Sanders, et. al., united against Citizens United

Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted a Town Meeting in Montpelier to speak out against Citizens United. Photo by Josh Larkin. Copyright 2011 vtdigger.org

Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted a Town Meeting in Montpelier to speak out against Citizens United. View photo gallery.

Sanders' staff offered a new book titled Struggling Through the Depression free to attendees. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Hinesburg resident Karl Novak shares statistics from Mother Jones with attendees. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Secretary of State Jim Condos speaks with an attendee. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Sen. Sanders arrives at Montpelier High School. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Sen. Bernie Sanders. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Vermonters united against Citizens United. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Preparing for the discussion. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Sen. Bernie Sanders. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Sen. Sanders introducing panel members. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Secretary of State Jim Condos. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Sen. Sanders' Town Meeting drew a crowd of approximately 450. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Sen. Ginny Lyons and Sen. Sanders. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Thom Hartmann delivering the keynote. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Standing room only. Photo by Josh Larkin.
Robert Weissman, president of Washington-based Public Citizen. Photo by Josh Larkin.

Editor’s note: Please click on the first photo in this story to see a cool PHOTO GALLERY of the event.

It was an old-fashioned revival meeting. It was a political pep rally. And it was a metaphorical tar and feathering of the bad guys. It was also, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would simply say, “huuuge.”

Sanders hosted a meeting Saturday afternoon on the topic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision which bestowed “personhood” on large corporations, and in the process turned the political money spigots from a stream to a gusher. Judging from a standing-room-only crowd of some 450 people who packed into the auditorium at Montpelier High School, the court’s decision had no friends in the hall.

Vermont’s popular populist Sanders, who got a rock star standing O and gave the crowd plenty of applause lines, brought with him a lineup of progressive stars, democracy advocates and law experts to shred the decision. They declared it “terrible,” “ugly,” “mind boggling” and a dramatic threat to the nation’s democracy, and they called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.

Joining Sanders was radio host and author Thom Hartmann (a former Montpelier resident), Robert Weissman, president of Washington-based Public Citizen which advocates for people versus corporate power, Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna, a constitutional law expert, and Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who has proposed in the Legislature an amendment to the Constitution providing that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States.

Even ex-ice cream moguls Ben & Jerry showed up, putting a simple face (or two) on the issue and drawing a good laugh.

“We’re here as two real life examples of people,” said Ben Cohen, standing with Jerry Greenfield, his partner in progressive causes.

“I’m Ben, I’m a person,” he said.

“I’m Jerry, I’m a person,” chimed in Greenfield.

Then, said Cohen of his erstwhile ice cream company: “Ben & Jerry’s: Not a person.”

The crowd roared with approval.

For most, including over 30 people who queued up to ask questions and express dismay at what they saw as the erosion of citizen democracy,  the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case, was deadly serious. The U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections and determined that corporations were people and thus deserved the same free speech rights.

Looking at the impressive throng, which drew folks from Lincoln and Barnet, Northfield and the Mad River Valley, Sanders said, “What this tells me is Vermonters are worried about the future of our democracy and are willing to take on the big money in politics.”

Sanders said the decision “upended a century of precedent” in how corporations are perceived legally and will make an already “terrible terrible system” of campaign and political financing “much much worse.”

In addition, corporations are shielded from having to disclose how they’re spending money, said Sanders, arguing that Americans’ control over their democracy has “made a U-turn” because of the high court decision.

Sanders, in a speech detailing how big money holds sway in Congress, said the only way to reverse the impact of money in politics is to require public financing of elections and to pass a constitutional amendment removing personhood from massive corporations.

Thom Hartmann sharing some history of corporations. Photo by Josh Larkin.

Thom Hartmann sharing some history of corporations. Photo by Josh Larkin.

Hartmann, speaking with a latter-day preacher’s passion and rhythms, regaled the crowd with past U.S. president’s denunciations of corporations and the risks of their usurping power, including one of the founders, Thomas Jefferson and President Grover Cleveland, (1893-97), who wrote of citizens being “trampled by the corporate heel.”

Hartmann’s history lesson included the nuggets that corporations at first had a limited life span and were frequently sunsetted after their purpose — often a specific project — was accomplished. He said this was the case through much of the 1800s but began to shift in the 1900s in the age of the Robber Barons.

