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Black Farmers Protest in Tennessee

July 1, 2002

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BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ More than 150 black farmers claiming discrimination in federal crop loans staged a peaceful sit-in Monday that shut down an Agriculture Department office.

The angry farmers first held a rally outside the small USDA office in this town 55 miles northeast of Memphis, and then they poured inside, sitting in the lobby, at desks and taking over a conference room. Most of the staff went home.

Protest organizer Thomas Burrell accused the government of conspiring ``to force black farmers off the land.″

``We all know they’ve committed evil against us,″ Burrell said. ``The question is, how long are we going to let it happen?″

Carey Johnson, who directs farm subsidy programs for 12 Tennessee counties, greeted the protesters, then withdrew to an office to talk by phone with his superiors in Washington. He declined comment on those conversations.

Johnson said all crop loans in the district are handled the same way, regardless of an applicant’s race.

Protesters say discrimination has persisted despite a 1999 settlement between the government and thousands of black farmers from across the country. The agreement said farmers with little documented evidence of discrimination could take $50,000 payments, as well as $12,500 to cover taxes.

Farmers with more evidence could choose to go before an independent arbitrator and seek larger damages.

Lawmakers and federal officials have estimated that claims could reach $2 billion nationwide.

The protesters said black farmers still are being denied crop loans because of their race and their loans often are not approved until planting season already has begun. They also said the government has been slow in paying claims.

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