Texas Injustice

Reviews | published in Real Change on Oct. 4th, 2006
Subject: Instiutional racism


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Chances are, if you were to blink while speeding down Interstate 27, working your way south past Amarillo, Tex., you’d miss the tiny town of Tulia, population 5,117. Known as the Crossroads of the Panhandle, Tulia is one of those places that can get lost in the 70-mile-an-hour blur to find what might be considered a more interesting destination. But in Tulia, investigative journalist Nate Blakeslee shows that this place in the middle of nowhere deserves a closer look. For the activities he finds there represent a gross miscarriage of justice, events that make for riveting reading for anyone who’s heard the term racial profiling.

The story Blakeslee recounts goes something like this: In 1998, undercover cop and Officer of the Year Tom Coleman was deep into a sting operation to bring in Tulia’s drug kingpins. Coleman was on the hunt for coke dealers and, working without backup during most of the investigation, he claimed to have procured powdered cocaine from 47 men and women. The cocaine amounts weren’t huge — a gram was typical — but the number of purchases he claimed to have made was: almost 120. Eventually aided by a cadre of “Tulia’s Finest,” Coleman began hauling in the alleged dealers. One after the other, the suspects stood trial, lost their cases, and were sent packing off to jail. Cases closed.

Or they might have been, except for a teeny-weeny problem: Of the 47 people arrested, 39 were Black. (The remaining represented an even split between Hispanic and white.) There were barely 350 Black people living in Tulia at the time, and half of them were children. Could it really be possible that more than 20 percent of Black adult Tulians were pushers?

With talk of the arrests spreading, a few intrepid residents started asking questions, one of whom contacted Blakeslee, a reporter for the Texas Observer. He broke the story in 2002. Other news agencies, like The New York Times, caught wind of it. Court TV jumped on the reportorial bandwagon. An inchoate young lawyer from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund learned of the unfolding drama. Suddenly, lawyers, reporters, and cameras crews were swarming all over Tulia like maggots on roadkill.

As well they should have been. The events taking place there stunk to high heaven. And it’s this stink that Blakeslee noses out. But along with sticking his nose where it belongs, he knows how to spin an arresting yarn. Here, the start of Chapter 1: “A dozen officers stood outside Swisher County sheriff’s office smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in the predawn darkness of a cool summer morning on the high plains.” Of an arrestee and his girlfriend the night before his hearing: “They lay next to each other in silence, as Freddie’s fate slipped up on him with the morning sun.”

It’s to Blakeslee’s credit that he doesn’t let the story — with the dramatis personae pushing 60 individuals — slip away from him. His lucid, unadorned prose details the mounting tribulations of the impoverished Black people there without a dose of sentimentality. Things bog down, however, at what’s ironically the story’s climax: Just when a “Dream Team” of lawyers begins discrediting Coleman’s testimony in court, proving nearly all of the accused are innocent, the words thud across the page like anvils. This might well be because Blakeslee relied heavily on court transcripts for this section. While this move preserves the integrity of courtroom proceedings, it corrupts his nuanced touch.

But this is easy to overlook, since the majority of Tulia is nothing less than wonderful. Reading that 35 of the defendants were given full pardons by the governor in 2003 proves a balm to the soul. And while it practically shatters the heart to know that so many innocent men of color spent unnecessary time in jail, it’s great to know that Blakeslee stopped at nothing to reveal the truth of their lives. Deep in the heart of Texas, Tulia tells a story that everybody in the country ought to know.


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