Tulia drug sting remembered

Gary Gardner shares his vision of the kind of Tulia he wants for Ashley Powell

The Texas Panhandle town of Tulia gained international notoriety in the summer of 1999 when Swisher County sheriff's deputies swooped down on the town's small black community, arresting 43 people as cocaine dealers and sending many of them into the Texas prison system for years or decades. Forty of those arrested were black; the others had close links to the black community. Tulia's population is about 5,000, of which about 250 residents are black.

All of the arrests were the result of unverified undercover work by a sheriff's deputy with serious credibility problems, Tom Coleman. He was recently fired from another narc job in Dallas County, accused of sexually harassing one of his informants, then revealing her name to drug suspects after she refused to give him sex.

This photo was taken by Bob Ramsey - July 22, 2001 at the condlelight vigil commemorating the infamous drug raid in Tulia, Texas
Tulia's black community was raided on July 23, 1999. The 40 blacks arrested constituted more than 10% of the local African-American population. The Texas ACLU and the local NAACP filed a federal civil suit claiming racial discrimination, which is pending. But the bust has also energized and focused the Texas drug reform and social justice communities, much to the chagrin of some Swisher County residents and Texas drug warriors alike.

The bust led to convictions based on flimsy evidence: the uncorroborated testimony of the lone undercover agent, Tom Coleman, whose questionable past was barred from discussion during the trials. Court watchers say no drugs, money or weapons were seized in the roundup, and there is no information to back up the undercover agent's word that he bought drugs from the accused. Eleven of those arrested in Tulia were found guilty and another 17 accepted plea agreements.

"What happened in Tulia is a horrible embarrassment to my profession because this guy followed no procedures of a normal police officer," said former Michigan policeman Howard Wooldridge, 50, of Fort Worth, who attended the rally on his one-eyed horse, Misty. "Sloppy is being generous," continued Wooldridge describing Coleman. "A number of the accused shouldn't be in prison. It was racial profiling to the max."

Many folks in Tulia supported local law enforcement then and still support it now. They reelected both the sheriff and the district attorney last year in the midst of the national attention focused on the town by allegations of racial bias in the bust, and they have no problem with the harsh sentences handed down to town "drug dealers." Yet, they wish all the bad publicity would fade away, observers note with satisfaction.

That hasn't happened yet. On July 22 a crowd numbering about 350 people, a third of them white, rallied peacefully in a Tulia park on a Sunday night to remember and protest this outrageous drug raid. People listened to music and poetry readings, played basketball and ate hamburgers and hot dogs as they waited for the speakers to take the stage on a hot Texas night. The evening rally was part of a "Freedom Ride" to Tulia that began in Austin at midnight Saturday. A group of Tulia residents calling themselves Friends of Justice, along with members of the state and national chapters of the ACLU, the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens, made the trip on two chartered buses.

"The struggle in Tulia is constant," said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. "There are still 20 people in jail who are innocent of the crimes they are accused of," Harrell told reporters. "This is madness. Innocent people of color, who are poor, are being abused systematically. Tulia has become a symbol of what's wrong with our drug policy. The solution to bad policy requires a collective effort, and every one of us counts." This police strategy is apparently applied throughout Texas. Since the Tulia bust, at least eight more instances of racially targeted drug busts have been reported in the state. One instance was called Texoma, according to a Texas prisoner who wrote the Razor Wire.

Police vehicles occasionally circled the block where the rally was held. About 35 officers from the Department of Public Safety, Texas Rangers, Swisher County Sheriff's Department and Tulia police waited at police headquarters.

Terri Brookins, 20, said she thought the rally gave her husband, Freddie Brookins Jr., one of the defendants, some encouragement. She visited him at the prison in Brownsfield before attending the rally. He is scheduled for parole in March and is appealing his case. "He thinks it's a good idea to have this rally," she said.

The Texans had organized into the Austin-based Texas Network of Reform Groups. The TNRG consists of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, Austin NORML, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Indy Media Austin, plus hemp activists and associated independent drug reformers.

