Black and other small family farmers, accompanied by lawmakers, union members and small farms advocates, rallied outside the USDA building in Washington, D.C., on May 8, demanding an end to "decades of racial discrimination."
Hundreds of African-American and small family farmers from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Pennsylvnia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, and Wisconsin participated in the non-violent protest of racist practices that are leading to the virtual extinction of black-owned farms. They demanded support for all of America's family farmers. Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who held the first congressional hearings on the issue in 1997, joined the demonstrators in the rally that was co-sponsored by Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy and the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) and endorsed by 19 farm groups and endorsed by at least 44 other groups, including the AFL-CIO.
According to demonstrators, fewer than 18,000 black farmers remained in 1999, down from 925,000 farmers in 1920. Since 1965, a congressional committee found in 1990, black-owned farms were going out of business at a rate five times that of white farmers. At that time it was predicted that by the year 2000, there would be no black-owned land in the country. The USDA did not reach that goal, but they haven't missed it by much.
"Each day black farmers lose 1,000 acres of land. Today they claim 53 percent of USDA land holdings formerly belonged to them," said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First.
Further adding to farmers' woes, President Ronald Reagan cut the USDA budget in 1983 by eliminating its civil rights complaint division, which ended any federal investigation of complaints filed by minority farmers.
In 1997, more than 1,000 black farmers sued the USDA, seeking three billion dollars in compensation, covering claims from 1983 to 1997. In January 1999 the agency and attorneys for the farmers reached an out-of-court settlement calling for forgiveness of the plaintiffs' government debts and a one-time tax-free $50,000 disbursement to each farmer.
The process for payment of farmers is moving too slowly, however, and 40 percent of those who applied to receive payment under the settlement were rejected. "With over 40 percent of farmers already rejected, it will lead to the end of black family farmers in this nation,'" said Gary Grant, president of the BFAA.
"Here we go again," said Rep. Waters at the rally.
"Once again black farmers have been forced to resort to demonstration and protest to secure what a court of law has previously substantiated: that black farmers have experienced discrimination at the hands of the USDA employees. When will this travesty of injustice stop? We can no longer stand by and allow the rights of America's black farmers to be trampled on by unjust policies."
Waters assured protesters that she and the Congressional Black Caucus would go through each farmers' complaints individually to ensure that the farmers received the funds they were entitled to.
Demonstrators, led by Waters, then marched to the entrance of the USDA where Waters, Gary Grant and attorneys Stephan Bowens, Darlene Smith and associates asked to talk with Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. Armed guards kept the congresswoman and the agreed-upon delegation waiting out in 90-degree heat for more than 15 minutes while they checked to see if the congresswoman could enter the building. It was only upon Rep. Water's threat to enter the building anyway that were they allowed to enter.
While this delegation met with Secretary Glickman, 13 protesters, including three women and a 73-year-old farmer from Alabama, who tried to enter the building were arrested.
The rally for black and small family farmers was endorsed by over 60 organizations, both local and national, representing a wide array of interests and goals. Their common endorsement represented a broad-based support for black and small family farmers.
The recent decline in the number of black farmers has presaged the current drop in small-scale, family owned farms throughout the nation, said Mittal.
With federal subsidies overwhelmingly going to the largest and wealthiest factory-like farms, small-scale farms are feeling the crunch, she said.
"Black farmers have been the proverbial 'canary in the mineshaft' of US agriculture," she said. "Everything that happened to them, happened to all family farmers later."
The rally called for a healthy rural America, one that supports family farmers of all races and protects American farmland for future generations.
Gary Grant, president of the BFAA, promised to persevere. "We have achieved much today, but we will keep coming back until justice is served.
"We are not going to stop before we get justice. We will not go away and the USDA needs to honor its signature on the Consent Decree and live up to its agreement. Justice will prevail!" exclaimed Grant.
Rally organizers said America needs a healthy rural America that strengthens family farmers of all races and protects American farmland for future generations. The rally called for:
Fulfillment of the consent decree;
Return of foreclosed lands to the black farmers;
Access to credit without discrimination in the future for all family farmers;
Support for outreach, technical assistance and funding of education;
Democratization of the USDA/Farm Services Agency;
Full implementation of the Civil Rights Action team (CRAT) and National Small Farm Commission Recommendations;
A Farm Bill to strengthen America's family farmers.
FOR MORE information, contact Anuradha Mittal at 510-654-4400, Food First at www.foodfirst.org and BFAA at
A background report on the situation of Black farmers in the US, can be found at: www.foodfirst.org/pubs/backgrdrs/2000/w00v6n1.html.
Includes reports from Food First.
