TS - The ongoing struggle for the right to self-government

Forget the Constitution...

The ongoing struggle for the right to self-government
My Word Op-Ed
Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap/For the Times-Standard
Posted: 12/01/2008 01:27:15 AM PST

”We the People.” Those are hallowed words in this country. They begin the Preamble to the United States Constitution. Those words remind us that in this country, we are supposed to be the government.

That is a staggeringly profound idea. Before this country was founded, kings ruled over subjects by “divine right.” But the American revolutionaries rejected that idea as repugnant to a free and sovereign people. They had the audacity to believe that ordinary people are capable of true self-governance.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that the only legitimate government is government which has the consent of the people. So it is a fair statement to say that the principle of self-government is a core American ideal.

It is against this backdrop that I ask readers to consider the case of Measure T. First, let us remember that Measure T was passed using the citizen's initiative process. In other words, it was not merely elected officials purporting to speak for the people of Humboldt County. We the People spoke for ourselves.

The effort had the support of the local Democratic Party, the Green Party, organized labor, peace and justice groups, elected officials, local business owners, and farmers and ranchers. It truly was an example of people from a wide spectrum coming together to exercise our fundamental right to self-governance.

And “We the People” explicitly and unambiguously stated that corporate money in local elections was undermining our electoral system. Because of the corrupting influence of corporate donations, we stated that we were losing confidence in the integrity of our own democracy.

The law not only forbade non-local corporate contributions in local elections, it also included an intentional and strategic challenge to legal doctrine of “corporate personhood.” The law specifically stated that:

”Courts have illegitimately defined corporations as persons, allegedly vesting corporations with constitutional protections and rights. Corporate Personhood illegitimately denies the people of Humboldt County the ability to exercise our fundamental political rights.”

And Measure T passed by over 55 percent of the vote here in 2006, passing in every single district in Humboldt County!
So when Pacific Legal Foundation sued Humboldt County over Measure T, they were alleging that “We the People” do not have the right to make the decision how to best protect our own elections.

And just who is the Pacific Legal Foundation? A far right-wing group funded by tobacco corporations and oil corporations. They have been at the forefront of efforts to overturn health, safety and environmental laws that attempt to control the abuses of large corporations.

So these corporatists made Measure T not merely about campaign finance reform efforts. It became a fight over whether “We the People” are truly self-governing people.

And so I was so very proud when over 50 citizens appeared at the last meeting of the Board of Supervisors to express their disapproval that the county had decided not to defend Measure T in court. Speaker after speaker spoke not only of the need for campaign finance reform, but of their commitment to be part of a movement to challenge the legal doctrine of “corporate personhood.”

It may seem like a daunting task, but consider this -- where would we be if the American revolutionaries had been unwilling to challenge the “legal authority” of the king?

If women had not challenged laws that prevented them from voting? If trade unionists had not violated unjust laws claiming efforts to organize workers for better conditions and pay were a “criminal conspiracy”? If civil rights activists had not sparked a movement to challenge court-sanctioned Jim Crow segregation laws?

And the issue of corporate personhood is already becoming a local campaign issue. Over half of the candidates for office in Humboldt County in the last election pledged to refuse corporate campaign contributions regardless of the outcome of the court case. Nineteen of those candidates went even further, pledging to oppose corporate personhood if elected. Most of those signing the pledge won their contests!

So we at Democracy Unlimited share the disappointment of our fellow citizens. In an example of “judicial activism” run amok, Pacific Legal Foundation was able to use the court system to overturn the express will of the people.

But we are encouraged that people of Humboldt County are not giving up. We are also encouraged that the Board of Supervisors has expressed a willingness to work with us to pass laws to curb corporate power. We look forward to that prospect.

In addition, we will continue to educate, agitate and organize until we have built a movement powerful enough to overturn the ridiculous legal doctrine that allows a corporation to overturn democratically enacted laws that attempt to control their conduct.

We invite you to join us in that joyful celebration of the power of the “We the People.”

Check us out on the web at www.duhc.org and contact us at 269-0984 or info@duhc.org
Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap is director of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County. She lives in Eureka and can be reached at kaitlin@duhc.org.

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