A Letter from Tulia


Letter from Tulia


ast month, Tom Coleman, the former undercover narcotics agent whose uncorroborated testimony was responsible for the 1999 drug sting that snared 15 percent of the black population of Tulia, went on trial for perjury in the Lubbock County courthouse. Court officials feared that they would have to ration seats to accommodate an overflow crowd. Less than two years ago, reporters from all over the country descended on Tulia to watch people whom Coleman had helped put behind bars relish their newfound freedom. Cameras zoomed in as Kizzie White embraced the young children she hadn’t been able to touch for almost four years. Joe Moore, an aging hog farmer, said he was looking forward to eating his first decent plate of barbecue since police officers pulled him out of his truck on the morning of July 23, 1999, and slapped handcuffs on his wrists. This time around, the courtroom was relatively empty. On January 18, there were just four reporters and three spectators on hand for a hearing in Tulia in which Judge David Gleason sentenced Coleman to 10 years’ probation and a $7,500 fine. When it was all over, Coleman and his attorney tried to slip out a side door. A lone camera crew clattered down the hall in pursuit of one last sound bite from the man who had made Tulia famous. With Coleman’s quote in the can, the camera was turned on me, and I was asked the same question I have been answering for the past two years: Would Tulia be able “to heal” now that the Coleman case was resolved? The question was far more complicated than the young reporters from Lubbock and Amarillo could possibly have imagined. n 1998 I moved to Tulia from Derby, Kansas. Nancy, my wife, felt a strong need to be reconnected with her roots and her parents were going to be retiring here. I didn’t have a hometown. After the death of my parents in the 1990s there was little reason to return to my childhood home of Edmonton, Canada. By default, Tulia became my hometown. My first reaction to the arrests was to check the list for familiar names. If I had understood what Tulia’s big drug sting was all about, I wouldn’t have worried. Nobody in our circle of acquaintances was on the target list. What got me really angry was an editorial in the Tulia Sentinel praising the sheriff and the district attorney for rounding up the “scumbags.” At the time I believed all the pious bromides about people being presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ve come to realize that’s mostly a feel-good mantra that applies to some people but not others. About two weeks after the big drug bust, I voiced my concerns during a Sunday school discussion. “Scumbags are exactly what they are,” a flushed gentlemen responded. “They’re all guilty and they’re all going to jail.” Six months later this same gentleman served as jury foreman in one of Tulia’s drug trials. From day one, my mother-in-law, Patricia Kiker, was asking the right question, “How could you have 46 drug dealers in a town the size of Tulia?” And then Joe Moore was handed a 90-year sentence in December of 1999. I think even Terry McEachern, the district attorney, was shocked. The sentence was a hate crime. People hated Joe. Not Joe personally, they hated what they thought he represented—a black guy skulking around behind the high school peddling poison to their kids. Joe’s history encouraged this kind of morbid speculation. For decades Joe had been one of dry Swisher County’s high-profile bootleggers and had served time for a couple of two-bit drug charges in the early ’90s. In small Texas towns—when the charge is drugs and the defendant is poor and black, evidence is optional. Young black men, fresh out of high school, get picked up for assault or drug possession and accept a plea bargain for five years’ probation just to get back on the streets. Those who fight a charge in court are convicted unless they can prove their innocence. On the streets, probation is called “paper prison.” Once you have a felony conviction on your record the slightest infraction of the plea agreement can send you to prison. When Moore was convicted we didn’t know that Coleman had been arrested on theft charges in the middle of the Tulia operation or that he had left his last job in law enforcement owing the merchants of Morton, Texas, almost $7,000. But it was clear from the outset that Coleman was a liar. In court, his testimony changed on the fly and the lurid accounts of the poor side of Tulia he fed to the media (crack whores, assault rifles, crack babies, and sneering drug dealers showing off the fancy boat or brand new pickup parked in the driveway) just didn’t fit bucolic little Tulia. Not only did no one on the poor side of Tulia own a fancy boat or a new pickup truck—there were no driveways to park them on. Shortly after Joe Moore’s trial, white residents like Charles and Patricia Kiker, Gary and Darlene Gardner, and Nancy and I were having intense conversations with the defendants—most of them black— and their families. People like Freddie Brookins Sr., La Wanda Smith, Thelma Johnson, and Sammie Barrow opened a window into Tulia’s black