The "Arcata Advisory Initiative on Democracy and Corporations": A Watershed Event in the History of Arcata - Changing the World, One Conversation at a Time

 

(Published in a number of activist journals and online in 1999)

 

 

Two years ago, a small group of energetic people living in Arcata, California launched a local grassroots organization with a bold goal. The organization was Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC); the goal was to begin educating and organizing to dismantle corporate rule in northern California and SW Oregon. Originally inspired by Richard Grossman, co-director of The Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) based in Massachusetts, our small organization has blossomed and matured into one of the country's most active grassroots groups challenging not simply the harms that corporations do, but the very rights which corporations claim: free speech rights, property rights, political participation rights, and much more.

 

For the last century, citizens have grown accustomed to treating large corporations as we would a human opponent: we negotiate with them, sue them, boycott them, plead with them to cause a little less harm. There is a new and growing social movement afoot across this nation which is refusing to play this game. We are relearning our history, and uncovering extraordinary examples of how state legislatures once defined the purpose of each new corporation they created - one at a time - and utilized fundamental state law (State Constitutions, State Corporate Codes, Corporate Charters) to maintain legal authority over the corporate form. Corporations were once required to each serve a specific social need, cause no harm, and at all times be subordinate to the sovereign people. Democracy Unlimited works to share this history widely, and in so doing, to change the basic groundrules so that citizens once again have legal authority over their corporate creations, in Humboldt County and beyond.

 

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"...over 80% of the public thinks that the economic system is inherently unfair. ...Alienation from institutions goes up every year. ...People are desperate. If this can be organized into a functioning democracy, wealth is in trouble. Serious trouble." - Noam Chomsky, in an interview in Spin Mag, 1993

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In May '98, myself and long-time activist Gary Houser together launched a spin-off project called Citizens Concerned About Corporations (CCAC) to run a local ballot initiative that would begin to challenge corporate rule in our small town of Arcata, CA. On June 10th of that year, the newly formed CCAC Steering Committee announced the "Arcata Advisory Initiative on Democracy and Corporations", which the county elections office assigned the name of "Measure F". From day one, we emphasized that this was not an anti-corporate campaign; we were simply trying to reassert the people's democratic authority over the corporation. We understand it to be the first ballot initiative in US history on the subject of dismantling corporate rule.

 

With only 26 days remaining before signature gathering deadline, Gary coordinated a small but energetic group of volunteers which succeeded in collecting almost 2000 signatures, and the initiative was placed on the November ballot. The fall campaign drew almost no opposition, and was endorsed by such notables as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Jim Hightower, as well as by the local Central Labor Council, two local businesses, and then-Mayor Jim Test who stated, "I support the adoption of Measure F, because we need to begin a discussion about the impact that large corporations have on our cultural and political institutions. I think it is appropriate that the discussion start in Arcata."

 

In the weeks leading up to election day, we delivered brochures to every doorstep in Arcata, placed 150 yard signs across the town landscape, and wrote numerous columns and letters in our local weekly - the Arcata Eye - as well as receiving comprehensive news coverage on KMUD - our FM community radio station.

 

We continued to receive little opposition. Most of it was delivered in a series of inaccurate and absurd editorials in the local daily newspaper, the Times-Standard, owned by MediaNews Group Corporation, one of the largest newspaper-owning corporations in the nation. Headlines included "Advisory Measure A Waste of Money" which claimed that the $200 our Initiative would cost the local taxpayers (less than $.02 per voter) was "a waste of money", and better spent "fill[ing] in a couple of potholes". Just before election day, it added these choice tidbits: "...Why introduce ordinances that have nothing to do with the way we live our lives or govern our city? Good questions. Take a look at this year's ballot, and you'll find a measure that essentially asks voters if all corporations are hell spawned, and if we can find a way to live in the wake of their destruction. ...Why must the city devote any time or resources to a silly little thing like this?..."

 

Remarkably, the paper flip-flopped in its pre-election endorsements list, shifting from the predictable con to a pro position at the last minute, which caused us to wonder if there wasn't some hanky-panky going on behind the scenes within the typing pool. As the editorial board refused to return any of our calls, we'll never actually know.

 

On November 3rd, Measure F won by 58% of the vote, clearly demonstrating that local residents considered the power of large corporations in our society and in our community to be a very significant issue which needs to be addressed in a meaningful way.

 

After the election, our Steering Committee began working closely with City Council to assist them in implementing the two stages of the Initiative, namely:

1. to run two official town hall meetings on the topic: "Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under law?", and

2. to establish a standing committee of City Council which would propose "policies and programs which ensure democratic control over corporations conducting business within the city,..." (see sidebar for full text of Measure F).

