Gershon Cohen at Sitka High School on Wednesday. (Photo Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

One of the original co-sponsors of Alaska’s cruise ship initiative is now setting his sights on corporate “personhood.”

Haines resident Gershon Cohen has developed a civics presentation for high school- and college-age students on the principles of democracy. Over the course of two class periods, Cohen draws a connection between the democratic values of the framers of the Constitution and the personal values of students. He then demonstrates how those values become distorted when applied to corporations.

Cohen spent this week (5-7-12) in Sitka High School.

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Going back to school again is always a little strange for me: the close quarters, jostling in the hallways, and the desks seem a lot smaller.

Gershon Cohen is teaching in Sitka High’s American Government class, and by the standard of my high school memories, he’s got the students’ full attention – for almost 90 minutes. He starts by asking them to list their values – food, home, money, guns, the arts (even video games) – and then shows how values are connected.

“Sitka is a major fishing community. If you don’t have clean water in Sitka, you’re not going to have a healthy fishery. People aren’t going to want to buy your fish. If you’re going to have economic wealth in Sitka, because you’ve got a good fishery. You can’t have one without the other.”

Cohen focuses on organizing the values into four different kinds of wealth: Economic wealth (like the fisheries), environmental wealth, social wealth, and political wealth.

Video gaming, by the way, is a form of social wealth, since it involves how you spend free time. Political wealth includes something like our freedom of speech, which we use to protect our other forms of wealth.

Overall, Cohen is factual, and non-dogmatic, as he examines the way the framers drew distinctions between privileges and rights, and enshrined basic rights into the Constitution. He culminates in an argument that Gross Domestic Product – or our overall economic output – may not be the best measure of our success as a society.

When he does drop into opinion, he lets the students know.

“I promise you that you will hear this in your life: That there’s this balance we have to strike between the economy and the environment. And I will tell you that I believe it is a total misnomer, a false dichotomy. You can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment.”

This idea was the basis of Cohen’s involvement in the 2006 Alaska Cruise Ship Initiative, which passed with 52-percent of the vote during the August primary that year. Cohen’s new program is no less ambitious. What the students in the government class are not hearing, is that Cohen planning another statewide citizen initiative. I asked him about it after class.

“Corporations should have privileges. They should have whatever privileges we as people think they should have. Corporations should not have – in my view – inalienable rights, because our government does not give us those rights, our government simply acknowledges that those rights exist for us because we exist, and that’s a tremendous difference.”

Cohen and a marine biologist and oil spill activist from Cordova, Riki Ott, created the school presentation, which they’re calling “Ultimate Civics.” They’re also collaborating on initiative language that would affirm that wherever the Alaska State Constitution mentions “person,” it is a human being exclusively.

The initiative is a direct response to the US Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in favor of Citizens United. Justices ruled – basically – that independent political contributions by unions and corporations were a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

The impact of the ruling was apparent almost immediately. “Independent” political action committees (PACs) sprang up overnight, raising and spending huge sums to influence elections.

Since there is no challenge to a Supreme Court decision, Cohen believes change will have to come from an energized public.

“And in fact, in the polls that have been done since Citizens United, it is well over 80 percent of Americans – I’m talking Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, everybody – over 80 percent of Americans think they made the wrong call.”

Back in class, Cohen continues to trace the thread of human rights from the Constitution to local governments, where cities like Spokane are now drafting their own bills of rights.

Cohen — In Spokane only people – natural human beings – will have inalienable rights.
Student – Well, they can’t really do that because corporate rights are a federal thing?
Cohen – They’re not federal in terms of the law, they’re only federal in terms of judicial decisions.

Cohen went on to suggest that the Spokane bill of rights might face a legal challenge all the way to the Supreme Court. “They may strike it down,” Cohen said, “Or the Court may decide differently.”

The student is junior Levi Adams. He came away from the presentation with a strong sense of individual rights.

“It’s certainly been an eye-opener for me, hearing him speak about these issues. I’m fascinated. I think he’s right that individual rights should have a higher precedent over those of corporations. I’m not an expert on the subject, but it seems like he’s making a valid point.”

Kayla Lysons and Ryan Morse, also juniors, were thinking along the same lines.

“I knew we had a lot of problems. I didn’t think it was that bad. I knew corporations were running the US, and I hadn’t paid much attention to government until this year it was interesting to learn more about what’s actually happening.”

“I’ve been aware of it previously, like Kayla, but it’s kind of a revelation to me, and reminded me of all the things going on. He had a great new perspective for me.”

Adams, Lysons, and Morse are too young to vote now, but if Cohen’s initiative is successful, the timing couldn’t be more fortunate for someone to barnstorm high schools discussing civics and individual rights. Cohen says his initiative language will be headed to the Lt. Governor’s office shortly. If it’s certified, signatures would be gathered later this year. The legislature would have a chance during its next session in 2013 to pass substantially similar legislation, and bypass the initiative. Barring that, the initiative would go before voters in August of 2014.

These three students would be about 19, and eligible to vote.

Note: Gershon Cohen officially announced his plans for a new citizen initiative at a public meeting at Kettleson Library in Sitka last night (5-9-12). Sitka assembly member Mim McConnell announced that she would introduce a municipal resolution in support of efforts to limit the abuse of corporate power.