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Front Page January 11, 2003  RSS feed

The New American Revolution Has Begun

By T.J. Sevigny, Canton
The New American Revolution Has Begun

By T.J. Sevigny, Canton

Let it be written that the elected officials of Porter Township, Pennsylvania, on the evening of December 9, 2002, fired the first shot of the New American Revolution. They did it not on the battlefield or with any weapons, but simply by passing a law. The law declares that corporations operating in that township may not claim civil and constitutional privileges. The unanimous vote in favor of the new law evolved out of long-time efforts by citizens and public officials to bar corporations from dumping toxic sludge on township lands. The new law declares that corporations allowed to do business within Porter Township possess none of the human rights that corporations have been wielding to overrule democratic processes and rule over communities.

Porter Township is the first local government in the United States to refuse to recognize corporate claims to civil rights and ban corporate involvement in governing. The township adopted a binding law declaring that corporations operating in the township may not wield legal privileges—historically used by corporations to override democratic decision-making—to stop the township from passing laws which protect residents from toxic sewage sludge. The actions by Porter Township thus repudiate the history of state and federal public officials restricting the rights of citizens while expanding the rights of corporations and their owners.

Along with close to a dozen other municipal governments in Pennsylvania, Porter Township officials had previously adopted a local law governing the land application of sewage sludge in the township. The adoption of that law was an outgrowth of the work done by residents and municipal officials to stop corporations from dumping Pittsburgh-generated sewage sludge in the township. To that immediate end, the municipal government adopted a law that requires corporate sludge haulers to pay a per-ton "tipping fee" to the township to enable the municipality to verify the safety of each load of sludge applied to land.

In 2000, Synagro Corporation—one of the largest sludge hauling corporations in the United States—sued township officials in Centre County, Pennsylvania in an attempt to overturn the "tipping fee" law adopted by that township. In their complaint, the corporation alleged that the law violated a litany of civil and constitutional rights asserted by the corporation. A ruling by the federal court is expected by 2004.

Sludge corporations have recently drafted and vigorously pushed bills in the state legislature that would strip Pennsylvania municipalities of their authority to make rules that would control the land application of sewage sludge and factory farms. A coalition of groups that included municipal governments, the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the United Mine Workers of America, Common Cause and others defeated that legislation at the end of the 2002 legislative session.

Sludge corporations have also instructed the state environmental regulatory agency and corporate farm lobbies to intervene with Clarion County townships. In late 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau met with Clarion County townships to convince them to repeal their local laws. The four Clarion County townships that have adopted sewage sludge laws refused. Instead, Porter Township forged ahead with adopting the most recent law, which eliminates corporate interference in the democratic processes of the township.

Also in late 2002, the sludge-hauling Alcosan Corporation threatened to use Pennsylvania courts to overturn the sludge law passed by the township. Porter Township supervisors, upon learning of the ability of corporations to direct the courts to vindicate corporate claims to civil and legal privileges to override local governments, decided to pass a law to eliminate corporate claims to those rights.

The actions of Porter Township, along with the actions of other municipal governments in Pennsylvania dealing with land-applied sewage sludge and factory farms, evidence a shift of communities away from permitting corporate harms to asserting direct control over corporations. And in many ways, the citizens of Porter Township are following in the footsteps of another group of people who believed it was their right, if not their duty, to alter their government in a way that would ensure government of, for, and by the people.

This group of people, commonly referred to as our Founding Fathers, was radicalized by the predatory behavior of the East India Company. The world's first multinational corporation then held a virtual stranglehold on commerce and politics in North America, and brazenly used British troops as its enforcers. The American colonists were offended by the idea that they should be vassals of a corporation and a kingdom that supported and profited from it. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which explicitly stated that humans were born into this world endowed by their Creator with certain rights, that governments were created by humans to insure only humans held those rights, and "That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it …"

Stating flatly that "it is their right, it is their duty" to alter their government and thus claim their unique human rights, 56 men defied the East India Company and the government whose army supported it by placing their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, saying: "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Thus began America's first experiment with democracy.

