Paul Cienfuegos presented the Keynote Speech at Progresstival in La Crosse, Wisconsin on February 3rd, 2018. The full text of his speech is below. To listen to it on audio, click HERE and scroll to the six-minute mark.
Thank you all for inviting me to such a wonderful event today. It’s a pleasure to be here with you. And especially thank you to Cathy Van Maren who has done so much of the organizing work for both today’s event and also for the Community Rights Introductory Workshop that I’ll be leading tomorrow afternoon at your local Food Coop.
Although I have never led a workshop or talk in La Crosse before today, I am not at all a newcomer to your area. Since 2013, I’ve been criss-crossing the Driftless region every couple of months, introducing the Community Rights movement strategy to people in Gays Mills and Viroqua and Sparta and Tomah and Eau Claire and Whitehall and Ettrick and Winona and Decorah and Waukon and many other communities as well.
I’m here today to provoke you to think about your own local activism, and to ask you whether it is as effective as it could be, in this crisis moment that we find ourselves in, in 2018, not only with a scary guy in the White House, but also a fast-growing climate crisis and health care crisis and agricultural crisis and energy crisis and safe water crisis, etc. No shortage of crises swirling all around us these days, so it’s more important than ever that our own activism is as impactful as it can possibly be.
We in the Community Rights movement believe that We the People would be so much more impactful in our activism if we understood that our mostly-single-issue mostly-crisis-response focus is never actually going to tackle the larger structural problems that make these single issue crises inevitable. So what I’m going to say to you today – in the short amount of time that I have – might make you feel somewhat uncomfortable, but I hope it’ll be a useful kind of uncomfortable.
Here are three examples of the kinds of activism many of us are involved in, not just here in the room but around the US:
#1) When we work on climate issues, how many of us realize that the problem is as severe as it is because We the People have been allowing the fossil fuel industry executives to be making the primary policy decisions that impact all life on the planet? We the People allow the industry to decide which energy sources will be prioritized for investment, and which will be left to wither on the vine. Oil and gas pipelines? We let the corporate leaders decide. Frac sand mining operations? We let the corporate leaders decide. New mining operations? We let the corporate leaders decide. We the People rarely if ever question why our laws even allow these energy policy decisions to be made by the fossil fuel corporations and not by the people we elect who are accountable to us. Why is that? How many of us even realize that corporations have that ability because the Supreme Court has granted actual decision-making authority to corporations as a corporate constitutional so-called property “right”?
Here’s a second example…
When we work on campaigns to help elect good conscientious people to public office, how many of us realize that the problem is as severe as it is because We the People have been allowing large corporations to interfere in our elections for a very long time? We the People allow corporations to fund candidates, to lobby our elected officials, and to lie to the public when their trade associations publish dishonest information to “educate” us about various issues.
We the People rarely if ever question why our laws even allow corporations to participate in the political process in the first place. And how many of us realize that corporations have that ability because the Supreme Court has granted First Amendment Free Speech rights to corporations as a corporate constitutional “right”?
And here’s one final example…
When we work on agricultural issues because we care so deeply about food being grown in a way that supports human health, maintains our topsoil, doesn’t deplete or contaminate our groundwater and surface waters, how many of us realize that we’ve got so many agricultural crises all over the country because We the People have been allowing the agricultural industry executives and pesticide industry executives to be making the primary policy decisions about what foods will be grown, using which agricultural techniques, and which pesticides and herbicides to be applied to which crops. And because We the People allow these executives to decide whether cows and pigs and chickens will be raised on the land or in giant factory warehouses. These decisions are not made by our accountable elected officials. Why is that?
I could list many more examples, such as the rapid shift towards self-driving trucks and all of the other automation changes that will put literally tens of millions of drivers and other people out of a job in the next ten years. Who is making those decisions? Corporate leaders – not elected officials, not us.
Think about all of the policy decisions that are made every day, that impact all of us. Virtually all of those decisions are being made by corporate boards of directors, NOT by the people who We elected to serve Us, not directly by We the People.
In every one of these examples and many more, We have allowed our corporate business structures to exercise their constitutional so-called “rights” in such a way as to ensure that in this democratic republic, corporations now have more constitutional “rights” than do you or I. They can exercise their free speech rights, their property rights, their right to a jury trial, their right of privacy, their right of religious freedom, and on and on and on.
So what can be done?
I am firmly convinced that the Community Rights movement has found the key to beginning to successfully dismantle corporate rule in this country, first at the town and city and county level, and then working our way up to the state and federal level. Since 1999, we have assisted about 200 communities and counties in nine states to reign in corporate power through an ingenious new kind of lawmaking that we call rights-based law-making.
It’s a new paradigm kind of lawmaking, that requires serious culture shift. It’s not easy work, because We the People have become so brainwashed about our own powerlessness, that We now believe that our primary power is as consumers who vote with our dollars, and there really isn’t much We can do about the corporations that are harming us – entirely legally – every day, across our country. So a major part of our work as Community Rights teachers and organizers is helping people to do something we refer to as “decolonizing our minds”. Which is something that Black Lives Matter has been helping White people to do – those who are willing to pay attention. And the Me Too movement has been helping women and men to decolonize our minds around what’s going on around rape culture, etc.
