What is the Community in Community Rights?

Thomas Linzey (Executive Director of CELDF) wrote a thoughtful piece about community rights. He is concerned about the limits TO an ideal of community self-determination. I wrote something a while back about the limits OF this ideal and I’d like to continue those thoughts.

In broad strokes, I agree with his assessment that corporations and state governments are unjustly clamping down on grassroots democratic movements. This is part of a larger structuring of power in a neoliberal age – disenfranchisement of local communities in the face of growing corporate influence. What I wrote about HB 40 shows that my sympathies are with Linzey. My act of civil disobedience probably puts me in the ranks of his ‘army of community leaders.’

We both want community rights…but what is a community?

Is community the same as city? Linzey seems to use them interchangeably. For example,

“It’s something that close to 200  communities in 10 states have begun to do already—harnessing their municipal governments to adopt local laws that not only seek to stop fracking and other threats, but that repudiate state preemption and corporate “rights” within their own towns, villages, and cities.”

If they are the same, then we are talking about ‘city rights.’ This would mean that he is seeking to shift the locus of power down from the state-corporate nexus to the municipal level.

Consider this:

“For community rights to become real—that is, for the right of people to determine the future and fate of their communities—people must possess law making authority that is immune from state and corporate control. They must be recognized as the final decision makers in their own communities when they choose to adopt measures more protective of their communities than what is afforded by state and federal law.”

I think by “people” here who possess authority he means the people as mediated and represented through municipal governments.

I wonder then, for as radical as he is, whether he is not claiming that we keep our liberal democratic system of representative government with its nested hierarchy of federal-state-municipal. It’s just that we flip it upside down so that cities preempt state and federal government rather than the other way around. Maybe?

Marxist geographers talk in similar ways about “rescaling political community” following off of Henri Lefebvre’s notion of a “right to the city.” As they note, things get really complex. Take the frack site off of Nail Road where I sat in civil disobedience. The neighborhood there is most impacted by that site. But they are outside of the city limits. They were not allowed to vote for or against the ban – or for any municipal ordinances regulating that activity. And we all know the Railroad Commission doesn’t represent their interests.

So, why would ‘community’ here be synonymous with ‘city’?

What is the principle behind community rights? I think it is something like: the people impacted by decisions deserve a meaningful (central, definitive, exclusive?) say in those decisions.

But the Nail Road case is one that shows how the political geography of the city does not map atop the relevant sense of community here. It won’t do, in other words, to just devolve power down to the city level, because many people will still be disenfranchised.

And in other cases, it could be that the city level is too large of a scale for authority. Consider the drainage improvement project near the Denton High School. Shouldn’t decision making authority here reside primarily with folks in that neighborhood rather than city wide? I mean, why should someone whose daily life is centered in Southridge or Denia have the same say as someone who lives on that stretch of Pecan Creek or goes to church there? Further, shouldn’t someone who lives there have a greater say than local churchgoers who commute there once a week? Further, shouldn’t someone who lives right on the creek have a greater say than someone a block away?

I mesmogrigan if we really want to give authority to those impacted, then things are going to get messy. What about patients in this medical building near the rig pictured here?

So, if our goal is something as idealistic as enfranchising people to have a say over decisions that impact them, then we’ve got to consider carefully what that entails in terms of existing institutions of authority.

I don’t think that goal can be achieved by just shifting power to City Hall. That strikes me as an all too pat and convenient solution. IF, that is, we are looking for purity in our ideals. The messiness I allude to above might be a good reason to conflate ‘community’ with ‘city,’ because it will be a better approximation of the ideal than our current ‘Westphalian’ (if you will, or top-down) system.

Think about local control and the fracking ban in Denton. Why Denton? Why not let neighborhoods decide – what does Denia want? Robson? Meadows at Hickory Creek? Windsor Ridge? Southridge?

But then, how do you define the boundaries of those neighborhoods? And how do you invent a political vehicle to concentrate, legitimate, and enforce the ‘will’ of ‘the people’ so conceived on a more hyper-local level?

You know, some of the industry folks after the vote tried to say – ‘hey, look at the precinct with Robson and Meadows, they voted against the ban!’ OK, so are they advocating for this kind of hyper-local control? If so, how do they square that with their allergy to a ‘patchwork’ or local regulations? Seems to me the last thing they want to do is bring us down to the precinct level and invite the patches in the patchwork to get even smaller.

But that does seem to me to be a more logical consequence of Lindzey’s position. Again, I mean that if we are looking to really implement an ideal of ‘having a say,’ which, by the way, I think is a rather libertarian kind of thing.

The complexities mount. How do we define the group who is impacted by a decision? Stick with fracking. Is it just those within, what, a thousand feet? If so, then even the neighborhood scale is too big. But think about potential impacts to groundwater, air quality, seismicity, traffic, etc. If we factor that in, then arguably the scale of the city, let alone the neighborhood, is too small.

Just what is this community that should have rights?

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