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Farmers, celebrity supporters evicted from L.A. urban garden

Jacob Adelman
Actress Daryl Hannah, second from right, and activist John Quigley, right, salute supporters of the South Central urban garden after being removed from a tree Tuesday.
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LOS ANGELES (AP) – In what may be its last spring, a 14-acre inner-city garden yielded a crop of anger Tuesday.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers arrived in the early morning darkness and began removing a small number of farmers and celebrity supporters who defied the owner’s efforts to reclaim his land for development.

Outside the garden, protesters blocked streets and screamed as helmeted police thrusting batons made arrests.

When it all was over, the garden was under guard by men in black T-shirts marked with the word “Security,” tire marks ran over crushed plants, and young fruit trees and corn stalks lay toppled on the ground.

Maria de Jesus Cruz cried as she surveyed the damage from outside the garden, where she said she had farmed for nine years. A chain-link fence that enclosed her plot of land lay on the ground.

“Everything that was here, they destroyed,” said Cruz, 42, who grew onions, lemons and nectarines.

“This was right in the center of the city, a nice, green place with flowers and plants,” she said in Spanish. “We liked coming here to spend our time.”

Some of the damage appeared to have been caused by a small earthmover that cleared a path for a fire truck that was brought in to remove actress Daryl Hannah and famous tree sitter John Quigley from their perches high in the branches of a walnut tree in the middle of the garden.

The pair raised their fists as they were brought down in a fire truck bucket.

“Daryl, we’re with you!” protester Jenny Flores yelled through a megaphone from a nearby street.

“I’m very confident this is the morally right thing to do, to take a principled stand in solidarity with the farmers,” Hannah told The Associated Press in a cell phone call before officials reached her perch and arrested her.

Authorities moved against garden occupiers about 5 a.m. Seventeen arrests were made inside the garden for investigation of failure to obey a court order and for obstructing sheriff’s deputies trying to carry out the order, county Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kerri Webb said.

Another 27 people at the support demonstration outside the garden were arrested by city police for investigation of misdemeanor failure to disperse, said police Lt. Paul Vernon.

Protesters linked arms and sat on train tracks, drawing officers with helmets and batons. Officers dragged some protesters away while other officers forced supporters back.

Inside the garden, firefighters had to cut free protesters who had chained themselves to the walnut tree, barrels filled with concrete and a picnic table.

The garden was finally cleared just after noon. Some protesters remained nearby with officers watching. Others went to City Hall, where they chanted “Save the farm.”

Inside City Hall, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the evictions “unfortunate, disheartening.” He expressed frustration to reporters that a deal could not be reached despite months of negotiation, and lamented the potential loss of “an oasis in a sea of industry and concrete.”

“Every time we seem to get close, it unravels,” the mayor said. In a phone call Tuesday morning, Villaraigosa said the owner “couldn’t commit to preserving this land for urban farming.”

The eviction began near daybreak as about 120 sheriff’s deputies arrived at the site to serve an order that a judge signed last month.

“It’s a massive show of force,” Quigley, a veteran environmental activist and tree-sitter, said by cell phone. “Our goal is to hold as firm as we can, obviously in a nonviolent manner.”

Deputies slowly pulled people out from among the avocados, sunflowers and other produce.

“We’re taking our time so we make sure the protesters are safe,” Webb said.

For years about 350 people tended plots of produce and flowers.

Recently, landowner Ralph Horowitz began taking action on plans to replace the garden with a warehouse.

Horowitz noted that the farmers were squatting on land he owned which was zoned for warehouses and factories.

Horowitz said in a telephone interview he was paying $25,000 to $30,000 a month in mortgage and other land costs.

“We’ve made, in the last three years, enough of a donation to those farmers,” he said. “I just want my land back.”

“The gardeners don’t make the rules. They don’t violate court orders at their will, promise to get off the land and not get off, demand that they be given the land for free. There’s an end to this type of thing,” he said.

Horowitz accused the farmers of ingratitude, saying they had sued him and their supporters had picketed his home and office.

“I feel that the gardeners have been on the land for 14 years, almost 15 years for free. After 15 years, you say thank you,” he said.

Horowitz also said the city had provided alternate locations for the gardeners and most had left. In a statement, City Councilwoman Jan Perry also said many gardeners had moved to new garden sites.

The effort to save the farm attracted support of numerous activists and celebrities, including “Splash” and “Wall Street” star Hannah, Quigley, country singer Willie Nelson, actor Danny Glover, folk singer Joan Baez and tree sitter Julia Butterfly Hill.

Supporters moved onto the property full-time in mid-May and occupied the walnut tree after the judge issued the eviction order.

The roots of the dispute go back to the 1980s, when the city forced Horowitz to sell the land to for $4.8 million for a trash-to-energy incinerator. The project fizzled and the city turned the land over to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which allowed people to begin gardening there after in the early 1990s.

Horowitz sued to get the site back and the city settled in 2003 by selling it to him for $5 million.

Garden supporters took legal action, but ultimately the state Supreme Court decided against hearing the case.

In the meantime, Horowitz offered to sell 10 acres of the land for $16.3 million to a trust set up on behalf of the farmers. The group failed to raise the money before the purchase option expired May 22, and Horowitz got the eviction order.

Horowitz said he intends to find tenants for the land and will not sell it to any gardeners or their supporters.

“This one they’re not getting,” he said.

At day’s end, the farmers’ attorneys held out hope because of a pending legal claim that the city’s sale was essentially a backroom deal. A July 12 court date is set on that claim.

“Even if the judge rules in our favor, it doesn’t mean the farmers can come back immediately,” said attorney James Lafferty. “It’s going to be a long fight to make sure they get the property back.”

Associated Press Writers Solvej Schou, Daisy Nguyen and Michael R. Blood contributed to this report.


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