Editor’s Note: This press release from CELDF (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund) describes a gag order put against an activist, Tish O’Dell, for talking about her concerns on the use of an industrial byproduct in her community. The gag order was placed in 2012. Since then, tests have affirmed that not only was the product toxic, it is also high in radioactive elements. Lawsuits by big corporations against activists are one of the tools used to shut down any form of resistance. We have talked about it also in the context of the lawsuit against activists and tribal members involved in protecting Thacker Pass. After a decade during which new research has been conducted, Tish O’Dell has appealed for a termination on the gag order.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 19, 2023
Terry Lodge, Attorney CELDF
OHIO, Cuyahoga County – On Friday, June 16, a motion was filed in the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas for relief from judgment for Tish O’Dell to terminate the permanent injunction from a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) filed against her in March 2012 by Duck Creek Energy which claimed defamation and loss of business profits.
O’Dell had been active at the time, educating both her community, elected leaders and neighbors about the harmful effects of urban oil/gas drilling happening in her community of Broadview Heights and surrounding communities by sending emails, posting information online and attending community meetings. In the process, she had learned of Duck Creek Energy’s road de-icer, AquaSalina, which according to Duck Creek Energy President, Dave Mansbery, was a byproduct of oil/gas drilling. O’Dell’s concern increased upon learning, from test results reported to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), about the high levels of substances like benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene contained within the supposedly harmless de-icer. These substances are known to be carcinogenic. She also continued to conduct more research on ODNR’s website and in other places in order to inform herself and educate others as to what takes place during the drilling process and fracking.
“When I learned that AquaSalina was being used on my community’s streets as well as in neighboring communities, I wanted to inform people about what I had learned,” said O’Dell. “I felt people needed to know what was being spread on the roads that they, their kids, and their pets were walking on. And common sense indicated to me that what is spread on our streets gets into our air and our lawns and goes down street drains to water supplies. I knew the oil/gas industry was powerful, but I also believed in my right and everyone’s right to free speech and the right to question the government and their decisions. I had never heard of a SLAPP lawsuit until there was a knock at my front door and the person asked if I was Tish O’Dell and told me ‘You’ve been served’.”
After a year of court filings, depositions, and much pressure directed against O’Dell’s inclination to go to trial, a settlement was signed in the fall of 2013. Part of the settlement involved granting a permanent injunction, an extraordinary remedy in a defamation case, against O’Dell, prohibiting her from using certain words to describe the product AquaSalina. During this time Mansbery began bottling and selling the product on store shelves in local hardware stores and even at several Lowe’s locations in Ohio. This afforded activists and scientists the opportunity to purchase the product and begin testing it. And in the decade since, there has been much research and testing of the product by the state agency ODNR, universities, Rolling Stone Magazine and other publications. The tests affirmed that not only was the product chemically toxic, it is also high in radioactive elements, Radium 226 and 228. In October 2021 the Ohio Department of Transportation stopped using AquaSalina in part because of the environmental concerns.
Because these recent test results and scientific research papers didn’t exist in 2012, O’Dell is filing this motion to dissolve the court order so she can again speak freely and warn people about the dangers of this product to both humans and nature. There have been several attempts over the past few years to pass a law at the state level which would make a commodity out of this drilling byproduct. And with the state opening up leasing of park land for fracking this year, there will be more brine produced.
“SLAPP suits are just another tool used by industry and corporations to silence and intimidate those who speak out against them and their activities,” stated Wyatt Sugrue, Chicago attorney. “The goal is not only to silence journalists, individuals and organizations, but to also make others afraid to speak up. In recent years there have been high profile cases of SLAPP suits against John Oliver and HBO, Mother Jones Magazine and recently Texas Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke who was served with a SLAPP by the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, Kelcy Warren.”
As stated in the motion:
The Ohio court system has in essence allowed a limited-purpose public figure, Duck Creek Energy, to immunize itself from public scrutiny, and the court system is acting as the personal police force for the company to stop such scrutiny.
“What I have learned over the past decade is how our system, controlled by an elite minority, is quashing the people’s constitutional rights. I witnessed this first hand working with so many great people across the state who were also attempting to protect their own communities and nature. They inspired me to do this,” stated O’Dell. “I can’t just tell others to stand up for their rights and what they believe in and to have courage even when it seems scary, and not practice what I preach.”
A recent article by EarthJustice, September 2022, sums it up, “We aspire for the courts to be an institution that upholds the rights of all, however, SLAPP suits are a way for the rich and powerful to abuse the court system and turn it into a tool that silences individuals and organizations. SLAPP suits disguise themselves as legitimate lawsuits, and while most end up being dismissed, their real goal is quashing legitimate dissent and protest in the process. Protesting is one of the cornerstones of our democracy, a right so important in the early days of our country that it is explicitly included in the first amendment. One thing is clear. Our courts must uphold this right for everyone and cannot become tools for the rich and powerful to abuse power and limit the ability of all of us to seek justice and speak out against issues impacting our communities.”