“We have to strip corporations of the power they have over us because it’s killing us,” he declared. In a poignant turn, he told the gathering how his father had died of lung cancer after 20 years of exposure to asbestos. Corporations knew, he said, at the time that the dust from asbestos was dangerous.

Weissman, who said the shift in legal standing of corporations has changed dramatically only in the last four decades, said the money that will be unleashed without disclosure in 2012 is frightening.

“It is a bad, bad situation,” he said. But he also confidently said the Citizens United precedent — which he described as “abominable” and “stupid” —  would not stand and a movement around the country on all sides of the political spectrum was growing to overturn the idea that corporations could be viewed the same as  people.

Fifty years down the road, he said, people will be asking of the court, “What in the world were they thinking?”

Hanna, the law professor at Vermont Law School, told the crowd some interesting legal cases were already beginning to trim the sails of the court’s ruling in Citizens United. The high court itself ruled 9-0 against AT&T when it claimed the rights of a person in trying to deny a Freedom of Information Act request, she said.

A Vermont court case on drug company data mining is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 26, and it delves into distinctions between “ free speech” and “commercial speech” and issues of how they are viewed and can be regulated, she said.

Hanna cautioned that while there are understandable visceral reactions to the idea of massive corporations as persons, the issue of First Amendment rights to free speech can be complex and shaded. Nonprofits and media businesses, even humane societies, are all corporations as well, and there is  a “fine line” in drawing distinctions.

“It’s complicated,” she said.

That concern was raised by Times Argus and Rutland Herald newspaper publisher John Mitchell of Worcester, who said along with everyone else he shared concerns about large corporations spending in politics. But he noted his locally owned media business is also a corporation.

“How do we make sure my ability to do my job is not harmed,” he asked.

One Montpelier resident wanted to know what they could do to work to overturn the court ruling: “As you know, when you come here, you’re preaching to the choir.”

Sanders replied that corporations’ efforts to make a profit at all costs and arm-twist politicians was “never, never ending” and was not likely to change anytime soon. He said the only thing that would work was a grassroots movement, an idea Hartmann strongly seconded, noting his experience was that Tea Party partisans had many of the same populist concerns as those in the crowd in Montpelier.

“We need to take over the Tea Party movement,” he said, and join forces.

Andrew Nemethy

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  • David Cardill

    The Revolution is Now.

    This is a 2 hour long, independent movie, that explains much of the history of money, and why we need to put money down and walk away from it. Money is merely how the uber-rich have been able to control all of us.

    The Revolution is Now.

  • 1 V.S.A. § 128. Person – ‘”Person” shall include any natural person, corporation, municipality, the state of Vermont or any department, agency or subdivision of the state, and any partnership, unincorporated association or other legal entity. (Amended 1969, No. 207 (Adj. Sess.), { 2, eff. March 24, 1970.)’
    (Copied from the Vermont legislature website)

    Cleaning house begins at home – end Vermont corporate personhood. Actually the concept that anything other than an individual person being entitled to any of the rights of “person” is ridiculous.

    Speech is a somewhat different matter because the US constitution doesn’t make it an individual right or one given to ‘the people’. Despite the constitutional admonition against ‘abridging the freedom of speech’ however, we’ve long accepted that not all speech is allowed.

    Sometimes speech can be destructive.

    There are the civil law restrictions on libel and slander, and there are criminal penalties that relate to causing riots and such as yelling ‘fire’ in crowded theater when there is no fire. (I won’t get into the UNpatriotic Act simply because it is an abomination against the US Constitution through and through.)

    It is a very short step to say and prove that political speech based upon the ability to pay violates the very reasons for our nation’s constitution: ‘to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’.

    It is a very short step to say and prove that a loss of locally owned media violates the very reasons for our nation’s constitution: ‘to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’.

    It is a very short step to say and prove that centralized ownership and control over our modern communications infrastructure violates the very reasons for our nation’s constitution: ‘to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’.

    It is a very short step to say and prove that our modern version of corporations violates the very reasons for our nation’s constitution: ‘to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’.

    If free speech is indeed so important – let’s make sure the free speech of the natural person is protected first, and then we can worry about the ‘sensibilities’ of organizations.

  • Mike Kerin

    Bernie and the folks who showed up at MHS are absolutely correct!
    Bernie will always have my vote!

  • Donna Constantineau

    “We need to take over the Tea Party movement,” he [Sanders} said, and join forces.