Prominent organizer Charles Kiker is a retired Baptist minister and Tulia resident who helped found Friends of Justice. He told the Daily Texan, "When I read in the paper that 43 people in the little town of Tulia had been arrested for selling powder cocaine, I thought, boy, we've got a big drug problem in this little town. My wife is quite a bit smarter than I am, and she asked, 'If 43 people are selling drugs in Tulia, who are the buyers?'"

The bust began to "smell bad" when Kiker realized 40 of those arrested were black, Kiker said. "Friends of Justice" was the result. A barrier-breaking coalition of friends and relatives of those arrested, religious workers and local justice advocates, the Friends are "a faith-based community called together to Do Justice, Love Mercy, and Walk Humbly, as both their mission statement and their T-shirts note.

A number of national drug policy activists attended the Never Again! rally, including Common Sense for Drug Policy's Kevin Zeese, former drug war prisoner Dorothy Gaines, the Rev. Edwin Sanders of Nashville's Metropolitan Interdenominational Church and Mikki Norris, co-author of "Shattered Lives: Portraits From America's Drug War." Coming a distance to be in attendance was a delegation of Rockefeller drug law activists including Teresa Aviles and Randy Credico from New York City, TNC's regional leaders: Deitra Lied of El Paso, and Wava Porter-Kilby and Joe Minella of Albuquerque, New Mexico traveled to Tulia, and Karen Heikkala rode with those in Austin on the Freedom Bus.

Texas activists who addressed the rally include: Texas ACLU's Harrell, Drug Policy Forum of Texas executive director Dr. G. Alan Robison, DPFT president Jerry Epstein, TNRG's Tracey Hayes, Reverend Sterling Lands of the Greater Calvary Baptist Church in Northeast Austin and NAACP representatives. Amarillo chapter head Alphonso Vaughan and Freddy Brookins, Sr., head of Tulia NAACP told of forming their chapters in the aftermath of the drug bust.

Robison noted later that Houston's media coverage "aside from an occasional mention of the Freedom Ride prior to the rally, was the first time to my knowledge that Tulia was ever mentioned in a predominantly black publication in Houston, the weekly Houston Times. It's important because the Houston Chronicle was the only major daily in Texas that chose not to so much as mention the Never Again! rally, and it was clearly the black community that needed to hear about it."

The Tulia case inspired successful legislation this year in Austin. A bill sponsored by Rep. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen) prohibits Texans from being convicted of drug charges based solely on the testimony of undercover police officers. "This bill was supported by law officers across the state," Mr. Hinojosa told reporters. "They don't want to convict just on the word of an informant without corroboration."

A second law made officers' personnel files no longer exempt from disclosure under certain circumstances. Harrell of the Texas ACLU said more can be done to prevent bad drug cases from reaching prosecution. His group has asked that the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence review regional narcotics task forces.

The ACLU has asked the Texas attorney general's office to investigate whether racial profiling and civil rights abuses are part of the drug task forces. The ACLU says that narcotics task forces target minorities in low-income communities in order to bolster their arrest numbers to gain grant money.

At time of press there was no response from attorney general spokesman, Mark Heckmann, who was to review the request. Appeals are pending in the drug cases. The ACLU and NAACP have filed a federal lawsuit against some Swisher County officials, and the Department of Justice is investigating.
It is summer in the Texas Panhandle, and little moves but the wind across the plains. The Never Again! rally is certain to raise some dust. "It's been pretty quiet in Tulia until now, but after this rally we won't be quiet again about such official abuse," said Rev. Kiker.

(Source: DRCNet and G. Alan Robison)
Friends of Justice
507 N. Donley Avenue Tulia, Texas 79088

 400 voices say, "Never again!
Not in Tulia, not anywhere!"

Citizens converge on Swisher County Courthouse on the
2nd anniversary of the infamous Tulia drug sting of '99

Friends of Justice Children's Chior
steals the show.
Tulia NAACP President Freddie Brooking has a son serving a lengthy prison sentence.

Edward Watters, a Tulia Church of Christ Pastor, shares his thoughts on the war on drugs
From left to right: Patricia Kiker, Nancy Bean, Alan Bean, and Charles Kiker

Reverend Edwin Sanders, challenges rally participants to remember
Tulia and to bring an end to the war on drugs today.