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Black Farmers Rally In Washington

Dozens of black farmers and their supporters, some bringing livestock and tractors, demonstrated outside the Agriculture Department Thursday to dramatize claims they are being discriminated against when seeking loans.

"What do we want? Justice," the group of roughly 70 protesters chanted. "When do we want it? Now!"

A class action lawsuit, on behalf of thousands of black farmers across the country, alleged that black farmers routinely have been denied loans because of their race. As part of a settlement of the 1997 court case, the department three years ago agreed to pay $50,000 in each of the cases where discrimination happened.

But some of the appeals were denied, and some farmers have not received payments, prompting the continued protests.

Few farmers have received their money, said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association and a protest coordinator.

Assistant Agriculture Secretary Lou Gallegos said not all the cases qualify for payments and that the claims are being reviewed by the Justice Department and a private contractor.

"It is not an issue of resisting (payments) It is a question of following the settlement," he said.

There was no immediate comment from the Agriculture Department, although an agency official was expected to meet with the group later in the day.

Boyd maintained that the Bush administration, as well as the Clinton administration before it, has not adequately dealt with the black farmers' complaints.

"We shouldn't have to fight with our own Department of Agriculture for lending equity," said Boyd. "I'm out here to say it has to be an issue. They can't put this on the back burner."

The protest included at least one farmer who hauled in his tractor aboard a tractor-trailer rig. Another farmer brought his two goats and three chickens. Another brought a mule.

"We're fighting for fairness in the system," Boyd says. "I think this thing is like a volcano now, and I think it's ready to explode."

The association is seeking a moratorium on foreclosures until the payment situation is resolved. Boyd said that many of the farmers have lost to foreclosure land that had been in their families for generations, and said many have been unable to maintain their farms.

So far, the government has paid $629 million in claims in 12,859 cases, and it has forgiven more than $17.2 million in outstanding loans.

But the Agriculture Department has petitioned against several claims, and 8,490 cases have been denied. Still others are pending.

Earlier this week, Dale Moore, chief of staff for Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, said he is confident the department will improve how it's handling the black farmers' complaints and payments.

Black farmers "have been asked to be patient, but we're going to come up with ways to be held accountable and achieve some progress," Moore says.

The USDA's inspector general investigated the department's civil rights office after the class-action lawsuit was filed and said the agency failed to maintain and track files.

As part of the farm bill signed this year, the agency will set up a civil rights office, Moore says.

In the meantime, black farmers can't wait any longer for reviews of their cases, Boyd says, because the longer they wait, the fewer there are.

Just 1 percent of the nation's 1.9 million farmers are black, according to the agency's 1997 census.

"We're facing extinction," Boyd says.