Surrounded by organic flowers grown on the South Central Farm, a huge Sacred Heart of Jesus altar sat around the base of the tree where protestors were tree-sitting to save the South Central Farm. As of 5 am Tuesday morning, the altar was joined by forty nonviolent protestors locking together around the base of the tree because LA Sheriffs, firefighters, and LAPD had converged to evict the farmers and protesters who were now considered trespassers.
Nightly, hundreds of humble farmers and their families had united for a vigil to light candles and pray for help to save the 350 small garden plots in their 14-acre organic community garden. Native American elder, actor Floyd Westerman, led the vigil around the perimeter several nights; other nights it was led by the oldest woman from the community. On the recent full moon, 600 bicyclists from Critical Mass and Nightriders, surprised everyone by cycling around the farm at midnight, chanting, “Save the Farm”. You see, this community garden has been tilled and nourished for 14 years by these family farmers. Fourteen years of hard work—sweat equity—hard work of common folks, the poor of LA. The land was granted to the LA Food Bank after the riots of 1992, and has been miraculously transformed into a lush garden by these family farmers, and is a shining example of the poor helping one another survive in the big city.
With Sheriff helicopters circling daily, the farmers and their supporters feared that at any moment they would permanently be forced out of the garden. Sheriffs met with the farmers’ attorney, Dan Stormer, last week and told him they would be “enforcing the court order to evict all at the garden,” and gave them a couple of days to leave the premises. In addition, the attorney alleged that the sheriffs stated their concern that “anarchists might be present inside the garden”. This kind of talk brews all the ingredients for riot police to come in, and now the process has begun.
At 5 am, Tuesday morning, the sheriffs, fire fighters, and LAPD all moved in to begin the eviction. Approximately 40 protesters immediately locked down in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. Most put their hands in tubes (specifically designed for civil disobedience) then dropped them into barrels of cement, forcing the evictors to bring in jackhammers and drills to dislodge them. Several locked down together around the base of the tree where Darryl Hannah and John Quigley were tree-sitting. Bulldozers moved in to clear a path to bring in cherry pickers to extract the tree-sitters. Hannah, calling local media on the phone during the raid, stated, “ultimately, the money has been on the table. This eviction might really be about extracting blood. When will the Mayor see that a farm in the city is good and sustains many families? The farmers depend on this food. I am planning to hold my position in the tree in a peaceful manner. The deal was so close. It’s a shame that the taxpayers’ money has to be wasted in this way. The money issues were being resolved…” LAPD showed up in riot gear to begin removing the many protesters outside the farm who had linked arms and laid down together blocking traffic on the streets around the farm. Hours later, riot police were angrily striking some of the farmers in the stomach with their batons. Protests began outside at the LA City Council meeting within hours.
Why would the Mayor allow this eviction to go down, after giving the farmers such hope through his reps just days before? What a heartbreak. Rumors had been circulating for weeks that many in the government, i.e., the Mayor, Senator Barbara Boxer, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters were all working “behind the scenes” to find a solution to this intensifying problem, but still no official word from the Mayor’s office was given. Finally, three days days ago, Larry Frank, LA Deputy Mayor showed up at the nightly candle vigil, stating, “If there is a chance to mediate this situation, Mayor Villaraigosa will do what he can to settle this. Don’t give up hope.” LA City Board of Public Works Commissioner Paula Daniels, also showed up, emphasizing that the Mayor “cares for the farmers and wants to make this one of the greenest cities in America, including the 500 trees growing on this farm.”
Some of the nation’s most authentic beacons for humanitarian issues have turned the South Central Farm into a microcosm of how to preserve the only green zone in downtown LA, and also give fair treatment to the poor in the City of Angels. Organizers Darryl Hannah, Julia Butterfly-Hill, and John Quigley had attracted Martin Sheen, Ralph Nader, Farm Aid’s Willie Nelson, U.N. representative Danny Glover, Ben Harper, Joan Baez, Leonardo DeCaprio, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a rep for Jane Goodall, musicians Tom Morello and Michelle Shocked, over the past two weeks, drawing world attention to the possible loss of the gardens.