In the O’Rourke SLAPP, it has been discovered that Warren, the plaintiff, has also made campaign contributions to six of the nine Texas Supreme Court Justices that could ultimately hear the case.
According to CELDF Attorney Terry Lodge, “Ending the gag order on Tish O’Dell is important to our work as an organization. CELDF works with community members and activists throughout the state and country to assert their constitutional and democratic rights to expose harms and stand up for protecting the community and nature. If the wealthy and powerful can file lawsuits to silence their voices, those must always be opposed.”
Photo by Kilian Karger on Unsplash
Editor’s Note: The following events are not organized by DGR. We stand in solidarity with both of these and encourage our readers to get involved in these if possible.
Radical Resilience and Restoration for Wetland Rights
On June 28th CELDF’s Kai Huschke will be presenting at the Society for Wetland Scientists annual conference. Joining Kai on the panel Socio-Ecological Resilience and Adaptation: Implementing Rights of Wetlands will be Senior Ecologist/Natural Climate Solutions Specialist Gillian Davis from BSC Group, Inc. and Tufts University Global Development & Environment Institute, Matthew Simpon, Director from the UK based organization 35percent, and Bill Moomaw, Tufts University Professor Emeritus. The four have been active as part of a global collective working on the community and national levels for the legal rights of wetlands.
The talk is a part of the Society for Wetland Scientists annual conference which will be held from June 27-30, 2023 in Spokane, WA, USA at The Davenport Grand Hotel.
Here are some excerpts from Kai’s talk:
Globally for the last 200 years the prevailing directive governmentally, legally, economically, scientifically, and culturally has been to extract and exploit the natural world for the wants and needs of a single species – humans. Colonization has never stopped; it has merely changed its stripes and patterns of speech but behaviorally it continues to conquer into submission and extinction the life forces of the planet with wetlands receiving a disproportionate amount of abuse.
The emergence of legal rights of nature efforts over the last 20 years in North America and across the globe is a potent force for the cultural shift necessary to actualize living from, in, with, and as nature. Wetlands restoration efforts in the name of rights of wetlands can only occur if there is a restoration of the human species on a massive scale that would allow for the healthy and harmonious balance of living from, in, with, and as nature. Science along with other aspects of the culture must reject colonizing systems of law, economics, governance, and even science itself and develop methods and systems outside the dominant one.
How Wealth Rules: Part III
CELDF’s Ben G. Price has been hosting lively and engaging discussions on his award-winning book, How Wealth Rules the World: Saving Our Communities and Freedoms from the Dictatorship of Property.
Many books have been written about wealth, power and politics in the United States. Most of them make intuitive sense. Wealthy people use their power to influence and control politics. But Ben Price’s new book is often counterintuitive as he explores how wealth itself is imbued with power.
CELDF is making available, a serialization of Ben Price’s book. You can read this award-winning book in free installments of downloadable pdf files and join Ben Price for monthly webinars to discuss the book in the sequence of shared chapters.
You can find earlier webinars: One Right to Rule Them All, The Dark Side of Property and Property is Not an Unalienable Right.
You can register for the next webinar (The Ongoing Counter Revolution) at June 13th from 7:00 – 8:30 PM EDT.
Photo by Sara Cottle on Unsplash
Editor’s Note: Jane Anne Morris’ 2005 essay “Help! I’ve Been Colonized and I Can’t Get Up” is considered a classic text within the community rights movement. It criticizes the regulatory regime of environmental and public health protection, which has ultimately helped corporations standardize and de-risk investments, while failing to prevent ecological collapse. Instead of participating in this system, Morris proposes six legal changes which would substantially limit corporate power.
The problems described in this essay have only become even worse since 2005. Barriers to challenging corporate-friendly legal structures are numerous, deeply embedded, and well-defended by teams of lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians who are entrenched in government and other institutions like military units employing defense-in-depth. Seventeen years of anti-corporate-power organizing, since this essay was written, has yet to breach these barricades.
Morris’ essay today can be read in at least two ways: first, as calling for a populist effort to reign in corporate power, as she originally intended the piece; and second, as a historic account of advancing corporate power which calls for strategic and ethical escalation in defense of planet Earth.
Take a Lawyer and an Expert To a Hearing and Call Me In a Decade
By Jane Anne Morris
A third of your friends are locked down Reclaiming the Bill of Rights, Building a Movement in an old growth grove or at a corporate headquarters, with law enforcement officers rubbing pepper spray in their eyes. Another third are preparing testimony so you can be persuasive at a generic regulatory agency hearing while you’re begging them to enforce a tiny portion of our laws. The third third are trying to raise money to pay lawyers to get your friends out of jail (after they’ve been released from the hospital) or take the regulatory agency to court (after it declines to enforce the law).
The pepper spray, groveling and money-grubbing might not be so bad if we could honestly say that the earth is better off today than it was four years ago. I can’t honestly say that.
This diatribe is an effort to take a hard look at what we’re doing and insinuate some new elements into the debate. It’s not intended to belittle any of our efforts, point fingers, or assign blame, so don’t take it personally. We are all earthlings.