MIGRANT-HUNTING POSSES. The Mexican government has appealed to the United Nations to help stop the shootings of undocumented immigrants by vigilante "posses" -- believed to include members of the Ku Klux Klan -- along the border with the United States, the London Independent reported May 20. At least two Mexicans have been killed and seven wounded by gangs patrolling the arid badlands of Arizona's Cochise County to round up migrants seeking jobs in the US.
Some ranchers have declared publicly that they are "hunting" the Mexicans "for sport," the British daily reported. Mexican Foreign Minister Rosario Green described the shootings as "brutal displays of xenophobia," and she urged US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to take steps to curb the actions of renegade ranchers, their hired hands, and even tourists attracted by the lure of hunting humans, with night-vision goggles and high-powered rifles. Local ranchers reportedly search suspicious vans and pickups on the public highway, despite having no authority to do so, and track Mexicans with hounds, then radio their whereabouts to the Border Patrol. Flyers advertising for tourists to join in the hunt disturb local authorities, but defiant Arizona ranchers invited members of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform to a recent rally in Sierra Vista where several Ku Klux Klan members were spotted in the audience of over 250 people.
HEMP GETS MARYLAND OK. Maryland on May 18 became the fourth state in the nation to authorize the production of hemp, a hardy fibrous crop with many commercial uses that sponsors hope will offer Maryland farmers a profitable alternative to tobacco. But the US Drug Enforcement Agency sees hemp as a menace because of its relationship to marijuana and may block the pilot program, which would allow farmers licensed by the DEA and inspected by state police to grow hemp on state-owned land. Although one anti-drug activist was quoted by the Washington Post saying, "Hemp is marijuana is cannabis sativa is pot. As a mother, it is my belief that marijuana is absolutely our most dangerous drug," most experts recognize a difference between the two varieties of the hemp plant. Marijuana contains high levels of a psychoactive chemical known as THC. Industrial hemp contains very low levels of THC, and reportedly gives those who try to smoke it little more than a headache. Still, federal law classifies both types of cannabis as a narcotic. Other than Maryland, only Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota have laws allowing hemp production. All were passed last year.
PROGRESSIVE POPULIST MAKES 'CENSORED' LIST. Project Censored, a media research group based at Sonoma State University in California, gave honorable mention to "Washington's 10% Solution," by Wayne O'Leary, from the May 1999 Progressive Populist, in its book Censored: The Year's Top 25 Censored Stories. The book compiles what the group views as important but undercovered news stories of the year. [See "'Censored' publicizes under-covered stories," 5/1/00 PP.]
FRANKENSEEDS OF DISCONTENT. France called for the destruction of rapeseed (canola) crops contaminated by genetically modified material May 19 as environmentalist fury swept across Europe over how farmers had been sold "Frankenstein seed,'' Reuters reported. The controversy erupted when the Advanta company, which imported the seed from Canada, disclosed that farmers in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden were unwittingly growing rapeseed genetically modified (GM) to be resistent to pesticides. French and Italian officials called for investigations while British officials, conscious of growing public opposition to GM foods, rushed to minimize the problem and offer health assurances. But environmentalists warned that there was a risk to public health and said the contamination could spread to other crops through wind-blown pollination.
US SLIPS IN EDUCATION RANKINGS. The US no longer leads the world in the proportion of students who graduate from college. Graduation rates in Norway, Britain, and the Netherlands surpassed the US' 33 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which pooled data from its 29 democratic countries and 16 nonmember countries. One of the reasons the US has fallen behind, Andreas Schleicher, the principal administrator of the organization's Center for Educational Research and Innovation, told the Boston Globe, is because the country has lagged in improving its pre-university education system. In 1998, the OECD found the US trailed 22 other countries in the number of its students graduating from high school. The US spent $2,000 more per student at the middle-and-high school level than the organization's average, but it pays teachers less per capita than all but three of the countries surveyed and teachers work 300 hours longer than the organization's average. ''The earning potential for teachers compared to other university graduates in the United States just hasn't kept up,'' Schleicher said. ''That makes it harder for schools to find the best and the brightest to teach.''
UN CITES US PRISON BRUTALITY. The United Nations on May 15 rebuked the United States Monday over brutality in its prisons and called for an end to chain gangs and to the use of electro-shock belts for restraining inmates. The UN Committee against Torture said it was concerned about breaches of the international convention against torture in the United States, citing the alleged sexual assault of female prisoners by law enforcement officers and the holding of minors in adult jails. This is the first time the United States, the world's most vocal defender of human rights, has been put in the dock before the Geneva-based body alongside the usual suspects such as China, Reuters reported. The UN forum's two-day examination of the US' record follows the fatal police shootings of unarmed blacks in New York and Los Angeles. London-based rights group Amnesty International also charged in a 46-page report week that practices in overcrowded U.S. prisons -- whose total population recently hit two million inmates -- facilitated torture and other forms of ill-treatment.