Los Angeles' 14-acre South Central Farm, where a recent showdown between protestors and law enforcement is sparking national debate about property rights and open space.www.southcentralfarmers.com
“This is not a drill! It’s happening! Everybody get up!” was the shouted alarm that awoke Splash movie star Daryl Hannah, scores of farmers and other supporters around 5 a.m., June 13, as the state’s boot heel stomped America’s largest urban farm. Three hundred-plus LAPD and L.A. County sheriffs raided the 14-acre South Central Farm, to evict 350 mostly Latino and African-American poor families who’d grown food at a community garden there since 1992, following the Los Angeles riots.
The actress, who had been sleeping in a tent on land that grew avocados, mangos, maize and more at 41st and Alameda Streets (south of downtown L.A.), quickly climbed the walnut tree with a rope to take up a post in a platform perched on the so-called “Community Watchtower.” Farmers below chained themselves to trees and concrete-filled drums and locked arms in order to hamper their removals.
“It was very surreal, because it was still dark out and we were literally surrounded by many police and sheriffs’ cars,” says the actress, describing a scene that could have been directed by Quentin Tarantino, who helmed the Kill Bill movie Hannah acted in not long ago. “Helicopters were flying overhead. Sparks were flying because they were drilling with a metal saw through chain link fences. There were hundreds of sheriffs in riot gear, with plastic helmets, face guards, body armor, tear gas shotguns. It seemed very strange and otherworldly.”
It took law enforcers hours to evict protesters passively resisting the raid in lockdown mode, and they didn’t get to Hannah’s treetop outpost until around noon. “They brought up a fire truck and [used] diamond blade saws and devices to get us out of the tree,” Hannah relates. Fellow tree sitter John Quigley claims that a chainsaw “cut a gash into the tree while we were in it, endangering lives.” Authorities eventually cut through a steel tube and chains the occupiers had used to attach themselves to the walnut tree.
Early in the morning on June 13th, 300 officers raided the urban garden, evicting mostly Latino and African-American poor families who'd grown food there since 1992.www.southcentralfarmers.com
John Quigley is the veteran tree sitter who sounded the early morning alarm, alerting the farmers and their supporters to “man their positions” to resist the law enforcement onslaught with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King techniques of passive resistance. Quigley gained prominence for occupying the “Old Glory” oak tree for 71 days in Santa Clarita, California in 2002, which resulted in saving and transplanting the tree. He says that the same sheriffs who removed him from Old Glory took him from his walnut tree perch. “I told them, ‘We’ve got to stop meeting like this,’” Quigley quips.
At least 40 people—including Hannah and Quigley—were arrested and charged with disobeying court orders, says James Lafferty, executive director of the L.A. branch of the National Lawyers Guild, whose organization provided legal observers at the people’s farm and will defend many of those arrested. Bulldozers razed many of the plots of organic food crops, and a rally and a vigil took place that night outside of the farm.
Located south of the unofficial racial divide known as the 10 Freeway, the farm has been for years the subject of disputed land deals involving the City of Los Angeles and developer Ralph Horowitz. Some observers say an agreement to purchase the land was being negotiated, but landlord Horowitz went ahead and acted on a court order to clear his private property in the heart of the ‘Hood, reportedly to build a warehouse on what folksinger Joan Baez called “an oasis in a concrete desert.” The green refuge is located amidst vacant warehouses and railroad tracks in a heavily urbanized, minority district far from Beverly Hills.
The urban garden, with dismantling underway.www.southcentralfarmers.com
According to Quigley, noted tree sitter Julia “Butterfly” Hill—who occupied “Luna,” a California redwood, from 1997 to 1999 to prevent it from being cut down—originally contacted Hannah about the South Central Farm. No stranger to causes, Hannah says, “On a daily basis, I try to practice my belief system. Especially in my personal life I’ve gotten my homes off the grid. [They’re energy] sufficient and self-sustaining, and for 13 years they’ve run on solar power. I drive using bio-fuels. I eat and grow organic, and observe fair trade principles when I purchase foods and products.
