Update: The Stranger published a shorter version of this on August  15.


Last week, The Stranger called Initiative 103 “an unconstitutional waste of time,” but constitutionality isn’t the right benchmark to measure social change efforts.

In 1873, after suffragist Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting, The New York Times wrote, “Miss Anthony is not in the remotest degree likely to gain her case, nor if it were ever so desirable that women should vote, would hers be a good case.” The paper’s view proved true – it took 47 years to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. The constitutionality of gender-based sex discrimination lasted until 1971.

Constitutionality isn’t an appropriate assessment of social change efforts because shifts in constitutional law trail culture and change slowly in time, often in response to such movements. Slavery was constitutional until 1865 and the legacy of discrimination and segregation remained so until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education. The cultural view of abolitionists also changed greatly during this time.

When The Stranger advocates for the legalization of gay marriage, it’s essentially doing a similar thing as i103. We’re challenging the constitutionality of treating corporations as persons and it’s challenging the constitutionality of excluding marriage rights from the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

The Stranger chose not to publish my response to its legal professor’s comments regarding i103’s constitutionality, but I had said, “What is constitutional today is corporate rights trumping community rights.” That’s what we need to change by dismantling corporate personhood and corporate constitutional rights.

When exactly did the city’s leading “alternative” newspaper begin quoting the establishment as the ultimate authority?

We’ve created a system of law that renders economic and environmental sustainability illegal and impossible. For example, The Stranger acknowledges that Seattle has no means of stopping the coming escalation of coal train exports but doesn’t ask the question, why? This is the question i103 addresses by asking Seattle voters to initiate changes to the legal structures that subvert our community’s health and happiness – and our democracy.

What might sound crazy today, may seem normal in the future. That’s often how social change works.

The Case for Rights for Orca and Salmon

Orcas-on-the-edge    The Stranger mocked i103 for its “rights for urban whales” but didn’t really consider the facts: Puget Sound’s orca, already endangered, are “highly likely” to go extinct by the end of the century; their population is down to 87. Their food source, salmon includes 27 endangered species. 29% of northwest salmon species are already extinct. “Some of the salmon populations are at less than 1% of their historic numbers.”

These animals act as canaries in the coal mine for the general health of Puget Sound – and for our environment; both orca and salmon have high concentrations of toxic PCB’s in their body. Some male orca haven’t developed reproductive organs and it’s possible thepopulation could crash overnight as older males die off. Similarly, the average American has 700 industrial chemicals in their body. Our health and theirs isn’t entirely disconnected.

Not only do existing regulatory protections seem to be falling short but they are often attacked. Last week, a group of California farmers filed suit to delist Northwest orca to end water restrictions in place to protect salmon.

Dead-orca-from-explosive    To argue against “their right to exist” is to continue a policy of their expendability.

In our legal system, nature is treated as property. Only property owners can sue when their property is damaged. The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act of the 1970’s are the regulatory systems we depend on for a sustainable environment … but by most measures, we’re facing greater threats than ever before e.g. climate change.

The abolitionists never sought to reduce the harms of slavery by these kinds of regulations, they sought to abolish it and create rights for freed slaves. Similarly, as our regulatory protections for orca and salmon fail, one approach is to create “rights for orca and salmon to exist” and assert rights for citizens and the city council to defend the environment.

There are emerging models for this. In 2008, Ecuador adopted a Constitution with Rights for Nature, aided by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the group from whose legal templates, I103 was drafted.

The reason the coal train can’t be stopped is because Seattle residents have no legal rights to protect our environment from unmitigatable harms; i103’s rights for nature provides for this.

We understand The Stranger’s need to be cynical, snarky, obscene, playful and funny … but that doesn’t mean the paper can’t engage in the complexity of issues with accuracy and depth and show respect for creative solutions that challenge the status quo.

Setting the Record Straight

I103 doesn’t restrict the rights of nonprofits such as the ACLU to lobby, it just requires they do so in public forums – like the rest of us usually do. If i103 had excluded nonprofits, then it would leave loopholes for companies like Microsoft to exploit by funding nonprofits such as, “Citizens in Favor of Tax-Dodging Megasoftware Companies”. I103 just creates a level playing field for everyone.

It’s our belief that a 50% majority approval should be a baseline for commercial zoning changes within neighborhoods (like those needed for a Walmart to locate in Seattle) and i103 allows the city council to define the appropriate process for this. If you ask an attorney who makes his living representing developers using the current regulatory framework as The Stranger did, it’s not surprising he calls it “rubbish”.

Perhaps The Stranger should ask Yessler Terrace residents if they feel they’ll be displaced over the long term by the city’s redevelopment plan; ask residents in Greenwood how they feel about the loss of Greenwood Market and the Walmart-sized Fred Meyer expansion; ask Fremont residents how they feel about the 20 foot height variation (44%) to Skanska’s “green” building; and, ask the Capitol Hill Community Council if they feel they should have a vote on the Mayor’s commercial rezoning ideas.

Is i103’s Community Bill of Rights overly broad and ambitious? Perhaps, but all of these rights address very real, ongoing issues facing Seattle residents.

Encourage Activists Don’t Diminish Them

What’s most concerning to us is the uneven attitude applied to activists by the paper.

Last week, The Stranger called us “oblivious” and said i103 “mocks a serious problem in our country … and the serious discussion surrounding it—while wasting the time and enthusiasm of activists.” But in fairness, we presented the paper with a serious and thoughtful array of materials (see related links below), which it either did not grasp or chose not to engage with.

Tiny-bone-to-pick    Earlier, it had called our neighborhood protections “batshit stuff”. And, separately, it joked about “being trapped in a roomful of neighborhood activists, each with his or her own tiny, tiny bone to pick.” It even reduced the font to emphasize the point. Should The Stranger, which is highly active on gay rights and city issues such as stopping the tunnel, really be so dismissive of the work of other activists?

Our city is facing major challenges. Activists are putting themselves on the line and on the streets. They are getting involved when others do not. Often, the stakes are high. Just look at the pepper spraying of 84 year old Dorli Rainey, police violence against student debt protesters or the recent grand jury indictments of alleged anarchists. We need more activism not less. We need to make it hip and cool – not diminish those who make the effort.

The corporatist-lens at The Seattle Times leaves a vacuum for independent journalism… we’re all better off when The Stranger steps up, consistently, to fill this gap in an even-handed, thorough and thoughtful way.

We support The Stranger’s advocacy for constitutional acceptance of gay marriage. Similarly, we ask for its thoughtful coverage of our challenge to the constitutionality of granting rights to corporations as if they were people, and the legal practice of allowing those corporations to trump the rights of Seattle residents.

It took forty years for the Supreme Court to finally accept the constitutionality of minimum wage laws, and it changed with a local Washington State law, just as i103 aims to do. Enacting local initiatives is one way things change.

Related Links

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest.

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