When You Fight the Devil, Fight to Win
Practically every progressive struggle -- campaign finance reform, rain forest destruction and global warming, sweatshops, family farms, fair trade, health care for all, unionization, military spending and arms sales, tax reform, alternative energy, healthy food, media access, hazardous waste dumps, redlining, alternative medicine, you name it -- is being fought against one cluster of corporations or another. But it is not that corporation over there or this one over here that is the enemy, it is not one industry's contamination of our drinking water or another's perversion of the lawmaking process that is the problem -- rather it is the corporation itself that must be addressed if we are to be a free people.At the national level, inside the Beltway, too many of our progressive energies and resources are spent on the piecemeal approach to fighting corporate abuses. It keeps us spread thin, separated from each other, on the defensive, riveted on the minutiae, and fighting on their terms (literally over the language of their laws and regulations, and in their courts and legislatures). More often than not, regulatory agencies are shams, working to sustain the business-as-usual tactics of corporations rather than to inhibit them, and the deck is stacked against the public interest anytime we find ourselves within these legalistic meat grinders.This is nothing new -- historian Howard Zinn writes about the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, a "reform" pushed by President Grover Cleveland, ostensibly to regulate railroads. But railroad executives were told not to worry by Richard Olney, a railroad lawyer who was soon to be Cleveland's attorney general: "The Commission ... is or can be made, of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of railroads, at the same time that its supervision is almost entirely nominal.... The part of wisdom is not to destroy the Commission, but to utilize it."Piecemeal battles must certainly continue, for there is real and immediate corporate harm to be addressed for people and communities. But it's time for our strategic emphasis to shift to the offensive, raising what I believe to be the central political issue for the new century: Who the hell is in charge here?It is an open question, despite the appearance that corporations have things pretty tightly locked down. Yes, they have the money, the media, the government, the two major parties, the police and military, and the deadening power of conventional wisdom. But so did King George III. We've been here before, we've done this, and we can do it again.We've got a couple of things going for our side in this historic struggle. For one thing, our constitutional assertion of citizen control of corporations is still there, as is much of the language in the state codes that formally subjugates corporations to us. As Richard Grossman has found in his years of digging, "We still have the authority to define the corporations through their charters; we still have the authority to amend the charters; we still have the authority to revoke the charters -- the language is still there. We still have the authority to rewrite the state corporation codes in order to order corporate executives to do what the sovereign people want to do." We have legal language and authority, a constitutional claim, a moral position firmly rooted in justice, and a powerful historic precedent that flows from the revolutionary patriots themselves.We also have the common sense and revolutionary chutzpah of grassroots American agitators going for us. The commonsense side says: There are laws in our country that proclaim to human criminals "three strikes and you're out" -- why not for corporations? Each year, hundreds of doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals have their licenses to practice permanently revoked by the states -- why not corporations? The Supreme Court has ruled that the corporation is a "person" under the law; people who murder are removed from society -- why not corporations?The chutzpah side says: Let's go get 'em. And they are! The national media have been practically mum about it, but there already is an important movement among the citizenry to begin reestablishing citizen control over charters. In Wayne, Pennsylvania, the locals passed a 1998 ordinance that prohibits any corporation from doing business there if it has a history of consistently violating laws to protect workers, consumers, the environment, and so forth. In Jay, Maine, a town of paperworkers, the people were fed up with the repeated pollution of their water and air by the recalcitrant International Paper Company, so they enacted the "Jay Environmental and Improvement Ordinance," which gives the town of Jay the authority to monitor and regulate pollution by IP's Androscoggin paper mill -- the townspeople have their own full-time environmental administrator with full authority to fine and shut down the mill for violations.In 1998, the people of South Dakota just said "no" to corporate hog factories in their state, voting by a sixty-to-forty margin for a constitutional amendment to prohibit corporations from owning livestock. Also in 1998, New York attorney general Dennis Vacco, a Republican, showed that the Council for Tobacco Research had acted fraudulently and illegally in pretending to do objective research when in fact it was nothing but a lobbyist and a front for the tobacco industry, leading to a settlement in which the council surrendered its corporate charter. The state's new attorney general, Democrat Elliott Spitzer, is expanding Vacco's initiative, considering all corporate charters fair game: "When a corporation is convicted of repeated felonies that harm