Challenging Corporate Power: California Community Says Companies Are Not People; Bans Campaign Donations
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In 2006, Humboldt County, California, became the latest, and largest, jurisdiction to abolish the legal doctrine known as "corporate personhood."
Measure T was successful because our all-volunteer campaign came together to pass a law that bans non-local corporations from participating in Humboldt elections. The referendum, which passed with 55 percent of the vote, also asserts that corporations cannot claim the First Amendment right to free speech.
By enacting Measure T, Humboldt County has committed an act of "municipal civil disobedience," intentionally challenging "settled law." But voters also recognize that Measure T is an act of common sense. We polled our community and found that 78 percent believe corruption is more likely if corporations participate in politics.
The Measure T campaign was led by women and young people, with critical support from elders and feminist men. This diverse leadership created a culture of cooperation and collaboration that permeated the campaign, and made it as much about community as about a win on election day. For example, the law itself was written using a consensus process, the advice of volunteers was valued just as highly as input from experts and consultants, and we organized numerous parties and social events to help spread the word.
The local Democratic and Green Parties formally endorsed the effort, and leaders of both worked arm-in-arm during the campaign. They were joined by organized labor and every peace, justice, and environmental protection group in the community. Humboldt County modeled a campaign carried out with respectful unity.
This effort did not spring up out of thin air. It was the result of years of old-fashioned community organizing by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County that included workshops and educational programs explaining how corporations have acquired more rights under the law than people have.
We designed the campaign with "big picture" goals in mind from the beginning. We knew we wanted to claim for our campaign the best and most noble ideals of American history--especially self-governance and protecting people's rights against abusive power. We realize that the founding of this country is deeply flawed, but we used the national creation story to put Measure T on the side of truth and justice.
To that end, our PAC was named the Humboldt Coalition for Community Rights, and our website was VoteLocalControl.org. Our primary outreach tool was a tea bag that reminded voters of the proud history of the Boston Tea Party as an act of rebellion against the most powerful corporation of the day, and called for a modern-day T(ea) Party of our own.
Like the populists of the 19th-century agrarian movement, we believe that genuine change cannot be imposed from the top down. It must proceed from the ground up, and the battles must be waged in local communities.
Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap is director of Democracy Unlimited, a fellow for Liberty Tree: Foundation for the Democratic Revolution, and a principal with the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. She was spokesperson and campaign co-manager for Measure T.