Sit-in in Tennessee: Black farmers want Pigford decree set aside

Almost from the beginning, claimants in the Pigford Vs. Glickman class-action lawsuit complained about the resulting consent decree. Flaws, they said, were numerous: too many claimants allowed in (around 22,000 currently — up from an original 3,000); too much emphasis on testimony from FSA officials they'd been squabbling with for years; too little help and slow going with any appeals.

The 1999 consent decree was supposed to settle discrimination claims against USDA by black farmers from 1981 to 1998. The decree was set up to pay black farmers in several ways.

Track A cases would pay a bulk $50,000 (tax free), forgive federal farm loan debts and allow for prime positioning in future loans.

Track B cases, for those farmers wanting a much larger government pay-out than $50,000, were set up with higher evidence requirements than Track A cases.

The government figured on paying or forgiving between $2 billion and $2.5 billion.

According to Thomas Burrell, who heads up the Black Farmers and Agriculturalist Association (BFAA) in Tennessee, every farmer who spoke to the judge at a fairness hearing on July 19, 1999, pleaded with him not to approve the consent decree. He approved the decree anyway, and Burrell and associates have been fighting with its intricacies ever since.

Their newest gambit to garner attention was a non-violent sit-in at the Brownsville, Tenn., FSA office over six days during the first week of July. Why Brownsville? “Because we maintain that 92 percent of bonafide black farmers — and USDA agrees with this — in Haywood County (Brownsville is the county seat) were denied justice under the consent decree.”

Despite it being July, five black farmers in the county were still waiting for word on whether their loans had been approved or not. This fact, one of several included in a list of complaints by the BFAA, brought some 300 association members and sympathizers to the FSA office with sleeping bags and fast food. A core group ended up staying in the office for six days.

“At Brownsville, we made a list of demands and (USDA) mulled them over. A meeting with USDA Secretary Veneman was one of our demands. On (July 3), a fax was sent to the Brownsville office stating she'd meet with us (July 12). However, that meeting would only take place if we vacated the building. We refused, and said we'd leave only when the five farmers were given some ruling on their pending loans. We weren't asking for a specific ruling on the loans, just an answer. It was July! We got those answers and for the majority of the farmers it was a ‘no.’”

For three days the following week, BFAA leadership group met with USDA/FSA personnel in Washington, D.C. One thing the group made clear, says Burrell: black farmers want an entity entirely separate from FSA to borrow money from. “Veneman said she'd consider that.”

Burrell says issues concerning offsets were also discussed. To service debt, “many black farmers denied operating loans are having their income tax checks, parity payments, CRP payments, whatever, taken from them by the government. Secretary Veneman said that was a concern and she'd look at ways to help.”

Not wasting time, while in Washington, D.C., the group of black farmers filed several pro se motions (motions filed without an attorney) in court. The first motion asked for the removal of Alexander Pires as lead counsel for the class. The second motion asked the judge to set aside the “defective and flawed consent decree. In the alternative, we asked him to issue a stay that would stop the arbitrators, the adjudicators, the monitors and everything else that was set in motion. We're awaiting a hearing date on those motions,” says Burrell.

email: [email protected].

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