Let’s mount a civil rights campaign with Community Rights

In the wake of Ferguson, I’m writing to guage the interest in framing and running civil rights campaigns using the tools and platform that the Community Rights movement provides through local assertion and elevation of civil rights.  Ferguson boils, but every community suffers (perhaps more quietly) from the same underlying problems and tensions.

For people who are already on the same page about the flawed legal foundations of our civil rights laws and want to dive into specifics, feel free to jump to

  1. the discussion on what we can do and
  2. what a Community Bill of Rights looks like.

The legal problem with current civil rights laws

In our current national legal system, civil rights laws depend on commerce law as their source of authority and enforcement.  Our system views commerce as a more fundamental legal reality than civil rights.  In other words, we don’t recognize the civil rights of anything we don’t view as an economic unit of value.  Due to this dependency, when a conflict exists between the two, the more fundamental structure takes precedence and nullifies the civil rights.  Enforcement of rights depends on the ability to enforce commerce laws, which often puts various movements in artificial conflict with one-another (e.g., environmentalists filing amicus briefs in support of federal violation of civil rights).

Consider from our FAQ that [emphasis mine]:

Past civil rights gains have depended on the Commerce Clause for their constitutionality and enforceability, because the current US Constitution does not recognize, nor does it grant authority to protect, inherent and inalienable rights separately from commerce.  For example, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) supporters have stated concerns about the viability of the civil rights-based law[6] due to its dependence on the recently-limited Commerce Clause as the source of constitutional authority to enforce civil rights laws in the wake of United States v. Lopez.[7]  Two years later, United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000) struck down the civil rights remedy of VAWA because it “exceeded Congressional authority.” 

The actual text of the law read:

The text of the clause recognized the “right to be free from crimes of violence: All persons within the United States shall have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender.”

Our federal government does not and will not recognize this civil right, and as such, does not recognize gender violence as a priority issue to address in our society.  More fundamentally, it does not have the legal authority to even consider it a priority.  Our government also has no legal basis to prioritize civil rights above commercial activity.  As such, our government will either directly violate or support the violation of civil rights wherever it appears that commerce benefits.

Consider this in the context of the violence occurring in our nation:  both police and non-police shootings are gender-motivated. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jackson-katz/men-gender-gun-violence_b_2308522.html)  The majority of violence in our nation falls into two categories:  men harassing and assaulting other men, or men harassing and assaulting others who don’t identify or appear as heteronormative men (including women and LGBTQ people).  The common theme, though, is that most perpetrators are men, and most violent crimes are motivated by gender.  Consider the racial tensions in the nation right now:  How many of those shootings involved women?  We’re talking about situations almost invariably involving male cops targeting black men or boys.

If we do not have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender in our society, we simply do not have the right to be free from crimes of violence, let alone the fact that we lack a basis to hold perpetrators of such crimes accountable.

What do we do?

We don’t need to wait to address the violence at its roots.  All it takes is for us to decide that we won’t wait any longer for someone else to make violence a priority and fix the issue for us.  The community rights movement presents us with an option for a legal system where everything else in our law and society derives from inherent, inalienable rights.  To create a more fundamentally just system takes work on every level of that system, including — but not limited to — a fundamental rewrite of our nation’s constitution (which amounts to more comprehensive rights protections and centering them at the core of our society’s law, a foundation upon which all other laws are based).

Community rights gives us a platform to address this and other egregious and outstanding civil rights issues on local (city, county) levels without needing to wait for state and federal governments to catch up.  By confronting these issues locally, we start an important, action-oriented conversation about the fundamental nature of our society.  Furthermore, addressing rights on the local levels first ensures an engaged citizenry and helps push the higher levels of governemnt to fall into line with these basic principles of human rights, creating both the substance and structure for the much-needed rewrite of our nation’s constitution as a document representing the collective protections and liberties we, the people (inclusive!) believe everyone should have.  In this system, lower levels of government have the freedom to increase or elevate (but not to violate) rights protections as they please, leading to faster adoption of liberties and protections at the highest levels.