The endangered 14-acre organic farm, considered the nation’s largest urban farm, has also drawn to its heart local faith-based leaders, clergy, and civil rights leaders (such as Evelyn Knight of the Martin Luther King, Jr. marches). All had been calling for Mayor Villaraigosa to immediately intervene to halt the looming eviction of the 350+ farmers. They also had hoped that Brentwood developer, Ralph Horowitz, would find compassion in dealing with the poor on this issue. They are all asking, “Why bulldoze a fine city model of sustainability to build a warehouse?” Yes, Horowitz has the right to maximize profits, but there are many humanitarians now pleading for him to reconsider and use his conscience over profits.
But while the police roughed up the protesters and farmers outside the farm, the Mayor was finally giving the press conference he should have given one week before. He was finally announcing the financial goal had been met to buy the farm! Well, low and behold, the developer later that day talked to the Mayor on the phone, stating it was now worth -3 million dollars more. Earlier, during television coverage of the eviction, he was focused on the issue of the farmers’ “ingratitude,” and that he wouldn’t sell it to them for “100 million” because he didn’t like their “causes”. Hurt feelings on both sides might have occurred in the past, but now all of LA became focused on the television footage showing the hurt feelings and hurt bodies of those farmers and protesters hit in the stomach with riot police batons.
Los Angeles developer, Ralph Horowitz, has been the focus of this dilemma, one that the former Los Angeles Mayor Hahn played a part in creating when he quietly sold the garden land for million to Horowitz in 2003. Many lawsuits later, it now stands that a July 12th Superior Court hearing will determine whether the original sale of the land was even legal in the first place. Horowitz also sued the farmers in February-- a Slapp suit for 0,000 filed as an Abuse Process Complaint.
What is not being reported at all in this issue, is that the real heat had been turned up last week by Senator Barbara Boxer when she delivered the most direct punch to this boondoggle. Sending a letter to developer Ralph Horowitz, she stated, “I understand that efforts to raise the .3 million have so far fallen short and that you may be prepared to oust the approximately 350 families who farm the land.” Noting that the property has a “tangled history which began when the City of Los Angeles took the property through eminent domain in the 1980s for a planned trash-to-energy incinerator, which was never built,” Sen. Boxer then pointed to the fact that after that transaction, the “City allowed the LA Regional Food Bank to begin using the land as an urban gardening project… Ultimately, you regained the property through court action for million, slightly more than you had been paid for the property when it was taken for the incinerator.” Focusing on fair treatment, she ended her letter with, “Mr. Horowitz, I sincerely hope that you will agree to negotiate with the community for a price that they can realistically afford. I am also sure that you could benefit by making part of the ownership transfer a charitable gift to the community.”
Amidst all the scurry, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) came to the rescue last week offering another solution—buy the farm for full price. The TPL has always been generous to LA, creating the Parks for People-LA program to create 25 new park and open space projects (i.e. community gardens and athletic fields) over the next five years. Using their G1S computer modeling to pinpoint neighborhoods where parks are most urgently needed in LA, they have determined south LA to be an area that definitely needs greenery. Recently the TLP also saved another downtown LA site, the 32-acre “Cornfield” which was also being threatened by developers.
With eviction looming, last week the Trust put out a nationwide plea to many philanthropy organizations to immediately pledge monetary grant support to buy the South Central Farm at Horowitz’s asking price of .3 million. The Annenberg Foundation immediately responded with a gift pledge of million, and this week, the Trust for Public Lands will be presenting documents to Horowitz to purchase the land for the farmers. Bob Reid of the Trust for Public Land, states that the Trust has “drafted legal documents” to present to Horowitz to negotiate a “transaction to purchase the community farm”.
Joan Baez, who initially lit the fire on finding a compassionate solution to this crisis, showed up again over last weekend, actually sleeping in the tree overnight with tree-sitters Darryl Hannah, John Quigley, and Julia Butterfly-Hill, the four doing phone interviews all night with late night radio talk shows about the plight of the farm. Baez said she showed up in LA to “bring my little piece of heart to do something that would bring a tangible result.” The next morning, she also sang an honoring anthem to Julia Butterfly-Hill while the activist concluded her 24-day hunger strike, descending from her tree-sitting post, which had then been replaced by another female farmer, Refina Juarez, also fasting.