or endanger the lives of human beings or destroy the environment, the corporation should be put to death, its corporate existence ended, and its assets taken and sold at public auction." He has hired a highly regarded public-interest attorney to oversee this effort.Meanwhile, in the small coastal town of Arcata, California, there has been a remarkable two-year effort to put the issue of corporate usurpation of democratic authority into the public debate again. It began with Paul Cienfuegos, Gary Houser, and a few others, who organized Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County, which in 1998 launched a citizens campaign to get on the ballot a local initiative called Measure F: Advisory Measure on Democracy and Corporations. After a few straightforward whereases about the sovereign power of people to govern themselves, the Measure resolved that "the people of Arcata support the amending of the California Constitution so as to clearly declare the authority of citizens over all corporations." The proposition then included a couple of practical steps that, very smartly, took a slow and minimalist approach toward advancing citizen sovereignty in Arcata, establishing a process for democratic discussion in town that could move people along, but not before they were ready to move. First was a simple provision that, if Measure F passed, the city council would sponsor two town hall meetings on this topic: "Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under law?" Second was for the city government to create an official committee to develop policies and programs to assert democratic control over corporations doing business in Arcata.The citizens campaign hit the streets, and in just twenty-six days got the signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot. They gained key endorsements from Arcata mayor Jim Test and groups like the central labor council and students at Humboldt State University, and they delivered materials to the doors of nearly every household and business in this town of about seventeen thousand people. In the November 1998 election, their effort paid off: Measure F passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Since then, this town has been having what every town, city, neighborhood, and village green needs -- a heart-to-heart airing out of the basic question of "Who's in charge?" Ralph Nader visited in 1999 in support of citizen control, likening Arcata's democracy dialogue to the ride of Paul Revere. On the other side, Kenneth Fisher, a Forbes magazine columnist and a financial speculator, gave a lecture entitled "Societal Ethics Are Always Unethical," bemoaning Measure F as an example of the "tyranny of democracy."Then came the town hall meetings in April and May of 1999, which produced a turnout of more than six hundred people, far surpassing expectations. The opposition had been active, too, working hard to turn out a pro-corporatist crowd, led by a couple of very vocal officials with the Yakima Corporation, which is based in the area but manufactures at a Mexican border factory. The proceedings were structured so both sides made two presentations of eight minutes each -- then the floor was open to the people. The freewheeling discussions went long past the set time, putting the lie to conventional wisdom that insists people are too busy, too satisfied, too uninformed, too unconcerned, too prosperous, too conservative, too short, too stupid, too whatever to get involved with something as "boring" as their own democracy. Overwhelmingly, participants favored Measure F, and the town's people are now at work on developing the policies and programs for city hall that will put the well-being of the community above corporate whim on issues ranging from chain stores bankrupting local businesses to industry polluting the town's air and water. Whatever the outcome at city hall, the effort already has accomplished something extraordinarily important: It has launched a citywide democratic conversation on a subject that hasn't been discussed in public for a century. Cienfuegos notes that thousands of local residents are now conversant with corporate rule and how it impacts their lives. It's a conversation that has become common in the cafes, Laundromats, in line at the post office, and elsewhere -- literally taking root in the culture of the community. The groundbreaking work in Arcata continues, and it is spreading to other California towns, and to places like Olympia, Washington.The experts, of course, predict that these citizen uprisings won't succeed, but the experts have a long history of being spectacularly wrong. Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky have documented this in wonderful detail in their fun book, The Experts Speak, which includes these glorious samples of missed predictions:"Just so-so in center field." -- New York Daily News, May 26, 1951, after the major-league debut of Willie Mays"Displays no trace of imagination, good taste or ingenuity. I say it's a stinkeroo." -- New Yorker film critic, 1939, reviewing The Wizard of Oz "The singer will have to go." -- The new manager of the Rolling Stones, 1963, referring to Mick JaggerA great thing about the American people is that we are an optimistic, can-do bunch that will not be deterred by being told something cannot be achieved. Robert Benson is a good example of this spirited stubbornness: "I came to the conclusion sometime ago that things happen when someone does the work, so the point is to just do the work." He's a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and he has been a driving force (along with Ronnie Dugger, who cochairs the grassroots Alliance for Democracy organization) behind a national effort to revoke the charter of