The best stories are those that reveal the universal in the particular: stories about place and about the unfathomable mystery at the heart of each individual life. Our colleague Nate Blakeslee didn’t know it at the time, but that’s exactly what he found in 2000 when he traveled to West Texas to investigate the now- infamous drug bust that took place in Tulia. In 1999, 39 people, most of them black, were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine—all based on the testimony of one undercover drug agent. Blakeslee’s reporting, as Observer readers well know, resulted in an 8,000-word article, “The Color of Justice,” published on June 23, 2000. This month PublicAffairs will publish Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, the superb work of social history that Blakeslee has been working on since he left the Observer. We’re proud to present an excerpt from the book in our current issue.
In the years since we published “The Color of Justice,” much has been written about the Panhandle town inevitably described as “tiny.” “Tulia” has come to take on a mythic dimension. And though not always with due deliberate speed, much has changed for the better because of “Tulia.” In 2001, “Tulia” prodded the Texas Legislature into passing a package of criminal justice reform bills. As a result, the public now has access to termination notices in the files of police officers; a higher standard of evidence is now required in cases based on undercover narcotics work. The Fair Defense Act of 2001—though far from adequate—provided for a modest level of state funding and statewide standards for indigent defense. On August 22, 2003, Governor Rick Perry finally signed a pardon for 35 of the Tulia defendants. On March 10, 2004, the city of Amarillo settled a civil lawsuit filed on the behalf of the Tulia defendants in federal court in Amarillo. The settlement provided for a $5 million cash payment to be divided among the defendants, and the city of Amarillo effectively agreed to cease its participation in the federally funded drug task force. The following month, a separate agreement was reached with other cities and counties in the Panhandle drug task force, resulting in an additional $1 million payment. Meanwhile, in 2001, the Texas ACLU began investigating a similar case of egregious misconduct of justice involving a drug task force in Hearne, about 25 miles from Bryan-College Station. That investigation produced a lawsuit and a settlement for an undisclosed amount.
More than anything, the threat of litigation has had a powerful effect on drug task forces in this state. As Blakeslee notes in the epilogue to his book, by June 2005 there were 25 task forces in Texas, down from a high of nearly 50 in the late 1990s. Last May, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston introduced federal legislation that would provide oversight and accountability for the millions of federal dollars distributed to state and local law enforcement agencies to fight the drug war. Jackson Lee’s proposed legislation, which is based on and expands the legislation passed in Texas in 2001, is titled, appropriately, “No More Tulias: The Law Enforcement Evidentiary Standards Improvement Act of 2005.”
As often happens with the best of stories, however, they turn out to be far more complex than they seem at first. Trace the story of Fred Brookins, Sr. and his son, Freddie, as we do in this issue, and you find a larger slice of Texas history—migration from East to West Texas, the rise and fall of West Texas agriculture, the development of the meat-packing industry and the prison industrial complex. The story of Tulia is about much more than even the subtitle of Blakeslee’s book suggests. It’s about America writ large. That’s the real story that Blakeslee found in the Panhandle.