Conference in Review: Democracy School, or: How to Make an Authentic Democracy with Your Bare Hands

By Paige Clifton-Steele

Twelve men and women met two weekends ago in the basement of Spalt to learn how to make a better democracy. It was the 105th Democracy School— an educational program created by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), author and legal historian Richard Grossman, co-founder of the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy.

The school’s full title is “The Daniel Pennock Democracy School”, after a young Pennsylvania man who died of a massive infection after driving a tractor over a toxic sludge-covered field. Holding three-day sessions held across the country, the school aims to teach communities how to seize control from invasive corporations using ordinances.

Gray-haired and wiry, Richard Grossman spoke in a disarmingly donnish manner that swelled to a surprising pitch when he began to inveigh against the theft of authority that he believes corporations have perpetrated against the rightful majority. He was flanked by CELDF speakers Eme Lybarger and Kat Walter, each activists and scholars in their own right.

The class, which was aimed at Yellow Springs residents, drew participants from within and beyond the village. It cost $295, a fee that included the cost of the lecture, access to a discussion group afterwards, and a trip to the Dayton International Peace Museum. Also provided was a copy of Grossman’s book Defying Corporations, Defining Democracy, and a 364-page compendium of supplemental readings ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois to Howard Zinn to 17th century English charters. Grossman first showed his face on Antioch Campus in McGregor on the preceding Thursday, when he delivered a lecture entitled “When Injustice is Legal: What Do Abolitionists Teach Us About Challenging Corporate Rule?” In that lecture, he examined the American slave system in a way that invited the audience to draw connections to the modern corporate system. On Friday afternoon, in the Gaia learning community, he elaborated on the connection between slaveholding America and present corporate America. Speaking to thirty some first years, he challenged them to identify and question the core values of the corporate system.

The Daniel Pennock Democracy School began later on Friday night and continued through Sunday. “Who decides?” was the overarching question that Grossman asked, referring to the question of who does and should exercise legal power over communities. The three days of the school were structured to present the answer: we do, or at least we should.

Toward this end, the CELDF speakers strove to probe the corporate power structure and the reasons that corporate personhood inhibits communities from making their own decisions.

Also stressed was the focus of discussions that activist citizens should be having. “They [the corporations] keep trying to drive us into the regulatory arena,” said Grossman. “We’re at that regulatory point, and we’re trying to drive it back into the community. And so the discussion has to shift to be in the language of sovereignty, the language of selfgoverning, not in the language of science, not in the language of competing experts.”

Grossman contended that corporations distract communities from the core issue of self-governance with issues of regulatory character, drawing and redrawing arbitrary regulatory lines that delineate how much poison a community should accept. Rather than keep trying to force the corporation redraw these lines, Grossman argued, communities should fight for a constitution and a body of law that would allow each community to draw its own lines.

At heart, Grossman seems to be scrapping for a fight. He spoke proudly of counties in Pennsylvania, where the Environmental Legal Defense Fund is based, that have passed recent ordinances stripping corporations of constitutional rights, or recognizing the rights of nature—an act that gives legal standing to previously voiceless groups seeking to protect communal wildernesses against the interests of large corporations. It is also an act that may well bring them into conflict with the supreme law of the land, and Grossman does not shy away from that possibility: “We don’t believe that we can get to the structure that we need to be from our present constitution,” he said. He traced the history of the Constitution’s origin in order to emphasize its status as a “commercial document”.

Grossman suggested that in response to increasing limitations imposed by the federal government, communities should draft local municipal charters. Such an act would be in accordance with the constitutions of forty-three states, which make provisions for the rights of communities to some measure of legal self-determination. In the remaining seven states, such a decision might well be legally contentious.

Few people were safe from Grossman’s critical eye, least of all the Constitution’s framers. He accused them of “building into document barriers to innovation, barriers to the rabble”. Kat Walter asked the question: “So what if we had a liberty and rights constitution instead of a property and commerce constitution? What would it look like?”

Covering topics as broad as the populist movement, the labor movement, the abolitionist movement, and the history of English common law, Grossman drew a common thread that ended with a scathing indictment of corporations, a complicit Supreme court, and a commercial Constitution that underpinned the two.