Categories Archives: Education

When the State Pushes Back

An interview with Kai Huschke, CELDF / Read the Dirt

An interview with Kai Huschke, CELDF / Read the Dirt

Editor’s Note: We speak with Kai Huschke, the NW and Hawai’i Organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund—working to pass Community Bills of Rights that elevate local law and rights above corporate rights. Local initiatives he advised have recently received state-level push-backs. The backlash in Washington State, for example, overturned over 100 years of Washington State legal precedent.

Simon Davis-Cohen: Over a hundred years of Washington State legal precedent has recently been overturned in response to local citizen initiatives you have played an advising role on. Never before had laws in Washington been subject to judicial review before they became law. Using this new tactic, opponents of Bellingham’s, and more recently Spokane’s, Community Bill of Rights have successfully blocked initiatives from appearing on local ballots. Why aren’t you surprised?

Kai Huschke: It is in these kinds of moments you see the system for what it is in full force, that it has been designed to protect commerce and property interests over rights. In the Bellingham and Spokane cases, the courts said that it is more important to defend corporate interests’ speculative claims of damages rather than uphold the right of the people to vote.

That sounds shocking, and it should be to folks, but why it’s not surprising is that the structure has been built to respond to peoples’ attempts to gain more say over what happens in their community. In Bellingham it was BNSF railroad saying you can’t say no to coal trains because it goes against the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. In Spokane it was the local Chamber of Commerce, Homebuilders Association, and developers arguing to the judge that you can’t expand rights to residents to decide what happens development-wise in their neighborhoods, institute greater protections for the Spokane River, or expand basic rights for workers, because the local government doesn’t have that authority.

It’s not surprising because the people supporting the Community Bill of Rights in Spokane have always understood that the right to self-government is a complete fantasy. That without taking down the structure we have today – programmed to ignore the rights of people and nature – we should expect more of these kinds of decisions that smash direct democracy.

SDC: In Oregon a similar backlash is taking place—against local efforts to ban genetically modified crops. Oregon’s Governor and State Legislature have taken steps (Senate Bill 863) to remove from localities all governing power over genetically modified crops. How does this illuminate the power structure that already exists in Oregon and other states?

KH: The Oregon Legislature just recently completed the dirty work on behalf of some of the largest corporate agricultural companies in the world by adopting a new law that chokes off any local control over seed for farming. This action shines a big fat light on the fact that a functioning, healthy right to self-government in Oregon communities does not exist. It is the same game that has played out in many other ways in Oregon’s ongoing history and is the way that things play out all over the country.

The corporate interests use the structure of government to drive in preemptive law that functions to crush any semblance of democracy at the community level. The system is very clear that it is about protecting—no matter the costs to people, communities, and the environment—decision making staying in the hands of a few over the best interest of the majority. The few are mainly large corporations that have been expanding this system of preemption as well as guarding against attacks from the people for the last 150 years.

SDC: Both tactics to prevent local bills of rights from being passed argue that certain issues are not within localities’ jurisdiction to govern. What are these issues and why do you think they are within local jurisdiction?

KH: There are a number of things at play around the question of authority. The two clearest elements are state preemption and Dillon’s Rule. State preemption says that some body at the state or possibly the local level (as defined by the state) has all power over certain issues. This means when residents want the right to decide how major development will proceed in their neighborhoods they are denied that right because another entity preempts them. The same scenario can be applied when talking about environmental protections or worker rights. The people and even local government are not allowed to exercise their right to expand rights protections against what the state has claimed it has the authority to regulate.

With Dillon’s Rule it is about the local government only being able to address issues that the state says it can. All power of the local government comes from the state. Powers can be given and powers can be taken away. Spokane, Bellingham, or whatever city you live in, your local government is basically a child to the parent that is the state. The child only can do what the parent allows.

Preemption and Dillon’s Rule fly directly in the face of what the Washington State Constitution says in Article 1, Section 1: “All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.”

The question has always been about (once you realize that what we’ve been told or taught about democracy, self-government, and protecting nature is false) what we are willing to do to change the structure in order to actually elevate and protect the rights of people, neighborhoods, workers, and nature over corporate pursuits.

SDC: In what ways are communities in Washington and Oregon alone? In what ways are they a part of something larger?

KH: Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Washington, and Oregon have launched statewide community rights networks aimed at supporting local efforts to secure the right to self-government. These five states are also looking at making state constitutional change that would further recognize self-governmental power, eliminate corporate rights, and protect nature’s rights. Ohio will launch the next community rights network, with states like Colorado, Hawai’i, Maine, and Iowa considering doing the same.

Individually at the community level and collectively at the state and federal level, it is understood that we have a structural governmental problem that has to be corrected. Without doing so, the local level assaults by corporations and state governments will continue to escalate. The 160 communities who have passed new law that recognize community rights not corporate rights are the blue prints for what local government should look like as well as what state and federal constitutional change could look like.

