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Democracy Schools: 
On the path to ĎConsent of the Governedí

by Adam D. Sacks

Todayís fundamental question is how do we bring democracy to the United States of America. In fact, we have little experience with democracy. Our constitution was written by wealthy white men who saw to it that their economic and political interests were protected. Only twenty percent of the human beings were deemed "people." Slavery and indentured servitude were not only legal, but deemed essential for the growth of the new nation. The president, senators and supreme court justices were selected by political appointees representing the elite, not elected by citizens. In fact, wealthy interests have prevailed over the interests of the vast majority since the beginning, and despite over two hundred years of extraordinary peopleís movements, that hasnít changed much.

As tragic as our heritage of war and exploitation has been, the imperative to change its course in the twenty-first century is greater than ever Ė if we donít, we face decimation of civilization and massive species extinction, quite possibly including our own. The first step is to pierce the veil of amnesia that hides our history from us. The second step is to develop methods that take us beyond obedience to culture and habit and to begin organizing in ways that mount fundamental challenges to the status quo. These are what we learn at Democracy School.

Our beginnings

The Center for Democracy and the Constitution is a Massachusetts-based non-profit whose humble mission is to abolish corporate constitutional rights and establish democracy in our Commonwealth. To that end we teach Democracy Schools at Boston College, which were developed by Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF - http://www.celdf.org) and Richard Grossman of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD - http://www.poclad.org). Linzey founded CELDF in 1994 with Stacey Schmader to help communities organize to oppose corporate assaults on republican democracy. Richard Grossman co-founded POCLAD in 1994 and is a leading thinker, teacher and writer on corporations and democracy.

Thomas Linzey and Richard Grossman launched the Democracy School in 2003 with five weekend sessions at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. There have been twelve sessions of Democracy School in 2004: Wilson College, Boston College, the North Carolina Blue Ridge Assembly, and Landmark College in Vermont. Participants have come from California, Iowa, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Democracy Schools address the history of corporate power, the peopleís movements for democracy, the failure of the regulatory system to protect us, and the exciting grassroots developments taking place in Pennsylvania, where small rural communities are leading the way toward challenging corporate takeover of our government and our lives. (For a closer look at this work, see the feature article that appeared in Orion Magazine at http://www.oriononline.org/pages/om/03-6om/Kaplan.html.) Attendees receive 190-pages of background reading material, and practice the organizing strategy by reframing a single issue selected by the group. To see the current syllabus, visit http://www.constitution411.org/dem_schl.php.

How it works

Hereís a quick summary of the work. When Pennsylvania townships were confronted with factory hog farms, they didnít only want to mitigate the odor, which is all that Pennsylvania law allows Ė they wanted to keep factory farms out of their communities entirely. The health and environmental damage from factory farms, while severe, isnít the only problem. Small farmers are routinely put out of business, community life is disrupted, and the local economy suffers. People realized that the regulatory system is there to permit harms to come in (thatís why regulatory agencies issue "permits"), albeit with minor mitigation. So in the late 1990s several townships, defying corporate threats and state law, passed laws of their own prohibiting ownership of farms by corporations.

At around the same time, towns were confronted by the application of toxic sludge on their farmland. Sludge is a byproduct of municipal wastewater treatment. Waste hauling corporations make big profits by removing the sludge from large cities and spreading it as fertilizer in rural areas. In 1995 two teenage boys died from exposure to the sludge when riding their ATVís through fields where it had been applied. The townships were desperate to prevent further sludge application, and passed laws accordingly. And to protect themselves from corporate claims to constitutional rights which so often trump the rights of people, in 2002-03 Licking and Porter townships passed laws stripping corporations of those very constitutional rights!

How does this work? Corporations, mainly through our unelected and unaccountable Supreme Court, have over the past 120 years or so illegitimately acquired constitutional rights that were meant for people. Under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, government may not take property of persons without due process and just compensation. Corporations, claiming to be persons, demand Fifth Amendment protection for their property, which includes future profits. If they donít get what they want, they threaten to sue municipalities. Since large corporations have much deeper pockets, municipalities usually accede to their demands rather than face years of expensive litigation.

Who decides?

The ordinances passed by Licking and Porter townships take away these protections. In these two towns corporations no longer have the right to wield the Constitutionís Commerce and Contract clauses, or the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment to demand their freedom of speech, entitlement to future profits, and the due process and equal protection accorded to real persons under the law.

This all sounded pretty abstract to the Pennsylvania folks until they saw corporations say, in writing, "You people canít do what you want in your home town because you are violating our corporate constitutional rights." Then they realized that the issue wasnít sludge or factory farms, the issue was democracy, and who decides what happens in our communities. Thatís supposed to be us, We the People. And thatís what Democracy School is all about: teaching citizens how to assert our right of self-governance so that it serves not wealthy special interests, but us, future generations and our spaceship Earth.

The Center for Democracy and the Constitution regularly sponsors Democracy School around the country. For further information, visit their website at www.constitution411.org, or call the office at (781) 674-2339. For the Democracy School schedule nationwide, contact CELDF at http://www.celdf.org.

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