How Can Communities Defend Themselves From Corporate Interests?

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Rose Aguilar

Why isn’t activism working? It’s not for lack of trying, says self-described recovering environmental attorney Thomas Linzey. The environmental community has created a slew of environmental laws and launched an alphabet soup of environmental regulatory agencies, but what do they really do?

Linzey says they merely regulate the level of harm and amount of poisons that can be legally injected into our water, soil and air; they’re not designed to stop it.

In the new book, “Be The Change: How to Get What You Want in Your Community,” Linzey and Anneke Campbell, an environmental justice documentary filmmaker, argue that it’s time to stop begging the government and corporations to cause less harm. It’s time to replace corporate minority decision-making with community self-government.

  • Linzey and Campbell write about people from all walks of life doing just that by leaving their comfort zones to become community leaders.

    Gail Darrell left gardening to stop water-withdrawal corporations from taking her town’s water in Barnstead, New Hampshire; Michael Vacca pours concrete by day and stops coal corporations from destroying his western Pennsylvania community by night; Cathy Miorelli, a local elected official and nurse, has led her borough council in taking on some of the largest waste corporations in the state of Pennsylvania; and Rick Evans, a member of the Laborers Union in Spokane, Washington, is working to protect the constitutional rights of workers.

    “They didn’t wait for an environmental group to come along and try to save them, or for a state or federal agency to intervene,” writes Linzey. “Just as important, they refused to listen to anyone who told them there was nothing they could do to keep their communities from being damaged or destroyed.”

    So how did they do it? They just did it. They did it because they had run out of hope that anyone else would,” he writes.

    Through his work with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and the Daniel Pennock Democracy School, Linzey and others are helping communities across the country learn how laws actually work and organize effective responses to corporations exploiting water, air, resources and land.

    The Daniel Pennock Democracy School is named in honor of Danny Pennock, a 17-year-old from Berks County, Pennsylvania, who died of sludge poisoning on April 1, 1995.

    The School “examines the way the US Constitution was written, how it was anchored in an English structure of law, and how the Supreme Court has slowly interpreted it to enshrine the rights of corporations into settled law. The school explores a number of those judicial interpretations, which have led to the Bill of Rights protecting corporations from everyday citizens.”

    It also encourages participants to reframe the issues they are dealing with, so that, instead of fighting against something, they are fighting for something and creating a vision of the community in which they want to live.

    Patty Norton from Peaceful Valley, Washington, told Linzey, “It’ hard to change the conversation from “what can we get” to “what do we want?” We’ve been so beaten down, we were only focused on what little concessions we could get. Democracy School helps you change that conversation.”

    When the sessions are complete, the CELDF helps participants draft local laws aimed at achieving their goals for their communities and works with community leaders to adopt them.

    Over 100 communities across the country have adopted Legal Defense Fund-drafted laws intended to assert local, democratic control directly over corporations. Campbell points out that the citizens are not begging the government to give them more rights; they are manifesting new rights for themselves and their communities through lawmaking at the local level.

    Citizens in Santa Monica, California, are working on an ordinance called the Sustainability Bill of Rights, which would declare that Santa Monica residents, natural communities and ecosystems have a right to a healthy environment. Under the ordinance, corporations “shall not have the rights of ‘persons’ to the extent that such rights interfere” with its components.

    Citizens in Mt. Shasta, California, are preparing to vote on an ordinance that would refuse to recognize corporate personhood and ban corporations like Nestle and Coca-Cola from extracting water from the local acquifer.

    “Today, it is our communities and natural systems that are treated as property under the law – just as slaves once were – because people living in communities can’t control their own futures, and what’s in our communities is routinely bought, sold, and traded without a whisker of local control,” says Linzey. “In many ways, this work is about walking in the footsteps of those prior movements to transform ourselves from being property under the law to becoming people who harness the power of government to defend and enforce our rights.”

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