The following is an outline for a workshop on the Organic Consumers Association's BioDemocracy Project given at the National Occupation of Washington, D.C. Social Forum on April 5, 2012. The workshop will be repeated on April 13, 2012, 2pm-4pm, at the Friends Meeting House of Washington, D.C. at 2111 Florida Ave. NW (near Dupont Circle).

The Tipping Point Has Arrived

The huge and shocking events of recent years — bought and stolen elections, 9/11, the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil disaster, the housing collapse, the healthcare crisis, TARP and the banking mega-scandal behind it — have traumatized and destabilized the nation. Similarly, the global financial crisis, peak oil, the Fukushima meltdown, reports of massive species loss, and the first brutal impacts of accelerating climate change are truly shaking the foundations of the world. Denial about the utter seriousness of our situation is crumbling.

Meanwhile, the corporate control of both major political parties in the United States, and the Supreme Court, has finally reached mainstream awareness. In the U.S. and around the world, rigged elections, corporate looting, and government austerity measures and budget cuts, coupled with rising food and energy costs are destroying all hope for a democratic, sustainable future.

Discussion: How do you frame the problems we're facing? Let's go around the circle and we'll each name what we believe to be the biggest problem we face today. If someone's already named yours, give us what you would identify as the second biggest problem. We don't have enough people here to name everything that's going wrong in the world today, but let's make a working list and make sure that everything we name now gets addressed as we continue our discussion.

Problems Identified at the April 5, 2012, Workshop:

1. Citizens Un-Mobilized, Without Gumption
2. The Supreme Court's Citizens United Decision
3. Greed
4. Climate Change
5. The War/Prison Industrial Complex
6. Corporate Personhood
7. Abuse/Misuse of Resources
8. Toxin Pollution
9. Transnational Corporations
10. Banks "Too Big to Fail"


Without real channels of participatory democracy, revolution is inevitable, especially In a world of shrinking resources, and we are seeing its beginnings. The question is, what kind of revolution will it be, and where will it take us?

The BioDemocracy project seeks to tap into the transformational energy of this pivotal moment in human history and help guide people toward unified strategies and solutions that can bring us true participatory democracy, genuine sustainability, climate stability, improved public health, economic justice, and lasting peace.

BioDemocracy is a movement-building project to unite and supercharge the fragmented activist rainbow in America. With corporate power and climate change poised to deal death-blows to human civilization, the need for a unifying, inspiring, and strategic force has itself become a matter of life or death. BioDemocracy is designed to break down the walls between the isolated issue silos of Justice, Peace, Democracy, Health and Sustainability. We want to help build an interconnected movement to boldly address the root causes of our accelerating crisis with fundamental, radical solutions.

We have now entered into a global state of emergency driven by climate destabilization, the cascading failure of biological systems, and a transnational corporate dictatorship clearly willing to sacrifice everything, including human survival, for the sake of short-term profit. This crisis demands a rapid, integrated response on multiple fronts: 


  • * strategic, coalition-based movement-building to overthrow the corporatocracy and establish true participatory democracy
  • * mass relocalizing of our economic, food and energy production to build crash-resistant, resilient communities that can survive even as global systems continue to destabilize

BioDemocracy proposes a holistic, radical viewpoint based upon fearlessly analyzing the true nature of the crisis, linking the issues, addressing core reforms, and prioritizing coalition building, cooperation, and strategic, coordinated action. We believe this will lead to far greater effectiveness than the typical "my issue is more important than yours" mentality, pitting us in competition against our natural allies.

Through BioDemocracy, we seek to redefine and expand the concept of democracy to naturally represent all human populations and the communities of the biosphere, the interconnected web of life on which we all depend. BioDemocracy is not a political philosophy. It is a solutions-based movement focused on the needs of a world in Crisis.
Our goal is to rapidly scale-up proven, replicable models that do the following:



  • * Transition communities to healthy, climate-friendly food and energy production, transportation, housing, education, and employment
  • * Dramatically lower fossil fuel use and naturally sequester excess greenhouse gases — in billions of acres of revitalized and organically managed farmland, rangeland, forest, and wetlands — to bring the atmosphere to a safe level of 350 parts per million of CO2
  • * Empower front-line, Indigenous, and marginalized communities to fight environmental & societal destruction and survive climate changes
  • * Protect and restore vital ecosystems
  • * Economically revitalize blighted communities, and provide assistance to those in need
  • * Support Fair Trade and socially conscious, localized business, banking and investment
  • * Educate communities on their rights and empower them to full participatory democracy
  • * Break down the walls between between people, organizations, and issue silos and form holistic, positive coalitions

The ultimate goal of BioDemocracy is to help actualize a vision of a world where true participatory democracy flourishes within strong, vibrant communities, able to make intelligent long-term decisions about the use of their resources, where the end of rampant, criminal misuse of public wealth leads to safer, healthier, equitable communities, less fearful for their survival, without the manufactured scarcity consciousness created by militarism, corporate corruption and greed.