Unocal -- the Union Oil Company of California. Benson has done a lot of work and made a lot happen by compiling a long rap sheet on this notorious and recidivist corporate reprobate. Benson's dossier on Unocal includes a pattern and practice of polluting the locations where it operates (the company itself notes that it is named as a potentially responsible party in eighty-two Superfund or similar toxic sites in this country alone), the mistreatment of its employees (it has been cited for hundreds of workplace safety and health violations just in the past decade), and complicity in gross human-rights violations through its operations and working relationship with the repressive totalitarian regimes in Afghanistan and Burma (although pressure from this charter revocation effort and others has since forced Unocal to withdraw from Afghanistan). Prepared with the help of the National Lawyers Guild, the Unocal petition was not a political tract but a serious legal filing, alleging ten separate counts, citing twenty-four state and federal laws, forty-five cases, forty international laws, fourteen scholarly legal writings, and dozens of other relevant materials.Unocal announced in 1996 that it "no longer considers itself as a U.S. company." But it is chartered in California, it operates here, and its major market is the good ol' USA, so a broad coalition of some 150 people and organizations (from the Feminist Majority Foundation to the Surfers Environmental Alliance, from pastors to professors, from the Green Party to Greenpeace, from business to labor, from city council members to state legislators) have joined the effort, asking the California attorney general to use the statutory authority that has long lain ignored in his desk drawer -- the authority "to procure a judgment [from state court] dissolving the corporation."The very filing of the citizens' petition in September 1998 scared the constipation out of Dan Lungren, the Republican AG who was running for governor at the time. Benson reports that "Lungren's office went into a comical panic," calling the California Highway Patrol the night before the coalition was to hold a press conference at the attorney general's branch office in Los Angeles. He had the state police warn Benson, Dugger, and group not to appear because a permit was needed to have a press conference on state property. That was about as effective as calling "time-out" in a cattle stampede. Undeterred, the group held its press conference. Lungren's spokeswoman immediately responded that the AG had no authority to revoke charters. But -- oops! -- it was pointed out to her that section 803 of the code of civil procedure not only allows him to act but says he "must bring action" whenever he has "reason to believe" a corporation has violated the law. Well, she said, we'll need several months to study it, which conveniently would put the matter on the shelf until well past Lungren's election fight.But that couldn't have pleased Unocal executives, who would have wanted this dicey bit of legal unpleasantness bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer on the spot. Sure enough, three business days later, Lungren suddenly dispatched a four-sentence letter to the coalition, the operative phrase of which was: "We decline to institute legal proceedings." He didn't bother offering an explanation. In response, the petitioners lambasted him far and wide for being "selectively soft" on crime.But wait a minute, here came the Lone Stranger riding to the rescue! Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, was elected attorney general six weeks later to replace Lungren (who also had his gubernatorial ambitions thwarted by the voters). After taking office, Lockyer declared that he wanted to be known as a "Teddy Roosevelt" in taking on corporate criminals. So Benson and the coalition saddled up as Rough Riders and resubmitted their Unocal petition to "Teddy" Lockyer. Last May, the Democrat bested the Republican AG by rejecting the petition in only three sentences, including the exact same phrase used by the Republican: "We decline to institute legal proceedings." Again, no explanation. Benson called the AG's office and learned that the professional staff that normally analyzes such requests for action had never seen the coalition's filing against Unocal. Pressed by the coalition (which includes some prominent Democratic officeholders), Lockyer finally tried to explain his reasoning in an August letter that showed a breathtaking ignorance of the petition, of the issues raised, and, most shockingly, of his authority and responsibility under California law. The letter is three paragraphs of blah-blah-blah, punctuated by this courageous stand on policing corporate charters: "It's simply not my job." Who needs Republican enemies when we've got such Democratic "friends"?The coalition continues to organize, using the Unocal petition to teach more citizens not only about this scofflaw company but more importantly about their own right to control all corporations. The legal process also continues, as does the political -- public meetings will be held, with Lockyer invited, to educate the AG about his "job," and billboards are planned bearing the new attorney general's mug and the cutline: "Lockyer. Soft on Corporate Crime." Patronizing politicians like him make a mistake if they think they're getting away with anything or that this democracy movement will go away. Pols who misread the seriousness, preparedness, cleverness, and fighting spirit of people like Benson and Dugger remind me of Gen. John Sedgwick, the Union commander whose last words at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864 were: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist -- "