I first heard from Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen in late 2002, a few weeks before the week-long evidentiary hearing that exposed Tulia’s famous drug string as a fraud. Stationed in San Francisco, documentary filmmakers Herrman and Whalen were so captivated by the Tulia story that they determined to compress a complicated story into a riveting half hour production.
Here’s how Herrman and Whalen describe their unique take on Tulia:
By the time we began filming in Tulia, the drug sting and its aftermath
had captured considerable national media attention, but most of the
television coverage consisted of formulaic news magazine stories or
talk-shock programs. By presenting a different take on the story, we
wanted to reach a broad viewing audience, including those who had
been alienated by the divisive news reports. We felt it was important
to minimize “outsider” voices; we wanted to put the Tulia story back in
the voices of those people who had lived it and tell the story without
a narrator. By framing the Tulia story from the different perspectives
of those most closely involved, we ask viewers to consider the
experiences of all those involved: from law enforcement and jurors
to the defendants and their families. With our access to the array
of people featured in the film, we hope viewers will walk away with
surprising counterpoints to the broad-stroke portrayals in the popular
In recent months, “Tulia, Texas” has been previewing across America. We attended the showing at the KERA studios in Dallas in the fall. On February 10th, the documentary will be featured on the PBS program Independent Lens.
This project carries a great deal of personal significance. As most of you know, Friends of Justice was formed to combat the sting. We were responsible for calling the case to the attention of Nate Blakeslee (then of the Texas Observer) and the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (who produced a highly influential documentary on the Tulia sting). This attention validated the story in the eyes of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and caught the interest of an enterprising 20/20 Downtown producer. You can find Scott Henson’s recent blogging on the Tulia documentary here.
Here’s the critical point: Only when the major media had taken an interest did attorneys begin to believe that the sting could be overturned. In other words, Friends of Justice had been beating the justice drug for nine months before the faintest outline of a legal challenge emerged.
The same process played out in Jena, Louisiana.
I’m not just trying to grab a little glory for Friends of Justice here (although I’m not above doing that). The larger point is that grassroots organizing and intensive “narrative campaigns” are frequently a necessary intermediary between total anonymity and serious media interest. Somebody has to frame the story, define the issues, and organize the affected community. In both Tulia and Jena, the fight began with grassroots organizing which paved the way for media coverage and, finally, a stout, organized legal challenge.
In preparation for the February 10th airing of “Tulia, Texas” a thorough discussion of the story and an intriguing discussion guide have been produced. Readers learn that:
A small multiracial group of concerned Tulia citizens organized under
the name “Friends of Justice,” and soon captured the attention of state
and national civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties
Union of Texas and the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice.
Before long local criminal defense lawyer Jeff Blackburn, working
with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other powerful Washington
law firms, began looking into details of the evidence, discovering
striking inconsistencies in Coleman’s reports and testimony. Further
investigation uncovered Coleman’s shady background, including a
pattern of dishonesty and a warrant for his own arrest. When the case
was finally heard by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Coleman
perjured himself, and those still imprisoned were freed from prison.
All of the convicted Tulia drug sting defendants were pardoned by the
Whalen and Herrman
The documentary makes no attempt to sugarcoat the ambiguous aftermath of the Tulia story:
For Tulia, the outcome of the drug task force action and all that
followed is mixed. Found guilty of perjury, Coleman was given
probation, disappointing Tulia’s black community, which had been
hoping for justice in the form of a prison sentence. As former
defendants try to mend their disrupted lives, some may find ways to
forgive those who supported an unjust process. But the residents of
Tulia, both white and black, are left with feelings of wariness toward
one another. The scourge of drugs combined with fear of the “other”
and overzealous law enforcement exposed what was apparently lying
just below the surface. In a community that claimed to be “integrated,”
the racial division seems palpable even as both sides try to resume life
Herrman and Whalen quickly learned that “Tulia” wasn’t really a story about a rogue in a racist town (the standard spin in the mainstream media); it was about America’s failed war on drugs.
The regional drug task force responsible for the drug sting operation in
Tulia was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice through the Edward
Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program. Signed into law by President
Reagan in 1988, the program aimed to help states fight drugs and violent
crime, but provided few guidelines for doing so. States could set up their
own policies and procedures and the program grew popular in cashstrapped
rural areas of the country, where millions of dollars of the federal
funding was distributed every year. Before long, an entirely new tier of law
enforcement had been created and the number of Byrne Grant agents
surpassed the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ranks. While Byrne funding
was also intended for drug treatment and other probationary services,
the state of Texas earmarked 90 percent of it for drug task forces. At its
height, Texas had more than four dozen task forces employing about 700
officers and used most of the federal money to target low-level drug users
in undercover sting operations netting the largest numbers of arrests. (In
comparison, other states spent about 40 percent of the grant money on
drug task forces and the rest on other services.)
This is important. Barack Obama has signalled an interest in expanding a Byrne grant program that had been cut back sharply by president Bush. That’s okay if increased funding is used to enhance productive law enforcement work and related services; but if the money encourages the expansion of unaccountable narcotics task forces we’ve got a problem. Scott Henson, who knows more about this stuff than anyone, is calling for the complete elimation of the Byrne grant program because it’s “a massive driver of racial disparities in state-level incarceration.”
Charles Kiker, a retired Baptist minister (and my father-in-law) does a fine job of representing Friends of Justice in this production. Please tune in on February 10th. I’ll provide more detailed information as it becomes available.
Alan Bean, Friends of Justice