 

Stage one has just been completed, stage two is about to begin and will probably be unfolding for many years to come. The rest of this article focuses on the implementation of two Town Hall meetings, which took place on April 10th and May 6th.

 

In late January of this year, we had our first public meeting with the City Council to begin the implementation discussion, and it quickly became apparent that the City felt it would have to create an official Measure F Implementation Task Force simply to fund the process and be fully covered against liability. Three weeks later, Council began a search for seven applicants to serve on the Task Force, and approved $2400 in funding of the $7616 we had requested.

 

The $2400 in public money was utilized primarily to rent a large hall for the first Town Hall meeting, to provide childcare space for both meetings, to do publicity, and to send a final mailing to every Arcata residence at the completion of the meeting process (probably to be delivered in July).

 

Because City Council was only prepared to fund part of what we saw as essential community outreach leading up to the first Town Hall meeting, our Steering Committee began to raise its own funds to maintain our original full set of goals. These included a four-page mailing, which was hand-delivered by dozens of volunteers in mid-March to all 9000 Arcata households and businesses The mailing offered a brief history lesson about how corporations came to rule in America (copies still available); and announced the availability of facilitators for a series of informal house party study sessions to help residents prepare themselves for the meetings; the donation of an extensive collection of books, audio and videotapes to the public library on Democracy and Corporations (full list available); and much more.

 

The United States in the late 20th century has become quite a spectator democracy, with few people actually participating meaningfully in real decision-making, and Arcata is not much of an exception. Although it prides itself on its progressive and green activism, only two local residents who actually supported Measure F chose to apply to serve on the Task Force. But numerous opponents applied, so along with three Steering Committee members (including myself), we ended up with a Task Force made up of five supporters and two opponents, which has been quite an educational experience for all of us, pro and con. Both of the opponents are linked to Yakima Corporation (an ex-CEO and ex-manager) which was founded locally but now does most of its manufacturing at a maquiladora in Mexico. One of them, Bruce Hamilton, described the entire implementation process as "an extraordinary waste of time". Neither of them participated in any meaningful way in the actual preparatory work that filled our days between meetings.

 

Their primary goal was to stop the City Council from ever approving a standing committee as mandated by Measure F, and they've both worked very diligently to scare local residents, mostly through their frequent columns in the Arcata Eye claiming that Measure F is "the path to socialism", and that we intend to micro-manage the affairs of local businesses, and create a hostile anti-corporate environment that will ultimately wreak havoc on the local economy. Their writings also further stimulated an already vibrant letters column in the Eye, which can only be a positive step if we are to bring this discussion back into the public arena, and out of the shadows where it has remained for far too long.

 

The Times-Standard continued to inadequately cover Measure F, as would be expected from an absentee corporate daily. In February, it ran an editorial titled "Measure Worse Than Corporations" - a truly extraordinary claim, and it called Measure F "a needless and pointless piece of legislation". It also refused to properly announce the first Town Hall meeting, referring to it in a microscopic article simply as a public meeting where speakers would be present. The day after, their news story was titled "Good vs Evil in Arcata". If we are ever to reassert our authority over our corporate creations, we will need to begin with media-owning corporations like this one.

 

In March, we received an unexpected boost from Ralph Nader who had scheduled a major appearance here long before anyone had ever heard of Measure F. My colleague Gary Houser worked hard to ensure that Mr Nader would speak about Measure F from the podium, and his work paid off handsomely. To a crowd numbering more than 800, Nader had this to say: "If you keep going the way you're going, this country is going to hear of Arcata. ...I look forward to Arcata being a luminous star in the rising crescendo of democracy in our country." Additionally, the following morning, Nader endorsed Measure F at a press conference held in front of city hall. This additional attention helped us immensely in the final weeks leading up to the first meeting by attracting an additional 30 volunteers and lots of media coverage. A week later, Nader wrote an article which praised Measure F and it appeared nationally in Knight Ridder Corporation newspapers.

 

Student leaders at the local Humboldt State University had endorsed Measure F prior to the election, and had requested that we add a third Town Hall meeting that would take place on campus. On April 1st, we fulfilled this request. Only about 50 students and teachers attended, but the quality of the presentations and conversation which followed more than made up for the small crowd.

 

As the date of the first Town Hall meeting drew near, the Task Force finalized preparations.

