Tulia Goddamn

Revolutionary Worker #1205, June 29, 2003, posted at rwor.org

It's frustrating to think of how that morning must have gone down. Back on July 23, 1999, nearly four years ago in Tulia, Texas. How humiliating it must have been for those poor people that were woken from bed and put under arrest because of the word of one man.

On that morning in this small town, 46 people became victims of the "war on drugs." Of the 46 people arrested that morning, 39 were Black. But what really makes this a "Tulia Goddamn!" to echo a song title from the late great Nina Simone--is the fact that Black people only make up 8% of Tulia or around 240 people in a town of 5,000. Which means that this major "drug sweep" arrested 15% of the Black community, including 61% of the Black male adults.

But wait, because the deeper the story goes the more outrageous it gets.

Skip ahead four years from July 23. On Monday June 16, 2003, 12 people imprisoned during the morning raid were released on personal recognizance bonds. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles could be clearing the records of all 38 people convicted from the July 23 arrests. All of the convictions were based on the word of undercover agent Tom Coleman. And they all might be overturned, as the Texas courts have finally heard truth of Coleman's fabricated stories.

The Rogue Cop

It was on the word of undercover agent Tom Coleman that 38 people were convicted in Tulia. Coleman was hired by the Swisher County sheriffs for an operation funded by the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force. The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force in Amarillo, Texas was developed as part of the "war on drugs." This was one of an estimated 1,000 drug task forces operating in the U.S. These task forces were created under President Ronald Reagan and are mainly federally funded. Their purpose was supposedly to help small impoverished towns such as Tulia deal with "sophisticated big-city drug dealers" who might invade small communities of the South and Southwest. In order to requalify for the big federal grants, the task forces need lots of arrests and convictions. These autonomous special units operated with very little oversight or accountability. The "LAPD Crash Unit," made famous by its brutal treatment of the masses in Los Angeles, comes to mind when thinking of such task forces.

Coleman supposedly spent 18 months buying cocaine from residents in Tulia. However, he never wore a wire, used a camera or surveillance. He never took fingerprint evidence. According to the press he didn't even use a notebook, but took notes on his legs. The entire weight of evidence against all the suspects was based on his honesty and integrity, and the bags of cocaine he allegedly bought from the defendants.

Now it won't surprise anyone to learn that Coleman was a white cop who admittedly described the Black people of Tulia with racist language--including to his superiors. Nor will it surprise many to learn that he bragged about his association with the Ku Klux Klan. But what is particularly outrageous is to learn that 38 people went to prison behind the word of this wantonly rogue cop.

Before he came to Tulia, Coleman earned a rep as a "compulsive liar" in Cochran County, and while his Tulia sting operation was going on, Coleman was actually arrested for theft. Coleman later testified that he had never been arrested or charged for anything more serious than a traffic ticket. But the facts were that shortly after the first Tulia trial ended, a defense attorney discovered that Coleman had been under indictment for a theft charge in Cochran County by his former employer at the same time he was running the undercover operation in Tulia. Prior to working in Tulia, Coleman's previous job was as a sheriff's deputy in Cochran County. Coleman abandoned that job owing $7,000 locally in unpaid bills and facing a charge of stealing government property. Yet and still, according to press accounts, the prosecution continued to trust him and rely on his word even after it was proven that he had perjured himself on the stand.

The powdered cocaine that Coleman supposedly bought from the residents of Tulia is also quite suspect. Indications are coming out now that Coleman may have been buying this powdered cocaine from Amarillo, not Tulia. According to a film documentary, Tulia Undercover , residents of Tulia claim that powder cocaine is rare in the community because it is so expensive.

Fittingly and typically, for his work on the Tulia drug bust, Coleman was named Texas's Lawman of the Year in 1999.

The Deeper You Look

The more deeply one looks at this case in Tulia, the more you get a sense that this isn't just about some rogue racist cop.