Our campaigns follow the gambling addiction model. The last bet didn’t pay off but the next one might if… if… if we just had a new, improved tripod, three more experts, more labor or church support, ten more elected officials on our side, a hundred more people at the demo, or a thousand more letters in the mail…. Who are we kidding? We are just doing the “same old thing” over and over again and fooling ourselves that it might work next time.
We are stuck in a feedback loop where our failures are interpreted as signs that we should repeat our failed tactics, but try harder. This is what it is to be colonized. The telltale sign is not that we’re failing, but that we’re fooling ourselves, and don’t see it as a feedback loop.
If our minds are not colonized, then how come almost every Earth First! Journal action piece starts with a banner or a lockdown and ends with a plea to write a letter to a white male bigshot? (Go ahead, look through back issues. It goes on for years and years.)
Over at corporate headquarters they have a steeper learning curve.
Despite the occasional bag of guts on the committee table or clever banner, it must be reassuring for corporate executives and those who serve them to sit back and smile at the success of their containment efforts, and the predictability of our campaigns.
The issue of whose minds are colonized is a delicate one. We all know people whose minds have been colonized. Who are they? They are other people — people out there. They are somebody else. Not us.
It’s time we did the unthinkable and asked ourselves if we have been colonized. What do we see when we compare our strategies to corporate strategies?
Many of our groups are organized to save wolves, butterflies, trees, prairie flowers, rivers, deserts, or estuaries. But corporation executives don’t organize to destroy the wolves, butterflies… flowers… estuaries. Nor do they organize to pollute the air, spoil the rivers, or promote five-legged frogs.
This asymmetry should give us pause as we try to understand why corporations are on a roll while we’re stuck in a feedback loop. Let’s look again.
Corporate strategy leverages their power; their efforts reinforce and magnify each other. Our strategy splits our resources and dissipates our power.
Corporate strategy aims to increase the power that corporations have over people. That means that when a single corporation gets a victory, it helps all other corporations, too. They are all stronger, they all have more power, and the people have less.
We work on separate harms. When we lock down to one old growth stand, others go unprotected. When we protest about one chemical, others go unprotested. When we testify to preserve one watershed, others are not spoken for.
We have whole campaigns directed at one chemical, one corporation, one species, one grove of trees, one article of clothing.
In doing so, we fracture our resources. While we’re out working on a “Chlorine is Bad” or “Wolves are Good” campaign, we’re not working on all of the other chemicals, animals, trees, etc., that also need attention.
Some of us argue that this fracturing is inevitable, because there’s so much wrong in the world. (Declaring a problem to be inevitable is a great way to justify not talking about it. Another gift to the corporate world view.)
Others of us think that the fracturing results from not being organized enough, or not being organized right. This opens the door for endless bickering about whether we should organize by bioregion or by article of clothing, by species or by chemical, by issue or by occupation. Either way, we’re still fractured.
Being fractured is another way of being colonized.
Another sure sign of being colonized is when you censor yourselves, and don’t even wait for others to do it. Some of our self-imposed limitations are right off of a corporate wish list.
We have a strange “but it’s the law” syndrome. Why can’t we bring up important issues at EPA hearings? It’s regulatory (administrative) law. Why can’t we get our views accurately presented on TV? It’s (corporate) private property law and FCC regulations. Why can’t we imprison corporate executives for what their corporations do? It’s liability law.
So what do we do? We toe the line at the EPA hearing. We dress up as animals to get a moment on TV. We let lying corporate executives lie.
That is, we work around the defining laws that are the groundwork for a rigged system. We’re looking for favors, lucky breaks. We don’t even dream of control, yet we call this a democracy.
This is being colonized.
Corporation representatives do not feel constrained in this way. Nothing is too destructive, too audacious, too outrageous for them to attempt. After all, they have most of us believing and not even objecting to the idea that corporations have “rights.” In early 1998 an association of corporations (itself a corporation that supposedly has “free speech” rights, according to prevailing legal opinion) sued a talk show host in Texas for saying that she’s going to stop eating hamburgers.
Then there’s the Zen of “Describing The Problem.”
We need our storytellers, we need our scribes, we need our analysts, we need our own human fonts of crazy ideas. We needed Silent Spring. By now we have the equivalent of Son of Silent Spring, Daughter of Silent Spring, Second Cousin Once Removed of Silent Spring. But habitat destruction continues as fast as we can describe it, if not faster. Our compulsion to Describe The Problem (something we do really well) serves a purpose, especially for people who think there’s no problem, but the people who need to hear it the most aren’t hearing it. We’re Describing The Problem to each other in lavish detail, which crowds out efforts to rethink our whole strategy.
Are we doing anything other than lurching back and forth between Describing The Problem and then buckling the seatbelt on our feedback loop? I for one think I’ve heard enough “Bad Things About Corporations,” and I’m pretty tired of working on campaigns that will not only fail, but fail in predictable ways.
How have we been colonized? Let me count the ways. We interpret failures as signals to do the same things over again. We are predictable. Our strategies and styles of organizing fracture and dilute our resources. We either accept this dilution as inevitable, or blame each other for not organizing right. We censor ourselves, in thought and action. We act as though if we Describe The Problem to each other enough, it might go away.