 

We decided that a truly democratic conversation was impossible if the community sat in long rows of chairs all facing each other's backs, with everyone forced to stand in long lines patiently waiting their turn to speak into microphones. Instead, we chose to place about 360 chairs in concentric circles, with a six-seat circle in the very center facing inward, and with a microphone in front of each of the six chairs. It was decided that all speakers would sit in the center circle. This is called a fishbowl technique, and it has been proven effective over many years of testing. It offers the intimacy of a small group discussion in a large room of people. Five people sit in the inner circle which is the only place from which you are allowed to speak. When someone in the audience wishes to join the conversation, they enter the circle and sit down in the empty chair, which requires that someone already sitting there must promptly vacate their seat.

 

In order to ensure credibility, we decided that both meetings would be independently facilitated by a team of professionals, and we found four quite capable county residents eager to volunteer extensive numbers of hours to be a part of this historic process.

 

We decided that the first meeting would begin with a panel of four speakers, two who would answer "yes" and two who would answer "no" to the topic question: "Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under law?". The four presenters each spoke for eight minutes. They were: Kenya Hart - an industrial worker with twenty years experience in the commercial economy, Ron Ross - a principal of Premier Financial Group and former economics professor, Bruce LeBel - former Director of Operations for Yakima Corp and a Task Force member, and myself.

 

We had arranged a professional staff of videographers to capture both Town Hall meetings (copies are available), and both meetings were ultimately rebroadcast repeatedly on our local cable access TV station, with the second meeting going out live from Arcata's brand new Community Center. In addition, a Canadian - Mark Achbar - attended and filmed both meetings. He is the co-director of "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media", and is currently preparing a new film on the history and workings of "The Corporation" as the dominant institution of our time. (If you'd like to support this critical project - financially or otherwise - please contact Mark at 604-253-8333.)

 

Arcata's Food Not Bombs offered to prepare and serve free meals at both meetings, and their generosity and hard work were warmly welcomed.

 

Mainly due to our Steering Committee's continuing outreach and media coverage, by early April a new kind of conversation was becoming common in cafes, laundromats, and while standing in line at the post office. This had been a central goal of ours from the start: to launch a city-wide democratic conversation on a subject that hasn't been discussed in public for almost 100 years - how can our democracy survive the corporate assault now in full force? In the final days leading up to the first Town Hall meeting, Measure F literally became THE most talked about issue in Arcata. We were thrilled and amazed; our work was finally taking root in the culture of the community.

 

The day of the first Town Hall meeting finally arrived on a gray Saturday morning, and we all watched with some anxiety as the hall filled with people, a majority of whom I had never seen before. City Council member Jennifer Hanan welcomed the crowd, and encouraged them to speak their minds. Steering Committee member Amy Field gave a powerful introductory presentation describing briefly how this day had become a reality, and how a small group of committed citizen activists can successfully change the world, one town hall meeting at a time.

 

500 people were in attendance, almost five percent of Arcata's total voters! It was a truly remarkable day. Many dozens of people got a chance to speak their hopes and fears. Virtually all in attendance found the fishbowl a successful alternative to the standard seating and speaking arrangements. Most of the speakers agreed that corporate power must be addressed by this and every community if democracy is to survive. So many people wanted to speak that the facilitators extended the meeting to a fifth hour. The community got an all too rare chance to see and hear itself think, to collectively suspend its belief that there's nothing any of us can do to challenge corporate power, and to envision a different local reality. The day was truly a watershed moment in the history of my community, and the conversation continued informally for days afterwards wherever people gathered to chat. In my more than twenty years of activism, I have never before experienced such a revolutionary moment.

 

It was also clear that numerous local business owners truly were frightened by the possibility that a new City committee might have new powers to control business decisions. It became clear to the Steering Committee that we would have to work much harder to build trust and understanding with this critical subset of our community. Democracy Unlimited recently joined the local Chamber of Commerce, and we hope soon to co-sponsor with them an informational meeting about Measure F for the local business community.

 

Fo the second Town Hall meeting, the Task Force decided that the fishbowl should be repeated, but with a new set of more specific topic questions:

"How do large corporations affect community well-being and the democratic process in Arcata? What does 'democratic control over corporations' mean in Arcata? What would a Measure F Committee do, and what should its mandate be?"

 

It took place on a drizzly Thursday evening. After being officially welcomed by Mayor Bob Ornelas, we began the fishbowl with a pre-selected five-person group, but this time - no presentations. We simply launched directly into a provocative conversation, and then one by one stepped out of the circle as community members took our places. The fishbowl conversation lasted more than three hours. The crowd was much smaller, numbering about 140 people, yet the conversation was much more focused and directed, and there was much more diversity of opinion expressed. All in all, a very fine follow-up meeting that began to flesh out many specific ideas as to what should be the mandate of the City committee, and how large corporations impact people's lives locally.

