How Activists Can 'Occupy' Their Cities with New Legal Structures That Empower Communities Over Corporations
When communities try to keep corporations from engaging in activities they don’t want, they often find they don’t have the legal power to say “no.” Why? Because our current legal structure too often protects the “rights” of corporations over the rights of actual human beings.
If we are to elevate our rights and the rights of our communities above those of a corporate few, we, too, need to transform the way laws work.
As we wrote in Turning Occupation into Lasting Change, mainstream progressive groups have failed by constraining their activities within legal and regulatory systems purposefully structured to subordinate communities to corporate power. Truly effective movements don’t operate that way. Abolitionists never sought to regulate the slave trade; they sought to transform the legal structure that supported it by treating slaves as property rather than people under the law. Suffragists did the same with the legal status of women.This style of organizing moves away from traditional activism—mired in letter writing campaigns and lowest common denominator federal and state legislation—toward a new activism in which communities claim the right to make their own decisions, directly.
To help them do so, we’re offering the model Community Bill of Rights template below, a legislative template for communities that want to protect their own rights. It’s based on real laws already passed from the municipal to the national level—from Pittsburgh stripping drilling corporations of Constitutional “rights” to Ecuador including legal rights for nature in its Constitution. Think of the template as a menu to pick and choose what’s important in your community. It’s meant to provide a framework and a starting point, not necessarily to be used in its entirety.
Passing a new bill of rights is a way for activists to “occupy” their cities with new legal structures that empower community majorities over corporate minorities, rather than the other way around.
Community Bill of Rights of [your city]
Section 1 - Authorityâ€¨â€¨
This Community Bill of Rights is enacted pursuant to the inherent right of the residents of the City of [your city] to govern their own community, including, without limitation, the Declaration of Independence’s declaration that governments are instituted to secure the rights of people, and the [your state] Constitution’s recognition that all political power is inherent in the people.
Section 2 - Findings and Purposeâ€¨â€¨
Whereas, the citizens of [your city] recognize that environmental and economic sustainability cannot be achieved if the rights of municipal majorities are routinely overridden by corporate minorities claiming certain legal powers; andâ€¨â€¨Whereas, the citizens of [your city] believe that local legislation that embodies the interests of the community is mandated by the doctrine of the consent of the governed, and the right to local, community self-government;â€¨â€¨Whereas, the citizens of [your city] believe that the protection of residents, neighborhoods, and the natural environment constitutes the highest and best use of the police powers that this municipality possesses;â€¨â€¨Therefore, the residents of the city of [your city] hereby adopt this ordinance which creates a community bill of rights for the residents and communities of the City, and removes certain legal powers from corporations operating within the City of [your city].
Section 3 - Statements of Law - A Community Bill of Rightsâ€¨
3.1. The Right to a Locally-Based Economy
Residents have the right to a locally-based economy to ensure local job creation and enhance local business opportunities. The right shall include the right to have local monies reinvested locally by lending institutions, and the right to equal access to capital, credit, contracts, incentives, and services for businesses owned by [your city] residents.
3.2. The Right To Affordable And Safe Housingâ€¨
Residents have the right to affordable housing, the right to a safely-maintained dwelling, and the right to be free from housing discrimination. The City shall ensure the availability of low-income housing stock sufficient to meet the needs of the low-income housing community. People and families may only be denied renting or buying of a dwelling for non-discriminatory reasons and may only be evicted from their residence for non-discriminatory causes.
â€¨â€¨3.3. The Right To Affordable Preventive Health Careâ€¨
Residents have the right to affordable preventive health care. For residents otherwise unable to access such care, the City shall guarantee such access by coordinating with area health care providers to create affordable fee-for-service programs within eighteen (18) months following adoption of this provision.
3.4. Rights for Nature
Ecosystems and natural communities within the City of [your city] possess inalienable rights to exist and flourish. The rights of rivers, streams, and aquifers shall include the right to sustainable recharge, flows sufficient to protect native fish habitat, and clean water. The City of [your city] and any resident of the City or group of residents have standing to enforce and protect these rights.
3.5. Right to Waterâ€¨
All residents, natural communities and ecosystems in [your city] possess a fundamental and inalienable right to sustainably access, use, consume, and preserve water drawn from natural water cycles that provide water necessary to sustain life within the City.