And now, we can argue about whether we’ve been colonized or not. Corporate management is popping extra popcorn for this one.
But enough of what we do. What do corporations do? (The question should be, “What do people do behind the fiction of corporations?” One of the signs of our being colonized is that we personify corporations. I’ve been trying to avoid that in this piece but… help, I’ve been colonized and I need help getting up….)
Corporate management figured out a hundred years ago that fighting against each other, competing and diluting their resources was weakening them and limiting their power. So they don’t do that any more.
So what do people do while hiding behind the corporate shield? The short version is that they write a script for us, and we follow it. Then they write a script for themselves, and we don’t even read it.
A big part of the script written for us involves Regulatory Law (including environmental and administrative law). It assumes that corporations have the rights of constitutional “persons.”
It outlines procedures for what We the People can do (not much); what government can do (a little more); and what corporations can do (a lot).
At regulatory agencies, corporate “persons” (that is, corporations) have constitutional rights to due process and equal protection that human persons, affected citizens, do not have. For non-corporate human citizens there’s a “Democracy Theme Park” where we can pull levers on voting machines and talk into microphones at hearings. But don’t worry, they’re not connected to anything and nobody’s listening ‘cept us.
What Regulatory Law regulates is citizen input, not corporate behavior. So when we cooperate in regulatory law proceedings, we are following the script that corporation representatives wrote for us. We’re either colonized, or we’re collaborators. That the regulatory agencies fail to protect the public is clear. Why they fail is another matter.
One reason is that they were set up with the cooperation of and sometimes at the urging of big corporations. Today regulatory agencies and trade associations work together to do the work that the “trusts” of the last century were set up to do.
A second reason for regulatory failure concerns the nature of the corporation, to which we turn briefly.
Corporations are not natural entities, like karner blue butterflies or white pines. Corporations are artificial creations that are set up by state corporation codes. These state laws, plus a bunch of court cases, form the basis for the notion that corporations have powers and “rights.”
This law is Defining Law. This law is the script that corporate lawyers write for corporations. This law is the law that we don’t even read.
It’s right there in the law books in black and white, just like the “regs” that we spend so much time on. But this Defining Law is invisible to us because we’ve been colonized and have accepted it as a given. We leave this defining law — in corporation codes, bankruptcy law, insurance law, etc. — to corporation lawyers, who rewrite it every few years without so much as a whimper from citizen activists. Then we wonder why the parts-per-million regulations aren’t enforced.
So, the second reason that regulatory agencies fail to protect the public is that we have allowed corporate lawyers to write the Defining Law of corporations. This law bestows upon corporations powers and rights that exceed those of human persons and sometimes of government as well. It seems pretty obvious, then, that we need to rewrite the Defining Law.
Sooner or later we come up against the claim that all this stuff about “rights” and so on is just too legalistic. None of us wants to be involved in narrow and excessively legalistic strategies.
However, a glance through any Earth First! journal will confirm that we’re constantly dealing with The Law, whether we’re filing testimony or engaged in direct action. As long as we’re in the legal arena, we might as well be dealing with Defining Law, and not the regulatory frufru that we’ve allowed to distract us.
If the civil rights movement had been afraid to touch the deep defining “law of the land” we’d still be laboring under “separate but equal.” For as long as we stick with Regulatory Law and leave Defining Law to corporate lawyers, we’ll have corporate government.
What are we going to do tomorrow morning?
We could keep doing what hasn’t worked in case it works next time; we could denounce people who suggest that what we’re doing isn’t working; we could declare victory so our folks won’t get so depressed and discouraged. I’d like to steer clear of those options.
I’d also like to avoid “negotiating” with corporations as though they were persons with a role in a democratic system, and avoid doing anything else that accepts that corporations have the constitutional rights of human persons.
Here is one cluster of ideas for rewriting the Defining Law of corporations. It’s not a 3-point plan, and it’s not the beginning of a twenty point plan — just some ideas to think about.
1. Prohibit corporations from owning stock in other corporations. Owning stock in other corporations enables corporations to control huge markets and shift responsibility, liability, resources, assets and taxes back and forth among parent corporations, subsidiaries and other members of their unholy families. By defining corporations in such a way to prohibit such ownership, much of the anti-trust regulatory law becomes unnecessary and superfluous.
2. Prohibit corporations from being able to choose when to go out of business (in legalese, no voluntary dissolution). This would prevent corporations from dissolving themselves when it came time to pay taxes, repay government loans, pay creditors, pay pensions, pay for health care, and pay for toxic cleanups.
3. Make stockholders liable for a corporation’s debts. People who want to be stockholders would reallocate their resources to corporations that they knew something about, that weren’t engaged in risky, toxic projects. (This would encourage local, sustainable businesses and healthy local economies. Imagine that.)
These three measures might seem “unrealistic” to some, but it beats the heck out of a voluntary code of conduct, or a wasted decade at a regulatory agency. All three of these provisions were once common features of state corporation codes. No wonder corporate apologists prefer that we hang around in the regulatory agencies with our heads spinning with parts per million and habitat conservation plans.