 

The Task Force had placed evaluation forms on every seat at both meetings, and they were returned at a rate significantly higher than is the statistical norm: between one-quarter and one-third of participants at both meetings answered the full page of questions.

 

The next and final step towards Measure F implementation is the creation of the standing committee of city council. Two thirds of those who filled out evaluations at the second meeting favored the creation of a committee, even including a majority of local business owners who spoke. And almost 30 residents requested that they be notified by the city when the committee application process opens to the public later this year. All extremely encouraging, though we still have a lot to accomplish first.

 

Before it is dissolved in July, the Task Force still has an extensive report to author and to hand-deliver to every Arcata household. And it is becoming apparent that the formation of the committee may be such a hot potato that city council may be hesitant to create it at all. To a large degree, the outcome will depend on the level of engagement by local residents in the larger process. Will our friends and neighbors choose to view local government as "them" or "it", or as "we"? That simple perception will make or break the entire process. If local residents can be convinced in large enough numbers to view government's role as including not just physical infrastructure like roads and sewers, but also democratic infrastructure like the preservation of the commons, and the facilitation and public funding of the democratic process, than something very exciting will unfold here over the years to come.

 

Regardless of the outcome of this next phase, Democracy Unlimited and the Measure F Steering Committee that it created have already accomplished much much more than we ever could have dreamed of just one year ago. Thousands of local residents are now talking about corporate rule and how it impacts their lives. Hundreds of local residents now understand at least a general framework of how large corporations stole our democratic institutions from us, beginning in the mid to late 1800's, and what we must do to begin to reassert our authority over our corporate creations. Citizen activists across the county are beginning to reassess their current strategies in their work to stop corporate harms: that ultimately, it is much less work to challenge and dismantle the illegitimate rights that corporations now claim, rather than to continue to try to stop (or at least postpone) one corporate harm at a time via the regulatory agencies and courts which are themselves the turf of the large corporations. People across three northern California counties are beginning to discuss the possibility of running identical ballot initiatives (that have real legal teeth) for November 2000 . And groups across the US are beginning to discuss the replicating of Measure F in their towns and cities - Olympia, WA being the first to formally launch a ballot campaign a few months ago.

 

Like the Populists of the 1880's and 90's, we are building a new social movement from the ground up, one conversation at a time. We want to enter the high schools and the union halls, to meet with and ally ourselves with small business owners, small farmers, corporate employees, and any and all local citizens who are concerned about corporate power and its impact on our lives.

 

Democracy Unlimited recently moved into its own office, and these days is usually buzzing with activity. We have many more projects and ideas in the hopper, and urge you to contact us, whether you wish more information, want to volunteer, or simply to make a generous donation to our groundbreaking work. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

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This is the full text of Measure F:

 

City of Arcata Advisory Measure on Democracy and Corporations

 

The People of the city of Arcata do ordain as follows:

 

WHEREAS, The U.S. Constitution establishes the principle that "We the People" hold sovereign power to govern ourselves;

 

WHEREAS, Historically in this nation, corporations were created to be and were regarded as artificial entities, chartered only to serve the public interest, cause no harm, and at all times be subordinate to the sovereign people;

 

WHEREAS, The California Constitution of 1879 contained the following passage (similar to many other state constitutions):

"... the exercise of the police power of the state shall never be so abridged or construed as to permit corporations to conduct their business in such manner as to infringe the rights of individuals or the general well-being of the State." (Article XII, Section 8);

 

WHEREAS, A century ago, large corporations began an effort to transform the law and claim civil and political rights and privileges which were intended only for real human beings under the Constitution, including full participation in our democratic processes (such as unlimited spending to influence elections);

 

WHEREAS, Over the last century, large corporations were also successful in removing the language in most state constitutions (including California's) which had asserted citizen authority over corporations;

 

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, That the People of Arcata support the amending of the California Constitution so as to clearly declare the authority of citizens over all corporations. To this end, we request that our City Council co-sponsor (in cooperation with the drafters of this Initiative) two town hall meetings in the five months following passage of this ballot measure on the topic: "Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under law?";

 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, That the People of Arcata request that the city government of Arcata immediately act to establish, through the creation of an official committee, policies and programs which ensure democratic control over corporations conducting business within the city, in whatever ways are necessary to ensure the health and well-being of our community and its environment;

 

AND BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, That the People of Arcata request our city government to immediately forward copies of this ballot measure to all of our elected representatives at the county, state, and federal levels, and to members of the press.

 

 

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