Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Local Democracy Under Siege

With the recent ruling on Citizens United vs. the F.E.C., the Supreme Court has opened the floodgates on corporate cash, allowing the titans of industrial energy, agriculture, extraction and development to pump even more money into the election system. What to do?

At Bioneers we've long showcased solutions for local democracy. Last year at the conference we featured Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Defense Fund. We've also heard from her partner Thomas Linzey about the "Democracy School" movement to empower local say in environmental and development issues.

Marine biologist, and Bioneers alum Riki Ott, author of Not One Drop - Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, has issued an impassioned call to action for local communities to take a stand against corporate personhood. You can join Riki's efforts at movetoamend.org.

Another friend of Bioneers, Jeffrey Clements, is giving his time to serve as general counsel to Free Speech to the People, a grassroots organization working to return the First Amendment to its rightful place, empowering individual citizens.

Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel has spoken out about the threat of corporate speech to local democracy before. Read what he's had to say, and check out this useful list of how corporate consolidation is increasingly putting the power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals.

Grassroots Mobilization:
A Call for Communities to Defy the Court

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a radical undermining of our sovereign self-governance. It ushers in government of, for, and by The Corporations. It goes well beyond stolen elections -- which can now legally be bought elections.
But that's not the worst of it. This decision actually goes far beyond the circular legal argument that, since the court has ruled previously that free speech equals money, limiting corporations from spending money to influence elections has a chilling effect on free speech (money). If this is confusing, don't worry it's not you. The court had to reach for this.
Citizens United is merely the last straw in a haystack of (successful) corporate attempts to extend corporate constitutional "rights" to corporate persons ever since the U.S. Supreme Court blurred the distinction between "natural persons," or real living human beings, and "artificial persons" -- corporations -- in 1886.

Since the 1886 Santa Clara decision, literally hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of local, state, federal, and international laws that attempt to protect our environment, our elections, our safety and health, and our right to organize have been overturned as a result of this doctrine. Armed with human rights and legal privileges, corporations have amassed enormous wealth and power and disabled democracy on all three branches of our government. Even a partial list shows the range of regulations falling to the new corporate rights doctrine, from those concerning clean and fair elections; to environmental protection and energy; to tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and health care; to consumer protection, lottery, and gambling; to race relations - and more!
Our Republic and democratic process has been hijacked by corporations through illegitimate usurpation of rights intended for human persons. This is a call to action! It is time to change the rules.

What can people do? When Congress passed the USA Patriot Act that undermined civil rights and civil liberties, hundreds of communities, some counties, and at least three states adopted Anti-Patriot Act measures. Similarly, but on a bigger scale, we could start a grassroots movement at the local level to pass municipal legislation or resolutions that defy the Court and strip corporations of their personhood (human rights) status. We could strike any corporate personhood language from State law -- or State constitutions, a harder process.
It is fine that for-profit corporations and other business entities exist, but they should exist to serve people. Corporations are not people and they should not be guaranteed the rights of people. A legislature can give corporations whatever privileges deemed appropriate, but granting corporations the legal status of living, breathing, and eventually dying, natural persons is a grave mistake. Their huge wealth, coupled to human rights, makes corporations far more powerful than people.

Action to abolish corporate personhood (e.g., artificial persons with human rights) in a municipalities, counties, and states could be the forefront of a movement to push this issue right back to the federal level and force Congress to consider amending the U.S. Constitution to do the same.

People could also join the largest and most politically, geographically, and racially diverse coalition to respond to the Citizens United case. The Campaign to Legalize Democracy aims to amend the U.S. Constitution to end the illegitimate legal doctrines that prevent the American people from governing ourselves. First and foremost, the campaign will move to amend that only human beings are entitled to constitutional rights.

Within one day of the decision's release, over 20,000 Americans had signed on to the Motion to Amend the Constitution. This campaign aims to fix the root of the problem - corporate personhood - not only the symptoms like campaign financing, election financing, and free speech issues that were raised in the Citizens United case.
The main thing is to get involved with the grassroots movements to protect democracy from unchecked corporate power. 

It cannot be overstated: The ruling in Citizens United leaves ordinary citizens little power to keep corporate influence out of democratic decision making. We must unite to reverse this outrageous ruling -- and the underlying morally wrong premise that corporations and other artificial persons are entitled to real human rights.

All aboard for democracy!

Riki Ott is director of Ultimate Civics, a co-organizer of the Campaign to Legalize Democracy. She lectures nationally on the democracy crisis. Learn more and sign the motion to amend the Constitution to affirm rule by the people, not corporations!

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