These three measures were quite effective, which is why corporation lawyers worked so hard to get rid of them. But they address only a tiny portion of what needs to be done.
Here’s another cluster of ideas for ways to shape a democratic process that is about people. (The idea that corporations have “rights” would seem nonsensical to any but a colonized mind.)
1. No corporate participation in the democratic process. Democracy is for and about human beings. Corporations should be prohibited from paying for any political advertisements, making any campaign contributions, or seeking to influence the democratic process in any way.
2. Corporations have no constitutional rights.
A corporation is an artificial creation set up to serve a public need, not an independent entity with intrinsic “rights.”
3. Corporations should be prohibited from making any civic, charitable, or educational donations. Such donations are used to warp the entire social and economic fabric of society, and make people afraid to speak out against corporations.
These probably seem even more “unrealistic” than the first batch. Imagine how good it is for corporate executives that we find these ideas “impractical.” And by the way, these were all once law, too.
The final objection to be raised is that we’ll never get anywhere as long as the “news media” are against us, refuse to cover our issues, and distort our views. Agreed.
But the “news media” are corporations, key players in a system of propaganda that encompasses not only television, radio and newspapers, but also the entire educational system. The “airwaves” belong to the public.
Why have we allowed a puppet federal agency to “lease” the public airwaves to huge corporations? Ya wanna lock down? Lock down to a TV or radio station and make the public airwaves public again. Not for a day but for a lifetime.
Ya like boycotts? What if a regulatory agency gave a hearing and nobody came? The outcome would be the same but we wouldn’t have wasted all the time and resources, nor would we have helped grant an aura of legitimacy to a sham proceeding.
What could we do instead? We could get together with the lawyer and the expert and begin to figure out how to stop being collaborators.
Jane Anne Morris was a corporate anthropologist who lived in Madison, Wisconsin. She was the author of Not in My Backyard: The Handbook, and a member of POCLAD, the program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. Some of her work has appeared previously in Rachel’s (#488, #489, and #502). In its present form, this essay originally appeared in Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy. This article originally appeared on POCLAD.
Building a Movement from CELDF on Vimeo.
This article is from the blog Building a Revolutionary Movement.
I’m going to use Jane McAlevey’s definition for organising as described in a previous post: “organizing places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all – that’s the point of organizing.”
In this post, I’ve included activism around ‘rights’ and ‘issues’, to make this list as comprehensive as possible. I’d also add that this is a rough sketch of what to organise (and mobilise) around and this list needs more research and probably reworking.
The first area to organise around, with a long history is the workplace and employment. This was an important area of struggle to change society in the twentieth century, but the nature of work has changed and the trade unions have been crushed in the last 40 years. There have been, and are, several union forms; those from the past will be looked at in future posts. Currently, there are large unions, known as ‘service unions’, and ‘base unions’.
The ‘service unions’ (also known as business unionism) do important work to defend workers’ rights but it is limited to that, and these unions do not attempt to change society, even if individual members do want that. They maintain capitalist social relations. The more radical unions include National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), Fire Brigades Union (FBU), University and College Union (UCU), Communication Workers Union (CWU).
‘Base unions’, is a term that originated in Italy. These unions were formed in workplaces where workers had a material need, made up the union’s membership and were in control of how the union operated. This article gives a history. This is based on the anarchist form of radical unionism, anarcho-syndicalism. The radical ‘base unions’ in the UK are Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Independent Works Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW). See this article for more info. There is also the Work Force Movement.
The second area to organise around is the community, including: community organising, community unions, the community rights movement, and community social welfare programmes.
Community organising was developed in the mid-twentieth century in the US. It involves campaigns to change institutional policies and practices to improve the living conditions for community members. Hackney Unites has put together a good HU-community-organising. National reformist community organising organisations doing good work include Citizens UK and Community Organisers. There will be many local groups and organisations using community organising methods all over the UK.
Several community and tenant/renter unions have formed in the last decade. Three focus on supporting their members with housing and community issues using radical direct action tactics; they are ACORN, London Renters Union and Living Rent in Scotland. There is also Unite Community, which offers the ‘service union’ benefits to those not in full-time work, so part-time or unemployed and campaigns on workplace and community issues. There is also Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth and Sisters Uncut. See this article on critical support for renters unions.
The community rights movement originated in the US, primarily driven by the Community and Environmental Defence Fund. They describe community rights work as including environmental rights, workers’ rights, rights of nature and democratic rights. Read a history of the community rights movement here.
There has been a first step in the UK to set up a community rights movement in the formation of the Community Chartering Network. This comes from a successful community charter in Falkirk, Scotland, that resulted in the Scottish Government banning fracking in Scotland. Read the story here.
Community social welfare programs are generally run by local government or NGOs (Non-government organisations). A good example of this in the UK was the British Restaurants – communal kitchens set up in 1940 to provide cheap food so everyone could eat.
