One of the most important things you can do for yourself and your community this spring is to take yourself and a friend to a Democracy School. Democracy Schools are hosted by local grassroots groups and taught by staff and friends of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). They challenge just about everything we think we know about our U.S. Constitution and the efficacy of our governmental system.
CELDF has taught over 200 weekend Democracy Schools and the result has been 140 communities across the Northeast that have banned unwanted corporate activities: from fracking to the dumping of toxic sewage sludge on farm fields; from long wall mining to the privatization of local water supplies. These individual communities have set national precedents to protect their health, their land, their water and air—the ecosystems that sustain us.
Many of these community rights laws have been developed by municipalities in Pennsylvania where CELDF began in the mid 1990′s… and it’s lucky these precedents are in place, because Pennsylvania is now ground zero for the frack attack. Our fossil fuel-focused governor has done everything in his power to turn this state into an industrial gas extraction zone, making it relatively easy for the industry to do what they will with our state… poisoning our water, our air, our farmlands. Many fear that within a decade, much of our water in this water rich state will be poisoned by the Cheney-Halliburton loop-hole that allows toxic chemicals to be injected deep underground to help drive gas out of rock deposits.
Democracy School: Community Rights Workshops now being taught in Pennsylvania start with our original state constitution. Many of us know that Benjamin Franklin helped to write an amazingly progressive document that set the highest standard in the thirteen original colonies for local representative democracy. And we remember that the main reason we fought the American Revolution was because the King was usurping our right to self-determination, making life difficult for all but those aligned with English corporate trade.
What many don’t know is that Pennsylvania’s first state constitution, upheld by farmers and trade representatives from each county (including people of color), lasted for only fourteen years (1776-1790). By 1790, corporate representatives along the eastern seaboard staged a quiet coup that undermined this constitution, taking away expanded suffrage, community representation and citizen oversight in favor of their own special interests.
At the recent annual Pittsburgh Summit Against Racism, participants in the Community Rights workshop enjoyed a skit that reflected our lack of decision-making powers. We discussed the resulting disproportionate effects on poor communities, people of color, and rural/agricultural areas with toxic dumps, resource extraction, and declining quality of life. The workshop emphasized that regulating harm does not work and actually distracts us from creating sustainable economies, healthy ecosystems and healthy communities. While many of us feel helpless to confront the power of corporate influence on government, what is new and hopeful is the grass-roots strategy growing quickly across Pennsylvania and other parts of the country.
Claiming community rights is a civil-rights-based strategy that intends to foster real local democracy and community-based representative government. Taking direction from the Abolitionist movement, the Women’s Suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement, the focus is on challenging local, state and federal laws that limit our ability to protect ourselves. This is done through the passage of new laws, municipality by municipality, that elevate the rights of people, communities and nature over the rights of corporations.
In 2010, Pittsburgh famously became the first major U.S. city to pass a Community Bill of Rights (CBoR) ordinance. Included in our CBoR, indeed the issue that prompted its introduction in the first place, is a provision that prohibits fracking within the city. Now, this groundbreaking ordinance may become part of Pittsburgh’s city charter. A group of citizens will be circulating a petition this summer to place a question on the November ballot that will allow city voters to include the CBoR in our charter, permanently protecting Pittsburgh from fracking. This is important because ordinances can be overturned by the mayor and city council, and with gas industry prompting, the mayor has already been trying to do so. Changes to the charter, however, must always be approved by a vote of the people.
Laws such as Pittsburgh’s 2010 CBoR ordinance assert what people want in their community, and vindicate their right to govern themselves on issues, such as water and food safety, that impact their health and well being. Across Pennsylvania and the U.S., community majorities are democratically adopting these rights-based laws and using them to prohibit actions proposed by a corporate minority that would violate these rights. With this new approach, people no longer aim for the least possible harm by appealing to regulatory agencies. Communities are claiming the democratic right to say “NO” to whatever damaging development a corporation may propose.
The Regulatory Trap
When we think about whether regulatory agencies actually protect us, we might ask ourselves, Are we in better shape than we were when the environmental movement started in the 1960s? While we find that some of the visible indicators, especially in Pittsburgh, have improved, looking at the health of ecological systems around the planet the answer is clearly “no.” Generally speaking, our legal system is designed to regulate harm, not outlaw it.
At the community level, citizens spend a good deal of energy organizing and protesting, trying to effect change—within the framework designed by the state and federal government (often corporate-funded). At the state and federal level, “experts” (often corporate-funded) battle over the range of allowable harm. And what we’ve seen over the last fifty years is more and more regulation of more and more harm. As one recent workshop participant noted, “We can yell and scream all we want, but the problem just goes back into the regulatory process.”
CELDF is linking ecological protection directly to citizens’ civil rights. They are helping communities reclaim democracy. And they are assisting with writing new laws directly into local charters. (A charter is the equivalent of a constitution for cities, towns and municipalities.) As CELDF’s founder and legal expert Thomas Linzey says, “There has not yet been a successful environmental movement, because movements drive progressive change into the Constitution.”
Only when we speak out, act-up and claim our unalienable rights to health and well-being and the very resources upon which we depend, can we as citizens really work toward justice and sustainability. Once a basic bill of rights is voted into a town or city charter, citizens have the power to add to it by referendum. We can direct our local government, by popular vote, to develop in ways that we deem wise. And wisdom tells us we must all work within the limits of the ecosystems that support us. CELDF and partner muncipalities across the country intend for this movement to spread until it is strong enough to demand major changes to States and the U.S. Constitution… culminating in State level and Federal level constitutional conventions.