Your browser does not support modern web standards implemented on our site
Therefore the page you accessed might not appear as it should.
See for more information.

Whatcom Watch Bird Logo

Past Issues

Whatcom Watch Online
Democracy School In Bellingham

June 2011

Cover Story

Democracy School In Bellingham

by David Hopkinson

David Hopkinson is retired and lives with his wife Judy in Bellingham’s York Neighborhood. They are members of the Living Democracy Initiating Group (LDIG) in Bellingham.

Editor’s Note: This article was written by David Hopkinson with the assistance and contributions of several members of the Living Democracy Initiating Group (LDIG) in Bellingham. The article will continue next month in Whatcom Watch, as the LDIG discusses rights-based framing and how small communities are gaining power.

There are three people interested in gardening, permaculture and sustainable living. Two political activists. A couple of engineers. A community organizer. Five retired guys – a teacher of literature, a physician, an attorney, a biologist and a psychologist. A member of the City Council. Environmental educators, three of them, one with a guitar and, we find out later, a beautiful singing voice.

Ranging in age from 18 to 90 years, we are the people attending Democracy School in Bellingham. Our political preferences might vary widely, but we seem to share a sense that traditional politics is failing us.

Resurrecting Democracy

Democracy School is taught by environmental attorney Thomas Linzey, the co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (, and Mari Margil, Associate Director of CELDF. Democracy School is sponsored locally by Living Democracy, a movement which aims to resurrect democracy at the community level.

During a two-day workshop April 1-2, Thomas spoke of an emerging drive across the country toward rights-based democracy, to replace the current legal system built around priorities of commerce and property. The Declaration of Independence is rights-based, while the U.S. Constitution is not.

Unfortunately, only the Constitution is law. The Declaration is a brilliant document, but it is a statement of beliefs and intentions with no legally binding authority – so says the Supreme Court.

To date, Thomas Linzey and his colleagues have enabled 120 communities to pass rights-based ordinances. The concept is beginning to spread globally. To create a rights-based system of law for the entire nation, we will need to alter the Constitution. That is where this movement is headed. Authority in America is top down; we need to upend it.

Thomas and Mari have given us a spiral-bound book of resource readings including, “Betraying the Revolution: A Minority Replicates the English Structure of Law Through the Adoption of the U.S. Constitution.” Understanding our system of law is a major part of what Democracy School is all about. This movement, “Living Democracy,” does not lend itself to sound bites or slogans, but basically it seems to be about reviving democracy and autonomous decision-making at a local level.

Turn Failure Into Success

We begin our study by examining the success and simultaneous failure of Thomas’s work as an environmental attorney. In the early years of his practice, Thomas won 138 cases and lost three, and as a successful environmental lawyer, won awards from environmental groups.

He was even honored at the White House. But Thomas says that despite winning cases, he realized that his clients were no better off. They continue to be overwhelmed by the corporations that he had helped them to fight. He was winning, but he felt like a failure.

How It Really Works

The battle is fought over the granting of regulatory permits. Corporate lawyers may not be very good at permit applications, but they don’t have to be. People like Thomas teach them how to do it more effectively by opposing them. After each loss, the corporate attorneys take what they’ve learned and file a new, improved application. The cost of losing means little to a wealthy corporation. Thomas was training corporate attorneys to succeed and his clients were going broke by being forced back into court. In the end it seems, the corporation always gets the permit.

One of the problems is that the corporate attorneys are the ones who are writing the regulations. We fight on their terms, in an arena which they define. The system is designed to exhaust us and that is what it does. You might win all of the battles and still lose in the end. It isn’t unusual to go through 10 or 15 court battles. To them, going to court is just a cost of doing business, and it’s tax deductible.

Protect or Regulate?

A popular belief is that our regulatory agencies protect us. Actually, the function of regulatory agencies is to regulate the public. By defining how we’re allowed to protest corporate power, we’re limited in how we can fight. Because the arena is circumscribed, so is our ability to prevail. We are forced to fight about something concrete and specific, like parts-per-million-allowable-levels-of-toxins in the water, and never about our right to refuse to have any toxins in our water. The fight is never about our right to be left alone to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The irony is that the environmental laws actually allow harm. The harm may be only at a maximum allowable level, but each project adds to the accumulated net harm. Environmental laws are not protecting us. They just create the illusion that somebody is doing something about environmental destruction.

Recall how colleges and universities, reacting to the massive demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, established what they called (with no trace of irony) free speech areas on campus – usually an enclosed space that could hold a few hundred people at most. Universities are supposed to be all about free speech. By limiting the places where unsanctioned speech is allowed to occur, it becomes clear that if this had ever been true, it no longer is. As a tactic to stifle demonstrations in other settings, containment has been widely adopted.

Money Rules

Mari explains further: What has evolved in our tradition of law is that the highest values of our nation are commerce and property, not the rights of communities, not the rights of workers, not the protection of the natural environment. Whoever owns a piece of land, or any company with a permit to exploit the land, has little obligation to preserve it. The law sides with the owner, or with the permit holder, because in our legal system, commercial and property rights supersede all others.

Environmental laws were never intended to protect the rights of people, but rather to protect the rights of a privileged minority to exploit a community’s natural resources. Environmental laws don’t help people thrive in their natural environment and they certainly don’t protect nature for its own sake. In the same way, labor laws were never intended to protect workers. Instead, they prevent disruption of commerce by limiting how workers are allowed organize in order to improve working conditions.

Since the passage of basic environmental laws 40 years ago, the situation has gotten worse by every major index, but not for lack of effort on the part of citizens. We win enough victories to keep us hopeful that someday soon, we’ll figure out how to prevail by working within the regulatory arena. Yet many victories prove to be temporary. Citizens are fragmented, working on narrowly defined, single-issue problems in scattered ways that lack coordination or overall purpose.

Push and Pull

Invariably, we fight against a specific damage, and rarely for something as broad as the right of a community to control its own destiny. We have been fighting symptoms, rather than getting at the core of the disease: excessive corporate legal power.

Only a minority of citizens realize the extent of corporate legal power. A corporation makes you an offer that you can’t refuse. We are not free to say no to factory farms, spreading of toxic sewage sludge, mining of ground water, big box stores, toxic waste incinerators, destructive mining practices and the like. For most projects, a community cannot legally say no.

To say “no” is to provoke a lawsuit seeking damages for impeding the right of the corporation to make a profit. The lawsuit will demand compensation for lost-opportunity costs. It sounds like a joke, but it is not.

What’s in a Name?

The power of wealthy corporations is a fundamental problem that never before has been attacked directly. Thomas illustrates with a story of how toxic sewage sludge is being used as an agricultural fertilizer. To improve the image of sludge, the industry trade association rebranded it as “biosolids.”

Sludge provoked a revolt in rural Pennsylvania, where people wanted nothing to do with it. The sad irony of the story is that Democracy School is named for Daniel Pennock, one of two children who died of exposure to sludge.

What happened in rural Pennsylvania illustrates the extent to which corporate power has become a fact of life in the United States. The astonishing part of the story is that townships, one after another, passed local ordinances which stripped corporations of their rights to do business as “persons” within the boundaries of the township. Illegal? Yes. But for people who were literally about to be shit upon, there was no other option.

For Additional Info

A Democracy School will be held, Fri., June 24 to Sat., June 25 in Bellingham. For more info, send an email to Stoney Bird: §

Back to Top of Story