Communities have been under attack since the 1970s, with many basic services and social centers no longer in operation. Community social welfare organising now involves activists running basic services in their communities to fill the gaps where the state has been rolled back. The classic example would be the Black Panthers Free Breakfast for Children in the US in the 1960s/70s.
In 2014/2015 a pay as you feel cafe called Skipchen in Bristol served over 20,000 meals. Can Cook in Garston, Liverpool provides thousands of free hot lunches for children in poverty in the Merseyside area. Foodhall is a public dining room and kitchen in Sheffield that is managed by the community, for the community, tackling social isolation and encourage integration across a diverse range of groups. Foodhall are campaigning for a National Food Service, to develop public social eating spaces around the country. There is Cooperation Town movement based on Cooperation Kentish Town that provides a community space with healthy, cheap food, childcare and more.
Combining Workplace and Non-Workplace
The third area to organise is a combination of workplace/job and struggles outside the workplace, including: Jane McAlevey’s ‘whole worker organizing’, community unionism, and social movement unionism.
Whole worker organising merges workplace and non-workplace issues based on Jane McAlevey’s extensive experience of community and union organising. This article gives a good summary of McAlevey work in Connecticut that combined housing and workplace struggles.
Janice Fine is her 2005 article, “Community Unions and the Revival of the American Labor Movement” describes community unionism as community-based organisations of low-wage workers that focus on issues of work and wages in their communities. They are based on specific ethnic and geographic communities (as opposed to workplaces), especially immigrants and African Americans. Fine describes how they have appeared from several sources including: “community and faith-based organizing networks, Central America solidarity movements and other left-wing organizations, legal services as well as other social service agencies, immigrant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches, and some labor unions.” These community unions are mainly focused on work-related issues but also include other aspects of life including housing, healthcare, and education.
Solidarity networks and base building combine workplace and community/social issues in a locality. Active groups and networks in Britain include Solidarity Federation, Angry Workers, Teesside Solidary Movement and Valleys Underground, Marxist Centre.
Social movement unionism is currently popular in the US, involving the combination of workplace unionists and social movements to tackle issues, civil and human rights and alter structures of law and political power. This article gives a history and critique of social movement unionism. This interview with a member of the UK National Union of Teachers (now the National Education Union) describes the three legs of a stool working together to make a strong union: bread and butter issues, professional issues, social justice and community campaigning.
Megan Behrent writes about a radical form of social movement unionism called ‘social justice unionism‘ here.
The ‘social strike’ is described by Antonio Negre and Michael Hardt in Assembly as the ‘weapon of social unionism’.  Keir Milburn states here that the social strike “brings out three functions that will be required from any set of practices able to play a role equivalent to the twentieth-century strike. These are making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles.” Negre and Hardt describe the social strike as “the labor movement’s interruption of industrial production and the social movements’ disruption of the social order.” 
Recent examples are the UK Youth Climate Strikes and the planned global Earth Strike on September 20th. Around social reproduction, there is the Women Strike Assembly, which organised strikes in 2018 and 2019 on International Women’s Day, March 8th.
Political organising takes place via a political party or independent citizens’ platforms. Political parties come in several forms: classical traditional political parties, social movement parties, single-issue parties, and digital/internet-based political parties. Some parties combine a few of these forms.
There have been recent innovations in classical traditional political parties such as Obama’s organising/movement presidential campaigns and Bernie Sanders 2016 US presidential campaign using ‘Big Organising’.
Social movement parties have different relationships between the movement and party: vanguard, electoral and organic and include Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the Five Star Movement in Italy.
Single issue parties would be the green parties in different countries (although many have broadened their policies over time) and the Brexit Party in the UK.
Digital parties and internet parties include the Pirate Party and others.
Organising around politics can also be done outside political parties, as the municipalism movement (see below) is showing. For examples of independent politics at the local level in the UK, there is The Indie-town project and Take Back the City in London.
Municipalism is the process of self-government by cities, towns, or municipalities. There are three broad municipalism traditions: municipal socialism, libertarian municipalism, and the right to the city movement.
Municipal socialism describes the local government-led social reform. There have been several phases in the UK. The most recent is the Preston Model, where the local authority changed the procurement for the council and local large institutions (university and hospital) to buy from local businesses and cooperatives. This strengthens the local economy. It is based on the Cleveland model and is known as community wealth building.
Libertarian municipalism (also known as Communalism) is from the theorist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin proposed a twin strategy of popular or people’s assemblies to look at local issues and start to form an alternative government, combined with running municipal candidates chosen by the people’s assemblies to stand in local electoral politics. Bookchin wanted to build institutional capacity and repurpose state power to increase libertarian collective power. The societal, larger-scale vision of libertarian municipalism or Communalism is Confederalism – where self governed cities and localities are connected in a larger network. Ideas of confederalism have been put into practice in Rojava in northeast Syria/West Kurdistan and are known as Democratic Confederalism. They have also been taken up by the international Fearless Cities Movement and Cooperative Jackson in the US.
The right to the city movement started in the 1960s with geographers such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey analysing the city from a Marxist perspective. They argue that the transformation of the city depends upon the exercise of collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization to meet the people’s needs.
