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Turning Occupation into Lasting Change

Can the Occupy movement transform the legal structures that give corporations their power over the rest of us?

soldier corporate personhood sign by Andy Sternberg

Photo by Andy Sternberg

The history of populist uprisings like Occupy Wall Street isn’t a reassuring one. The last one to have any staying power was the populist farmers revolt of the 1800’s, and it was aggressively dismantled by everyone from the two major political parties to the banks and railroad corporations of its day.

Most revolts are snuffed out well before their efforts impact the political scene—not because their ideas and issues aren’t relevant, but because the major institutional players within the system-that-is rapidly attempt to snag the power and energy for their own. In the eyes of the Democratic Party or the national environmental groups, this revolt is merely seen as an opportunity to assimilate newly emerging troops back into those groups’ own ineffective organizing. After all, if those institutional groups have actually been effective all of these years, why the need for a revolt at all?

Our current system, in which a corporate minority wields a stranglehold over 99 percent of us, won’t change just because one bill is introduced into Congress, or promises are made by financial institutions.

It’s when these revolts become mainstreamed by their “friends” within existing institutions that they lose their steam, and become just one more footnote in an endless stream of footnotes of revolts that have burned out early. The pundits and “experts” are already trying to put this revolt in its place. A recent New York Times editorial declared that it “isn’t the job of these protesters to write legislation.” That, the editorial argued, was what the national politicians need to do. The Times couldn’t be more wrong.

If the Occupy movement is to succeed over time, it must follow the lead of community rights building efforts that have begun work to dismantle the body of law that perpetually subordinates people, community, and nature to wealthy corporate minorities. For example:

  • In November 2010, Pittsburgh’s city council stripped corporations seeking to drill for natural gas of their corporate personhood rights, protections of the commerce and contracts clauses of the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions, and the right to pre-empt community ordinances with federal or state law.
  • In March 2011, for the first time since Ecuador added rights for nature to its Constitution, a judge stopped destructive corporate development in a suit brought by ordinary residents on behalf of the Vilcabamba River.
  • This November, Spokane residents will vote on Proposition One which 1) grants neighborhoods complete control over local development, 2) affords rights and protections to the Spokane River and Aquifer, 3) grants Constitutional protections to employees in the workplace and 4) makes People’s right’s superior to corporate rights.

These communities, and many like them, have begun adopting Community Bills of Rights, which elevate the rights of people and nature above the rights of corporations. It’s not another exercise in putting out good-sounding statement, but a seizure of governmental lawmaking authority to make government work on behalf of a majority rather than continuing to serve as a colonized entity to corporations.

The Occupy movement must begin to use lawmaking activities in cities and towns to build a new legal structure of rights that empowers community majorities over corporate minorities.

Instead of diluting themselves to meet the needs of already-institutionalized groups who aren’t going anywhere, the Occupy folks must move in the opposite direction: deepening and strengthening their effort by demanding structural change in how the current system operates. That means moving away from the institutional advocacy promoted by mainstream progressive organizations (which has proven to be ineffective against the type of consolidated wealth that makes decisions about every aspect of our lives today) and towards a new form of advocacy and activism. Rather than negotiating the terms of our de-occupation, we must rewrite the very rules under which our system operates.

Fracking protest   Photo by Parker Waichman AlonsoCan communities reclaim the right to say no?
Many communities trying to avoid fracking, corporate farms, or big box stores find they don’t have the legal right. Their response? Take on the very structure of law.

Mainstream progressive groups have failed by constraining their activities within legal and regulatory systems purposefully structured to subordinate communities to corporate power. Transformative movements don’t operate that way. Abolitionists never sought to regulate the slave trade; they sought freedom and rights for slaves. Suffragists didn’t seek concessions but demanded the right for all women to vote. The Occupy movement must begin to use lawmaking activities in cities and towns to build a new legal structure of rights that empowers community majorities over corporate minorities, rather than the other way around.

It’s taken a century's worth of manufactured and concocted legal doctrines to allow corporations and their decision makers to wield not only our legislatures against us, but also our courts. Our country’s wealth inequality did not arise overnight, but emerged slowly as the corporate minority eviscerated almost every memory of a true democratic system.

They’ve built a system that not only allows those with the most wealth to have the most decision-making power, but one in which even our constitutional rights have now been bestowed onto corporate “persons,” thus insulating them from governing authority.

What’s been happening in communities such as Pittsburgh and Spokane since the early 2000s is a revolution that anchors itself in basic local lawmaking powers derived from our innate right to self-government. Residents of over a hundred rural American communities have now seized their local governments by using municipal lawmaking power to recognize rights for nature, to strip corporations of certain claimed rights, and to elevate community decision-making rights above the claimed “rights” of corporate decision makers. In the process, they’ve stopped everything from proposed corporate factory farms to natural gas “fracking” and corporate water withdrawals.

These communities have begun to understand that the specific issues that affect them cannot be solved without dismantling a structure of law, government, and culture that guarantees that corporate minorities will continue to make decisions on energy, agriculture, and resource extraction.

Occupy Wall Street must become Occupy New York City—with groups of New Yorkers seizing the City and its Boroughs and using the municipal entities to align their governing structures with their demands. That may mean eliminating corporate rights within the City, recognizing the rights of neighborhoods, and restoring labor rights within the workplace.

Occupy Seattle and Portland must actually occupy their municipalities via citizen initiatives and other processes to begin to change the law with which their cities operate by eliminating corporate rights and privileges.

Picture 3.jpgThe 99%, Rising
YES! Magazine's ongoing coverage of the movement that began with Occupy Wall Street.

This means understanding that our current system, in which a corporate minority wields a stranglehold over 99 percent of us, won’t change just because one bill is introduced into Congress, or promises are made by financial institutions. Structural change—focused on reversing who decides policies from energy to transportation to finance—must be forced. We must use our cities and towns to drive upwards against state and federal frameworks of law that protect decision-making authority by the one percent. It means that, in each of the cities where we live, we need to start working together to define the rights we need and then use those municipal structures to obtain them.

As winter nears, the Occupy movement should take note of community organizer’s Saul Alinsky’s observation in Rules for Radicals, “A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag." There may only be a brief window to convert street-level momentum into organized rights-legislating movements in each of our local communities. 


Thomas Linzey is the Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit law firm which provides legal assistance to communities struggling to protect community self-government and the natural environment from corporate decision-making. Jeff Reifman is co-founder of Envision Seattle, a rights-building effort modeled after CELDF’s work. He’s also a technologist, freelance writer and organizer. 

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