There’s a new form of activism gaining strength in the Pacific Northwest. Citizen organizers in three Washington cities are gathering signatures to place initiatives on the November ballot that would limit corporate power and elevate peoples’ rights above corporate rights:

1) Seattle’s Initiative 103 would reverse the impact of Citizens United locally by banning corporate speech in city elections as well as establishing a basic Community Bill of Rights, including rights for nature.

2) Coal Free Bellingham’s Prop 2 would strip judge-made “constitutional rights” and establish similar community rights aimed at stopping a massive coal train export operation and deep water shipping terminal.

3) Spokane’s gathering signatures for a third effort at making its Community Bill of Rights law. In November 2011, voters narrowly rejected an earlier initiative by less than a thousand votes.

All three initiatives have their roots in legal ordinances drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). CELDF has helped more than 110 communities pass ordinances restricting harmful corporate activities. Since 2010, PittsburghBuffaloDryden (NY), Las Vegas (NM)et al. have banned fracking and stripped corporate rights from drilling companies using CELDF-drafted ordinances. In 2008, CELDF helped Ecuador added rights for nature to its new Constitution.

Using the initiative process to pass local laws that provide immediate protections to communities is part of a dual-pronged strategy and broader theory of change to fighting off corporate harms and restoring our community democracies.

Firstly, these initiatives both limit the legal rights of corporations by ending corporate personhood and stripping judge-made “constitutional” rights but also elevate peoples’ rights by establishing Community Bills of Rights for residents. Secondly, the momentum and awareness generated by these communities working together provides a model for other communities. All three Northwest efforts have evolved from Democracy School trainings taught by CELDF over the past decade. Portland working groups led by organizer Paul Cienfuegos are considering a similar initiative effort. Initiative 103 co-organizer Jeff Reifman says he hopes these efforts inspire communities around the country to begin drafting their own legislation.

image from jeffreifman.comReifman, an ex-Microsoft manager and one of its millionaire alumni says his theory of change finally shifted after his efforts to get Washington’s state legislature to end the company’s twelve-year Nevada tax dodge ended in three notable failures (Microsoft’s tax dodge cost the state more than $1.5 billion in lost revenue but the figure balloons to $4 billion if you include the impact from the company’s lobbying to reduce tax rates). First, the democratic legislature, led by an ex-Microsoft executive, redefined the state’s Royalty Tax in Microsoft’s favor and granted it amnesty. Second, the governor appointed another ex-Microsoft executive to run the state’s tax department. And finally, the governor began praising Microsoft’s $5 million annual scholarship fund (a comparatively small fraction of its annual tax savings) after more than $4 billion in cuts had been made to K-12 and higher education under her watch. “This experience was the last straw for me,” said Reifman. “I knew that our state’s leadership had been corrupted by corporate influence past the point of no return and that there had to be another way.”

Says CELDF’s Executive Director Thomas Linzey, “Organizing communities to pass local law is about giving up hope that Congress is going to do the right thing, or State legislatures are going to do the right thing; and beginning to craft a structure of ‘rights’ at the municipal level that challenges the hegemony exercised by those other levels  of government; and then using the combined force of that municipal strength to push upwards against those higher levels of government to get the change that we want and need.”

These efforts mirror the women’s suffrage movement: “In addition to the strategy to obtain full suffrage through a constitutional amendment, reformers pursued state-by-state campaigns to build support for, or to win, residence-based state suffrage. Towns, counties, states and territories granted suffrage, in full or in part, throughout the 19th and early 20th century.” These local battles played out for fifty years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. “By 1920 when women got the vote nationwide, Wyoming women had already been voting for half a century.” Similarly, as Northwest and other cities fight to limit corporate legal powers, the national Move to Amend effort is pursuing a longer term Constitutional Amendment.

However, unlike the Move to Amend effort which requires the support of state and federal officeholders compromised by corporate money, these local initiatives will become law as soon as they are passed by voters at the ballot box. These efforts are stepping away from the federal regulatory system which has been designed to permit corporate environmental harm and weakened by corporate influence. These efforts are stepping out of traditional models of nonprofit activism which funnels donor money and volunteer resources in support of an ongoing institutional lobbying effort targeted at comprised state and federal officials on a playing field tilted in the favor of wealthy corporations.

Says Linzey, “This organizing is about turning away from traditional activism (which is mired in letter writing campaigns and lowest common denominator federal and state legislation) and dipping our hands into a new activism in which the grassroots forces themselves begin to craft and model rights-based laws which then stitch together to change state constitutions, and eventually, to change the framework of the federal constitution itself. It’s a realization that the only way substantive change is going to happen – especially that change that runs counter to the interests of a relatively small handful of corporations – is a revolt from the bottom, from the municipal level.”

In February, a New York court upheld the Town of Dryden’s right to pass local legislation that bans fracking. Just as Article 6 of the Constitution and the First Amendment helped separate church from state, these initiatives seek to separate corporate power from state, cleansing local governments and foreshadowing longer term efforts to restore our democracy at the state and federal levels.

Corporations are already fighting back in Pennsylvania: “Act 38, better known as ‘ACRE’ – was adopted in 2005.  ACRE empowers the State Attorney General to represent agribusiness corporations against municipalities that dare enact local laws challenging corporate farming. The Attorney General has already sued nearly a dozen municipalities under ACRE, including rural Packer Township in Carbon County.  In that case, the Attorney General is defending the ‘right’ of corporations to override the community’s right to protect itself from sewage sludge being dumped on its farmland.  The bitter irony – and the proof that Pennsylvania’s government has been further privatized – is that the Attorney General, an elected official, is turning around and suing the very folks who elected him, on behalf of corporations.” More recently, the lobbyist-controlled, taxpayer-funded legislature passed Act 13, which seeks to pre-empt the rights of Pennsylvania communities from passing legislation that limits gas extraction.

“Initiative 103 is clearly framed to elevate peoples’ rights over corporate rights,” says Reifman. “It’s one thing if the Supreme Court makes a change to national campaign finance legislation as it did with Citizens United, it’s entirely another thing if it tries to tell the voters of Seattle that they can’t pass essential laws to protect their community democracy from corporate harm.”

All three Northwest efforts are moving forward steeped in education, community and collaboration. Coal Free Bellingham is hosting ongoing democracy schools. Envision Spokane is a collaboration of more than 20 neighborhood and community organizations. Seattle’s Initiative 103 is hosting a weekly speaker series, the Common Good Cafe, to raise discussion about corporate power and its impact in our communities. Says Linzey, “This is promising and hopeful work involving people who have given up on higher levels of government doing what’s needed; who are refocusing themselves on change that matters at the local level.”

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Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. Try scheduling a meeting with his new startup Meeting Planner (https://meetingplanner.io), simpler, faster scheduling for work or play and read his series about building it). Follow @reifman on Twitter.