In addition the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has drafted both state and constitutional changes for a variety of states so a very real and very needed discussion can happen around shifting our energy away from issue fights within a rigged system and start to seriously build towards the structural change necessary to incorporate all the issues. More information can be found in the “State Law Center” section of the CELDF website. http://celdf.org/community-rights-state-law-center

SDC: Why is the right of local self-governance important for American grassroots movements?

KH: It is the essence of what American grassroots movements have been about. It was practiced all across the country at various times in our history. It was the major driving force behind the Revolutionaries, encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence and later attempted to be put into practice through the Articles of Confederation.

Rightfully so, the idea of self-governance is fronted as to what it means to be American. The community rights efforts of today are the grassroots to institute true self-government. They are built on the foundation of communities being empowered to elevate civil, political, economic, and environmental rights as they see fit.

Local self-government is the bedrock element. Partnered closely to it is the reality that corporate “rights” must be abolished and that nature’s rights must be recognized. This system change only happens if it comes from the bottom up, is built by the people, and the people move unapologetically forward to make this a reality.

The system we have today is not ours. It is not the legitimate system of the people. It is an unjust system. It is time that the people put in place a legitimate system of governance that protects the rights of people, communities, and nature first and foremost. That only happens when we actually start practicing local self-governance.

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Originally posted by ReadtheDirt.org here.

Earth At Risk: Thomas Linzey

Our planet is under serious threat from industrial civilization. Yet environmentalists have not considered strategies that might actually prevent the looming biotic collapse the Earth is facing. Until, Earth at Risk.

EARTH AT RISK was a conference convened by acclaimed author Derrick Jensen, featuring seven thinkers and activists who are willing to ask the hardest questions about the seriousness of our situation. Each of the speakers presents an impassioned critique of the dominant culture. Together they build an unassailable case that we need to deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor, and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. They offer their ideas on what can be done to build a real resistance movement – one that can actually match the scale of the problem.

This film series will present the interviews of each of the seven thinkers, including Derrick Jensen, Stephanie McMillan, Lierre Keith, Arundhati Roy, Thomas Linzey, Aric McBay, and Waziyatawin, followed by an in-depth group discussion of each of the ideas presented.

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In our first installment, we welcome you to watch the interview with Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

CELDF has worked with hundreds of communities across the United States and the world facing unwanted corporate development projects such as chemical trespass, factory farms, gas drilling and fracking, mining, and sewage sludge. CELDF has now become the principal advisor to activists, community groups, and municipal governments struggling to transition from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over corporations.

In November 2010, CELDF worked with the City of Pittsburgh to become the first community in the nation to ban hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

In this interview, Thomas Linzey presents the CELDF model and discusses how communities can dismantle corporate “rights” by recognizing and asserting the rights of their community and the rights of nature.

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This event is free and open to the public. For space accommodation please be sure to RSVP. If you have any questions, need directions, or need any further information, please contact us at dgrnewyork@riseup.net

Monday, September 30th, 2013
7pm – 9 pm

Bellevue Hospital: Room A-342
462 1st Avenue
(between East 26th/28th)

Practice First, Then Theory: The Zapatista Little School

By Kristin Bricker / CIP Americas Program

By Kristin Bricker / CIP Americas Program

The first night of my homestay during the Zapatista Little School, my guardian and her husband asked if their students had any questions.  My classmate and I both had experience working with the Zapatistas, so we politely limited ourselves to the safe questions that are generally acceptable when visiting rebel territory: questions about livestock, crops, local swimming holes, and anything else that doesn’t touch on sensitive information about the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).

My guardian’s husband patiently answered our mundane questions. Then he said, “Look, we entered into clandestinity in 1983, when the organization was just being formed. We walked hours at night to organize other towns, always at night so that the plantation owners wouldn’t get suspicious, and we went into the brush to train. My wife risked her life walking at night to bring bags of tostadas to the camps so that the insurgents would have food to eat during training. Now, do you have any other questions?”

My classmate and I looked at each other, our eyes seeming to say the same thing: “Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be at the Zapatista Little School.” Then our questions began in earnest, and our guardians and their neighbors enthusiastically answered every single one.

Setting the Record Straight

The Zapatistas made the decision to open up their homes to their long-time supporters and teach them about their past, present, errors, victories, and advances for several reasons. During the Little School, Zapatistas repeatedly said that they hoped their supporters could learn from their experiences.

“Self-governance… is possible. If we achieved it with just a few compañeros and compañeras, why not with thousands or millions?” asked a Zapatista woman from Oventik. “We hope you’ll tell us if our practice, our experience with self-governance is in some way useful for you.”

