In an effort to raise awareness and increase student involvement in the political process, several speakers took to the Laney quad on Sept. 17 in celebration of Constitution Day. Featured speakers included Dean of Students Marco Menendez, English instructor Chris Weidenbach, and Laney Classified Senate President James Blake.
After a brief introduction by Mark Wilson of the Peralta Student Council, Dean Menendez entered into his discussion, one in which he issued warnings about corporate involvement in the political process.
“The best constitution in the world can be manipulated by corporations,” Menendez said, citing the landmark Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad as the beginning of a process in which courts would eventually establish corporate “personhood.”
Menendez went on to cite other examples, including the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which equated money with protected speech.
Following Menendez was Chris Weidenbach, who stressed the importance of organization and participation to students, mentioning the courage of undocumented immigrants intentionally getting arrested in order to challenge immigration legislation.
Weidenbach also discussed reasons he saw for citizens and non-citizens alike not to participate in the political process, giving point-by-point counter-arguments to each, saying in summary, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.”
When asked what the U.S. Constitution meant to her, student Justice Alford expressed a common sentiment. “When I think about the Constitution, it doesn’t really cross my mind in daily life.”
Menendez and Weidenbach also stressed seeking out alternatives to mainstream media as a way of staying informed. Namely, Menendez recommended the book “Unequal Protection,” by Thom Hartmann.
Weidenbach suggested the radio program “Democracy Now!,” which airs weekdays from 9-10 a.m. on KPFA 94.1; Truth-Out.org; and “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn.
Both “A People’s History of the United States” and “Unequal Protection” may be found for free online at http://www.historyisaweapon.org/zinnapeopleshistory.html and http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/331:unequal-protection-how-corporations-became-people-and-how-you-can-fight-back, respectively.
The day’s final speaker, James Blake, addressed that sentiment, arguing that vigilance was key in order to secure liberty for ordinary people, saying it was “our responsibility to protect ideals we hold dear.”
Blake used the example of Thomas Jefferson and his writings on liberty to bolster his points, summing up Jefferson’s view arguing if people don’t secure their own liberty government becomes predatory, or like “wolves” to use Jefferson’s own language.
“When you look for a leader, look in the mirror,” Blake said, simultaneously driving home the importance of citizen involvement and vigilance and laying the onus of securing democracy on the hands of individual citizens.
Laney student Isiah Thompson echoed the sentiments of some of the speakers. “I feel like over time we’ve swayed away from what made us the special country that we were,” he said.
Referring to the Constitution, Thompson continued, “The people don’t realize the power that they have with that foundation. I feel like if people realized the power that they have, we’d be a lot further along as a civilization.”