Poor people’s Movements and Solidarity
The history of poor people’s movements have been explored in detail in the book Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward. This article gives a good summary of the more spontaneous and disruptive nature of these movements. They are based on mobilising rather than organising, which links to momentum driven organising discussed in this previous post.
DP Hunter has written a book Chav Solidarity and in this article he describes chav solidarity: “if just the left-leaning working class were to collectivise our resources (wages, savings, inheritance, homes, and whatever else), or we were to transform our economy into a communal one, we would be able to provide for one another. Those economically marginalised and living in poverty, as I was not that long ago, would not be in positions of such deprivation and exclusion, their short term concerns of where their next meal was coming from, where they would be sleeping in a week’s time, would abate.”
Organising around institutions can take three forms: influencing institutions, reclaiming existing institutions for the left and supporting or creating alternative institutions.
Influencing institutions includes attempting to change state behaviour through laws in parliament or rulings in courts. It could also include influencing political parties, the media or corporations. A good resource on this is How Change Happens by Duncan Green.
Examples of reclaiming existing institutions for the left would be all three municipalism traditions described above. The Labour Party has recently been reclaimed for the left by Jeremy Corbyn. The UCU trade union membership recently elected a grassroots left candidate as General Secretary – Jo Grady. We Own It, campaign against privatisation and make the case for public ownership of public services.
For alternative institutions, the community social welfare programs described above in the community section is an example of this. Others are workers coops in the UK and Mondragon in Spain. Concerning alternative media, see here. Concerning credit unions, see here. Libertarian municipalist people’s assemblies (see above in municipalism section) are an example of an alternative government. There is the recent idea of public-commons partnerships where citizens become co-owners, co-earners and co-decision-makers of municipal cooperatives.
Rights and Issues
There is a lot of crossover between rights and issues, so for now I’ve combined them.
Rights include human rights, democratic and political rights (right to vote, citizenship, civil liberties), economic rights (right to a decent job and pay, and a social safety net such as benefits), rights to public goods/services (public healthcare, education, housing, media etc), community rights movement (see above), and rights of nature.
Issues include the rights of women, gay people, people of colour, disabled people, and others, anti-war and the peace movement, LGBTQ+ movement, inequality, environmental issues with climate change being the biggest concern, and the alter-globalisation or anti-globalisation movement.
1. Assembly, Antonio Negre and Michael Hardt, 2017, page 150
In this writing, taken from ‘The Ohio River Speaks‘, Will Falk describes the urgency in which he seeks to protect the natural world. Through documenting the journey with the Ohio River he strengthens others fighting to protect what is left of the natural world. Read the first part of the journey here.
By Will Falk/The Ohio River Speaks
Can a River Save Your Life?
The first headwaters of my journey with the Ohio River are located in despair. Despair and I have a long-term, intimate relationship.
Seven years ago, I tried to kill myself. Twice.
Suicidal despair is a failure to envision a livable future. The future never comes, so the future is built with the only materials at hand – experience. At times, my experience is so painful, and the pain lasts so long that, when I peer into the future, I only see more pain. When this happens, I sometimes ask: If life is so painful, if life will only remain so painful, why go on living?
I cling to my reason. I live for my family. I have seen the pain my two suicide attempts have caused my mother, father, and sister. My family also includes the natural world. I have been enchanted by the stories the Colorado River tells. I have watched the stars next to ahinahina (silverswords) on the slopes of Mauna Kea. I have seen a great horned owl dance on setting sunlight filtered through pinyon-pine needles.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I do not experience despair anymore.
Sometime last year, a spark flew from our shared global experience to fall into a tinderbox of my recent personal experiences and ignited the strongest inferno of despair I’ve felt in a long time.
I ended a long-term romantic partnership with a woman who, at one time, I thought was the love of my life. I moved in to my parents’ basement in Castle Rock, CO. And, an environmental organization I love working for almost internally combusted.
These realities are personally painful. But, they’re not unique. It is a global reality – the intensifying destruction of the natural world – that is the deepest source of my despair.
The love I feel for my mother and father, for my sister, for rivers, mountains, and forests, for ahinahina, great-horned owls, and pinyon-pines makes me deeply vulnerable. It wasn’t until I noticed the way people have been obsessively tracking confirmed cases of COVID-19 that I realized most people do not pore over studies about rates of ecological collapse like I do.
While COVID-19 is very scary, I find reports like the one from Living Planet Index and the Zoological Society of London in 2018 documenting a gut-wrenching 60% decline in the size of mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian populations in just over 40 years to be even scarier.
I am cursed with a profound sense of urgency to stop the destruction of the planet.
If millions of people are killed every year by air pollution, then each passing year is, to me, a heinous disaster. If dozens of species are driven to extinction every day, then each passing day is an unspeakable tragedy. If thousands of acres of forest are cleared every hour, then each passing hour is a horrific loss.
