The Right of Local Self-Government: This is What Democracy (Actually) Looks Like

Paul Cienfuegos’ January 19, 2016 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. Listen to this one HERE.)


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


I was one of the lucky ones who got to spend an entire week in the streets and at the teach-ins in downtown Seattle - beginning on November 30, 1999 - when the World Trade Organization made the fateful mistake of bringing their international trade negotiations conference to the Pacific Northwest’s largest city. Over several extraordinary days, at least 60,000 citizens came together from across the world and successfully shut down the WTO’s obscene gathering of corporate and government leaders who were there to carve up the planet for profit. This scale of public outrage had never been seen before at a global trade negotiation, and it rocked the corporate boardrooms.


Yet there was still something that wasn’t quite right about our big success. There we were, day after day, marching through downtown Seattle, creating traffic chaos, and chanting, “This is what democracy looks like, This is what democracy looks like”. And all the time, I kept thinking to myself – actually, this is not at all what real democracy looks like. In an authentic and well-functioning democratic society, the public would not have to march down the middle of a street to get its own government to pay attention. We would not have to put our bodies on the line, risking arrest, to shut down a corporate trade treaty organization. We the People would be the ones sitting around the table, deciding what sort of trade was ecologically and economically sustainable, and therefore allowed to proceed. But that felt more like a dream than anything that could be achieved anytime soon.


So as we marched, I found myself chanting a subtly different refrain: “This is not what democracy looks like, This is not what democracy looks like.” And amusingly, people who were marching beside me would hear my words, and would laugh, and then they too would start to chant, “This is not what democracy looks like”. But at least we felt a little bit powerful, because we were 60,000 strong - We the People of Planet Earth. And yes, I was tear gassed that week more times than I can remember. And yes, I saw levels of police violence against nonviolent demonstrators that made my blood boil. But even this was a good thing for this privileged white boy to experience with my own eyes.


Since 1999, I have done a lot of thinking about what genuine democracy might look like, and how we might get there in these disUnited States of America. And right around that same time, I got involved in what has come to be known as the Community Rights movement. I was one of the movement’s earliest organizers and workshop leaders, which is the work I still do today. We have now helped about 200 communities in nine states to reclaim the self-governing authority that was stolen from them just one decade after the Declaration of Independence was written - when James Madison and George Washington and others organized a political coup in this country, that tossed out our founding constitution which was titled ‘The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union’, a constitution that had recognized that local communities had self-governing authority. The history of this brief period has been mostly forgotten until recently. Here’s a little nibble of that history, excerpted from a wonderful new booklet titled, The People’s Right of Local Community Self-Government.


“The colonists struggle with British rule illustrates how community self-government took shape as the foundation of the American system of constitutional law. The colonists’ efforts culminated in the Declaration of Independence, which codified the principles of local self-government that had been forged by American settlements since the 1600’s. … [In fact,] the concept of community self-government in America dates back to the Mayflower Compact, adopted in 1620. … [which] was the first constitution of its kind to be written by the American colonists. … In one paragraph, [it] dismantled the old system of government – based on royal authority – and forged a new one based purely on the political sovereignty of the people themselves.”


This laser focus on the right of local self-government continued throughout the 1700’s and into the founding of states with their own constitutions. For example, “in Pennsylvania’s ‘Declaration of Rights’, incorporated in the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, the people declare,


“That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation, or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men, who are a part only of that community; And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal.”


“The Pennsylvania Constitution [also] made clear that the people’s right of self-government could not be overridden by other levels of government. [That in fact] the people’s inherent inalienable rights are forever superior to the state government [and] not subject to control by the state government.”


“The right of local, community self-government … is also protected by the Ninth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. … [Although all of this is historical fact,] community lawmaking … has generated mostly critical, occasionally derisive treatment from legislators, jurists, and commentators…” And legal doctrines have been concocted to severely restrict local power, such as corporate constitutional so-called “rights”, Dillon’s Rule, and state preemption.


And yet, believe it or not, “it is the people who give the state the authority to govern and not the other way around.” This deeper truth is what energizes the Community Rights movement, now active in about fifteen states, as we work to bring this early American history back to life, and help citizens to realize that our right of community self-government is not some pie in the sky notion, but something grounded directly in the American Revolution. We believe that if a local community majority cannot exercise its authority to protect its own health and welfare, then we cannot honestly claim that we live in a democratic society. Therefore, our movement is attempting to reawaken The People to claim our rightful place at the center of decision-making. I invite you to join us where you 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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