By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As they have nearly every week for three years, supporters of the South Central Farm came to City Hall last week to scold officials during the City Council meeting for not doing enough to save the 14-acre garden, where immigrant farmers are squatting.
As the farmers face eviction, more and more activists from outside the South Central community have taken up the farmers’ cause and rallied at City Hall. One such supporter, Santa Monica family therapist Rebekah Price Ketover Brod, said Friday, “We need to use this open biosphere as a role model for community harmony and nonviolent ways of surviving and living in our country.”
Trouble is, the opposite of harmony and nonviolent behavior takes place at the farm these days. Instead, interviews and documents show, the South Central Community Garden, as it is officially known, has been the scene of severe — sometimes violent — internal strife.
The conflicts have led to allegations of abuse, intimidation, sexual harassment and the purging of farmers who disagree with the farm’s current leadership. There have been fights, arrests and restraining orders. Farmers complained to officials about the problems but found little relief. As a result, there’s been an exodus of farmers in recent months from the lands at 41st and Alameda streets to other community gardens, where they say they can work freely and peacefully.
Twenty current and former South Central farmers, who spoke to the L.A. Weekly in a series of interviews, in groups as well as individually, say the farm has become an unofficial fiefdom for organizing leaders Rufina Juarez, an MTA transportation planner..
Now, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa involved in negotiations to allow a nonprofit agency to purchase the garden from developer Ralph Horowitz, the farm’s current leadership is a potential beneficiary of millions of dollars in contributions if a sale is made.
“If the city buys the garden and doesn’t take those people out, it’s going to be a larger problem than they already have,” said Pedro Barrera, a former South Central farmer, who was kicked out in January by the South Central Farm leaders and now gardens elsewhere. “They don’t even have the property . . . Imagine what will happen when they actually get the land.”
The breakaway farmers’ numbers are small compared to the 350 farmers that Juarez and Tezozomoc say they represent. Yet their grievances shed light on the workings of a garden that is at the center of high-level negotiations for the property, which could sell for as much as $18 million. And many of their complaints were echoed by other community activists, who went into the farm with the goal of helping but were eventually snubbed and alienated by Juarez and Tezozomoc.
According to farmers, fliers and announcements produced by the farm leadership, complaint letters, e-mails and others involved with the garden, the South Central Farm leaders:
. Evicted farmers, although they were never granted authority to do so by the agency that founded the farm, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
. Required farmers to attend City Council meetings and demonstrations, often by locking the farm gates during such events.
. Intimidated farmers who complained by filing restraining orders against them and, in one instance, distributing anonymous fliers calling those farmers “sellouts.”
. Collected unknown amounts of cash contributions and referred to their group as a nonprofit 501(c)3, which it is not.
The state Secretary of State’s Office has no records of a nonprofit group named South Central Farmers Inc. Patrick Dunlevy, an attorney with the Pasadena firm Hadsell and Stormer, which is handling some of the South Central Community Garden’s legal matters, said the farm is preparing paperwork to be submitted to the state. Even so, Juarez and Tezozomoc have been receiving cash donations. During a November 22 concert at the farm by former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha, $10 donations were collected. At a recent meeting of the farm’s support committee, Juarez waved a wad of cash and said it was a $500 donation she had just received, news that was met with applause from the gathered activists.
Juarez declined to address the specific allegations against her. Tezozomoc, in an interview, said he and Juarez are merely enacting and enforcing rules that the farm’s “general membership” voted to approve. He and Juarez were elected in February 2004 to be the farm’s leaders and public representatives, Tezozomoc said. They have faced two or three challenges to their office, he said, but each time, a majority of the farmers voted to keep them. Enforcing the rules is his job, Tezozomoc said. “It’s all volunteer,” he said. “We’re not forcing anybody to be there. We’ve empowered people to struggle.”
But current and former South Central farmers paint a different picture. Many said they were never interested in picketing or marching in demonstrations, but were forced to participate by the farm leadership. Many said they did not want to participate in a ’round-the-clock “vigil” at the site, but were threatened with expulsion if they refused.
They said they sought help from the food bank, from the lawyers at Hadsell and Stormer, and from outside organizations, but each time, Juarez and Tezozomoc either arrived unannounced at meetings away from the farm or responded by increasing pressure on the farmers to comply with their rules.