Discussion: Pair up with the person next to you. You each named one of the biggest problems facing humanity today. Together, identify goals that you could work towards as a team that would be part of the solution to each of the problems you named. Some of the problems will be easy to link together and you may find multiple shared goals. Other problems are going to be more difficult to link, but try to come up with at least one goal that you can genuinely share.

Common Goals Identified at the April 5 Workshop:

1. Constitutional Amendment to Reverse Citizens United/Control Corporations
2. Maximize the Use of Solar Energy
3. Network of Citizen-Run Media Free of Corporate & Government Control
4. Real Environmental Protection
5. Freedom
6. Community Interests Over Individual Interests That Are Detrimental to the Community
7. World Peace
8. Precautionary Principle
9. Participatory Democracy
10. Non-Participatory Regulations (Banks Can't Regulate Banks, Polluters Can't Regulate Pollution)

All Politics Is Local

So far, we've named one problem for every person in the room, and we've named half as many shared solutions. We could at this point talk about the various strategies, tactics and tools we could employ to get us from the problems to the solutions. But, instead of doing that, I'm going to narrow our discussion to what we can do at the local level. On one hand, that's arbitrary, but there are good reasons to focus on change at the local level.

Most people in the U.S. are much more familiar with the systems of government at the state and federal level. This is unfortunate, because it's at the local level where the 99% have the biggest advantage. There are always more of us than there are of them, but at the local level, there isn't as much of a need for the 99% to filter our message through the corporate-controlled media and the corporate-controlled two-party political system. We can take our causes right to the people.

There are many excellent national organizations that offer information on tools, tactics and strategies for change at the local level. Transition US, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, the Sustainable Cities Institute and the Progressive States Network are a few that the OCA makes use of and is inspired by, but, there's just one that I want us to focus on today because we believe they've really gotten to the core of heart of our problems by focusing on how to build local power to confront state and federal governments and, even more importantly, how to build local power to control the corporations.

I'm talking about the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and the most exciting tool they've discovered to build local power to confront state and federal governments and corporations is Home Rule. Home Rule is a principle expressed in the Constitutions or laws of 43 of the 50 states. D.C. has a Home Rule law that was initially passed by Congress. The basic value of Home Rule is for localities to have the ability to establish local laws that may be stricter than state law, unless expressly prohibited by the state. According to CELDF:



  • Overall, state legislatures have consistently limited home rule prerogatives. None-the-less, the People, as the legitimate governing authority over municipalities and state legislatures, have just as consistently pushed back.
  • Today, the need has never been greater for communities to assert local democracy and make choices that carry the weight of law about the health, safety, sustainable business and agricultural practices and quality of life in those communities. State legislators and judges in cahoots with corporate managers and lobbyists have preempted local democracy by erecting and enforcing municipal codes, land use laws, and development friendly legislation that keeps citizens out of important decision-making processes. Regulatory agencies and zoning schemes assure corporate access and governing privileges that preempt the rights of citizens to create sustainable communities.
  • Despite the attempted limitations on self-government imposed on citizens by such illegitimate legal usurpations, people are beginning to embrace the idea of drafting local constitutions — home rule charters — as a way to assert in law their communities' vision for the future, by enumerating the rights of the municipal citizenry, including their right to a certain quality of life, and codifying legal protections of those rights at the local level.

So, that's what I'd like us to do. Let's imagine we're crafting a Home Rule Charter for our local government. It's like writing a brand-new local constitution. Let's see if we can address all of the problems we identified by enumerating the shared solutions within our Home Rule Charter. Let's start by going around the room and giving our top choice for essential provisions of our Home Rule Charter.

