Community Rights

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Global Exchange Community Rights Program:

"The rights-based model of community action is being called the new frontier of the civil rights struggle, because it is our own state and federal laws that are standing in the way of our right to determine what happens to us in the places where we live. The biggest threat posed by corporations is not the illegal stuff of headlines. The real danger is what big corporations are empowered to do legally, every day, in every community across the country. From water withdrawal to polluting refineries, toxic sludge spreading, GMOs and more, the corporate few wield the law against our communities, endangering our health, safety and the environment.

State and federal law says that corporations don't need community permission to drop pesticides overhead, or to site a toxic dump next to the school grounds. So who does decide? State agencies issue corporations "permits" and state legislatures routinely "preempt" (usurp) community lawmaking authority on behalf of those corporations. When corporate executives decide to site an unwanted project in our communities, we are told we cannot say "no," because that would be a violation of the corporation's Constitutional rights." (



  • "Rights of nature – We cannot truly protect the environment if the law continues to see nature as mere property to be exploited at will. Slaves were once property, until we changed unjust law to recognize their rights. We’re at the forefront of a commonsense global revolution for nature’s rights.
  • Corporate Power & Personhood – Corporations are not people, and should not have the same “rights" afforded to people. Our Community Rights Program seeks to strip corporations of the legal powers and protections (including personhood) used to override the will of the people in our communities.
  • Restoring Democracy – It’s time to put the “we the people" back into the democratic process. This program provides a legal framework and organizing model for the public to assert their inalienable rights in the place it matters most -- where they live. Organizing for Community Rights is the current chapter in the struggle for civil rights."


A Critique of the Community Rights Approach

1, by davidm58:

"They make this argument (CELDF Mission):

“We believe that to attain sustainability, a right to local self-government must be asserted that places decisions affecting communities in the hands of those closest to the impacts. That right to local self-government must enable communities to reject unsustainable economic and environmental policies set by state and federal governments, and must enable communities to construct legal frameworks for charting a future towards sustainable energy production, sustainable land development, and sustainable water use, among others.”

Let me be clear that I’m NOT saying CELDF shares the same interests and motivations as the Romney campaign (or the Tea Party). Far from it, they couldn’t be further apart. One side wants to use local government to overrule environmental regulations they see as too strict and burdensome, and the other side wants to use local government to enact stricter regulations that have more teeth (in fact not so much to regulate, but to actually ban activities such as fracking or coal trains). What troubles me is that if CELDF were to be successful in achieving their goals, the outcome might be different from the original intent. As Michael Lilliquist wrote (see below), “Hyper-local democracy is a dangerous and potentially corrupting tool; you don’t want to use a tool which you would not allow others to use.”

I just don’t see local communities making better choices than those made at the state and federal level. This may happen in isolated pockets, but by the same token you could see vast swaths of places overturning the few gains the environmental movement has achieved on the level of federal and state policies and regulations, which is exactly what the Tea Party wants to do.

As Tip Johnson, a long time local activist in my community has stated in another blog comment:

- Local governments have an abhorrent record of doing the right thing. They have a long history of abusing their own, especially the poor, but anyone not in favor. If local governments had been willing to do the right thing, federal imposition of civil rights would not have been needed.

I am personally proud of one of my local city council persons, Michael Lilliquist, who has a strong record of supporting sustainability measures, and also spearheaded a local resolution to oppose the Supreme Court “Citizen United” ruling on the rights of corporations. Lilliquist attended the CELDF democracy school, and understands and supports their critique of corporate and property based rights. However, when a local community rights ordinance was proposed, he composed a well-reasoned letter on why he felt compelled to oppose it. Find the full text of his letter here, and the response from Coal Free Bellingham here.

He wrote, in part (I’ll post a larger excerpt in the comments below):

- “Every city is not and cannot be sovereign and independent. To believe otherwise would be to undermine the very idea of the rule of common law, common justice, and common purpose. It would undermine the “we” in We the People. It would become, each community for themselves; our way or the highway. Local rejection of federal authority has a long, sordid past, known sometimes as “nullification” and put into service by racist southerners attempting to oppress and discriminate under the cloak of local democracy. Hyper-local democracy is a dangerous and potentially corrupting tool; you don’t want to use a tool which you would not allow others to use. The enlightened arc of history has been to expand our boundaries of shared community and values, not narrow it down city by city. The rule of law should not be thrown out so quickly. The ends do not justify the means. … The central problem with Prop 2 is that it pits one democratically elected government against another democratically-elected government…It creates a constitutional showdown not over the issue of corporate influence or property-based rights, but rather a show-down between federal and local government. This is the wrong constitutional showdown, because a victory will bolster the dangerous states-rights agenda while not directly affecting corporation’s legal status.”

