Coleridge, OC ’81, is involved in economic and political justice issues in the state of Ohio. He visited campus on Tuesday, Oct. 12, to speak about the United States Supreme Court’s Jan. 21, 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which gives corporations the First Amendment right to speak and spend what they wish about and on elections.
You’re from Akron, went to school at Oberlin and continue to do most of your work in this area — what has kept you so invested in Ohio? Is it your ties here, or is there something else?
Well, I think it is the ties. I think Ohio is quite typically Midwest, as they say. And being devoted to social change, I think relatively speaking, it's a lot easier to try to create a social movement in the Berkeleys and Cambridges of the world, but a bit more challenging in the Midwest. And if you can find the right package of messaging and ways to communicate an understanding of where people are and what their concerns are, what their needs are, and make it work in the Midwest, then I think you've got a shot in creating a truly regional, if not national, movement.
What would you say are challenges to creating change in the Midwest?
Well, there have been certainly the economic ones where people are drawn and focused on survival — that's a big one. [There is also] the suspicion, to a certain extent, of anything that may be brand new. In a sense it isn't [brand new], certainly on issues of corporate control or citizen control over corporations. … Actually, that concept is a very old one, and the notion of corporations massing constitutional right is quite radical from what our founding fathers and mothers — including those here in Ohio — set out to accomplish. But it seems radical and therefore highly suspicious because it is so different from people's present experiences.
Would you say that corporations can have a larger effect when they enter small rural communities as opposed to larger urban ones, in terms of affecting economics or politics more strongly?
It's just so different. I got into this about 14 years ago, having been invited as one of maybe 25 or 30 … frustrated activists who came from across Ohio. Some of us were from more rural settings, others definitely exclusively urban, [and we] came together under the umbrella of a weekend workshop … [that] was helping people sort of rethink this relationship, both historic and current, between people and corporations. And the 25 or 30 of us … had very different experiences to share, sort of the particular challenge of citizens in their part of the state trying to resist a particular corporate harm. … But what was similar, and what transcended it all, was the understanding and the recognition that we just can't constantly, perpetually react and respond one at a time to the singular assaults being projected and conveyed and being done legally by these business corporations.
So while we were very different, those of us who assembled then, subsequently … the realization occurred to us then, and it's just been growing since, that we just simply have not been in charge. … And corporations are just gaining, it seems, year by year, more and more authority, not [just] in economic decisions, but in governing decisions. Corporations are ruling. … People increasingly are understanding that we've got to figure out some way to establish control [over] the entities that once were subordinate, subservient to us.
The Move to Amend movement seeks to end this idea of corporate personhood in response to the Citizens United decision, which you've been very vocal about — were you involved in the creation of the movement?
[What we] tried to convey is that this is not something that just happened. … This is a 124-year-long history, beginning with the 1884 Supreme Court decision Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific that first anointed corporations with this legal absurdity of corporate personhood. … What we tried to convey in our first communiqué on the Move to Amend website was that this is the latest in a long string of corporate usurpations of democratic self-governance, and it's time to collectively respond. So I and the organization I'm connected with, the American Friends Service Committee of Northeast Ohio, was part of the initial steering committee that launched this effort. … [As] we get the final numbers on how much money will be spent or invested in these independent expenditures in the midterm elections, I think that's just going to serve as an even greater reason and concern by people to want to do something … that tries to give real human beings real power and authority in making decisions and figure out a way to abolish this incredible assault on the body politic by business corporations.
You're an 1981 alumnus — did the Oberlin values of social and political equality influence you in the direction you took in your work?
Absolutely, positively. I was very involved at the time, all four years, with [the Ohio Public Interest Research Group]. … And during the last two years at the time I went, the whole issue of boycotting companies that do business in South Africa was very important, and OPIRG was one of the central groups on campus then that engaged in a variety of efforts to try to put pressure on the College to divest from companies that were investing, directly or indirectly, in South Africa. … Finally the Board of Trustees did divest. … They made [their decision] with a considerable amount of pressure from below, and the message there is that any change, significant change, that happens, takes both some enlightened representatives from within, but also a whole lot of committed and persistent individuals outside who apply pressure and do all the necessary amounts of education, advocacy and organizing to put pressure on the institutions to do what's right.
Interview by Lila Leatherman, News editor