Allow me to explain by first reading to you some brief excerpts from your own state constitutions. As I read these words to you, I want you to close your eyes and imagine what it might look like, what it might feel like, for you to fully embody the power and authority that everyone in this room possesses but may not know that you possess.
Here is Section 1, Article 1 of the Wisconsin State Constitution – Declaration of Rights:
All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Do you feel like there is “consent of the governed” at this point in the United States? And not just under Trump. Did you feel like it was there under Obama, under Clinton, under Bush? Was there really consent of the governed, around air and water and climate and safe food?
Here’s Minnesota’s State Constitution – Article 1 Bill of Rights, Section 1 Object of Government:
Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.
Isn’t that interesting. Government is instituted for our protection among the people whom all political power is inherent. And the people together have the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good. Imagine if we internalized that and started acting as if we understood what that looked like.
And here’s Iowa State Constitution’s second paragraph – Article 1 Bill of Rights, Section 2 Political Power:
All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for the protection, security, and benefit of the people, and they have the right, at all times, to alter or reform the same, whenever the public good may require it.
And that kind of language exists in every state constitution. It is one of the last remnants of the American Revolution [holding its ground in the language of our state constitutions]. And we forget that language at our peril.
I posted on the wall over there about fifteen examples of actual Community Rights ordinances (or local laws) from all over the country, on a variety of topics. Most have already been passed. Some are still in the campaign stage. What you will notice if you check out these ordinances is that they all contain three central features. And this is the tactic that the Community Rights movement uses to start to tackle, to begin to dismantle, these so-called constitutional “rights” that the corporations have to cause harm to our human and other natural communities. All of the ordinances that we help communities to pass – at the city or town or county level – as the first step in dismantling corporate rule, include:
1) They all ban specific corporate activities like frac sand mining or factory farming or pipelines or oil trains or aerial spraying of pesticides on forest and farmland, and many others.
2) They all strip corporations of their ability to exercise those so-called constitutional rights, which they use over us, within the boundaries of that town or city or county. And,
3) They all enshrine the inherent right of that local community to govern itself, and to protect its own health, safety and welfare, regardless of what the state claims the local government can or cannot do.
200 communities in nine states, and only about 5% of them have ever been brought to court – since 1999. Which means that about 190 communities have successfully already used the Community Rights local ordinance strategy to stop a variety of harmful corporate activities. An amazing track record.
In the Community Rights movement, we believe that it’s not enough to just regulate corporate behavior, which is what regulatory agencies do. That We must learn to prohibit those corporate behaviors that are simply too harmful to people and nature to allow at all.
I will be leading my 3-hour Introductory Community Rights workshop tomorrow from 2 to 5pm in the local food coop’s meeting room. The workshop is by donation. No one turned away. And in Tomah again on February 22nd. I hope you can find the time to join us tomorrow, to find out more about how YOUR community can benefit from this very effective local rights-based strategy, and start to more effectively deal with local threats to communities and to the natural world – be they factory farms, frac sand mines, pipelines, high-voltage power lines, hog slaughterhouses, or the myriad of other atrocities that corporate leaders continue to dream up.
And what’s so fascinating to me that I think really important for single-issue activists to start thinking about is to ask yourself the question, “Why is it that all the things that corporations do that we’re trying to stop are all activities that are protected by law, and many of the things that we’re doing to try to stop these corporations from harming us – to a large degree our work violates the law. Our work violates their “rights”. Our work to try to stop these corporate harms violates the state’s preemption authority over our local governance.
We the People in our local communities are not asking the questions, “Why is our local activism working against the legal system? Why is the legal system not here to represent Us?” And most of our single-issue activism across the country is still so far is still not asking that fundamental question. It’s literally illegal in the United States today for a city or town or county government to pass a law that bans a harmful corporate activity. It’s illegal. It’s literally illegal.
So basically what they’re saying is – it’s illegal for a local government to pass something that brings us a higher level of ecological and economic sustainability, more social justice, if the law that we’re trying to pass is prohibited under state preemption rules which it usually is. Or it’s prohibited by corporations claiming constitutional rights which have been granted to them through the Supreme Court of the United States starting all the way back 198 years ago in 1819.
So the structures of law that are in place operate in such a way to make whatever corporate leaders want their institutions to do fully legal and protected. Whereas us trying to stop harmful corporate activities has no protection in the legal system. And as long as we don’t ask ourselves why that is, and how can we change that system of law, we’re going to be pushing boulders uphill for the rest of our activist lives. And that’s a real problem. And the Community Rights movement is about dismantling those structures of law that violate our rights as The People, as the Sovereign People.
I’ve brought a variety of books for sale about our work, and handouts by donation, on the table over there. Please feel free to contact me by phone or email anytime. I’m at your service!
Thank you very much for your attention. And I’d be happy to answer your questions.
(To access the excellent Q & A section after Paul’s talk, please click on the audio file HERE, and scroll to the 25 minute mark.)