“Many people think that what we’re doing, our form of governance, is a utopia, a dream,” said another Zapatista in Oventik. “For us Zapatistas, it is a reality because we’ve been doing it… through daily practice over the past 19 years. And that is why we think that if we join together with millions of Mexicans, we can form our own governments.”

Years ago, a Zapatista told me that they often learn more from their mistakes than from their victories. In that spirit, the Little School curriculum includes brutally honest discussions about errors the Zapatistas have committed over the years. For example, the textbooks include a frank discussion about the demise of the Mut Vitz coffee cooperative in 2007. Even though the cooperative’s sudden, unexplained closure was felt throughout the United States and Europe when roasters suddenly found themselves without a source of Zapatista coffee, the Zapatistas had not explained the reasons for Mut Vitz’s downfall until now.

In the Little School textbooks, Roque, a former member of the cooperative and current member of the San Juan de la Libertad Autonomous Municipal Council in Oventik, reveals that mismanagement and corruption ultimately lead to Mut Vitz’s demise. The cooperative had hired an outside accountant who, for reasons unknown to the cooperative members, did not accurately declare Mut Vitz’s assets to Mexico’s tax agency, which allowed the government to freeze their bank account. As Mut Vitz underwent an internal audit to determine what money the cooperative had left outside of the frozen account to pay producers who had supplied coffee on credit pending its sale, the Oventik Good Government Council discovered that members of the Mut Vitz board of directors were stealing money from the cooperative. The Council issued an order to arrest the guilty parties and seized some of their assets to replace the money they had stolen.

The Zapatistas also hoped to use the Little School to set the record straight about the state of their movement. They read the news, and they told students that they know the corporate media reports that Zapatismo is a dying movement, that the Zapatistas have turned their guns over to the government, that Subcomandante Marcos died of lung cancer or was fired, that the Comandancia (the Zapatista military leadership) meets secretly with the “bad government” and accepts millions of pesos from it, and that the Zapatistas are closet communists, amongst other baseless claims.

Furthermore, the Zapatistas admit that there have been traitors, compañeros who left the organization and collaborated with the government. As one European activist said at the end of the Little School, “I think they realized that it had gotten to the point where Mexico’s security agencies knew more about how the Zapatistas’ government works than their own civil society supporters did, so they decided to let us in on what they’ve been up to.”

The Zapatistas’ civilian government is, after all, not clandestine, and non-Zapatista indigenous people routinely use its clinics, justice system, public transportation permits, and other services that they can’t seem to obtain through the Mexican government. Moreover, any non-Zapatista—be it the bad government or another indigenous organization—that wants to develop an infrastructure project that passes through Zapatista territory (roads or electricity, for example) must negotiate with the Zapatistas’ “good government” and therefore understands how it is structured. With the Little School, the Zapatistas have officially and for the record explained exactly how their government works.

Perhaps one of the Little School’s most important benefits for the Zapatistas occurred during its preparation. The Little School’s four textbooks, Autonomous Government part I and II, Women’s Participation in the Autonomous Government, and Autonomous Resistance, as well as the two DVDs that accompany the books, were all created by Zapatistas themselves. The textbooks are the result of Zapatistas from all five caracoles (Zapatista government centers) traveling to regions other than their own to collect testimonies and interview fellow Zapatistas about how they self-govern.

The Zapatistas’ bottom-up approach to government means that while all of the caracoles operate under the same basic principles and towards the same goals, their day-to-day operations sometimes differ drastically. For example, every caracol has a Good Government Board, the maximum governing body in the region. However, each caracol’s Board is structured differently. Many of the Zapatistas’ questions to their compañeros from other caracoles in the interview portion of the textbooks revolved around their experiences and what has worked and what has not.

For example, a Board member from Oventik asked former Board members from Morelia, “Are the twelve members of the [Morelia] Board able to do all of their work? Because in Caracol II [Oventik] there’s 28 of us, and sometimes we feel overwhelmed.” The Morelia Zapatistas’ response was that they, too, are overwhelmed, and they feel the need to restructure the Board, but they have been unable to come up with a better proposal thus far.

Governing from Below

When the Zapatistas rose up in arms in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, they knew they wanted freedom and autonomy. “But we didn’t have a guide or a plan to tell us how to do it,” a Zapatista education promoter explained to me. “For us, it’s practice first, then theory.”

While part of the EZLN drove rich landowners off of their plantations in the Chiapan countryside in the pre-dawn hours of New Year’s day, other contingents took seven major cities around the state. “All that we’ve accomplished was thanks to our weapons that opened up the path that we are walking down today,” explains a Zapatista from Oventik on a Little School DVD. “[Since then] everything that we have achieved, we have achieved without firing a single shot.”

