"The government thought they would just wait us out, and we would go ahead and give it up," said Charlie Lee, a peanut and cotton farmer from Montezuma, Georgia, about the sit-in. "But this fight is just beginning. We have no intention of sitting by and letting them take what little land we have left."
This is not the first time this layer of farmers has taken on the U.S. government in their struggle against the conditions of debt slavery imposed on working farmers under capitalism. They are part of a class-action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, that forced the government to admit to long-standing discrimination by the USDA and its field offices in processing loans and providing other services. In 1999 the USDA signed a consent degree settling the lawsuit, which 22,000 Black farmers had joined. Farmers were told that if they even met minimal requirements for proving discrimination they would receive $50,000 tax-free grants from the government.
In Brownsville, the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) released a statement noting that at "a time when corn is all but ready to harvest, cotton plants are starting to set their blooms and vegetable crops are ripe for picking, many Black farmers who have applied for operating loans to plant their 2002 crops have not received their loan proceeds as of yet in Haywood and Hardeman Counties, Tennessee."
After a meeting of several hundred farmers and their supporters, the BFAA issued nine demands to the U.S. government. In addition to meeting with Veneman, the farmers say they are seeking a moratorium on all farm foreclosures by the USDA, the immediate firing of all USDA officers who have been found guilty of discrimination, a halt to proceedings around the consent decree, and the immediate firing of Alexander Pires and Phillip Fraas as lead counsel in the lawsuit. The farmers also called for the USDA to tell them the status of loan applications by six Tennessee farmers in particular.
The demand to fire the two lawyers is in reference to another obstacle facing the farmers. According to a court ruling last month, the handling of forms by the lawyers representing claimants in the class-action suit is "bordering on legal malpractice." After receiving more than $14 million in payments from the government, the firms failed to meet even extended deadlines for filing papers on individual cases.
In addressing the fact that many farmers have not received any remedy for past discrimination, the ruling reviewed the original findings against the government. USDA "officials had ‘effectively dismantled’ the Office for Civil Rights Enforcement--the very office charged with addressing discrimination complaints," the court explained. "Often making matters worse, the ‘complaints processing system’ was a ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ that ‘processed [complaints] slowly, if at all,’ resulting in a huge ‘backlog,’" the ruling said. Complaints by Black farmers being handled by that office were literally packed into boxes and put away in closets, according to the lawsuit.
At the same time, "the agency ‘proceeded with farm foreclosures even when discrimination may have contributed to the farmers’ plight.’" The original government report concluded that "minority farmers lost significant amount of land and potential farm income as a result of discrimination by [USDA] programs."
‘Farmers facing the same problems’
After meeting with Veneman July 12, Tom Burrell, a leader of the Tennessee chapter of the BFAA, said the farmers "are not going to go away just because of a meeting." Gary Grant, the organization’s president, added, "We will meet if that’s what is needed and we will do whatever else is needed to continue to fight for farmers."
"What happened in Brownsville shows that the consent decree only set the farmers and USDA on a collision course," Burrell said. "It had no teeth. And farmers are facing many of the same problems of discrimination and disrespect as before."
Burrell pointed out the problems that they were protesting over are the very abuses the Pigford v. Glickman decision were supposed to reverse. "It was a travesty for the courts to approve such a flawed, defective, and unworkable settlement," he said. "It was a fraud and a farce."
"We organized the protest in Brownsville to put a spotlight on the fact that Black farmers there were still waiting to have loan applications processed even though the planting season had ended," he added.
Three years after the decree the USDA says it has paid out settlements to less than half of the 22,600 claimants in the suit. "They don’t even have a plan about what to do with the 60,000 additional farmers who filed to be included in the decree during the period of notification to the class," added Grant.
The consent decree provided that loans to Black farmers in the suit would be given priority in the future. Burrell explained that one priority loan had been processed in Georgia. And only a handful were made in a few other southern states.
"This is one of the main problems," said Burrell. "We have two presidents, two secretaries of agriculture, and a federal judge admit that Black farmers have been discriminated against and agreed on a remedy. But nothing has changed in the local offices."
Following the farmers’ press conference, USDA Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Herglotz said that the secretary of agriculture had agreed to look into the possibility of setting up central offices in several states where Black farmers can submit their loan applications. He also said that the department would consider under what conditions it could establish a moratorium on foreclosure against farmers who have pending claims.
Eddie Slaughter, vice president of BFAA, said that the key to the success of the sit-in "was community support. Supporters brought us food. On July 4 we had a picnic. We left the place cleaner than when we moved in."
Slaughter was unconvinced about the USDA officials’ assurances that reestablishing the Office of Civil Rights would address the farmers’ concerns. "They said that the local county committee loan officers should go through diversity training, but we said that by the time they finished their sensitivity training, the Black farmers who are already an endangered species, would be eradicated."
The recently enacted federal farm legislation has "no substance for the Black farmer," Slaughter said. "There is nothing in it for us, for other minority farmers, or women farmers. There’s nothing in there for family farmers who are also absent from the process. This bill is for the mega-farmer, the corporate farmer. That’s who got it all."
The bipartisan "farm bill" is a measure that provides $180 billion in subsidies over 10 years to large agribusiness and capitalist farmers. For example, between 1996 and 2000, the 1,290 of the wealthiest farmers each received more than $1 million in subsidy payments, while working farmers, who make up 80 percent of farm sales, were paid an average of $5,830.
In a separate news release National Black Farmers Association president John Boyd announced plans to hold a protest with tractors, trucks, and tractor-trailers in Washington starting August 22. Boyd told the press that the federal farm bill "is for the big corporate farmers, not the disadvantaged family farmer."
James Harris is reporting from Atlanta and Sam Manuel from Washington. Arlene Rubinstein contributed to this article.