A related concern is that of NIMBYism, where people, for example, continue to use natural gas, but oppose fracking operations in their community, or environmentalists who support alternative technology, but oppose wind turbines being sited in their communities because it might ruin some people’s view, and affect property values. Alternatively, people like Amory Lovins and David Holmgren argue that destruction of the environment should occur in the places where people are using the resource that destroy the environment. If we are made to suffer the consequences locally for our over-dependence on fossil fuels, maybe that would encourage us to actually reduce our consumption. I understand Lovins once suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that if tailpipes of cars were routed so that exhaust was delivered inside the vehicles for people to breathe, only cars with zero-emission pollutants would be sold.

I’m a big believer in relocalization, but I still believe we need to work within the realm of federal laws as well as our continued connection with the world as a whole.

- “This will not be an isolationist process of turning our backs on the global community. Rather it will be one of communities and nations meeting each other not from a place of mutual dependency, but of increased resilience.” - Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook

As Jason Bradford wrote, “Relocalization is based on an ethic of protecting the Earth System–or Natural Capital– knowing that despite our cleverness, human well-being is fundamentally derived from the ecological and geological richness of Earth.”

The main feature of Relocalization, however, is not home rule government overriding federal law. It is about building a parallel public infrastructure whose goal is “rebuilding more balanced local economies that emphasize securing basic needs. Local food, energy and water systems are perhaps the most critical to build. In the absence of reliable trade partners, whether from peak oil, natural disaster or political instability, a local economy that at least produces its essential goods will have a true comparative advantage.” (

2. In defense of Community Rights:

"The suggestion is made that instead of insisting that children have a fundamental right to clean air, I should use 'proven democratic tools" to work within the system of laws that are written with the primary purpose of protecting corporate profits. I spent Saturday in the fellowship hall of a local church reading and discussing the documents that I was supposed to have read in high school history class- the Magna Carta, Papal Bulls, Paine, Jefferson, Madison, Garrison, DuBois, Supreme Court rulings, the Federal Constitution, the Iowa Constitution, Bernays, and the Bible. If my goal is to learn more about the history and workings of our legal system, what should I be reading and discussing instead?

One area where I have reservations of my own is the question of whether the Community Rights approach is mistaken in that it questions federalism, and does not confine itself to questioning corporatism. But the claim that the Community Rights approach "bolsters dangerous states rights agendas while not directly affecting corporations legal status" is factually incorrect. The Community Rights approach addresses four core areas 1. Corporate privilege 2. Sun, air, and water (nature) as property 3. State pre-emption and Dillon's Rule and 4. The regulatory fallacy.

The editorial mentions a lawmaker named Lilliquist from Washington state. Elsewhere Lilliquist makes a point that hyper-local democracy could potentially be a dangerous and corrupting tool. That's why CR ordinances are written only to expand or protect rights and never to limit or diminish rights. The idea that democracy is too dangerous because the unwashed masses are too stupid to govern themselves is wrong. Another concern I have that was not mentioned is the question of how, and by whom, CR ordinances are enforced. We have serious problems with enforcement of ordinances using the regulatory approach. There is plenty to discuss there.

The list of alternatives suggests that we turn to human rights and environmental laws. The problem is that all U.S. civil rights protections, environmental protections, and labor laws are grounded in the commerce clause of the constitution and not in inalienable rights. I wholeheartedly agree that we should embrace the precautionary principle. How might that be implemented and enforced using the regulatory approach?

I appreciated the style of the letter in which the author raised concerns and then proposed alternatives. But, Iowa's environmental refugees are unable to embrace participatory democracy and effectively organize for constitutional amendments. That esoteric vision of how an idealized federal framework is supposed to function is structurally corrupted by a corporate controlled regulatory system. " (