If all these things are true, then each passing moment screams more loudly than the last for the destruction to stop. I haven’t found many others who possess a similar sense of urgency. I haven’t even found many others who possess this sense of urgency among fellow environmentalists. The lack of urgency displayed by environmentalists is especially frustrating because environmentalists are aware of the problems we face. Despite this awareness, most environmentalists are still drinking a stale Kool-Aid brewed with the substanceless sugar of ineffective tactics.
For example, I am a practicing rights of nature attorney. In 2017, I helped to file a first-ever federal lawsuit seeking rights for a major ecosystem, the Colorado River. For the past few years, I’ve worked for a nonprofit law firm, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), that has developed a strategy for enshrining rights of Nature in American law.
American law defines Nature merely as property. Property is an object that can be consumed and destroyed. CELDF’s strategy, specifically, and rights of Nature, generally, seek to transform the status of Nature from that of property to that of a rights-bearing entity. This is similar to how ending American slavery required transforming the legal definition of African Americans as property into African Americans as rights-bearing citizens. Those with rights have power over those without rights.
And, in a culture based on competition, those with rights oppress those without rights.
A key component of CELDF’s strategy involves helping communities affected by environmental destruction to use their local lawmaking functions to enact laws granting Nature the rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve. These laws also give Nature legal “personhood” which empowers community members to bring lawsuits to enforce Nature’s rights. Currently, under American law, if community members want to sue to stop environmental destruction, they must frame the problem as violating their rights as citizens. It is often more difficult to prove that environmental destruction directly harms humans than it is to prove that an activity harms an ecosystem.
If Nature was recognized as a legal person and communities simply had to prove that an activity violated the rights of Nature, then many destructive activities would become illegal. On the surface this may seem like a great strategy. However, this strategy depends on convincing too many people in power, who directly benefit from the status quo, to embrace and enforce rights of Nature. The powerful derive their power by exploiting Nature. Enforcing Nature’s rights would undermine their power. This is why they react so violently whenever their power is truly threatened. Even if convincing all these people to give up their power is possible, it will likely take decades to change the legal system into one that respects rights of Nature.
In CELDF, we are working hard to reinvent our strategy to reflect the recognition that legal change, by itself, is taking far too long.
Nevertheless, most tactics employed by environmentalists are based on achieving a voluntary transition to a sane and Earth-based culture. But, do we really think this voluntary transition is possible? And, even if we do, don’t we have to admit that this voluntary transition is taking a long time? As time slips away – and so much is destroyed and so many are murdered – shouldn’t we be most concerned with stopping the dominant culture as quickly as possible? When I suggest that we have an open and frank conversation about what it will take to truly stop the destruction, I am often dismissed as being unrealistic and too extreme.
This causes me to despair. When I despair for too long I become depressed and anxious. When I am depressed and anxious I shake, tremble, fidget, and pace. Over the years, I’ve learned that when this happens, my body is telling me to move. Unsurprisingly, one of the best medicines I’ve found for mental illness is exercise. Lately, though, my typical regimen for managing despair hasn’t been working. No matter how much I exercise, no matter how much stress I shed from my day, no matter who I spend time with, the flames of despair keep on licking the edges of my consciousness. The lack of urgency I find reflected around me also causes me to question my perception of reality.
Are things really as bad as I think they are?
It is natural to seek validation from other humans. But, most humans I know would rather not join me in my despair. Psychologist R.D. Laing in The Politics of Experience was correct when he wrote:
“If Jack succeeds in forgetting something, this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.
Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on ‘bringing it up.’ He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: ‘It’s all in your imagination.’ Further still, he can invalidate the content: ‘It never happened that way.’ Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so into the bargain.
This is not unusual. People are doing such things to each other all the time. In order for such transpersonal invalidation to work, however, it is advisable to overlay it with a thick patina of mystification. For instance, by denying that this is what one is doing, and further invalidating any perception that it is being done by ascriptions such as ‘How can you think such a thing?’ ‘You must be paranoid.’ And so on…”
Similarly, it is easy to seek answers from television and computer screens. The internet provides more access to certain forms of information – like graphs, statistics, and written reports – than ever before. However, answers provided by graphs, statistics, and written reports will always be secondhand. I do not want to risk the invalidation of the experience of others that many humans are so adept at. Neither do I want to settle for secondhand answers.
I want to see for myself.
Earth is vast. Ecocide is extensive. I have neither the time nor the resources to rely solely on firsthand knowledge. Fortunately, the Ohio River is vast enough to implicate global reality while remaining small enough for me to witness with my limited budget and finite time. Meanwhile, my body urges me to move. So, why not put that movement to good use? Instead of killing birds, I’ll kill two drones with one stone, by embarking on a journey with the Ohio River. I can write, with eyewitness testimony, about how bad ecocide has become in the Ohio River basin. At the same time, I can ask the Ohio River if her waters can quell this despair burning within me.
I know I am not alone in my despair.
William Styron wrote in his poignant exploration of despair, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many in stances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is general awareness of the nature of this pain.”
As I travel with the Ohio River, witnessing her many wounds, I will describe my pain. If she will help me bear that pain, I hope my story will show how a river can save your life.
Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem. He is a practicing rights of Nature attorney and a member of DGR.
Photo by Melissa Troutman.