The more deeply one looks at this case in Tulia, the more it reflects a whole systematic process.

On one hand you had this 18-month drug sting operation, where a very poor minority of Black people are the targets. That fact alone is outrageous. Then you had a racist, lying, rogue cop leading this undercover sting operation. The local county sheriffs hire this cop on, as part of a larger drug task force. The drug task force itself has been created to criminalize the people living on the bottom of society, as evidenced by its policy of funding through "numbers of arrests."

Then, based on contrived evidence of one cop over an 18-month period, a raid takes place and 15% of the town's Black population is rousted from bed and arrested. The local media of course airs the whole raid. One can imagine the humiliation the masses had to go through as they were cuffed and dragged into jail before rolling TV cameras. Not to mention the national reinforcing of racist stereotypes as images of "drug-dealing Black people in handcuffs" is scorched into the consciousness of the American populous. The local newspaper the Tulia Sentinel , wasted no time helping to create public opinion about the case with stories that read "We do not like these scumbags doing business in our town. (They are) a cancer in our community, it's time to give them a major dose of chemotherapy behind bars." And the headline the following week, "Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage."

Further an all-white jury (except for one man) punishes the masses for pleading "not guilty." The initial sentences, for those who tried to fight their cases in Tulia, were up to 99 years in prison. A press account gave this description: "dozens of men and women watched with mounting horror as their neighbors and friends were found guilty and received long prison terms. With hopes of eventually being reunited with their families and having a semblance of a life after incarceration, these Tulia residents pleaded guilty in exchange for more favorable treatment from the prosecution." There is a telling indication of what the defendants were up against in the film documentary, Tulia Undercover , by Tom Mangold. Mangold interviews one of the jurists who, after singing the praises of rogue cop Tom Coleman, says the following about one of the Tulia defendants on trial:

"The way they (defendants) sit there," she tells me angrily, "he didn't turn to us, he didn't give us anything. I waited for him to turn to me and say, to all of us, and say, `I'm sorry that this has happened,' or to say, `I want to go back and get some education, I want to do better.' I never heard one bit of encouragement from that young man and that young man was old enough to know that he should be running to do better."

But how on earth could this defendant perform such a public mea culpa if he had pleaded not guilty?

The juror concluded: "I don't know, but I have a feeling, and I'm very intuitive, and I did the best I could do, and I know that he was guilty."

The injustice continued as appeals were continually ignored. A few of the cases were thrown out because the evidence was so blatantly flimsy. One woman accused had physical evidence that she was 200 miles away during the alleged drug sale.

Bitter Sweet

The recent release of 12 of the Tulia defendants after four years in prison is, of course, a bittersweet victory. It appears that all of the defendents will soon be freed as this case looks increasingly likely to be overturned.

But no credit is due to the system for "correcting" itself. Over the past four years a number of groups and organizations have fought hard to bring light to this case. Organizations including Friends of Justice, the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, the ACLU and the NAACP and the October 22nd Coalition helped to highlight this case and bring broad exposure to this injustice.

Eventually the lies of rogue cop Tom Coleman became more exposed legally and in society. In April, at a special hearing, Dallas Judge Ron Chapman announced that Coleman was "not a credible witness." According to Alternet news source Chapman immediately recommended new trials be granted for all who had been swept up and incarcerated after the April 23 drug sting, four years prior. Within hours, the state's prosecution had agreed to throw out all the convictions, admitting that the entire debacle had been a "travesty of justice." Prosecutors said they would not retry the defendants.

For the people of Tulia whose lives were ripped apart by this whole process this has really been a "Tulia Goddamn"--people like Mattie White who had four relatives arrested and imprisoned, including a son and a daughter who wound up in prison so far away from her that she only saw them twice in the years they were in prison.

It's frustrating to live in a society, where you hear a story like this and say to yourself: "Damn, that really happened; it's messed up and it ain't that surprising."

Set 'em all free.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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