We can frame and run a community rights campaign that gives every resident of the county or city where we live the legal right to be free from violence (which is most often motivated by gender).  The issue of violence (or almost any other civil rights issue) can serve as a catalyst around which we can build a more comprehensive civil rights movement addressing many outstanding issues.  Together, these issues can become Community Bills of Rights that afford elevated civil rights protections to communities and their residents.

Work doesn’t stop at the local level.  It builds up to include work at the state and federal levels in parallel.  We start at local levels wherever we have traction, to address the issues that the state and federal governments won’t address even as we directly and frontally challenge those structures limiting or undermining civil rights work in America.  “Traction” in the case of community rights means an engaged community, not necessarily a ready and willing political establishment!  Because of this, we can create the traction necessary to succeed without having to compromise or play games with the corrupt political establishment.  Each campaign, win or lose, exposes and widens the cracks in the unjust foundations of our society’s legal structure, and moves us closer to the lasting change we demand, at the scale we demand, even as we create pockets of civil justice at local levels.

Homeless rights:  a human rights baseline

As an example sister issue, others have mentioned how homeless people lack rights simply by lacking (the means to have) a legal residence.  As a result, homeless people exist as second or even third class citizens, subjected to all sorts of harassment and other violence that they cannot avoid by virtue of being homeless.  But that same violence and harassment affects us all.  By establishing a homeless bill of rights, we increase protections for the entire population by establishing a solid baseline of human rights that does not require property ownership — a safety net for all of us!  Similarly, a focus on the rights of youth would also go a long way toward creating a peaceful, just and free community.

These are just some quick ideas of major donut holes in our civil rights laws, to start conversation.

We can move civil rights law forward, right now, to create a more just and more free society.  We don’t have to wait for the state or federal governments or ask for permission to do it.  We just do it.  We, the people, lead, they follow.  What do you say?

What would a Community Bill of Rights look like?

It would first and foremost enact the legal civil rights protections that we seek to recognize or elevate, whatever we decide those to be.

Second, there are several things the Bill of Rights must do to protect those laws:

  1. It must describe how the above laws are not subject to federal or state pre-emption because they elevate rights protections
  2. It must strip corporations and all other fictitious entities of any claim to legal personhood so that they do not abuse and hijack such civil rights protections for nefarious purposes that ultimately violate the rights of real persons and communities
  3. It must describe how the rights are self-enforcing, rather than relying on commerce law as their basis for existence.
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11 thoughts on “Let’s mount a civil rights campaign with Community Rights

  1. Like the concept of course. Upon cursory review, 2 thoughts: 1 ) Will gender based protection from violence be any more effective if enforcement fails as per Fergusen, MO ? Also, seems gender based might bring bias when really, a crime is a crime. I agree about not dependent on Commercial Clause.
    2) Blocking pre-emption can be dangerous per Jim Crow, and is always reversible anyway. Still, the act of pre-emption of a just law would be good publicity for a more just society.

    • Hi Clark, great questions! I think they move the conversation forward. Here are some thoughts of mine:
      1. I make the case that pretty much all violence is gender violence. So if we simply say “to be free of crimes of violence” then that requires addressing gender violence. I worry though that if we don’t speciify, it will ignore the underlying gender component. Thoughts?
      2. All laws are always under assault. We might as well create momentum and precedent for civil rights enhancements, doing so will help defend against any negative attempts to undo civil protections. Much more on this topic here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FsgPwZQtlIQDnOCDoMhZiBW1598ccSOYEELwlkHwp7M/pub#h.qvyjgzbbt743

      • 1) All violence is gender violence? There are lots of laws on the books. To enforce them takes a righteous will, and seems to me, that is the heart of the problem. How do you change people’s hearts and bitter secret desires for power and vengeance, though perhaps they are sometimes unconscious inclinations? Again, people, especially young people try to become what they see in culture. So change the culture. Change the message of the music, the movies, the mores, the tone, the taste, and the trend of the traffic. Good music message is contagious for example 😦http://www.thedreamoflove.com).

