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Envision Spokane: Coalition Works to Get “Community Bill of Rights” into City Charter

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A coalition of community activists, union members and environmental groups have begun gathering signatures to get a number of wide-ranging changes to the Spokane City Charter onto the November 2009 general election ballot. The changes are part of a proposed “Community Bill of Rights” drafted in a series of workshops and town hall meetings over the last year by a group called Envision Spokane. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of issues in the community, I wanted to turn now to a coalition of community activists, union members and environmental groups that are here in the Spokane area that have begun gathering signatures to get a number of wide-ranging changes to the Spokane City Charter on the November 2009 general election ballot.

The changes are part of a proposed “Community Bill of Rights” drafted in a series of workshops and town hall meetings over the last year by a group called Envision Spokane. The changes include giving greater control to neighborhoods over new development, creating legally enforceable rights for the protection of the Spokane River, and guaranteeing access to affordable preventive healthcare.

Supporters must gather 2,700 valid signatures from registered city voters by July 6th to get it placed on the general election ballot. Then a majority of voters have to approve the entire package in a straight up or down vote.

Thomas Linzey is also with us. He’s an attorney serving as an adviser to Envision Spokane, joining us here at KSPS PBS studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

THOMAS LINZEY: Thanks for having us, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So what is this plan that you have?

THOMAS LINZEY: Well, some folks would not probably normally think of Spokane as being a cutting-edge place for activism, but this, these twenty-four different groups that have come together, these labor union locals, environmental organizations and neighborhood councils for — in Spokane have actually come together to model a Community Bill of Rights, which deals with a bunch of different issues, from healthcare to housing to unionization to protecting the Spokane River to a greater extent from the pollution that it’s been subjected to over the past couple decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the Community Bill of Rights.

THOMAS LINZEY: It’s actually — Spokane operates under a city home rule charter. Some cities in the United States operate under those. It’s basically a local constitution for the city. And citizens can come together to actually petition to change that home rule charter. And the idea about driving in a bill of rights was to say to folks in Spokane and these groups that came forward to work on this project, to say what aren’t we getting over the past couple decades of our work, because it seemed to some people that our conventional, traditional activism was failing — in other words, writing letters to congressmen and doing what we perceived as traditional activism in terms of protesting and soliciting comments at regulatory hearings and those types of things — that folks have increasingly felt a need to seize their local government entities to actually begin to build their values into those frameworks of law, rather than simply waiting for other people to come and save us, to do that work themselves. And so, these folks have stepped forward to actually drive their values into the city home rule charter here.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a part of this whole corporate charter movement. Explain what that is.

THOMAS LINZEY: It’s an understanding that our activism is limited in the United States. We’re, in essence, placed into a box, which is limited by something called corporate rights. Corporations today have the same constitutional rights as you or I, but because of their wealth, of course, they can exercise those rights to a greater extent. So, even though you and I have First Amendment rights and Fourth Amendment rights and Bill of Rights protections under the US system of law, corporations have those rights too. So, Wal-Mart Corporation, for example, has First Amendment rights and Fourth Amendment rights under the law.

And what the folks in Spokane have started to say is, well, as a hundred-some communities on East Coast which have begun passing these ordinances and laws as well, is that to say to themselves, “We can’t build a sustainable, environmentally, economically sustainable system, if our activism is defined for us within that box. And so, we need to break out of that box somehow.” And one of the most amazing things about this — these particular Community Bill of Rights, which are being amended into the Spokane city home rule charter, is that it actually deals with that, declaring in that bill of rights that corporations don’t have rights that can actually exceed those rights of people within the city of Spokane. And so, it’s pretty groundbreaking stuff, in addition.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Shapleigh, Maine, and how the Poland Springs decision would impact what you’re talking about here and what that is?

THOMAS LINZEY: It’s fascinating stuff happening in New England right now. You have Nestle Corporation, who owns Poland Springs, coming into several small communities, not just Shapleigh, but also Newfield and Wells; Barnstead, New Hampshire; Atkinson, New Hampshire — bunch of different places. And instead of these activists saying to themselves, “We’re going to do the same thing that we’ve done for the past forty years,” which is go and beg and plead in front of a regulatory agency to try to limit the number, thousands of gallons, that can come out of our aquifer in these communities, these folks have moved forward and at town meetings have actually passed law that bans corporations from withdrawing water from within their aquifer, and then have also taken steps within those town meetings to strip corporations of those constitutional rights, which would normally be used to overturn those laws that are being passed in those areas.

And so, what’s happening is almost like a grassroots revolt, where people have said, “We’re not going to wait for the regulatory agencies to come in and save us. We’re not going to wait for the Sierra Club to come in to save us.” These rural, relatively conservative towns are rising up to seize their own lawmaking authority to say, “We are not going to allow the corporatization of our water in these areas.”

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Linzey, you’ve also been consulting with the government of Ecuador in rewriting its constitution. How does this relate?

THOMAS LINZEY: Well, it’s this concept that we’ve never really had in environmental movement in the United States, because our environmental movement has always been based on nature as property. In other words, if you own ten acres of ground in the United States, carries with it the legal ability to destroy the ecosystems on that ten-acre piece of property. What is increasingly growing is a realization that for a real environmental movement to occur, that ecosystems must have legally enforceable rights of their own.

And so, folks in Ecuador who are rewriting their constitution, their national constitution, heard about what was happening in the United States, because we have thirteen municipalities in the United States now that have passed local laws that say that nature and ecosystems are no longer property, but actually have legally enforceable rights of their own. And Ecuador became the first country in the world to take that concept of moving to a rights-based environmental protection system and ensconce it into their national constitution. It’s now law.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds, but what would it take to get the Community Bill of Rights here in Spokane into the city charter?

THOMAS LINZEY: Well, first it takes 2,800 signatures, and we’re doing the signature gathering now to put it on the ballot. And then it’s going to take about 25,000 votes within the city of Spokane. And what’s amazing is you have environmental groups sitting down with labor union locals, sitting down with community organizations, folks that normally wouldn’t sit down across from each other, who have actually unanimously endorsed these Community Bill of Rights.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Thomas Linzey, thank you. And Twa-le Abrahamson of the Spokane Indian Reservation, thanks so much for joining us.

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