sist 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. We 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 picturethe 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 placein Dallas, in Hearne, in Pal -estine, 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 busi ness 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 wellmeaning, liberal progressivesoften 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 sentimentalised 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 Tuliait’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 parable, 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. FEBRUARY 18, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31
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