Solidarity and plurality of liberation movements and strategies

March 23, 2014

3/29/14 Update

Russ at Attempter blog posted his thoughts on Sarah and Michael’s piece:

3/28/14 Update

Kai Huschke, an organizer working for CELDF in the Pacific Northwest, has posted a Response to CELDF critique by IOPS.  Kai also posted as a comment at ZComm.  Here’s a small excerpt:

It is very clear that nothing will develop nor evolve in regards to securing rights for people, communities, and nature, and containing corporate and economic power, if the focus is put on IOPS or CELDF or any other organization.

The fight for rights has always been about each of us liberating ourselves first and then taking that liberation on the road. From there we each can make our own decisions on what or who to associate with, or building the necessary means to fight for rights.

Clarity of what we are up against is critical to formulating the direction we go. That means taking a look in the mirror as well as the evidence around us.

The entire piece is well-crafted, well-tempered and well-worth the read.


This blog post is a response to some problematic structural dynamics I have encountered in Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston’s discussion focus and engagement process. I have witnessed problems in three ways: through a mutual friend (whose enthusiasm they dismissed hurtfully and patronizingly as “naive”), through Sarah’s engagement of me in the comments section of a post on the Integral Permaculture blog (which strangely claims “community rights” as somehow a more decentralized form of “states’ rights” — perhaps a marketing problem the community rights movement should address), and finally through their own independent “analysis” of the community rights movement, also cross-posted to ZComm.

That said, I want to say that I appreciate the open and public format of Sarah’s and Michael’s discussion of movement strategies. As many concerns as I have about process and structure, it would be much worse for these discussions to happen privately and behind backs vs publicly. I think public discussion allows us to enact and embody the shared values we purport to promote. I live in the same town and city as the authors of the blog. I became involved in our county’s newly-forming community rights chapter after hearing Thomas Linzey’s inspiring keynote address at the 2012 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon. My experience with and understanding of community rights stands in stark contrast to the strange assertions and abstract critiques they and others have made.

Sarah and Michael are members of my natural community, and frankly I am at a loss to explain their behavior.   I apologize out of solidarity to my fellow Oregon Community Rights Network members and other activists nationally and internationally who bust their chops as grassroots volunteers to assert and elevate the inherent and inalienable rights of nature, natural communities and natural persons.  Your work for us all and for the earth deserves better than this!

This problem is much larger than IOPS or community rights or any individuals therein. I have witnessed and experienced the same frustrating “more radical than thou” liberal gatekeeping that a few individuals perpetrate in many liberation movements, and the problem is perhaps as old as the concept of liberation itself.  I see this issue regularly in racial, class and gender justice work, for example.  Monty Python’s Life of Brian provides hilarious commentary on this frustrating issue:

Inasmuch as Sarah and Michael serve as spokesepersons for IOPS, their misconduct strikes me as a giant red flag.


I believe that public discussions are most beneficial when participants engage in good faith and with good will. Unfortunately, I have yet to see evidence of either from my interactions to-date with one of the article’s authors. Worse, I have encountered significant evidence to the contrary in my three encounters with them thus far, including name-calling, cherry-picking supporting evidence, ignoring conflicting evidence, and framing contradictory arguments on baseless assertions, stereotypes or generalizations, and complete lack of direct experience or engagement in the movement, to name a few. More recently, someone posted as “Ivan Illich” a very thoughtful comment disputing their blog post, and one author promptly accused that person of “trolling” (an accusation the commenter then engaged in an admirably gracious and good-faith manner).

Response focus:  Such unfortunate and frustrating circumstances lead me away from a focus on content and into the territory of discussion dynamics: honesty, constructive engagement, and the importance of collaboration, solidarity and plurality of movements and movement strategies.

The IOPS appears to have both strategy and goals that parallel “the (sic) community rights strategy,” noting that “the” community rights strategy does not actually exist since community rights movement is an organic grassroots revolution evolving out of fundamental and universally-shared principles valuing and asserting the inherent and inalienable rights of nature, natural communities and natural persons. The key differences seem to be that IOPS, as a two-year old experiment, appears less grounded and not yet as well-developed — which are not bad things at all. It just means that IOPS simply doesn’t have the history or experience, yet, that community rights has developed over the past 15 years. I recognize this might be splitting hairs, since with all the progress made via community rights, we all (including, but not limited to community rights) have a long road ahead of us.

