Thursday night, November 19th, Chad Nicholson of Envision Spokane spoke to a group of about 25 citizens near the Garcia River and Point Arena, California. The audience came from as far south as Sea Ranch and as far north as Fort Bragg. The event was organized by Jan Edwards and Joel Chaban, and hosted by Anne Kessler.
Chad was a very good speaker, injecting just enough humor into his report on a political subject to keep the audience on its toes. Envision Spokane put together an extensive amendment to the charter of the City of Spokane (Washington State), which was put on the ballot as Proposition 4. The amendment amounts to a bill of rights. People's rights listed include the right to a locally-based economy; to affordable preventative healthcare; to safe and affordable housing; to determine the futures of their neighborhoods; to be paid prevailing wages; to and unionize. In addition "the natural environment has the right to exist and flourish." To ensure the rights of the citizens and of nature, "Corporations and other business entities shall not be deemed to possess any legal rights, privileges, powers, or protections which would enable those entities to avoid the enforcement of these rights, or which would enable them to nullify these rights."
Well, that is a very big dose of reform in one package. The Envision Spokane organization grew largely out of the frustrations of neighborhood groups. In Spokane the city has set up a neighborhood structure. The neighbors are supposed to get together and decide what they think about things like rezoning real estate. If they agree with the schemes of developers and the City Council, it looks very nice and democratic. But if they disagree, the City Council listens politely and does whatever the developers want, probably after extracting political donations if not bribes. This happened enough times that many of the neighborhood council people wanted to try something different. They joined together with a number of other advocacy groups, notably low-cost housing advocates and unions. They spent years getting input from citizens to write Proposition 4.
As you might expect, business interests poured vast sums of money into defeating Prop 4. They also used scare tactics, claiming taxes would rise and the economy would collapse if Proposition 4 passed. It failed, garnering only about a quarter of the vote.
Yet Chad did not seem discouraged. Given that it was new and the array of power attacking it, he felt a quarter of the voters was pretty substantial.
Because there were some pretty sophisticated people in the audience, including former Congressman Dan Hamburg and other local activists, much of the question and answer discussion concerned what I like to call the Gruel of Law [See also The Gruel of Law (September 12, 2009)]. In real life the Rule of Law is that the rich get legal caviar, the poor get legal gruel. At the scale of trying to reform something like a city charter, you see this in the different realities confronting say, the real estate industry trying to amend the charter and ordinary citizens trying to amend the charter.
One of the big arguments against Prop 4 and similar citizen initiatives is that they will simply be knocked down by the courts even if they are passed. I hear this all the time; often it is sufficient to keep good law from even being submitted by the citizens. In Spokane the City Council tried to keep Prop. 4 off the ballot. Feeling the could not, instead they put two bogus Props on the ballot ahead of Prop 4, asking citizens it they would be willing to pay new, higher taxes to finance the measure, even though no new taxes would be required for Prop 4.
We know that the Supreme Court of the United States backs the doctrine of Corporate Personhood and therefore will not allow citizens to take away "rights" of corporations in Spokane or anywhere else. That is a major cornerstone of the Gruel of Law. But the courts seldom need to deal in absolutes. They pick and choose from a large number of variables, including various rights, to get the outcome that (almost always) favors the ruling class, if any ruling class interest is affected by a case. Thus you have the right to private property, and the right to free speech; which one is the trump card in a case involving both? If you give nature rights, can you be explicit when they trump the rights of developers?
Law, in the United States, is a battlefield where the ruling class is eternally strengthening its base areas and trying to mop up little remnants of justice for the "little people." True, we little people win from time to time, often after great effort. The rich lounge in their castles, making no effort except perhaps diverting some money a tiny fraction of their money to pay politicians and lawyers, and let's face it, judges to do their work for them.
On the other hand, as Michael Moore reminds us in Capitalism: A Love Story, the ruling class still allows us to vote. That is their soft underbelly. But as they say in my profession, garbage in, garbage out: as long as they control the information the voters receive (and even the information that elected officials receive), our votes might as well be their votes.
Envision Spokane's efforts impressed me as a way to reclaim the voting power of the ordinary citizen. I hope they keep up their efforts.