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Corporate Suppression of Direct Democracy Fuels Fight for Community Rights

The corporate state is dismantling our democracy. We must ensure that every community, not just every vote, counts.

The Right To The City Alliance marches with the larger Climate Justice Alliance during the People's Climate March in Manhattan, New York, on September 21, 2014. (Photo: Alan Greig / Flickr)

Across the country, corporations and government officials are working together to protect corporate interests and block local communities from exercising our rights to direct democracy.

On July 1, 2016, in Tacoma, Washington, a corporate-government alliance succeeded in pushing a single judge to deny local residents’ right to vote on a duly qualified ballot initiative that would have empowered the people of Tacoma to decide whether large corporate water projects would be allowed in their community. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was that same corporate-government alliance that had welcomed a proposal from Northwest Innovation Works to build the world’s largest methanol plant in Tacoma — a plant that would have required upward of 14 million gallons of water a day if Northwest Innovation Works hadn’t canceled its lease in April 2016 amid opposition from community members.

Travel south of Tacoma to Lane County, Oregon, and a similar fate is playing out. In Lane, people allied with corporate interests have a proposal on the table to change the citizen initiative process to give county commissioners ultimate veto power over which citizen petitions go forward. This comes as citizens in Lane petition to ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and toxic herbicides used by the timber industry. In addition, activists in Lane County have been gathering signatures for an amendment to their local charter that would secure the right to adopt more democratic laws to protect health and safety, and rein in corporate power.

Meanwhile in Ohio, local boards of elections, backed by the secretary of state and the oil and gas industry, have granted themselves the power to deny ballot access to duly-qualified initiatives in Athens, Medina, Meigs and Portage counties. In each of those communities, where fracking activities are a growing threat, the residents gathered together to propose and qualify ballot questions to protect their right to clean air and water and ban corporate fracking as a violation of those rights. The communities are now taking their case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Resisting the Corporate State

These aren’t the first communities to be shut out of the democratic process, and they likely won’t be the last. The truth is that we shouldn’t be surprised as this continues to happen, because our system of law and governance was designed — from the very beginning, constitutionally — to be undemocratic.

Our communities have been placed in a box, corralled, fenced in. That box, which contains the places we call home, dictates what communities can and can’t do. The box is what we call the corporate state.

Living in a corporate state means being subject to the mandates of the most powerful economic interests, joined by governments, as they drive forward commercial exploits regardless of the true social, economic and environmental impacts to people, communities and the environment.

Every time the corporate state refuses to enforce a law adopted by a community to protect a community’s rights over corporate privileges, — as happened recently in Highland Township, Pennsylvania — the lack of a real democracy is more clearly revealed.

These experiences underscore the ongoing reality documented in a 2015 university study conducted by Princeton and Northwestern that looked at policy making over the last few decades and found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy… while… average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

It has become abundantly clear to people of all political stripes that elections at the national, state and local levels are often bought and paid for by the corporate elite.

From “Home Rule” to “Community Rights”

During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, activists pushed back against corporate power and demanded that two dozen or so state constitutions be amended to allow for residents to use vehicles of direct democracy, such as initiatives, referendums and recalls, to assert their will.

In addition, Progressive Era activists agitated for the affirmation of home rule government in their state constitutions. Home rule allows a city or county to make enforceable laws about community matters without requiring approval from the state.

However, over many decades, US courts have ruled in favor of the corporate elite, undermining local community efforts to curb harmful corporate practices like factory farming, fracking and industrial pesticide use.

Knowing that this is actually how “American democracy” works, people in communities across the country are now organizing to extract themselves from that box with an organizing strategy to dismantle the box itself. With each local fight, the potential increases for a new people’s movement to emerge. The emerging movement has a name, and it’s called Community Rights.

But this time, the people’s movement that is building isn’t just concerned with securing the vehicles for direct democracy or tinkering with “home rule” — its aim is democracy itself.

More specifically, the movement is opposing the idea that money is free speech. Even more deeply, it is rejecting the idea that corporations should be accorded the rights of human individuals, and building toward changing the federal and state constitutions in order to secure the right of local community self-government over that of the corporate state. Colorado, Oregon and New Hampshire have all put such state amendments forward. Pennsylvania and Ohio are next in line. And eventually, the movement will need to grow large enough and be powerful enough to drive into place federal constitutional change.

In light of corporate-backed suppression of local democratic initiatives, the often used phrase “every vote counts” rings pretty hollow in communities like Tacoma, Medina and Lane. It’s clear in those communities that not only does the corporate state decide how we will vote in our so-called democracy, but also whether we get to vote at all.

So, maybe the new banner to take up is “every community counts.” And if that’s our charge, then our work ahead is to make sure that we institute democracy for real this time and that the corporate state goes down for the count — permanently.

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