Julia Butterfly-Hill noted that her water-only fast was to show the unfairness of destroying “paradise”, and that the farm garden was “priceless and irreplaceable”, and a “large vision of what’s possible for Los Angeles to be healthier”. She had successfully taken a stand on the value of preserving nature by living in a redwood tree for over two years in Northern California to stop the impending destruction of old-growth redwood forests, which is the subject of one of her bestselling books, Luna. She noted that during her LA hunger strike, she realized that “most Americans don’t know what it’s like to go hungry for even 24 hours. “ She urged citizens to think about how the South Central Farm garden is “the food source for over 350 families and their extended families, and to place yourself in their shoes—to consider how it would feel to have a large part of your food source ripped away from you.”
Joining Julia Butterfly-Hill and Darryl Hannah in the tree was John Quigley. John Quigley, is well known for a recent LA tree-sit to save a 400-year old tree, Old Glory, from being destroyed. He also just completed a project with Global Green, organizing an aerial photograph of thousands of scientists and the Innu tribe in the Artic, who with their bodies spelled out SOS on an ice cap, bringing attention to ice caps dramatically melting there due to global warming. He also recently created another art image at Venice Beach to draw attention to the plight of the quarter of a million homeless U.S. veterans. At his request, five hundred citizens of LA formed the outline of the famous image of veterans raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. For Quigley to be one of the tree-sitters at the South Central Farm is natural for his way of thinking, “We hope Ralph Horowitz will negotiate a deal where everyone wins.”
Ralph Nader, who also visited with the activist, stated, “This farm is a model, a source of inspiration for people in other parts of the world. These farmers are giving life, hope and food in an unlikely place. There has to be land for people in the cities, not just family farms in rural areas. It’s always the banks and developers buying up the land for skyscrapers. Our city planners need to allow farms such as this in the city. You have devastated areas in the city, like here. The wealthy keep taking the land, and this protest to save this farm is a historic event. This signifies the possibilities of working the land, and the fruits going to the people who work that land.
“In the 1980s, Detroit wanted to build a GM plant on a similar piece of land, and at 5am, fifty squad cars came in and pulled out the protestors and got away with it. But here in LA, I am saying to the authorities that it will be difficult to keep their jobs if they destroy this farm.”
Former Mayor of Santa Monica, Mike Feinstein, now active in urban planning with the Southern Regional Comprehensive Plan Task Force (part of SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments) stated, “This brings up food security issues. When the Mayor’s office previously said they would just relocate the farm, I immediately thought that they can’t relocate the spirit that has gone into the land here. Better solutions can be found. The previous city grant that built this community garden is a good model. With open space, a city can build a dream garden.”
Rev. Ignacio Castuera, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Watts stated, “My hope was that the sheriffs wouldn’t move in too quickly. We are working outside the usual channels, and the people of faith are trying to bring another dialog to this conflict—heart to heart. It should not only be a money question. My hope is that Mr. Horowitz is a practicing Jewish man, and I pray that his Rabbi will remind him of the Biblical call to deal fairly with the poor.”
Christine Chavez, daughter of Cesar Chavez, who also spent the night on the farm in the tent encampment, stated, “We shared the farm workers prayer that Cesar Chavez, always prayed. Cesar also had an organic garden like these found at this farm. I saw Cesar fast for 36 days to stop the spraying of pesticides on the farmers in the fields, and it was very serious on his health, so I was at the farm to pray for Julia Butterfly-Hill while she fasted for the South Central Farm.” Cesar’s wife, Helen, also accompanied her daughter.
Martin Sheen recited poet Tagore to the farmers: “Where the heart is without fear, and the head help up high…when the clear stream of reason hasn’t lost its direction, into that heaven, that freedom, let my country awake.” Sheen, usually protesting the closing of the School of Americas for its training of battalions that later commit atrocities in other countries, arrived with Jesuit priest, Rev. Michael Kennedy.
Rev. Kennedy, of the Delores Mission Church in East LA, is still alive today but could have been killed in the 1980s if he had been with six fellow Jesuit priests as planned. The Jesuits were killed in El Salvador, murdered by the Atlactl Battalion which had been trained at the School of Americas. The issues over immigrants from Central America taking political asylum in the U.S. (due to the US funding of these death squads,) is close to his heart. Perhaps that is why he showed up-- to protect the small number of Central American farmers who also have plots of land at the South Central Farm.
