By Blair Jackson
Two months ago, the Fayetteville faction of Occupy Wall Street disbanded from their camp on the town square, but the group found new momentum in the national, one-day Occupy the Courts protest last Friday. In a march leading from the Fayetteville town center to the United States District Court, citizens rallied against the 2010 Supreme Court decision that deemed it legal for corporations and labor unions to donate unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.
Their signs declare their messages.
“End corporate personhood” reads a poster that resembles an American flag. There is one key difference. This is not the star spangled banner. Where the 50 stars should be, there are instead logos of corporations: McDonald’s, Nike, Apple and CNN to name a few. The symbolism is subtle, but striking. Corporations now stand where the people once stood.
Corporate personhood is a legal concept that has existed since 1886, but the Supreme Court decision in 2010 defined campaign donations as the equivalent of free speech, ruling that it is unconstitutional to place a cap on corporate funding for politicians.
Fayetteville citizen Kelly Eubanks, a mother who works two jobs and attends the University of Arkansas, believes the influence of corporations overshadows public interest and impedes democracy.
“Any issue — the environment, ending wars, jobs, education — it all comes down to politicians. If they’re listening to the corporations, they’re not listening to us,” she says.
Eubanks explains the next message: “Corporations are not people. Money is not speech” by referring to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. “‘We the people’ refers to natural persons. We reject the idea that corporations are people.”
Explicit examples of direct corporate influence are hard to find. If politicians wore logo-stamped uniforms instead of suits, President Obama would have McDonald’s golden arches stitched on his shirt — along with Walmart, Levi’s, Dell and Starbucks, just to name a few. To some citizens, this “corporate sponsorship” paired with intense corporate lobbying, opens the door for abuse and uncomfortably blurs the line between political supporters and agenda pushers.
In a Free Weekly column earlier this month, Abel Tomlinson wrote, “Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, corporations can now spend unlimited sums of money to buy candidates, elections, laws and the government …” Similar suspicions are being voiced across the country, and there is evidence of a growing resistance to corporate personhood and the subsequent unlimited campaign financing.
In the past few months, support to end corporate personhood has swept the nation in a radical shift from the streets of Occupy Wall Street to city council chambers. Los Angeles was the first major city to pass a resolution in support of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would eliminate corporate personhood. Next month, Fayetteville could be the first city in Arkansas to support this “movement to amend.”
Fayetteville councilman Matthew Petty is drafting a resolution that would support the repeal of the Citizens United decision through a constitutional amendment. Petty says that approving the resolution would not make any immediate changes. However, the resolution would serve as a symbolic first step on the dance floor of change.
Petty explains that passing a resolution of support at a city level is the next step of the movement. “Representatives have to listen to what cities want,” he says.
If other communities in Arkansas pass similar resolutions and pressure is placed on state representatives to make an amendment, public pressure will serve as the democratic domino that creates a chain reaction of corresponding public policy.
Petty says he is “optimistic” that the resolution will pass because “limits on public campaign financing are important.”
Others argue that the rights of corporations and other entities are important.
The logo-spangled banner of the protest is displayed on a supporting website: movetoamend.org. The website offers a proposed amendment that reads “Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution and are subject to regulation by the People, through Federal, State, or local law.”
Bradley A. Smith of “The Wall Street Journal” responded to this proposed amendment in an opinion piece entitled “The War on Political Free Speech”. He writes:
“These amendments are based on the leftist cry that ‘corporations aren’t people,’ but the Supreme Court has never said that they are. ‘Corporate personhood’ is a legal fiction that allows natural people to sue and to be sued, to own and transfer property, and to carry on their affairs as a group. Corporations have rights because the people who own them have rights.”
Smith makes the point that corporate personhood is not synonymous with international conglomerates or billion-dollar businesses. He argues that by completely eliminating the “legal fiction” of corporate personhood, the rights of nonprofit groups and special interest groups would be at stake. “Incorporated churches would have no right of worship,” he writes.
The reality of eliminating corporate personhood is still far from fruition, but the continued momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement brings to light questions about the unlimited campaign financing that can serve to protect the interest of corporations at the negligence of the majority’s welfare. According to Mark Prime, a long-standing member of the Occupy movement, spreading awareness is the main goal of the protests, hoping to encourage citizens to “interject their will and promote democracy.”