3.6. Right to Sustainable Food Systemâ€¨
All residents of [your city] possess a fundamental and inalienable right to access, use, consume, produce and distribute foods generated from sustainable farming practices, and to be free of infection, or infestation or drift by any means, from genetically engineered life forms or genetically modified organisms.
3.7. The Right To Affordable And Renewable Energyâ€¨
Residents have the right to access affordable and renewable energy sources.
3.8. Right to Constitutional Protections in the Workplace
Employees shall possess United States and [your state] Bill of Rights’ constitutional protections in the workplace within the City of [your city], and workers in unionized workplaces shall possess the right to collective bargaining.
3.9. Right to Determine the Future of Neighborhoods
Neighborhood majorities shall have the right to approve all zoning changes proposed for their neighborhood involving significant commercial, industrial, or residential development. It shall be the responsibility of the proposer of the zoning change to acquire the approval of the neighborhood majority, and the zoning change shall not be effective without it.
3.10. Right to a Free, Open and Accessible Internetâ€¨
(a) All residents of the City of [your city] shall possess the right to a free and open internet, which shall include, but not be limited to, the right to access, use, send, post, receive, or offer lawful content, applications, or services of the user’s choice.â€¨â€¨
(b) All residents of the City of [your city] shall possess the right to be free from provider service and performance level discrimination based on the identity, source or type of individual content or service providers.
3.11. Right to a Citizen Managed and Accountable Police Forceâ€¨
All residents of the City of [your city] have a right to a police force managed by a civilian police chief held fully accountable by an elected panel of citizens.
3.12. Right to Clean and Fair Elections Free from Corporate Interferenceâ€¨
Residents of [your city] possess the right to fair elections, which shall include the right to an electoral process free from corporate involvement.
3.13. Right to Clean Governmentâ€¨
Residents of [your city] have the right to clean government, which shall include the right to a City legislative process free from corporate lobbying and involvement.
3.14. Right to Marriage Equality
Residents of [your city] have the right to gender-neutral marriages for both same- and opposite-sex couples.
â€¨â€¨Section 4 - Prohibitions and Corporate Legal Privileges â€¨
4.1. Prohibition on Corporate Personhood and Privilegesâ€¨
Corporations and other business entities which violate the rights secured by this Community Bill of Rights shall not be deemed to be “persons,” afforded by the United States and [your state] Constitutions, nor possess any other legal rights, privileges, powers, or protections which would interfere with the enforcement of rights enumerated by this Charter.
4.2. Ban on Electioneering
It shall be unlawful for any corporation to make a contribution or expenditure to influence any election within the City of [your city].
4.3. Ban on Lobbying
It shall be unlawful for any corporation to communicate with an elected official within the City of [your city] urging support or opposition to pending legislation. This ban shall not be construed to prohibit open forum communications between corporate lobbyists and elected officials.
Section 5 - People’s Right to Self Governmentâ€¨
All residents of [your city] possess the fundamental and inalienable right to a form of governance where they live which recognizes that all power is inherent in the people, that all free governments are founded on the people’s authority and consent, and that corporate entities and their directors and managers shall not enjoy special privileges or powers under the law which make community majorities subordinate to them.
Section 6 - Enforcementâ€¨
6.1. The City of [your city] may enforce this Community Bill of Rights through an action in equity brought in the [your court of jurisdiction]. In such an action, the City of [your city] shall be entitled to recover all costs of litigation, including, without limitation, expert and attorney’s fees.
6.2. Any resident of [your city] shall have the authority to enforce this Community Bill of Rights through an action in equity brought in the [your court of jurisdiction]. In such an action, the resident shall be entitled to recover all costs of litigation, including, without limitation, expert and attorney’s fees.
Section 7 - Severabilityâ€¨
The provisions of this Community Bill of Rights are severable. If any court of competent jurisdiction decides that any section, clause, sentence, part, or provision of this Ordinance is illegal, invalid, or unconstitutional, such decision shall not affect, impair, or invalidate any of the remaining sections, clauses, sentences, parts, or provisions of the Community Bill of Rights.
Section 8 - Repealerâ€¨
All inconsistent provisions of prior Ordinances adopted by the City of [your city] are hereby repealed, but only to the extent necessary to remedy the inconsistency.
This model was developed by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. You can learn more about CELDF’s theory of change, its democracy school educational programs on corporate power and its global organizing efforts for community rights at their website: www.celdf.org.
Thomas Linzey and Jeff Reifman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. 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.