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FEATURE Round Two in Tulia BY NATE BLAKESLEE he Drug War is not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people,” G. Alan Robinson of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas told a small crowd assembled on the Capitol steps in Austin. If the sentiment on this hot September afternoon is any indication, the people are beginning to fight back and Ground Zero of the struggle is a tiny town in the Texas Panhandle that is fast becoming a household name. The star attraction at the September 29 rally were the Tulia “war orphans”: roughly two dozen children of parents arrested in the now notorious 1999 cocaine bust in Tulia, Texas, a tiny panhandle ranching town near Amarillo. The undercover operation resulted in the arrest of about three dozen African Americans, or over ten percent of the town’s small black population \(see “The Color of far, twenty-two of the defendants have gone to prison, some following trials and some as a result of plea bargains. Many are serving very long sentences, despite the relatively small amounts they were accused of selling. The kids they left behind appeared at the Capitol dressed in matching black T-shirts printed with the gold “Friends of Justice” logo adopted by local organizers. For many, it was their first trip out of the Panhandle. Some may not want to go back. Still, there was cause for hope. Flanked by Tulians, Texas ACLU director Will Harrell announced the imminent filing of a lawsuit on behalf of the defendants. The suit, written by Amarillo attorney Jeff Blackburn, accuses the local sheriff and the district attorney of conspiring with undercover agent Tom Coleman to “deliberately and selectively target and prosecute” on the basis of race. The suit was initially filed on behalf of one defendant, Yul Bryant, who served seven months in jail before having his case dismissed by a judge. Bryant’s case, like virtually all of the cases in the sting, rested almost entirely on the testimony of undercover agent Tom Coleman. But Coleman’s physical description of Bryant in his report was nowhere near accurate, and the district attorney was forced to drop the charges, calling it a case of “mistaken identity.” Bryant’s was not the only case with significant inconsisten cies. Blackburn said he expects other clients some awaiting trial and some already convicted to join the case in the coming months. The civil suit will allow what law enforcement officials in Tulia have feared all along, according to Blackburn: a wide-ranging deposition of undercover agent Tom Coleman, whose own past and motives have come under increasing scrutiny. Led by a small group of black and white Tulians, supporters of the Tulia defendants have managed to catch the attention of the It was Sheriff Burke who had written a letter to the state agency that licenses peace offi cers concerning Coleman’s poor reputation in Cochran County. The Sheriff later discovered that Coleman had left town owing thousands of dollars to area merchants, and was eventually moved to file charges on Cole man for theft. The warrant sur faced when Coleman was em ployed in Tulia, though he was not fired, but instead given time to “resolve” the situation. William Kuntsler Foundation, a New York City-based non-profit that works on criminal justice issues, which has provided funding and guidance to the group. Shortly after the rally in Austin, the organizing paid off. With the foundation’s help, Friends of JustiCe has generated national media attention for their cause, culminating in a feature story on CNN, a front-page story in The New York Times, and an upcoming spread in Time Meanwhile, back in Tulia, District Attorney Terry McEachern and company have obtained another conviction. Kareem Abdul Jabbar White went to trial at the Swisher County Courthouse on September 5. The evidence against him was the same as virtually every other case: Coleman’s testimony in this case abetted by a state’s witness, Eliga Kelly and a small baggie of powdered cocaine. And Coleman’s testimony \(summarized in an unofficial transcript provided to the was just as fuzzy and contradictory as it has been in previous trials. For example, the state’s only two material witnesses, Coleman and Eliga Kelly, cannot agree on who was present when the deal with White allegedly occurred. Kelly, who was Coleman’s unwitting contact to Tulia’s black community, alleged that he introduced the officer \(Kelly did not know he was present in Coleman’s truck when White handed something allegedly cocaine to Coleman. But Coleman later testified that Kelly was not present when the deal occurred. Under questioning by White’s attorney, Dwight McDonald, Coleman also had difficulty recalling the sequence of events on the day in question. Coleman claimed to have made the deal with White in Tulia at 10:30 in the morning on September 28, 1998. Asked where he was earlier that day, 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 20, 2000