Getting Back Community Rights | How People are Standing Up to Regain Local Rights

Paul Cienfuegos willbe in Iowa City and Fairfield this month.

There’s that old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” These days, we need to turn that saying inside out: “The system is fixed, and we need to break it.”

More and more people are realizing that the structure of law in the United States  benefits the interests of large corporations—too often at the expense of local communities and their ability to protect their health and safeguard their environment.

Some of this fixing is new (the Supreme Court periodically grants additional fundamental rights to corporations because they are held to be “persons”), but much of it began in the 19th century, with roots going back to the Constitution. The law of our land was built to protect property and profits as we set out to tame a continent. But because the very structure of law is skewed to protect corporate interests, we are now in a situation where, as Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) puts it, true sustainability is in many ways illegal.

And so in Iowa we are overrun by factory hog farms, our water and soil are polluted, countryside is being torn up for frac sand mining, and landowners face the threat of eminent domain to grab land for private oil pipelines.

The Emerging Community Rights Movement

The good news is that all around the country, local communities are standing up for themselves and demanding change. CELDF has worked with 200 localities to draft and defend ordinances that reassert the fundamental rights of the people to protect their safety and well-being. These ordinances enshrine the right of the people to just say no to a harmful activity that threatens them or their natural resources. They explicitly strip corporations of the rights that disempower communities. Rather than getting stuck negotiating with regulatory agencies about how much harm we can tolerate, or about the details of exactly how the onslaughts will be structured, communities can face and reject these threats directly.

This represents a crucial paradigm shift in environmental and community organizing. It is a carefully crafted form of civil disobedience, unleashed from within the legal system itself. As with all movements that seek to reclaim fundamental rights, no one thinks this will succeed overnight or without a fight. But the fight needs to be engaged, as the stakes are high and the growth of corporate power formidable. When enough communities demand strongly enough that the balance be reset between burgeoning corporate influence and the waning rights of the people, change will be driven upward through the system, eventually to the State and Federal constitutional levels.

What’s Happening in Iowa

Here in Iowa, at least three groups have been inspired by Thomas Linzey and CELDF to take action on community rights. In Jefferson County (Fairfield) and Winneshiek County (Decorah), rights-based ordinances have already been drafted, and the process of gathering public support is underway. In Iowa City, the group known as 100 Grannies has recently expanded their drive for a “Livable Future” by launching an active community rights task force.

Veteran West Coast community organizer Paul Cienfuegos first came to Iowa to lead a series of workshops in Decorah.  His influence spread to neighboring communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and in October he will work with a group near Lake Superior to fight the arrival of CAFOs in that pristine northern region.

 Cienfuegos, who has also been a CELDF partner, will be in Iowa again this month:

Iowa City: Saturday, October 17, 9 a.m. to noon at the Coralville Public Library (register at 8:30 a.m.)

Fairfield: Sunday, October 18, 1:30-4:30 at the Public Library (register at 1:15)

These will be interactive, three-part presentations. Both programs are free, with donations appreciated to cover expenses.

This is a rare opportunity to learn more about the nature of the threats we face and how community members can take proactive steps to create a different future. If you are familiar with Thomas Linzey and CELDF, come hear Paul Cienfuegos as a refresher, a deepening of the discussion, an update, and a renewed call to action. If you are concerned about the assaults on nature and the health of our communities, or the ascendency of corporate rights and corporate personhood, this is the perfect chance to get informed and make a difference. 

For more information on Fairfield and Jefferson County, see Jefferson County Friends and Neighbors; Iowa City and Johnson County, see 100 Grannies