Why do We the People allow corporate crime to be regulated instead of being outlawed?

Paul Cienfuegos’ September 22nd, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News


(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org/podcast, or subscribe via ITunes. Listen to this one HERE.)


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


Today I’m going to read a lengthy excerpt from a fascinating new article titled “Crime Can’t be Regulated – It Has to be Outlawed!”, which appears in the Common Sense newspaper published in June by Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the primary organization leading the Community Rights movement across the US. Here’s the article:


Media coverage of murder, rape, fraud, and larceny sends the message that crime doesn’t pay. Lawbreakers are supposed to face consequences. But when you compare how crimes against persons and property are reported to how crimes against nature are reported, we don’t hear about criminal actions, we hear about regulations that were not followed. The criminal is barely mentioned, much less punished. If there are to be fines, they are negotiated between the prosecutor and the errant corporation.


Why does our society treat one kind of crime with punishment and another kind of crime with complicity? Because federal and state governments issue permits that legalize a certain amount of otherwise criminal behavior. …


Society doesn’t ask government to regulate the number of robberies that will be allowed in any given neighborhood during a month’s time, nor allow robbery of items worth less than, for instance, a hundred dollars. Yet when corporate management claims it must commit environmental crimes in order to make a profit, our laws are written to allow damages like air pollution, groundwater contamination, carcinogens in our food stream, mercury in fish populations, blowing tops off of mountains, tinkering with the genetics of living beings, and thousands of other assaults on nature and the people who depend upon it. These “trade-offs” for corporate profit fall within guidelines negoti-ated between government and corporate representatives and, according to agreed upon upper limits to the harm, are politically controlled by regulatory agencies that issue permits legalizing all of it.


Media reporting on ecosystem destruction and harms caused by industry … are often written in ways that sympathize with the perpetrator. We don’t see headline stories about stabbings, robberies, or slayings softened in ways that make us feel sorry for the killer or the thief. The crimes against communities are somehow assumed as necessary and unavoidable in order to maintain the level of convenience and comfortable lifestyles that we’ve all come to accept as “normal.” When we view bulldozed and scraped farmlands, industrial towers, paved parking lots, compromised watersheds, polluted skylines, and dirty rivers, media kicks in to say, we can’t have progress without damage. …


The state orders its regulatory agencies to “facilitate the permitting of business and industry,” as agency spokespeople explain decisions that were already made before the first public hearing. …


Chartered corporations planning to engage in what would otherwise be criminal activities have been empowered to use law against us. [Corporate leaders] who want to do something illegal – like violating the Clean Water Act – simply apply to the federal permitting agency for a waiver. The waiver forgives the crime of poisoning the environment and community in advance and protects the company from liability. Regular criminals don’t enjoy the kind of impunity habitually demanded by and granted to corporate actors.


Corporate managers don’t want to incur financial responsibility for poisoning community members and ecosystems. Liability for these kinds of crimes does not fit into the corporate business model. They have invested strategically in a system of politically controlled regulation that now redirects the responsibility for those damages back to the communities where they occur – for example, when a fracking well leaks and contaminates local drinking water, residents have to find an alternative water supply at their own expense. Cleaning up the contaminated well, if it can be salvaged at all, is also at the community’s expense. …


Most corporate crimes that take place in our communities are either “legalized” in advance or they go unprosecuted by government. The federal government subsidizes energy companies to engage in rights-violating activities as corporate “persons”. … Entire communities are treated as collateral damage. Federal policy creates the recipe, state agencies legalize the poisoning, and community members have no legally recognized civil and political power to refuse. Manipulation of our legal system through the creation of legal theories that have placed corporate power and privilege above the rights of human and natural communities across the planet has been used over the past 150 years to build a calloused attitude toward corporate crimes. To add insult to injury, it is usually the state that comes into the legal argument on behalf of the company – not to protect the residents or the environment. …


So what do we do? Bury our heads in the sand and hope for the best? Or take a stand for our communities, our children and grandchildren, and this planetary ecosystem?


Nearly 200 communities across the U. S. – and that number is growing – have chosen the latter. Through local, municipal lawmaking, they are outlawing those activities that cause harm; codifying their community rights to clean air and water, to a healthy environment, and the rights of nature; and insisting that it is the people who are sovereign – not corporations or government.


I have been reading from a wonderful new essay titled “Crime Can’t be Regulated – It Has to be Outlawed!”, published in the Common Sense newspaper by Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. You can find out more about their groundbreaking work at CELDF.org.


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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