Immediately following the uprising, the Zapatistas implemented autonomous government at the town level. Each town named its local authorities and formed an assembly. “But since we were at war, we kept losing local authorities,” explains Lorena, a health promoter from San Pedro de Michoacán in La Realidad. “There was disorder in the communities.” As a stopgap measure, the EZLN’s military leadership had to step up and fulfill roles that civilian authorities were unable to carry out during the chaos of the war.

The military leadership held consultations with civilian authorities, and together they decided to create autonomous municipalities in order to bring order and civilian governance to the rebel territory. In December 1994, the Zapatistas inaugurated 38 autonomous municipalities comprised of an undisclosed number of towns. Each autonomous municipality had its own municipal council named by the towns, allowing for increased coordination between towns and more formal organization of civilian affairs.

As solidarity activists began to arrive in Zapatista territory to donate money and labor, the EZLN’s command realized that some municipalities were receiving more support than other, more isolated ones. “At [the command’s] urging, the municipal councils met and began to hold assemblies to start to see how each municipality was doing, what support each was receiving, what projects were being carried out,” explains Doroteo, a former member of La Realidad’s Good Government Board.

In 1997, the Zapatistas formalized the assemblies of municipal councils by creating the Association of Autonomous Municipalities, comprised of representatives from each autonomous municipality. “With the association of municipalities, tasks and work in health, education, and commerce were overseen,” recalls Doroteo. “During that time a dry goods warehouse was created… with the idea of [economically] supporting the full-time workers in the [Zapatista] hospital in San José del Río.”

During the creation of the Association of Autonomous Municipalities, the Zapatistas formally redistributed the land they had taken over in the 1994 uprising. Landless Zapatistas left the communities in which they were born to settle on recuperated land they could finally call their own, fulfilling revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata’s creed, “The land belongs to those who work it.”

In 2003, the Zapatistas inaugurated the third level of their autonomous government, the five Good Government Boards, located in La Realidad, Oventik, La Garrucha, Morelia, and Roberto Barrios. However, the organization of higher levels of government does not mean that the Zapatistas are moving further away from direct democracy through local assemblies. On the contrary, all proposals must be approved by town assemblies.

Proposals can originate in town assemblies and work their way up the different levels of autonomous government if they affect more than just the town in which they originated. The proposals pass through the municipal councils, which then brings approved proposals to the Good Government Council, which then runs them by the command, which then sends the proposals back down through the five Good Government Boards, which send them to the municipal councils, which in turn send the proposals to the people at the town level for consultation and implementation.

The command can also create its own proposals and send them down through the three levels of civilian government to the town assemblies for consultation and approval. Therefore, even though the Good Government Boards are the highest level of the autonomous government, they have no authority to create laws. The Boards are limited to two main roles: to coordinate and promote work in their regions and to enforce and carry out Zapatista laws and mandates that have already been approved by the people.

Because the Zapatistas constructed their government from the bottom up, with people organizing themselves into community assemblies, which in turn organized municipal councils, which in turn organized the five Good Government Boards, every Caracol is different. All work to implement the Zapatistas’ demands: land, housing, health, education, work, food, justice, democracy, culture, independence, freedom, and peace. However, the Zapatistas’ progress in implementing those demands varies from Caracol to Caracol. Some Caracols, such as La Garrucha, have collective economic projects such as stores or cattle to fund political activities at each of the three levels of government; other Caracols like Oventik only have collective economic projects in some towns.

Likewise, methods and success in implementing the Zapatistas’ Revolutionary Women’s Law varies. Morelia, for example, struggles to find ways to promote women’s participation in the higher levels of autonomous government. However, Morelia is unique amongst the Caracols because its Honor and Justice Commission (the judicial system) has a special plan for dealing with rape that aims to reduce re-victimization and encourage women to report crimes.

Constant Progress

Many have referred to recent Zapatista mobilizations such as their December 21, 2012, silent march and the creation of the Little School as a Zapatista “resurgence.” The Little School left one thing very clear: this is not a resurgence, because the Zapatistas never went away. During the school, students learned about the seemingly endless new cooperatives, the Zapatistas’ experiments in collective governance that are always being fine-tuned, and how donations from supporters were invested in livestock and warehouses so that they would pay dividends that would provide a steady long-term budget for hospitals and clinics.

The Little School’s lesson is clear: if the Zapatistas aren’t talking to the press, don’t commit the error of thinking that they are losing steam or have faded away. They are simply working extremely hard to advance their autonomy, and are too busy to get bogged down in countering the naysayers.

After all, their success is measured in their achievements and not their rhetoric. As one Zapatista man said at the end of a Little School class in Oventik, “We are demonstrating to the bad government that we don’t want it and we don’t need it, and it’s not necessary, for us to provide for ourselves.”

Kristin Bricker is a reporter in Mexico. She is a contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

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Originally posted by CIP Americas here.