More to the point, these are not, to my knowledge, competing movements, inasmuch as they both seek to liberate people, places and planet from destructive systems of oppression.   I would like to invite collaboration between IOPS and community rights in the achievement of our mutual goals in the context of their similar vision for fundamental societal transformation toward the liberation of nature, natural communities and natural persons.  The community rights movement as a whole has learned some amazing lessons, as has CELDF through its support of the movement, and I have experienced nothing but a willingness to be openly self-critical for the sake of learning and growing better, more-effective strategies. Community rights depends on collaboration and accountability, which I think contributes to my experience of movement’s tendency toward inclusion instead of exclusion as we work our way up and against the “chain of command” of society’s existing hierarchy and molt our anti-democratic skin in favor of a more perfect union existing primarily for the purpose of protecting the inherent and inalienable rights of nature, natural communities and natural persons everywhere.  I hope that IOPS has members who embody this ethic.  I would love to collaborate with them.

To be fair, I also invite collaboration with members of the NRA, for example, and for the same fundamental reasons: specifically, in this case, to ensure the continued right of the people to bear arms.  And to access clean water. And breathe unpolluted air. And acheive food sovereignty. And have shelter. The list goes on. That’s one of the beautiful things about this process of recognizing, defining, asserting and defending — at the grassroots level — the inherent rights of nature, natural communities and natural persons into law. It cuts deep — real deep. When a natural community asserts the inherent and inalienable rights of nature, natural communities and natural persons in its own little corner of the universe, it necessarily does so in solidarity with nature, natural communities and natural persons everywhere.

I challenge the invariably patronizing and critical tone that the authors strike, and ask what they hope to accomplish. The authors seem to think that they can “educate” (even “warn”) people about community rights, and do so without any direct experience or engagement with the actual communities and individuals who drive the movement (or any movement) forward.  This strikes me as an alienating, isolating and self-marginalizing approach which may undercut the stated values and goals of their own movement. Is it too much to ask that the authors speak from their own experience?  Which then begs the question: what is their actual experience (with community rights, CELDF, movement building, and radical social change? In today’s urgent climate for fundamental societal transformation, we need effective allies and action, not self-important critics!

The authors seem more concerned with poking holes in existing movements than they are with developing actual, practical experience with those movements or even developing their own movement.  Their behavior reminds me of a classic piece from Incite Blog entitled, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants.”  The essay describes how people who attempt to engage in radical movements while failing to do the necessary work to decolonize their own thoughts and behaviors serve primarily as agents of disruption at best, and sometimes much worse.

A group exists in the very same community that the authors live, and the movement has generally addressed pretty much all of the relevant concerns they raise in its inception (e.g., the need for grassroots strategizing and solidarity and transparent evaluation metrics) — something the authors would have known had they accepted but one of several invitations to participate and learn more instead of retreating prematurely and leveling baseless and inaccurate critiques from an abstract distance.  At the very least, the authors might take a more practical position in recognition of the need to focus their limited energies on building their own, similar movement rather than tearing down others.

When they have their own movement (with wonderful goals!) to build, why do they spend so much energy creating straw men and chasing red herrings in a movement with decidedly similar goals?  Community rights, IOPS and Move to Amend, for example, are all pieces of a larger strategic puzzle moving forward.  Should community rights activists feel somehow threatened by Move to Amend’s work inasmuch as there is overlap?  Likewise, should we feel threatened by someone’s decision to work within the regulatory framework to minimize or slow down the damage the system does?   No!  That’s like asking whether we should respond to or prevent men’s violence against women.  The answer is:  Yes.  Both.  We might disagree on strategy, but we have common goals, and overlap is opportunity for collaboration and cross-pollination!

Diverse strategies are always better than monological, hegemonic strategies. My partner reminded me that hegemonic strategies accomplish little more than to divide and conquer movements that — when allied — greatly threaten the existing power structures. No single strategy or movement has all the answers, and beware any movement or person who claims or implies otherwise, or who claims that a single movement or strategy may somehow even have the capacity to accommodate perfection (i.e., “if only everyone got involved in my movement”)!

So, how do we build solidarity and collaboration amongst diverse movements with diverse strategies who express shared, overlapping or complementary values and goals?   I’ll start:  I think it takes trust, humility, accountability and honesty.   I feel fortunate that my experience with community rights thus far has strengthened my faith in the people involved in the movement.

Following are some comments directly address a few of the first assertions within the blog post-in-question.

