In a carefully orchestrated protest over pesticide use on grapes, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, two of his school-age granddaughters and nine other supporters were arrested Tuesday in Montebello after defying a court order to stop picketing Vons markets.
Against a backdrop of about 90 chanting farm-union activists and a throng of media cameras, the longtime labor leader was led to a police van by an officer who told him he was breaking the law through his protest.
"I understand," Chavez told the officer softly in Spanish. "I am ready."
Watching the scene unfold, Vons executives acknowledged for the first time that the UFW's prolonged picketing of their area stores has hurt table grape sales--although they would not say by how much. They said they saw no choice but to seek Chavez's arrest--or risk further disruption of business and "harassment" of their customers.
"We sell groceries; we sell what the customers want," said Robert P. Bermingham, senior vice president at Vons Cos. Inc., who asserted that company tests have shown the grapes to be safe. "We are just sorry we got caught in between Cesar Chavez's fight with the growers and the pesticide people."
The protest marked an escalation in the UFW's most recent, 10-week-old, campaign over the grape issue, as farm worker leaders battle not only pesticide-using grape growers and the stores that buy and sell their products, but the judicial system as well.
On Friday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stephen O'Neil issued a temporary restraining order against the UFW, instructing union members to stop protesting, leafletting or standing near a Vons store in a way that could be seen as intimidating to customers or employees.
Since late June, dozens of UFW members and supporters have been picketing, chanting through bullhorns and handing out literature at eight area Vons outlets, including Vons' Latino-oriented subsidiary, Tianguis, to voice their claims that the pesticides used by grape growers pose a cancer threat. Vons, which the UFW says backed out of a 1989 pledge to stop selling the pesticide-tainted grapes, was targeted as the biggest Southland seller.
As Chavez prepared to march on the Tianguis store on Whittier Boulevard in Montebello on Tuesday morning, he labeled O'Neil's order a "ridiculous" infringement of his 1st Amendment rights and "the broadest injunction in my 40 years of struggle."
"How can they tell me I don't have a right to tell people not to buy groceries?" he demanded. "It's sad to see justice controlled by a food chain store."
While about 90 UFW members and supporters paraded on the sidewalk outside the market, brandishing signs and chanting "Hey hey, ho ho, poisoned grapes have got to go!" Chavez and 11 others marched right in front of the store.
About 15 police officers, who had been notified of the demonstration by the union on Monday, awaited their arrival, arresting them as they began their picketing. None resisted arrest.
"What I'm trying to do is to save the children out there who are dying of cancer because of these pesticides," UFW volunteer Sandy Martinez said minutes before her arrest. "This is something we have to do. We have no choice."
Two of Chavez's granddaughters-turned-activists, ages 12 and 14, were released to their parents without being cited.
Chavez and the other nine adult protesters were freed from the Montebello police station early Tuesday afternoon, with bail waived. They were ordered to reappear in court at a later date to face misdemeanor charges of violating the picketing ban. A second offense could bring a felony charge.
It was Chavez's first arrest in connection with a farm-related cause since the 1970s, UFW officials said. He tried to get arrested in a demonstration at a Texas grocery last month, but police balked and let the protest continue, the officials said.