Oberlin Must Stand by Community Bill of Rights

Ellen Mavrich, Contributing Writer

The arctic ice is melting. The beginning of a great extinction is upon us. The money being invested into fossil fuel infrastructure must be redirected into renewable energy now if we are to truly address the challenges of climate change. The NEXUS pipeline is a fossil fuel project which will accelerate hydrofracking throughout the Marcellus and Utica shales and cause the release of methane, a greenhouse gas, into our atmosphere. In addition, this project will include the construction of five compressor stations that are permitted by government agencies such as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to pollute our air. Most Oberlin residents are aware of this.

But having knowledge does not translate into being brave. Oberlin City Council, the community and Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy cannot support actions to combat climate change and community injustice only when convenient or only when there is no risk involved. When the law says a community must accept a project that pollutes the community, opposes its moral direction and interferes with its plans for sustainable living, it is an unjust law. Unjust laws must be challenged and changed. History will tell you that the only way this can be accomplished is through grassroots action. Coloring inside the provided lines has and will not accomplish anything. We must face the bully head-on and oppose them in court using community rights as the basis of our legal argument.

In 2012, the community rights movement in Ohio consisted of two communities working to make local laws in favor of community self-governance. The city of Oberlin joined this movement in 2013 when the community voted to pass the Community Bill of Rights and Obligations. According to Tish O’Dell, Ohio Organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, by 2016 there were over 28 attempts by communities throughout the state to pass local laws to protect both residents and the environment from harms related to pipelines, fracking, factory farms, injection wells, public safety, sludge and pollution in Lake Erie.

It appears the powers that be are taking notice of this growing movement and are trying to stop it.

A majority of Ohioans voted against their own best interests in 2015 when Issue 2 was presented by the State as an antimonopoly initiative, promising to protect “We the People” from monopolies, oligopolies and cartels. Issue 2 was the legislatively referred constitutional amendment presented on the same ballot and designed to invalidate Issue 3, the Marijuana Legalization Initiative. But Issue 2 would do more than address monopolies, oligopolies and cartels. It invited the Ohio Ballot Board, an appointed board, to weigh in on initiative content. Some voters recognized it for what it was: an attack on grassroots democracy. November 2015’s Issue 2 wasn’t about stopping monopolies, oligopolies and cartels. It was about stopping us. It was about stopping citizen initiatives.

The Ohio legislature made another move against the people on Dec. 8, 2016. In an obvious reaction against citizen initiative and to protect their power and that of their corporate masters, our legislators quietly hid language in a bill addressing foreclosure. The added language grants the Board of Elections and the Ohio Secretary of State the authority to block citizens’ initiatives at the local level based on their opinion of the content.

What they intend to block is not just citizen-driven law but grassroots governance of corporate actions that do harm to people, communities and the environment. This corporate-run form of government has been called fascism, totalitarianism and other names in the past. Some of our ancestors fought a revolution to eradicate a similarly corporate, oppressive state. Wake up, fellow Oberlinians!

Oberlin is in a unique situation because the city already adopted law from a citizen-led initiative. The Community Bill of Rights and Obligations was codified in 2013 before the NEXUS project was even rolled out. We already have the law, democratically passed by over 70 percent of voters. We passed it before the state and its corporate masters could take action to stop us. We even have an offer of free legal defense from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. But will we defend our law? Or will we be frozen in fear of the threatened lawsuits resulting from standing up for our rights?

From abolitionists to suffragists to civil rights activists, people and movements before us have successfully challenged unjust laws. Oberlin loves to emphasize its radical past. Oberlinians recognized the rights of African-Americans when it was illegal to do so and defied unjust laws such as the Fugitive Slave Laws. Oberlinians educated African-Americans and women when others said they didn’t have the right to education.

We are currently being told it is illegal for communities to live the sustainable life they envision. So what are we going to do about it? Will we continue to follow the path forged by the brave Oberlinians before us by standing for what’s right and just and forging change so others will find the strength and courage to follow our lead? Or are we content pretending to be a community leading the future while we actually slink around the sidelines hiding from the bully? If it’s the latter, then we need to stop aligning ourselves with the truly brave people who came before. That is also an injustice.