Elements of a Model Home Rule Charter From April 5 Workshop:

1. Persons Are Natural Persons
2. Community Currency
3. Limited Business Structures (Corporate Code, Preferences for Beneficial Businesses)
4. Farmers' Markets
5. War Free Zone
6. War Crimes Tribunal
7. Public, Democratically Controlled Justice System
8. Rehabilitative Not Punitive Justice System
9. Rights of Nature
10. Public Utilities Run on Green Energy
11. Community Center, Shared Public Space, Shared Responsibility
12. Free Public Education From Early Childhood to Ph.D. With Public Service Requirement
13. Community Radio
14. No Consensual/Victimless Crimes
15. Social Service System Providing Housing, Food, Health Care, Family Needs, and Addressing Domestic Abuse
16. Issues Not Parties Voted on in Elections – Priority on Direct Democracy
17. Proportional Representation to Ensure Minority Viewpoints Are Acknowledged
18. Private, Corporate Money Out of Politics, Publicly Financed Democratic System

More Resources:

In addition to the work CELDF does to help localities maximize their Home Rule rights under the law, they've also drafted a number of model laws that have been adopted by over 150 localities in an effort to assert local control over toxic pollution, factory farms, food, gas drilling, mining, natural resource destruction, retail chains, sewage sludge, sustainable energy, and water. These include a model Fair Elections law, a model Chemical Trespass law, a model Rights of Nature law, and model laws to End Corporate Privileges. CELDF trains communities on how to use Home Rule and their model laws at their Democracy School.

CELFD's Democracy School, which you can watch, in an abbreviated version, online, explains how corporations became "persons" with rights under the law:

Corporations are not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution. These documents of the American Revolution were intended to secure rights for people — living, breathing natural persons — but the meaning of these documents was manipulated in a series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1800s and corporations were granted the rights of persons, even though they would be more accurately treated as an accumulation of property.

In the late 1800s, the railroad companies were given a lot of land by the federal government to expand the railroads. This was not entirely beneficial to the counties through which the railroad tracks were being laid. Problems for county residents included fires and livestock being struck and killed by trains. The counties decided to tax the railroad companies to cover the costs associated with tracks being laid through their communities. The railroad companies challenged the tax in federal court, finally arguing before the Supreme Court in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad that they should be protected under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, a recent amendment intended to protect the rights of newly-freed African Americans who had been enslaved. Before argument, Chief Justice Waite said:

"The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does."

That 1886 case was the first time corporate constitutional rights were mentioned by the Supreme Court. Three years later, the case Minneapolis & St. Louis Ry. Co. v. Beckwith was the first to clearly rule that corporations are persons under the 14th Amendment.


Democracy School – Part IV from Mari Margil on Vimeo.

Of the 150 cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment heard by the Supreme Court up to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 that established the legal standing of "separate but equal," 15 involved blacks and 135 involved business entities.

Corporations first received Bill of Rights guarantees in 1893 in Noble v. Union River Logging Railroad, where a railroad corporation invoked the Fifth Amendment due process clause to challenge the Secretary of the Interior's revocation of an approval for a right-of-way over federal public lands. The Court invalidated this action, viewing it as an attempt to deprive the railroad corporation of its property without due process. Decided on the heels of opinions granting Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to corporations, Noble represented an extension of due process property-oriented protections. In Noble the fifth amendment protected corporations' traditional property rights — such as a right-of-way or an easement — that were recognized at common law.

Corporations gained Fourth Amendment rights in Hale v. Henkel (1906). The case involved a criminal contempt charge arising from an antitrust action under the Sherman Act against two tobacco corporations. The Court ruled that an overbroad subpoena for corporate documents constitutes an "unreasonable" search. This ruling was extended in Federal Trade Commission v. American Tobacco Co. (1924), in which Justice Holmes held that the fourth amendment did not authorize government agencies "to direct fishing expeditions into private papers on the possibility that they may disclose evidence of crime." It was extended again in Marshall v. Barlow's Inc. (1978), which upheld a challenge to a provision of the Occupation Safety and Health Act (OSHA) authorizing warrantless workplace inspections. At issue was whether an OSHA inspector needed a warrant to enter the premises of an Idaho electrical and plumbing corporation. Marshall's far-reaching implications include rendering presumptively invalid many inspection provisions of federal statutes. In dissent, Justice Stevens argued that the majority severely hampered the ability of government inspectors to conduct surprise inspections and to uncover workplace safety violations.

Corporations gained First Amendment rights in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978) where the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that prohibited corporate spending to influence the outcome of a state ballot initiative. Though much of the opinion resorted to "listeners' rights" arguments that protect the speech, not the (corporate) "speaker," the effect was to create a presumed corporate "right" to influence initiatives and referenda. Justice Rehnquist's sharp dissent is notable.

Corporations' First Amendment rights were extended in International Dairy Foods Association v. Amestoy (1996) when a federal court overturned a Vermont law requiring the labeling of all foods produced with the use of Monsanto's bovine growth hormone. In this case, the court ruled that corporations have a right not to speak and that this right inheres in political and commercial speech alike and extends to statements of fact as well as statements of opinion.

Democracy School – Part V from Mari Margil on Vimeo.

For an excellent overview of CELDF's work, watch Mari Margil's 2010 Bioneers speech: