Imagining a MASSIVE Shift of Activism from National to Local

Paul Cienfuegos’ August 4th, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News


(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at,, or subscribe via ITunes.)


Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.


Virtually all activism in the US that has anything to do with corporate power tends to have tactics and strategies that focus almost entirely on a federal or state solution. I find this fact quite troubling, given that We the People do not currently have the political power to successfully influence state or federal legislative law-making. And yet, our social movements ignore this fact, year after year after year.


We plead with President Obama to block Shell Oil company’s planned drilling in the Arctic, and when he ignores our pleas, we quickly run out of other ideas for achieving our goal. In Oregon, we plead with Governor Kate Brown to block Nestle Corporation’s goal of purchasing the right to bottle spring water near Cascade Locks in the Columbia Gorge, and when she ignores our pleas we don’t exactly have a Plan B. We plead with our congress people to vote no on national legislation banning state governments from writing their own laws on GMO agriculture, which was written to benefit Monsanto Corporation, and when they ignore our pleas there’s little we can do. It doesn’t seem to matter much what the issue is – the building of new coal fired power plants, the promotion of the latest global corporate trade treaty outrage like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the clearcutting of our last remaining ancient forests, etc.


Activist communities invest an unbelievable amount of time, money, and energy trying to pressure our federal and state elected leaders to do the right thing, and we almost always lose. You know the old adage – that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I really don’t enjoy pointing out this obvious fact, because it’s always very good people working very hard. Everyone’s heart is in the right place. But somehow we fail to notice that we’re acting an awful lot like hamsters on a wheel.


Imagine instead a fundamentally different strategy, where we come to terms with the fact, albeit a very painful one, that we mostly cannot win at the federal or state level these days simply because we’re outgunned by corporate lobbyists, corporate candidates, and corporate money. But we still can win at the municipal and county level. Most activists assume that’s not a scale of government where we can accomplish very much, but I beg to differ with that assumption. In fact, I would argue, it is currently the most effective level of government for us to be organizing. In fact, the Community Rights movement has achieved one major win after another at the local level, now with 200 communities in nine states having already passed locally enforceable laws that ban harmful corporate activities and reign in corporate so-called “rights”.


Imagine for a moment a fundamental shift in conventional organizing. Imagine communities along the Keystone XL pipeline route passing Community Rights ordinances that ban the pipeline’s passage through their towns. Isn’t that a lot less work than trying to get Obama to veto the project?


Imagine cities and towns across the country nullifying the implementation of these outrageous corporate trade treaties within their municipal boundaries. In fact, some of our communities already have. Imagine cities that host major universities passing local laws that ban corporate funding of university research, so that we can finally get back to trusting the scientific process again and taking back public control over all scientific research projects.


Imagine counties that currently host dangerous nuclear power plants passing locally enforceable laws that shut down these disasters that are waiting to happen. Imagine rural counties that depend on logging for their economic health passing local laws that take logging decisions out of the hands of corporate boards of directors and into the hands of public participatory processes.


Imagine counties in the Midwest passing Community Rights laws that ban any more factory farms from being built there. Imagine counties passing laws along the routes of the oil and coal trains destined for Pacific Coast ports that ban the local passage of those oil and coal trains. Imagine major cities passing locally enforceable laws that set new minimum standards for the performance of corporate owned mainstream media institutions, and revoke their right to continue in those cities if they refuse to fulfill their new higher level of responsibility to their readers and viewers.


Imagine Hood River County passing a Community Rights law that bans corporate mining of spring water for bottling. Imagine Portland’s voters passing a law that gives neighborhoods the authority to prohibit major corporate developments that don’t meet the vision that the neighbors have for where they live. Imagine communities passing laws that ban locally operating banks from foreclosing on homeowners except when absolutely necessary. Imagine cities passing bans on the building of toxic waste incinerators.


Is it really that crazy for our activist communities to reconsider how they are focusing their efforts, especially given the fact that most of the time, we lose and the corporations win? Time is quickly running out for our species on Planet Earth, if we don’t figure out how to become a lot more effective in our efforts towards ecological protection, and economic and social justice. Is it that crazy a notion that our activism could shift almost entirely towards the local - passing Community Rights laws that begin to effectively transition our cities, towns and counties towards truly sustainable practices?


Everyone lives somewhere. Can we not imagine each and every somewhere becoming a place where The People are mobilized to defend where they live from any further corporate harms? If 200 communities in nine states have already achieved this remarkable feat, is it that crazy to dream about thousands of communities passing these laws over the next few years?


It’s time to dream big. It’s time to shift gears. It’s time to move our energy away from trying to influence our so-called leaders who are refusing to lead, and instead to mobilize ourselves in the places that each of us live.


You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.


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