The first week of December of that same year, Thomas Paine wrote in a pamphlet he published a few weeks later that: "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered … What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated."

Exactly 226 years later, the democratically elected municipal officials of Porter Township put their signatures to an ordinance which reads, in part: "A corporation is a legal fiction created by the express permission of the people … Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution by the Supreme Court justices to include corporations in the term ‘persons’ has long wrought havoc with our democratic processes by endowing corporations with constitutional privileges intended solely to protect the citizens of the United States or natural persons within its borders … This judicial bestowal of civil and political rights upon corporations interferes with the administration of laws within Porter Township and usurps basic human and constitutional rights exercised by the people of Porter Township … Buttressed by these constitutional rights, corporate wealth allows corporations to enjoy constitutional privileges to an extent beyond the reach of most citizens; Democracy means government by the people. Only citizens of Porter Township should be able to participate in the democratic process in Porter Township and enjoy a republican form of government therein …"

And then, with an audacity and willingness to take on overwhelming multinational corporate power similar to that displayed by the Founders, the elders of Porter Township said that: "Corporations shall not be considered to be 'persons' protected by the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania within the Second Class Township of Porter, Clarion County, Pennsylvania."

The implications of this are staggering. For example: Before 1886, it was a felony in most states for corporations to give money to politicians or otherwise try (through lobbying or advertising) to influence elections. Such activity was called "bribery and influencing," and the reason it was banned was simple: corporations can't vote, so what are they doing in politics? Their concern is making money, and they don't need clean air to breathe or fresh water to drink; leave them to making money and leave the administration of the commons to We, the People.

Before 1886, it was a crime in most states for corporations to own others of their own kind. The need to keep corporations from becoming so large that they could usurp democracy was so clear to the Founders that Jefferson and Madison proposed an 11th Amendment to the Constitution that would have banned "monopolies in commerce," restricting each company to performing a single purpose, making it responsible to its local community, and barring it from owning other corporations. The amendment didn't pass because everybody at the time knew that the states already had such laws in place.

Before 1886, only humans had full First Amendment rights of free speech, including the right to influence legislation and the right to lie when not under oath. Now corporations have claimed that they have the free speech right to influence public opinion and legislation through deceit, and a case based on a multinational corporation asserting this right is poised to go before the Supreme Court as you read these words. That corporation reserves the right to fire and even prosecute human employees who lie to it, however.

Before 1886, only humans had Fourth Amendment rights of privacy. Since then, however, corporations have claimed that EPA and OSHA surprise inspections are violations of their human right of privacy, while at the same time asserting their right to perform surprise inspections of their own employees' bodily fluids, phone conversations, and keystrokes.

Before 1886, only humans had Fifth Amendment rights against double jeopardy and the right to refuse to speak if they'd committed a crime. Since 1886, corporations have asserted these human rights for themselves: the results range from today's corporate scandals to 60 years of silence about the deadliness of tobacco and asbestos.

Before 1886, and following the Civil War, only humans had Fourteenth Amendment rights to protection from discrimination. Since then, corporations have claimed this human right and used it to stop local communities from passing laws to protect their small, local businesses and keep out predatory retailers or large corporations convicted of crimes elsewhere.

Porter Township has indeed fired the first shot in the New American Revolution with this first binding law denying corporate personhood. It's a revolution that will be fought not with guns but in the courts, in the voting booths, and on the battlefield of public opinion. As Thomas Paine—another Pennsylvania resident—wrote on that 1776 December night and published two days before Christmas: "Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and repulse it."

For details, contact the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) in Pennsylvania at 717-709-0457 or <www.celdf.org>. I also urge everyone to read the newly published book by Thom Hartmann entitled Unequal Protection, which chronicles the rise of corporate power in the United States and from which many of the historical details in this article came.