Saying that our current system of government is rigged in favor of corporations, environmental activist Thomas Linzey told a crowd of more than 100 Monday night that they have a responsibility to engage in civil disobedience to regain power for local governments and the people.
“We have nothing left to lose anymore,” said Linzey, the executive director and chief counsel of the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit group that helps municipal governments and community groups fight the oil and gas industry and other industries deemed to be environmental hazards.
Linzey delivered his presentation, titled “In the Name of Sustainability: A New Community Rights Movement” at Ilfeld Auditorium. The event was put on by the Committee for Clean Water, Air and Earth, and was co-sponsored by the Highlands University Conservation Club and by Casa de Cultura.
Linzey’s group is the organization behind the controversial community rights ordinances adopted by the Las Vegas City Council in 2012 and by the Mora County Commission earlier this year. The ordinances seek to ban oil and gas extraction altogether and to strip corporations of rights that the U.S. Supreme Court has said they have. The ordinances also seek to roll back other well-established federal laws, such as the constitution’s commerce clause and preemption, the long-standing recognition that local laws are trumped by state laws and that state laws are trumped by federal laws.
Although the City Council adopted a community rights ordinance by a 3-1 vote, its validity remains in question because Mayor Alfonso Ortiz has refused to sign it, saying that it violates state and federal law.
Linzey told the audience that his organization didn’t start out challenging federal and state law. He said that in the beginning, the group practiced traditional environmental law, finding faults with permit applications that had been approved and asking courts to revoke the permits. He said environmental law in the U.S. over the last 40 years has been about fighting permit applications.
Linzey said his group had success in challenging permits, but he and his colleagues soon realized that while they may have stalled harmful industries from coming into communities that didn’t want them, in the end they weren’t able to stop it under the current system of law.
“We weren’t stopping s*** because environmental law isn’t about stopping anything,” Linzey said. To add insult to injury, he said, the money corporations spend fighting local governments is tax-deductible.
Corporations, he said, are recognized as people under the law, and because they have superior wealth they can run roughshod over communities.
He said his group had all but decided to close up shop when officials in some communities in peril suggested that they take a different approach, that they challenge existing law.
“People forget that the American Revolution was about corporations,” he said.
But he said the problem isn’t just corporations. Linzey said it’s also the system and the state governments that allow it to happen.
Linzey told the group that change happens through civil disobedience. He noted that abolitionists in the 1800s weren’t trying to pass laws regulating how many lashes slave owners could give their slaves. Instead, he said, they were challenging the law at the time and calling for an end to slavery.
He said this country was built on the principle of people challenging and disobeying unjust laws.
He said the community rights ordinances are about establishing a new structure of law. The ordinance that Mora passed, he said, isn’t an ordinance but a constitution.
An animated Linzey told the group that he gets frustrated when he hears liberals saying they want a seat at the table on these important issues that communities are grappling with.
“We own the (expletive) table,” he said.
He noted that many state constitutions, including New Mexico, state that all political power is derived from the people.
“This is ground-breaking, cutting edge stuff,” Linzey said. “People are finally standing up.”