        2) Like Jim Crow, local power can also go the other way in many parts of the country. Just a consideration, I’m not an expert tactician in the political area. In fact, I’m not sure that today’s crises can even be solved through more laws, because it is late in the day, and unless people’s hearts are also changed, and fast, than perhaps……..

        But I’m all ears. Pass a local law against rape. Now try to enforce it. He said, she said. It’s going to come down to the condition of the hearts of men and women, I believe.

        (I love this forum format though, thanks for creating it!)

      • How ’bout a clarification: Laws are good, don’t get me wrong. I like laws. They tend to make civilization more civilized. But I feel we are into a new age of power grab now, and law can be bought and sold, just like our politicians. Getting private $ out of politics should be the 1st urgency perhaps (constitutional amendment).

        As for the decree against all violence, what about self-defense? Better to frame it in terms of injustice, no?

    • Hi Peter, thanks so much. Originally I had planned to identify stakeholders and initiate some sort of brainstorming process on potential civil rights issuse, then evaluate/group them according to topical relevance and need (e.g., deprioritize anything redundant to existing laws, even if their enforceability is based on the commerce clause). There was talk of doing a Community Bill of Rights convention, which begs the question of delegates and focus. It would be a working group representing those stakeholder interests, tasked with creating a viable Bill of Rights that the stakeholders could sign off on and officially or unofficially endorse. Then the transition into petitioning. It could take a few election cycles to get to the petitioning stage depending on whether the elections personnel we deal with are hostile to direct democracy. Then the actual campaign. Could take several election cycles until the general public catches on. Having the support of local businesses would be immensely helpful.

      Does this answer your question, or were you thinking of something different? Let me know if you have any thoughts, I’m all ears.

      • I have a lawyer on tap who has experience in both social justice and specifically community rights work in the courtroom. Now, just need the people and community buy-in 😛

  2. It could be an excercise in futility if local laws are continually struck down by higher courts, but I wouldn’t mind it being pursued if it brings attention to the current corrupted enforcement system – from corrupted courts to corrupted police to corrupted jailers. If I t hought I could contribute something to that impementation I would. I am approaching the problem from the cultural side, the promotion of change through media by means of political/social art and storytelling
    (see .http://www.thedreamoflove.com/.

    • We need the cultural work. CR is in large part cultural work. The defeats bring the issue to light, help the general public understand just how little freedom and how few rights protections we actually have, which creates more support.

      The wins are also, obviously, wins and foundations upon which to build further efforts. I challenge the phrase “struck down” as a tool of colonization meant to keep people in-line. Through CR work, local communities simply justify and articulate the position they need to take to protect the health, safety and welfare of natural and human communities. A disagreement from state/federal levels doesn’t do a damned thing to change that position unless the people believe it does. So the empowerment and decolonization work is incredibly important. The battleground, first and foremost, is in the hearts and minds of the people, helping people understand that *they* constitute the government and the laws of the land. It necessarily creates a more engaged and informed citizenry.

      As I said before, any law at any level can cause progress toward liberty and justice or regression. Fear of regression not only inhibits progress, it actually furthers regressive causes b/c the regressive forces continue working without fear to undermine the freedoms and rights of the people. I see no danger in countering that dangerous momentum with precedent specifically focused on enhancing and elevating rights. It not only sets a positive precedent, it also counters and undermines the regressive forces. In other words, I think local organizing of this type will make it less likely that anyone anywhere may successfully enact local Jim Crow laws, etc again.

      Re: enforcement. The right to live free from crimes of violence results in more than enforcement work. It means engaging in prevention work to address the root causes, which is where we get back to the cultural work of fostering the development of strong people who have a full range of emotional and social tools and feel no need to terrorize and control others either directly or through established institutions. Right now, we are trying to do that cultural work without any legal support for it, except inasmuch as violence disrupts commerce.

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