He stated, “At this historical moment, this is a Promised Land. People of faith believe LA should come together to keep the land sacred, using it for the best use, and that is as a garden. We live in this part of the city, and we know there are not many green areas down here.”
Pete Seeger even called the farmers, saying, “Some growth is considered bulldozing. Right now we need growth in generosity, and growth in common sense for humanity and our communities.”
Mary Wright, of the Wright Resource Center in Malibu, and of the visionary Frank Lloyd Wright family, noted that the late architect developed the concept of “broad acre cities” with people “living near where they grow their food, and children being able to be in nature close to home, and to get in touch with the process of seed to harvest.” Emphasizing that in the case of the farmers in south central, she is “deeply saddened that greed seems to be superceding need” in an area where there is “such a deep, important need.”
Last Sunday, country superstar, Willie Nelson, showed up to lend support as head of Farm Aid. He stressed, “We all need to learn to grow our own food. There is a new trend where city-folks are going out into rural areas to hire family farmers to grow their organic food. This farm should be saved. It’s a great example of what can be done in all cities. I would climb up in the tree with them, but I think of Keith Richards’accident, and so I’ll just do a polka with one of the farmers on the ground.”
“The farmers are growing organic food here, and helping other farmers. We all have to utilize every acre to grow food. Farm Aid supports growing organically, and the farmers will grow our fuel in the future, as well as food. Biodiesel and ethanol will be positive for family farmers to pay their bills, growing soybeans and cotton for biodiesel.”
While Nelson was at the farm, the Sheriffs’ helicopters circled overhead many times, and he stressed, “Mayor Villagarosa should step up to the plate all the way right now. He knows what the people want. Senator Boxer and Congresswoman Waters are being very vocal. He should have been helping to settle this more actively already and being more outspoken, before the farmers have to go through unnecessary pain.”
After Darryl Hannah returned from being arrested, she stated, “As I was coming down from the tree, I looked around and what really came o me was this neighborhood is filled with liquor stores, warehouses and concrete. Every mother deserves a place to grow healthy food and a green place for children to play. Here in South Central LA, there is a dire need. I’m very sad today that Mr. Horowitz has broken his word. He said if the community of south Central could raise million, he would sell us the land. We did it. It was a miracle, and that’s why I raised my arm when I was coming down from the tree. We did our part. We stood up and did the impossible, a group of farmers, a few celebrities, and hundreds of people who care. Now he’s broken his word…”
Today, Danny Glover sent word to the farmers, stating, “I received the news today about what was happening at the South Central Farm, and it’s a very, very sad day. In fact, it ought to be a National Day of Mourning, a national day of Shame. What we are witnessing is the wanton and wholesale destruction of a community’s dream. Instead of destroying the dream, we should be embracing it.”
He went on to say, “I’m especially saddened for our children. What is the message that we are sending to them when our national priorities are such that we can spend a billion dollars a day, about .8 million dollars an hour, on the war in Iraq and have a few million dollars domestically be the difference between whether communities like South Central Farm have healthy and nutritious food or not. So like thousands of other people around the world today, I am saddened and at the same time I continue to admire, support and gain strength and hope from the courageous example provided by the South Central farmers. Your cause is not lost because the struggle will and must continue.”
Wednesday evening, Darryl Hannah appeared on CNNs Larry King Live interview show, joined via phone by Willie Nelson. Mr. King stated he knew the late Mr. Annenberg (of the Annenberg Foundation), and that he would have help, “probably doubling the money gift.” The late founder of the Annenberg Foundation was the former publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Willie Nelson reiterated that he is strongly standing “beside the farmers” on this issue.
Whatever happens next, the Sacred Heart of Jesus candles are still around the sacred tree, but could be bulldozed within days. As of last night, more candles are being lit on the outside of the farm during new nightly prayer vigils. Even though this is a big political mess, all I can think of is Jesus’ saying, “Whatever you do unto the least of me, you do unto Me..”
****Jane Ayers, an independent journalist, who has conducted interviews for the Los Angeles Times Interview section, USA Today, The Nation, etc. She is the author of the upcoming book, Hearts of Charity, about the power of the individual to make a difference in the world. She is also a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. She is Director of the Jane Ayers Human and Environmental Rights Media, a 501c3 project of SEE (Social & Environmental Entrepreneurs) part of the Earthways Foundation of Malibu. She can be reached at email@example.com