community. The media has always painted the Tulia fight as a controversy between black people saying the defendants were all innocent and white people saying everyone was guilty: This is a gross distortion. The Coleman operation was opposed by a small but vocal group of white residents and heartily supported by a small (and silent) segment of the black population. Tulia’s black community was divided between the Baptists and the Pentecostals, between “straight” people who attended church and “street” people who didn’t, and between those able to maintain a blue-collar standard of living and those who limped along on welfare and dead-end jobs. But everybody in Tulia’s black community knew Joe Moore was no drug dealer. After a decade of harassment from local officials, Joe had organized his life around a simple goal: staying out of prison. Not only had he run Coleman off his place on two occasions, he had repeatedly warned his young friends to stay away from the man with the ponytail. We quickly learned that the motivation behind Tulia’s war on drugs was tangled up in the economic and social history of the community. Local officials winked at Joe Moore’s bootlegging for decades because Joe played a vital role in the agricultural economy. Joe owned three old trucks for hauling hay and could organize a large crew of experienced and efficient workers with the snap of his fingers. Black men like Joe Moore played a subservient but indispensable role in Swisher County society. Then agriculture went corporate and there were far fewer farmers needing hands. After years of promiscuous irrigation, the section of the Ogallala Aquifer under Swisher County was largely depleted. Desperate farmers drove their tractors to Washington in the early 1980s to protest rising production costs and plummeting commodity prices. At the same time, high-tech innovations like round bales and roundup-ready cotton drastically reduced the need for field labor. As protest gave way to sober resignation, hundreds of Swisher County farmers moved to the cities or found work in a suddenly booming criminal justice infrastructure. Larry Stewart gave up farming in the late 1980s to become a police officer and was named Swisher County sheriff in 1991. District Attorney Terry McEachern filed for bankruptcy during the same period and turned his hand to prosecuting criminals. As family farms gave way to massive feedlots and sprawling high-tech corporate farms, the unwritten social contract that once bound white farmers to their black field hands was severed. Some of the older black men found a place in the local economy but the kids leaving high school were viewed as surplus population. In a futile search for steady employment and decent wages they would flip burgers or wash dishes, shovel shit at the Sale Barn or work in the heat and dust at the seed company. The local drug scene also followed the dictates of harsh economic reality. Coleman’s targets defendants were all charged with selling expensive powdered cocaine to him. A dealer needed at least $100 in his pocket to buy a little baggie of powdered cocaine from a supplier and few Tulia defendants saw that much money in a month. While some of Coleman’s cases may have been legitimate, many were plainly bogus and there was no way of distinguishing the good cases from the bad. The only sensible and just solution was to pretend Tom Coleman never visited Tulia, Texas. Tulia’s black community taught me what it means to live on minimum wage. So many people we talked to couldn’t afford to pay the phone bill or keep a vehicle on the road. A Tulia-based organization called Friends of Justice came to life as black residents shaped the story and white residents framed it for the media. We started writing letters to the editor questioning the validity of Coleman’s testimony. We filed FOIA requests. We wrote an amateur writ for Joe Moore. When Nate Blakeslee’s investigative story appeared in the Observer (“The Color of Justice,” June 23, 2000), we used it to flog the Tulia story wherever we could. “Tulia” happened because local black and white residents pooled their resources and refused to back down. Lawyers didn’t start this fight. Local court appointed attorneys who subsist on nickel-and-dime cases are desperately dependent upon the good will of the district attorney and judges. If they are too aggressive they won’t get any more court appointments. There were also plenty of good attorneys in Lubbock and Amarillo who declined to represent Tulia defendants, because the money was bad and they didn’t think black drug defendants had a chance in Swisher County. They were right on both counts. Once the national media got involved, the Tulia story was about overt Mississippi Burning racism; a story about a racist cop and a racist town framing innocent black people. Although we tried to encourage a more nuanced treatment, the choice was between a race-driven story or no story at all. And a gusher of national media attention has produced remarkable results. Governor Perry pardoned 35 Tulia defendants. The city of Amarillo settled a civil lawsuit filed by the Tulia defendants and their attorneys