    I agree that we need to find common ground with others on this and it won’t be the first time.
    Luckily in Vermont we know are neighbors; and often in Vt, we are so far to the left that we meet the right. It usually happens around the Constitution.

    Just don’t get roped in if somebody hits you with their belief that the world is only 6 or 7 thousand years old. Ignore their androcentric view of the world. It won’t be the first time that Copernicus has had to turn over in his grave.

    • Karl Riemer

      “It won’t be the first time that Copernicus has had to turn over in his grave.”
      Not by a long shot.
      Not all, maybe not most, anti-government activists are anti-intellectual. Not all are anti-social (meaning opposed to solving problems by consensus as a group rather than as warring factions). However, there’s a strong tendency these days to equate strength of conviction with unwillingness to compromise, which leads inevitably to the political expedience of advocating absurdity as a negotiating tactic. Compromise can be claimed when anything short of absurdity is accomplished. The result is a rising army of people, some now in congress, proudly claiming to be imbeciles. It’s not a simple matter finding common ground with people whose ground is politically expedient fantasy.

  • This idea that corporations are evil entities out to enslave us all is fundamentally flawed. In fact, it’s just as silly as the argument made by some that our government is an evil entity out to enslave us all.

    Why? Because Corporations have no money unless they provide goods or services that WE want and that WE pay for. Just like our government doesn’t have the power to do anything unless WE decide it’s what we want and WE vote for it (at least by proxy).

    President Obama called the Citizens United decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

    Ah, we unsophisticated everyday Americans – too dim-witted to recognize corporate BS and propaganda when we see it, too tongue-tied to come up with a reply even if we don’t agree with it, and too backward to remember that the internet is the ultimate democratizer when it comes to speech. We’ll all be at corporations’ mercy, surely.

    And then Target comes along to show us how wrong that assumption is. Freed up by the Supreme Court decision, Target Corporation gave $150,000 to a pro-business group in Minnesota, which also happened to support a candidate with anti-gay stances. Oops. The threat of a nationwide boycott, organized by “everyday Americans” using Facebook and old-fashioned letter-writing, prompted the company to issue an apology and promise to be more careful how they donate to politics.

    I guess President Obama’s message that we’re powerless to affect big corporations didn’t quite sink in. If it had, these “everyday Americans” would have realized that they simply cannot get a corporation with a market capitalization of $38 billion to recognize their concerns.

    Let’s not forget that corporations only have what we give them. If they have a LOT, it’s because they’ve done a good job providing LOTS of people with what they want. And because they want to stay in business, we can sway them by threatening to withhold our custom. You have to have VERY little faith in your fellow citizens’ intelligence and good will not to realize that we the people already have the power.

    • Donna Constantineau

      Oh come on Jamel – yes we do have the power – but how many people exercise it? We end up getting the government that we deserve – something designed in an advertising agency and spooned out in doses for mass consumption – sandwiched in between your regularly scheduled show on the idiot box.

      • Ms. Constantineau,

        I agree with you. It takes force of will to do the legwork necessary to be an informed citizen who can sift through the misinformation and find the bits of truth.

    • Doug Hoffer

      “Let’s not forget that corporations only have what we give them. If they have a LOT, it’s because they’ve done a good job providing LOTS of people with what they want.”

      Really?

      So Exxon-Mobil has done a good job? BP?
      We want to be addicted to oil?

      What about Halliburton?
      I don’t recall being asked about privatizing the Army.

      And what of health insurance and pharmaceutical companies?
      Do you think they’ve done a good job giving us what we want?

      And how many choices are there for people who don’t have the resources to avoid cheap imported goods made without fair labor laws or environmental protections? Is that really what consumers want?

      Genetically engineered food?
      People I know are always asking for that stuff.

      How about coal companies?
      The people’s choice.

      Now banks; they must be giving us what we want and need.

      And let’s not forget virtual monopolies like most cable companies. Now there’s a group lots of folks would like to thank.

      In many cases, the examples I just cited have resulted in part from terrible public policy choices that are unquestionably NOT in the best interests of humans or the environment. And those policies have been adopted and perpetuated in part because those companies have purchased influence.

      Sometimes the model is just a tad out of touch with the real world.