“I try to be supportive to anything that seems to be healthy, loving, kind and a sane way of life, that incorporates animal rights, humanitarian and environmental issues,” adds Hannah. “They’re all one and the same to me. I just respond from the heart.”
Perhaps best known for her first starring role, as the mermaid opposite Tom Hanks in 1984’s Splash, Hannah has also appeared in several socially conscious movies. “The thing about films is that very few are specifically made with the intention of affecting change,” she says. “Most are just entertainment-based. If there’s something you can believe in, that actually sends a deeper message, other than just trying to expand the imagination and your ability to have compassion, that’s rare.” Hannah co-starred in indie director John Sayles’ 2004 Silver City, which likewise had an ecological theme and satirized a George W. Bush-like candidate and his Karl Rovish spinmeister.
Hannah believes Horowitz acted June 13 on the court-ordered eviction because “he’s had lots of frustrations,” in his dealings over the years with the farmers and city bureaucracy. According to Lafferty, these frustrations may include picketing at his home and office. The Times of London quoted Horowitz as saying that the land was costing him almost $30,000 a month in mortgage payments and other costs. He has been incensed by a Spanish-language website (not owned, operated or linked to by the farmers) that accused him of being part of a “Jewish mafia” that controls Los Angeles. “We’ve made, in the last three years, enough of a donation to those farmers,” he said.
The plight of the garden has stirred passionate protest from supporters.www.southcentralfarmers.com
The Los Angeles Times has been somewhat sympathetic to Horowitz, writing, “One wonders how the luminaries joining the protests would react if urban farmers camped out full-time on their assorted Malibu or Hollywood Hills estates.”
For her part, Hannah sees the evictions as simply unnecessary. “It was all such a waste of taxpayers’ money,” she says. “The money was on the table, the deal was there.” She was referring to millions the farmers, city and foundations (including the Annenberg Foundation and the Trust for Public Land) had reportedly raised. But the funds failed to meet the asking price of $16 million sought by Horowitz (who paid far less).
The Lawyers Guild’s Lafferty says that a trial set to begin July 12 will determine whether or not the city’s long-ago sale of the land to developer Horowitz was legal. If not, Lafferty says the sale could be voided and the land, which had originally belonged to the city, would be returned to the municipality.
Lafferty says, “All the city had to do was declare eminent domain, but the mayor and City Council never recommended it. The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed eminent domain to build a shopping center,” so it would presumable apply also to green space that feeds poor people in a heavily urbanized d
Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A.‘s first Latino mayor since the 19th century, campaigned as an environmentally active candidate. Although he visited the farm and tried to negotiate a buyout deal, his efforts weren’t successful. Jan Perry, the city councilwoman whose district includes the South Central Farm, sought alternate sites for the gardens but was similarly thwarted.
Actress Darryl Hannah, perhaps best known for 1984's Splash, was one of several celebrities fighting to protect the garden.
City-dwellers can benefit from open green garden space more than almost any type of development. New York’s Ground Zero could have become a park, which would be invaluable for Manhattanites squeezed between high rises. But for developers and city officials, a park on Wall Street is no more likely to happen for New Yorkers than a garden is for Angelenos (who need another warehouse about as much as Manhattanites need another high rise).
Of the role star power can play vis-ã-vis causes, Hannah says: “The only thing we can really offer is to redirect some of the attention that’s shined on us into a direction that is worthy of it.” Other notables who came to the farm to show solidarity include actors Martin Sheen, Mimi Kennedy, Amy Smart, Laura Dern, Rosanna Arquette and Danny Glover; environmentalists Hill and Quigley; plus singers Willie Nelson, Michelle Shocked (who was arrested for crossing police lines) and Baez. The venerable folkie, a troubadour for peace during the Vietnam War, performed at the people’s farm and even spent a couple of nights in the walnut tree. Sometimes performers’ best roles and songs are played off the screen.
Los Angeles-based freelance writer Ed Rampell wrote Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States (see www.ProgressiveHollywood.com).