FEATURE Texas’ Dirty War An excerpt from Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town BY NATE BLAKESLEE The following article is excerpted from the book, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town by Nate Blakeslee. Copyright 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group \(www.perseusbooks.com 0 n the last day of Donnie Smith’s trial, Freddie Brookins, Jr. and his father drove to Amarillo to meet with Freddie’s attorney, Mike Hrin. Freddie’s trial was set to start the next morning, February 17. Hrin, who was in his early forties, was an unusually short man with a full beard. He had surprising news for Freddie: District Attorney Terry McEachern had called that afternoon and offered a plea of five years. Freddie had professed his innocence from the day of the bust, but Hrin urged him to take the deal, in light of the sentences handed down in the previous trials. He was accused of delivering a single eight ball, which carried a maximum sentence of 20 years. He had no priors, which meant he would be eligible for probation if convicted, but gambling on the jury’s goodwill was a huge risk to take, Hrin told him. If he took the plea, with a little luck he could be home in a year. Freddie didn’t have much experience with the courts in Tulia. He knew the juries hadn’t been kind; his high-school friend Cash Love had just been sentenced to over 300 years, and it had him scared. But in the back of his mind, Freddie was thinking he was not like Cash, who had been in trouble since he was a teenager. He was different. Freddie said he’d have to talk to his dad about it. Fred Brookins, Sr. was born on a farm in Swisher County during the cotton harvest of 1953. He was the fifth of seven children, and his father, a migrant farm hand from east Texas, named him after the farm’s white owner. When Fred was five, the family moved to Swisher County for good. They lived and worked on a farm, and Fred was put to work with his brothers and sisters pulling cotton. Even before he was old enough to drag a sack, Fred was in the fields, pulling the bolls he could reach and pitching them into the rows for his older siblings to collect. The family moved into town in the mid-1960s, renting a modest house on Tulia’s south side, about a block from where Fred would eventually raise his own family. Fred’s father was a rock, a fiercely proud, independent man who believed in the merits of hard work, sobriety, and prayer. His mother found work as a janitor at the elementary school. After twenty years in that job, she earned her GED and began a new career 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 9, 2005 in nursing at about the same time Fred was graduating from high school. She finally retired for good in the mid-1990s. Fred’s father never stopped farming. As a child, Fred learned to hate the cotton fields. Summer meant long hours under the sun on the end of a hoe, fighting a never-ending battle against the Johnson grass that covered Swisher County. Harvest in the fall meant trudging through the chest-high rows in the cold dawn, with the desiccated plants scratching at his arms. His mother wanted him to move on and do better. The first job Fred held that didn’t involve cotton was at the Dairy Queen, where he was made an assistant manager and given the keys to the store at the tender age of 15. In high school, Fred worked at the nursing home. He would get up everyday at dawn, arriving at the home just as the residents were waking up. Many of them were the sons and daughters of Tulia’s original pioneer families, now bent and broken from a lifetime of hard work. Fred helped the men bathe and shave themselves and fed them breakfast. In the evening he returned and put them to bed. In the summers he worked as a welder for Roll-A-Cone, a manufacturer of tractor accessories a few miles northeast of town. The company’s namesake, invented by owner Wally Bird, was a device for harvesting milo, and it had made Bird a successful and relatively well-off man. Bird had taken a liking to his earnest, hard-working welder, and one day he led Fred out behind the plant and showed him the tiny building, no bigger than a well-house, where he had built the prototype of his invention, where the entire enterprise had started. “A person can be anything he wants to be,” Bird told him. “The key to success is to find something that works and stick with it!’ Even as a young man, Fred already believed that. “Stick with it,” might have been the family credo. The Brookins family, Fred believed, was evidence that the system worked: hard work pays off in the end, for black or white, rich or poor. Fred knew there were people like him who couldn’t seem to get ahead in Tulia, people living in shacks in the Flats without running water. And there were crusty old cowboys and farmers who called him pickaninny and nigger. They sometimes thought it was funny, when he was still in grade school, to give him a kick in the ass with their pointed boots when he walked through the courthouse square on weekends. He never told his dad about those incidents. Partly he was afraid of what his dad would do to the men, and partly he was ashamed that he didn’t seem to inspire the respect his proud, hard-working father always did. The answer, he always thought, was to work harder.
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