The revolution may take longer than expected.
The Washington Court of Appeals this week rejected arguments by Coal-Free Bellingham to place their referendum on the November ballot for voter approval. In its essence, the referendum sought to elevate the rights of people, communities, and nature above those of corporations, property, and commerce. Its practical effect would be to restrict the movement of coal trains through Bellingham.
A panel of three appeals court judges agreed with the Aug. 3 ruling of Whatcom Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder those goals exceed the legislative authority of the City of Bellingham, and the power of citizen initiatives granted under state law and the city charter. Snyder took the further, unusual precaution of granting the petition of the City of Bellingham to have the referendum struck from the ballot entirely. The appeals court concurred.
“We must now ask a fundamental question,” David Maas commented in a letter to Cascadia Weekly. Maas serves on the steering committee of Bellingham’s Living Democracy movement, which sponsored the initiative and gathered more than 10,000 signatures. “Why is an incorporated government like the City of Bellingham powerless to stop the development of a private project that will reshape our community?” he asked.
“What are our alternatives? For us,” Maas wrote, “there is only one choice, to come together as a community not only to oppose unwanted projects, but to improve our schools, rebuild our local economies, and enhance our living environment.
“Nor will we abandon our belief that a community should have a voice in decisions like the proposed renovation of the BNSF train corridor, the construction of a coal terminal at Cherry Point, and the dramatic increase in commercial traffic,” he wrote.
The answer may be that Bellingham must expand the debate and encompass even larger goals. This intent was always embedded in the sweeping Bellingham Community Bill of Rights proposed for the ballot.
“Given the system of government within which our City Council members have taken their oath to uphold, we believe that they are the last ones we should expect to use the municipal corporation to directly challenge the likes of BNSF, SSA Marine, or Goldman Sachs,” Living Democracy chair Rick Dubrow explained, chipping at the flaws of our representational government. “As we’ve seen time and time again, once someone is elected, they see themselves as the caretaker of the municipal corporation itself, and they become a steward of all processes of lawmaking within the municipal entity.
“Simply put,” Dubrow said, “a municipality like our city is designed and built to avoid confronting what is harming us, if stopping those harms sheds light upon the legal doctrines which have built the bars of the prison cage itself. A longer civics lesson would reveal that this municipal role has been well crafted by a Pavlovian mechanism of punishment and reward, and by a resulting state and federal system that finely limits municipal corporations while setting private corporations loose.”
There’s really no need to emphasize the power and control that profit-driven corporations have had in the design and construction of a system that favors commerce over the very people affected by that commerce, Dubrow argues. In essence, that system places the rights of those corporations over the people of Bellingham by restricting what the municipal corporation can, and can’t do; and by making the municipality liable to private corporations who have a different future vision for our community.
To build a better community, a better democracy, may mean building a better city, a city more caring of and deliberate in its actions.
Cities are the centers for revolutionary politics, we’re told, where the deeper currents of social and political change rise to the surface. Consequently, cities have been the subject of much utopian thinking. But at the same time they are also the centers of capital accumulation and the frontline for struggles over who controls access to urban resources and who dictates the quality and organization of daily life.
In essence, Bellingham’s Living Democracy movement demands the “right to the city.” The term was coined in a 1968 essay by sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre wrote:
The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
That right was both a cry and a demand, explains geographer and Marxist scholar David Harvey in his recent book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, a forensic dissection of the powerful forces that beset communities.
“The cry,” Harvey writes, “was a response to the existential pain of a withering crisis of everyday life in the city. The demand was really a command to look that crisis clearly in the eye and to create an alternative urban life that is less alienated, more meaningful.
“The right to the city,” he continues, “rises up from the streets, out from the neighborhoods, as a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed peoples in desperate times.
“We live in a world, after all, where the rights of private property and the profit rate trump all other notions of rights one can think of,” Harvey observes. “But there are occasions when the ideal of human rights takes a collective turn, as when the rights of workers, women, gays, and minorities come to the fore.”
Harvey outlines the broader challenge for the coming century, “Corporate privileges that confer the rights of individuals without the responsibilities of true citizens must be rolled back. Public goods such as education and health care must be publicly provided and made freely available. The monopoly powers in the media must be broken. The buying of elections must be ruled unconstitutional. The privatization of knowledge and culture must be prohibited. The freedom to exploit and dispossess others must be severely curbed, and ultimately outlawed.”
Distinct from Main Street, Wall Street, he argues, “has one universal principle of rule—that there shall be no serious challenge to the absolute power of money to rule absolutely. That power must be exercised with one objective—those possessed of money power shall not only be privileged to accumulate wealth endlessly at will, but they shall have the right to inherit the earth, not only taking either direct or indirect dominion of the land and all the resources and productive capacities that reside therein, but also assuming absolute command, directly or indirectly, over the labor and creative potentialities of all those others it needs.”
The resistance, Harvey continues, arises naturally out of our practices in the diverse spaces of the city even as those spaces are subject to enclosure, social control, and appropriation by private interests. Human endeavor is organized through the city; to improve the endeavor, improve the city.
The city, the noted urban sociologist Robert Park once wrote, is “man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.”
If Park is correct, Harvey argues, then the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: It is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire.
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