of their communities.This goal, however, is being misrepresented by the powerful. Throughout these battles, the people advancing the movement have largely been denied access to the court system, and repeatedly denied the ability to put their ideas up for public votes.

So You Want to Change the Law?

The people behind the movement – mothers, fathers, grandparents, and youth of every racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic origin, as well as the activists, lawyers, and educators who support them – have been told by judges, critics, elected officials, environmental NGOs, and conventional lawyers that their efforts conflict with existing law and therefore are improper. However, what these naysayers fail to understand is that organizers with the OHCRN already know this. They want to change the law. Similar arguments of “illegality” were used to dissuade or postpone the abolition of chattel slavery, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, and other movements that fought for significant change in the law

Despite being told that their methods were uncivil or illegal, these movements changed the law anyway.

The Time Has Come

The more the State of Ohio and corporate interests attempt to repress this growing social, economic, and environmental movement, the more the “corporate state” is exposed and the more onlookers recognize the necessity of systemic structural legal change.