What are community rights?
Community rights means that people who live in the community have the right to make the decisions that affect their well-being and future. Today, however, communities across the country are finding that they don’t have the right to make critical decisions for themselves – such as the right to say “no” to aerial spraying or pipeline construction, and the right to say “yes” to sustainable energy and healthy local food systems.
The movement for community rights in the United States arose to stop this corruption of our democracy. Enacting community rights will enable people within a community to make important decisions reflecting the people, land, and special conditions that exist within each area, creating and enforcing laws that provide for the well-being and sustainability of their communities.
Community Rights include environmental rights, such as the right to clean air, pure water, and healthy soil; worker rights, such as the right to living wages and equal pay for equal work; rights of nature, such as the right of ecosystems to flourish and evolve; and democratic rights, such as the right of local community self-government, and the right to free and fair elections.
Why do we need a Community Rights Movement?
“The right to local, community self-government serves as the foundation for the American system of law and is a central tenet of our Declaration of Independence and state and federal constitutions. The people’s right to self-governance has been routinely ignored by our elected representatives and overridden by the courts in favor of corporate rights.” — Thomas Linzey,Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
Over the last 200 years, corporations have manufactured a structure of law in which they have ever-increasing rights and privileges today, allowing the pre-emption of community self-determination when corporate interests are at stake.
Corporations prioritize maximizing profit, typically for distant investors who have no connection to the community; consequently the best interests of the community and its environment are less important than corporate exploitation of natural resources. Our movement’s goal to institute authentic local self-governance will enable communities to protect their health, economies and local environment from corporate threats stemming from practices that elevate profit over community well-being.
In a time of depletion of natural resources and increasingly risky resource development and extraction, there is a critical need for laws governing local decisions about sustainability issues affecting energy production, land development, water use and food systems. Because the structure of current law allows corporations to have more power than communities in deciding what happens to these resources within the community, lack of protection makes communities vulnerable to exploitation. Appropriate and just local governance gives people to the means to sustain themselves and the web of natural systems necessary to thrive.
How does a community lose it’s voice?
- State and Federal Preemption – There are laws that allow large corporations to force harmful activities into communities – despite community opposition.
- Corporate Privilege – Our structure of law elevates corporate decision-making over community decision-making. Corporations have court-conferred constitutional “rights.” They wield these “rights” against communities to eliminate local efforts that may interfere with industry plans to expand their operations, regardless of the impact to communities and nature.
- The Regulatory Fallacy – Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Minerals Management Agency – do not actually protect us. Rather, they regulate the amount of harm that is inflicted on our communities.
- Nature as Property – Our legal system grants landowners the right to damage the environment, even though the impact is carried by the entire community.
What is the goal of community rights?
Communities are stepping forward to determine a future of their own making. A future that is not determined by an out-of-area corporation, but rather by the people who live there.
Community Rights work to dismantle the unjust structure of laws and systems of government that place corporate “rights” and privileges over the well-being of our communities. Our work seeks a single overriding solution: instituting our right to local self-government – so that communities have the legal foundation for saying no to harmful corporate practices whatever their form, whenever they arise. The right to do this is articulated in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and individual state constitutions. The goal is for local citizens to be able to exercise their right to make decisions affecting their community’s well being.
We look to the abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights activists who refused to obey unjust laws and worked to enact just laws. Suffragists challenged existing laws over 460 times, passing local and state laws recognizing women’s right to vote, which went against federal law. Oregon was one of two states that did so through the citizen initiative process. It took five attempts. Today, we, too, are constructing and working to pass just local laws, grounded in the right to local self-government.
Our work is local, but connected to a nationwide movement that has mounted community rights ordinances in over 200 communities in nine states, protecting them from a range of corporate threats, from fracking to industrial agricultural harms. This network, with the national Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund as an instrumental resource, is developing a foundation to build economic, political and social change at local, state, and ultimately, federal levels. Like the movements before us, we recognize that it will take years to succeed. But when we do, those levels of government will recognize, constitutionally, that the right to local self-government exists to protect the rights of communities and persons, not corporations.
Community rights transcends the environmental issues that catalyzed the movement. It will help us gain economic, social and environmental justice for all in our community.
Why do you refer to community rights as a civil rights movement?
Civil rights are rights to full legal, social, and economic equality. These rights protect individuals’ freedom from infringement by governments and private organizations. The Community Rights Movement works to protect our civil rights by ensuring that power resides where it is supposed to in a democracy – with the people and not corporations and governmental structures that place corporate “rights” above our own.
Moving Community Rights to the State Level
Movements begin at the local level. The movement for women’s suffrage didn’t start with the US Supreme Court; rather, it was a struggle that lasted more than 50 years. It included over 400 local and state laws that recognized the right of women to vote. These local and state laws began to be adopted long before that right was ensconced in the U.S. Constitution with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.
We also learn from prior movements that organizing only at the local level will always leave communities vulnerable to attack from corporations and state and federal government. Part CELDF’s work is to help communities harness the momentum from local, grassroots organizing, and channel that energy into state-based organizations to drive larger structural legal change.
Learn more about efforts to pass The Right of Local Community Self-Government Constitutional Amendment.
How does our current legal system differ from one based in community rights?
A community rights legal system elevates the rights of human and natural communities over protection of corporate interests. A rights-based legal system helps to create a balanced relationship between local, state and federal levels of government. That balance does not exist today: Federal and state governments may legally preempt and regulate localities, and does so based on a system that considers commerce and the “rights” and privileges of corporations as central.
Could community rights be (mis)used to undo hard-won federal civil rights gains by overriding them at the local level?
Fundamental to the constitutional change sought by the Community Rights Movement is the establishment of a platform of rights that could not be legislated away by communities and government, and civil rights would be among them. In the meantime, existing civil rights protections are inalienable rights that cannot be overridden, even under our right to local self-government.