Baseless assertion: “That changed when CELDF started promoting “community rights” here in Oregon.” (emphasis mine)

On what evidence do the authors base this assertion? The Oregon network, for example, consists of county chapters and local communities, a volunteer force. CELDF does not promote, nor has it ever promoted community rights in Oregon. I am not aware of it promoting community rights anywhere except on its website. The movement started because communities approached CELDF for support. I don’t know or understand why or how Sarah or Michael came to the opposite conclusion. The movement continues to grow via word of mouth and grassroots organizing efforts, some of which includes new communities approaching CELDF or other independent community rights activists to help get the ball rolling.  Members of communities promote community rights, and ask outsiders for technical and logistical assistance as they wish. Communities ask CELDF to teach Democracy Schools, for example, because the communities want it.  In contrast, the author paints CELDF as a bully attempting to impose itself on communities and ram something down our throats (ironically painting us as passive, helpless people who lack any agency of our own), when nothing could be further from the truth.  CELDF is just one collaborative player among many others, such as the Environmental Law Center.

Promotion of fictional “corporate rights”: “The third (Democracy School Online Part VII at ~17:00 to 23:00) was to assist communities to enact ordinances that purported to strip corporations of their constitutional rights (sic).” (emphasis mine)

1. Corporations, like states, do not have constitutional rights, let alone rights at all. We can’t strip corporations (or states) of something that they don’t possess! They have some ill-conceived and painfully contorted court decisions that attempt to claim that they have rights.

In Pennsylvania in 2013, Supreme Court Judge O’Dell-Seneca declared that “in the absence of state law, business entities are nothing.” Corporations do not and never will exist autonomously from law, and so will never have inherent, inalienable rights of natural persons. “It is axiomatic,” she asserted, “that corporations, companies, and partnerships have no ‘spiritual nature,’ ‘feelings,’ ‘intellect,’ ‘beliefs,’ ‘thoughts,’ ’emotions,’ or ‘sensations,’ because they do not exist in the manner that humankind exists…They cannot be ‘let alone’ by government, because businesses are but grapes, ripe upon the vine of the law, that the people of this Commonwealth raise, tend, and prune at their pleasure and need.” (emphasis mine)

2. Power is inherent in nature, natural communities and natural persons. Therefore people, communities and nature itself must define and assert that power as the basis for legitimate structures of democratic law and governance. In contrast, a structure of human law and governance that undermines the actual basis of its power is, by-definition, illegitimate and non-viable. Unfortunately, we live under the thumb of such a structure today.

3. Michael and Sarah’s lawyerly and apologetic focus on “enforceability” is neither helpful nor surprising. The fact that an oppressive hierarchy will act punitively against those who attempt to liberate themselves from its grasp (e.g., through legal action) is not surprising. As “Ivan” pointed out, the abolition and women’s suffragist movements were also illegal at the time they existed, and faced legal sanctions for the work they did. We refuse to wait for the structure of human law and governance to catch up to the needs of nature, natural communities and natural persons, and will act accordingly, the same as the abolitionists, suffragists and other activists throughout history, in the interests of universal human rights, as well as the inherent rights of nature and natural communities.

Community rights (perhaps along the lines of IOPS) is a broader and more inclusive movement to rip all the cancer of oppression out of existing structure of human law and governance. Imagine a democratic union based centrally on the universal recognition and protection of the inherent and inalienable rights of all nature, natural communities and natural persons. No exceptions. No loopholes. Compare that to our current Constitution that puts commerce before the rights of persons, and had an incomplete and half-hearted Bill of Rights laundry list tacked onto it after-the-fact, and still leaves entire groups of people, communities, places and the earth in general high and dry.

There are so many more distortions in Sarah and Michael’s analysis that, had I not had direct experience with many different community rights groups, I would hesitate to associate with the movement.  Time will prove analyses such as these wrong.  In the mean time, I wanted to focus on some more fundamental dynamics of structure and process that I see and problematic and needing improvement.  Perhaps this is an opportunity for us…


This is an issue a much more inclusive “we” need to address.  To start, I hereby declare the need for plurality of movements and strategies to move forward in solidarity and constructive collaboration toward the liberation of natural persons, natural communities and nature itself. Honk if you do, too :) and let’s GET MOVING!  There’s no shortage of work to do, inside the regulatory system to slow the destruction, and outside of it to stop the destruction at its source.  Pick your path!