for $6 million. Terry McEachern lost his bid for re-election as district attorney last year and has been sanctioned by the Texas Bar Association. The Panhandle Narcotics Task Force has been disbanded. And now Tom Coleman has been convicted of aggravated perjury. Meanwhile, the outside world is content to see Tulia as a vestige of Jim Crow America; and most Tulia residents feel their town got a bum rap because Yankee lawyers played the race card. Both perspectives are woefully mistaken, but they fit neatly into a sound bite. e maintain a polite relationship with some of Nancy’s relatives, getting together on special occasions to talk about the weather and cattle prices, but never about “Tulia.” Some relatives don’t talk to us at all. Nancy has a great aunt and uncle who violently opposed what we were doing. He wrote letters to the editor condemning our position; she wrote a personal letter saying that we were banned from the family reunion in perpetuity and that she had torn our kids’ pictures off her refrigerator. Like the Coleman sting itself, this kind of violent reaction is rooted in painful history. From its founding in 1890 until the end of World War II, the people of Swisher County were dirt poor. Then came a magical period during the ’60s and ’70s in which the economy exploded. Then it all fell apart. For the last three decades people have worked hard and sacrificed much to keep their little scrap of a town alive. And to have people like me come in and reduce their community to an ugly caricature of racism has really pissed them off. I understand their sorrow and resentment every bit as well as I understand the sense of hopelessness and fear in the black community. Both sides in this fight have been victimized. So now we’re trying to show how Tulia reflects a bigger picture—the explosion of the prison population, the development of narcotics task forces in Texas, and how the criminal justice system is driven by the cruel face of poverty. Texans could have invested billions of dollars in economic development. Instead, we led the nation in increasing the size of our prison population, from 39,000 in 1988 to 151,000 10 years later. Texas Department of Criminal Justice statistics reveal that between 1991 and 1995 alone, 57 prisons were built in little Texas towns while the incarcerated population soared by 108,000. One of these facilities went up in a once-productive farm field west of Tulia. It is no coincidence that the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force was one of several dozen regional narcotics task forces established in the late 1980s. These outfits have no discernible effect on the illegal drug trade, but they provide a nifty mechanism for transferring poor black people from urban ghettos to prisons in cash-strapped rural communities. These trends made something like “Tulia” almost inevitable. And Tulias are happening all over the place—in Dallas, in Hearne, in Palestine, and dozens of other small towns and big cities. In Tulia, 84 percent of the defendants were black; statewide, 70 percent of convicted drug offenders are black. Tulia is simply an egregious example of business as usual. It all comes back to poverty. Back in the “Great Society” period of the 1960s, widespread poverty was considered a national disgrace. Now we’re living in the Alan Greenspan era and a certain measure of unemployment is considered necessary to keep American companies competitive. It is widely believed that large pools of surplus skilled labor must be maintained to keep downward pressure on wages and to hamstring the labor movement. If white-collar folks are anxious and insecure it comes as no surprise that the plight of the unskilled, the uneducated, and the unconnected is simply desperate. Viewed from the penthouse suite, these are throwaway people. Will we use the war on drugs to protect the winners from the losers; or will we use a renewed war on poverty to dramatically expand economic opportunity? Or is anybody even asking the question any more? You don’t realize the extent of the problem until you’ve talked to well-meaning, liberal progressives—often people who had personal experience of the civil rights movement of the sixties. They’re thinking of issues of poverty and civil rights as if it was still 1965. They’ve sentimentalized the Tulia defendants because they don’t understand that the new racism has as much to do with economics and social class as it has to do with skin color. Tulia’s big drug bust was the culmination of two decades of economic misery; a little community was stretched to the point where something had to give—and something gave. This isn’t about the “healing” of Tulia—it’s about the healing of Texas. Tulia is a symptom of a general disease. Tulia itself doesn’t matter; it’s just another piss-ant town in the middle of nowhere. But I see Tulia as a para
le, a metaphor, a cautionary tale… and the place I call home. Alan Bean is the director of Friends of Justice, a Tulia-based criminal justice reform organization. He is writing Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas, an insider’s account of the ill-famed Coleman drug sting.