THE LESSONS TULIA TEACHES!
T ULIA WILL FOREVER BE KNOWN AS THAT TINY TOWN IN TEXAS WHERE DOZENS OF INNOCENT BLACK FOLKS WERE IMPRISONED ON THE WORD OF A LYING WHITE NARC--------- WHICH IS NOT TO SAY TULIANS ARE REAL COMFORTABLE WITH THAT FACT.
“We moved past that . I wish the rest of the world could,” said Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart—who has been “burned so much in the past” that he had no desire to talk to the press. He would rather focus on helping people, such as the two women waiting to see him the day I stopped by.
But the world is not yet done with Tulia. Nate Blakeslee, the young Texas Observer writer who produced the first in- depth report on the Tulia sting, takes us back there in “Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town” ($26.95. PublicAffairs). Blakeslee recreates the predawn hours of July 23, 1999, when state troopers, local cops and sheriff’s deputies fanned out to arrest 47 supposed drug dealers—the vast majority of whom were black—in a town whose entire black population numbered fewer than 400 . And he paints vivid portraits of a prosecutor who was short on skills but long on rhetoric (routinely citing 0. J. Simpson as a reason to convict dcfendants); of a biased judge who handed down staggering- long sentences, and of a sheriff who ignored obvious evidence of malfeasencc by his undercover operative.
Eventually that cop, Tom Coleman, named Texas officer of the year, was revealed to be a thief and a liar. The truth came out because of the persistence of a band of local activists who eventually got the attention of some influential outsiders—including Vanita Gupta, a young lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Bob Herbert of The New York Times. Ultimately, there were pardons by the governor and a rnultimillion-dollar settlement for those unjustly accused—some of whom had been imprisoned for years.
BUT TO VISIT THLIA IS NOT TO GET THE SENSE THAT ANY REAL LESSONS WERE LEARNED . Members of the local establishment either want to forget the affair o r defend what happened. “Do you know how many people who were released and pardoned are already in jail on drug offenses?” asked Gordon Scott, a retired local physician. His point was that those busted were not angels.
Yolanda Smith acknowledges as much. She had a drug arrest prior to being targeted by Coleman. “I was guilty of that one,” she freely admitted, hut denied Coleman’s allegations. Nonetheless, she pleaded guilty. As she saw it, she had no choice. She could take a six-year sentence—and get out in perhaps two and a half-- — or go before a kangaroo court and get 42 years~.~~If you play by the rules in Texas . . ‘ said Jeff Blackburn, a colorful attorney from Amarillo who was instrumental in helping Smith and others extricate themselves, “you will lose?
Alan Bean was not always convinced of that . A Protestant minister originally from Canada, Bean arrived in Tulia the year before the bust. As the facts emerged, he expected others to be as outraged as he. Few were. Sheriff Stewart, a Church of Christ deacon, was widely admired; and “you couldn’t attack the sting without attacking Stewart:’ Bean concluded. So he attacked; and he and his wife are no longer welcome in church.
“I had always believed the truth shall set you free:’ said Bean. “ In the end ..... it took a misrepresentation of the facts to get these people justice.” By that, he means that in order to fuel the crusade, he and his allies had to make the victims appear more innocent than they were and the town more evil than it actually is.
In fact, Tulia deserves its racist reputation no more than hundreds of small towns. It is the kind of place where, as one citizen pointed out, race is irrelevant when someone’s house is burning. People simply come out to help. Tulia integrated its schools without incident and its white churches have long welcomed blacks. It simply got caught up in something larger than itself That something was a federally funded program that targeted low-level drug dealers. That pot of money became a private piggy hank for Coleman and an irresistible lure for cash-strapped small towns. But while the program provided plenty of incentive to lock people up, it gave no real incentive to determine their guilt. And since many counties in Texas pay court-appointed attorneys virtually nothing, it all but ensured that innocent people, once indicted, would go to jail.
If there is any enduring lesson in the Tulia mess, it is about how easily good people can go astray, and how effortlessly injustice is rationalized. Coleman was uniquely venal, but “what happened in Tulia happens every day,” says Gupta. That is not a comforting thought, but until the war on drugs takes a radical new direction, it will remain an unpleasant reality.
December 19, 2005 (pg. 44)
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