      • Mr. Hoffer,

        The industries you cited are regulated out the wazoo, and as a result have incentive to lobby the legislators who essentially hold their profitability in their hands. So the result? Subsidies, tax breaks, insane regulations, loopholes, threats, recriminations… all kinds of ridiculous back-and-forth as crony capitalism does its thing, at our expense.

        But the root of this problem is that we allow vast amounts of power to centralize in Statehouses and in Congress. If we continue to insist that our lawmakers retain the power to make or break entire industries, then how can we possibly be surprised that the world takes shape accordingly?

        • Doug Hoffer

          Mr. Kheiry

          It’s not the power in the legislatures; it’s the money. Take the money out of politics and we might have a chance. The twisted idea that money equals speech (and the corporations are persons) is killing us.

          Your alternative is the only thing worse. Let’s bring back the late 19th century. That worked out really well.

    • Karl Riemer

      “This idea that corporations are evil entities out to enslave us all is fundamentally flawed.”
      The idea is also entirely your invention.
      Corporations are amoral entities out to make a profit. That’s not an idea; its the definition. Important to that definition is that profit may be money, political influence, tax advantage, altruistic social benefit or artistic/intellectual/religious expression. Corporations exist for defined purposes, to accomplish specific aims. For-profit corporations exist to make profit, as much profit as possible. There’s nothing inherently evil about that but there’s nothing inherently virtuous about it, either. Corporations lack conscience and often behave unconscionably. If corporations were people they would be sociopaths.

      Profit is getting more for less, providing goods and services at a price greater than their cost. Maximum profit is pushing the price up and the cost down as far as possible, up to but not beyond the limit where all hell breaks loose. Reality surrounds us. Corporations take as much as possible, give as little as possible, in order to keep as much as possible. That isn’t “enslaving”, it isn’t even robbery, but their best interest is not our best interest. What keeps “maximum profit” from becoming simple stealing? What stands between us and snake oil medicine, wood-powder peanut butter or life insurance from a company that disappears next week? Regulation stifles stealing. Government regulation is what keeps amoral corporations, which is all corporations, from behaving immorally. Government regulation is our (clumsy) shield against their (constantly reinvented) sword. Letting them regulate themselves, dictate the limits of their own rapaciousness, is surrender of our interests to theirs. Letting corporations buy the government they prefer is selling our immune system to parasites. The contest is then between competing parasites for shares of the host.

      Corporations gain from providing what people need. Lots of ordinary people, a few rich people, or a tiny number of powerful people. Providing a few politicians with what they need is often far more profitable than providing what the rest of us need. Political contributions are trivial expenses, apologies are free, and anything legal opening the door to wood-powder peanut butter is a smartly amoral business decision.

      The tactic of refuting invented positions is standard right-wing practice. The fact that for-profit corporations are championed by practitioners such tactics tells you much of what you need to know about what they think of you.

  • Notwithstanding apologists for corporations and their sophistry, corporations still are not people and have no business participating in a democracy of human beings.
    No, wait, they do have “business” in such participation — which is the essence of the scandal. And where are the Democrats on this, after a year of near-silence.

  • Lisa Nash

    I love the idea of amending the Vermont Constitution to declare that corporations are not persons, but given the extent to which state’s rights have become subordinated to an increasingly powerful Federal government, I wonder if this is possible.

    I also wonder why no one in the U.S. ever seems to think of re-writing our Constitution as a whole. Most European nations have done it several times. It makes sense–there is no reason to believe that the Founding Fathers attempted to or believed they could anticipate every need a democracy could ever have. As far as I can see, the only “intention” they had that no one’s arguing about was to create a nation where people were free to adapt the form of government to meet their needs–and to destroy the government if it failed to do so. Surely this intention is congruent with re-writing the Constitution to make sure that it clearly expresses not only the wisdom of our ancestors, but also what we’ve learned about what does and doesn’t work in democracy over the past couple hundred years.

    I don’t have much hope that true democracy can be practiced in a single nation of the size of the current U.S.–I think the scale is all wrong. I think the U.S. empire is likely to fall apart, as all empires eventually do. But in the meantime, a new Constitutional convention–this time, not attended solely by white, land-owning males–would be worth trying . At the least it might reawaken some of us to the reality that democracy is not something someone else can make or maintain for us, but a continuous act of creation which requires intelligent participation from everyone. Citizens with skills in true democracy can only be helpful as the empire changes form…

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