BY STU SINGER
WASHINGTON, D.C. - "The government, the lawyers, and most of the news media are saying the fight of the Black farmers is settled," said Eddie Slaughter, a Georgia farmer and paper mill worker who is the vice president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA).
"But the consent decree does not mean it is settled. Black farmers reject it. It is a sellout. Nobody thinks it's fair. We are going to organize news conferences calling on people to reject the consent decree and come to Washington for a protest rally and to attend the hearing on March 2," Slaughter added.
The consent decree "will close the book on this shameful period at USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] when Blacks were excluded from programs all other farmers enjoyed," Alexander Pires, the lead attorney for the farmers, said in a news release. But no Black farmer the Militant has spoken to thinks the terms of the consent decree "close the book" on racist discrimination by the USDA.
"They should lose their jobs," 32-year-old Black farmer Sam Jackson from Bennettsville, South Carolina, said about the county agriculture agents directly responsible for the discrimination. "They dogged me and degraded me."
This is one of the most frequently heard complaints about the consent decree signed by lawyers for Black farmers suing the government and lawyers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was tentatively approved by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman on January 5. A final settlement is supposed to come following a "fairness hearing" in federal court in Washington on March 2.
Many Black farmers are mobilizing to try to influence that hearing. "Come to Washington March 2 to support Black farmers in their fight for justice," urged BFAA President Gary Grant from Tillery, North Carolina. The demand for action against racist Agriculture Department officials is not just a matter of historic justice. According to the settlement, these same individuals will stay in their posts, able to deny Black farmers loans and government assistance in the future.
The terms of the consent decree cannot even be used to file civil rights complaints. Under point 20, headed, "No admission of liability," the lawyers agreed: "Neither this Consent Decree nor any order approving this Consent Decree shall be construed as an admission by the defendant of the truth of any allegation...nor shall this Consent Decree ... be offered or received as evidence of discrimination in any civil, criminal or administrative action or proceeding..."
More `atmospheric pressure'
Griffin Todd, Jr., a 46-year-old farmer and trucker in Zebulon, North Carolina, said, "The county agents won't feel anything from the settlement. Three of the same agents who denied our family loans are still in the county office. There will just be more of the `atmospheric pressure.' "
More `atmospheric pressure'
In a segment about the Black farmers on the television news program "60 Minutes" November 29, a Black farmer in Virginia described how the white county agriculture agent would repeatedly fall asleep during loan interviews and then deny him the loan. "60 Minutes" reporter Ed Bradley confronted the now- retired government agent, who said he did fall asleep when Black farmers met with him, because of "atmospheric pressure" weighing down on him.
"My father went to his grave because of what those people did to him. People lost their land to natural crooks and nothing is being done about it," said Morton Gerald, a retired building engineer from Maryland who has helped fight to keep land in North Carolina that has been in the family for over 100 years. "About two years ago my family met with an aide to the governor of North Carolina to try to stop the government from foreclosing on my parents' farm. They claimed they owed $100,000, but that was a lie. They owed $27,000 and we finally pressured them to admit it, and we raised the money and paid it off."
The extensive media coverage of the signing of the consent decree has brought the fight by Black farmers to the attention of millions of people. Todd reported some discussion he has had about it with white farmers. "Some are just bigots who don't think we were discriminated against at all. But there is a white farmer about my age who I went to school with. We started farming about the same time and originally I had more equipment than he did. I've been through foreclosure and my kids have seen their house sold out from under them. But he has been able to get the loans he's needed from the government. He told me to bring the TV cameras down to his farm to show them how unequal the treatment of Black and white farmers has been."
Farmers didn't see proposed terms
Like many of the farmers involved in this fight, Todd wants the court process to continue. "I want to see negotiations be redone," said Todd. "The farmers should be in the negotiations and the lawyers have to bring all the decisions back to the farmers before agreeing to anything. This consent decree is an insult. It's a pacifier sticking in your mouth."
There is a lot of dissatisfaction expressed by Black farmers who have been involved in this fight with the way their lawyers handled the consent decree negotiations. At least the large majority of plaintiffs never saw a written copy or summary before it was signed. "The lawyers' job is to pacify us," South Carolina farmer Sam Jackson said. "These lawyers have not represented us. They represent the USDA, which is paying them" through the settlement.
Under the consent decree, the lawyers for the farmers are to receive $1 million from the government as a down payment for their time and expenses long before the first farmer is scheduled to receive any payment from the government.
The basic terms of the consent decree are that for Black farmers and their families with relatively little documented proof of discrimination, the government is supposed to forgive outstanding loans to the USDA, pay $50,000 in cash, and make payments equal to 25 percent of the $50,000 and 25 percent of the loan payment forgiven to cover taxes. This is called "Track A."
Farmers and their families who have extensive documentation can opt for "Track B - arbitration." But this is an all or nothing gamble. As the consent decree says under section 10-i: "The decision of the arbitrator shall be final. The parties hereby agree to forever waive their right to seek review in any court or before any tribunal."
After a hearing verbal report on the proposed settlement at a meeting in the Raleigh-Durham area in November, Attorney Stephon Bowens of the Land Loss Prevention Project wrote a letter on behalf of the North Carolina BFAA to Pires, the lead attorney in the class action suit. Bowens' letter summarized some of the weaknesses in the proposed settlement.
"Why isn't there a mechanism for paying off other lienholders and judgment creditors through the settlement ... if USDA is conceding discrimination to members of this subclass?" he wrote. Will the "USDA... sanction and/or remove employees who have demonstrated a practice of intimidation, misinformation, discrimination and reprisal as evidenced by the complaints and affidavits of the Black farmers?... Why can't an adverse arbitration decision for subclass B be appealed by the plaintiff?"
A nationwide advertising campaign is scheduled to notify people of the basic terms of the consent decree and explain how they can apply to participate. Paid ads are to be published in newspapers, and the lawyers for the farmers are setting up meetings to win support for the consent decree. For example, a meeting is called for Albany, Georgia for February 11 and 12. The first notice, a one-page summary of the decree, was received by the plaintiffs January 13.
BFAA activists are available to speak before union, school and community groups and requests for speakers are coming in steadily. One important meeting that was just arranged is a February 3 talk by Gary Grant at Howard University, sponsored by the Howard University Student Association in Washington, D.C. Meetings for Grant are being organized in Minnesota for February 9-14. The BFAA can be reached at 252-826-3244 in Tillery, North Carolina.
Stu Singer is a member of the United Transportation Union.
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