“That Alan Bean chose to keep his narrative close to the vest, to let the facts do the talking for him rather than ram the moral of this sordid story down the reader’s throat, makes this book a fascinating and consuming read. Be prepared, as once you start reading Taking Out The Trash, chances are you won’t put the book down until you’ve finished.”
Scott Greenfield’s review of Alan Bean’s book, “Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas” originally appeared in Scott’s highly respected blog, Simple Justice.
I’ve never been to Tulia. There’s no particular reason why I would go there, and yet after reading Alan Bean’s book, Taking Out The Trash in Tulia, Texas, published by Advanced Concept Design Books, I feel as if I know the place well.
The story is now well known to those who are concerned about criminal justice, when one early morning in July, 1999, saw a round up of 46 people, 39 of whom were black and comprised 15% of the towns black population, all based on the “undercover” activities, and integrity, of a mutt cop named Tom Coleman. Based on Coleman’s uncorroborated, and facially false, testimony, the Tulia defendants dropped like flies.
The story of Coleman’s exploits produced a local newspaper headline, “Tulia’s streets cleared of garbage,” giving rise to Bean’s title. The men and women, marched off in their underwear to holding cells, and from there to pre-ordained convictions that would rid Tulia of “their kind,” was embraced by the good folks of Tulia, disinclined to quibble over the niceties of law and proof. The one-time high school sports heroes and regulars in town were no longer desired in Tulia, and ridding the town of them was a sufficiently necessary goal that otherwise God-fearing and kind residents wouldn’t lose any sleep.
Alan Bean, a minister and author who came to Tulia because of his wife, Nancy’s, parents, Charles and Patricia Kiker. Bean recounts the story of people with such colorful names as Kizzie White and Bootie Wootie (because Joe Moore sounded too, well, normal?) in a narrative that captures the flavor of Tulia’s underbelly, the poverty, the desperation, the way life goes on as if this was how it was supposed to be.
His story uses the colorful language of colorful characters, and characters is the only way to describe them. From Gary Gardner, a redneck farmer with a nasty mouth and a penchant for keeping a loaded rifle by every window, just in case, to Randy Credico, a carpet-bagger for justice from New York’s Kuntsler Fund for Racial Justice, who seems about as far out of his element as an ersatz comic impressionist turned racial freedom fighter could be.
Most extraordinary is the manner in which Bean recounts the story of Tulia, providing what seems to be just raw description without the sense that it’s been colored to persuade. Granted, Alan Bean and his wife formed the group Friends of Justice, integral to bringing the monumental, yet mundane, injustice of the Tulia drug stings to the attention of the nation. And yet, there is no sense while reading this book that Bean’s description is anything short of factual, just a recitation of what happened, warts and all.
It would have been all too easy to turn Taking Out The Trash into a philippic, particularly since its author just happens to be a preacher. Yet Bean resists sanitizing his friends or vilifying his opponents. At it’s core, the story is one of entrenched racism and ordinary people comfortable in sacrificing the details of due process and integrity in the criminal justice system to rid their town of what they perceive to be a plague of drugs. At the same time, Bean doesn’t devolve into blind hyperbole, conceding that the Tulia defendants aren’t necessarily angels, but still deserving of humanity and fairness.
While not a theme of the book, it’s impossible to ignore the banal failings of the assigned criminal defense lawyers who failed to make that extra effort necessary to care for their clients. Some happily assumed their client’s guilt, as part of the routine of selling defendants out before the check was cashed, while others tried but lacked the experience, and maybe the guts, to face down a hostile and callous system.
Certainly the subject matter of the Tulia drug stings, the prosecution and conviction of these defendants and the fight to clean up the courtroom after a lying Tom Coleman “cleaned” up the streets, lends itself to a rant or two. Or thirty nine. That Alan Bean chose to keep his narrative close to the vest, to let the facts do the talking for him rather than ram the moral of this sordid story down the reader’s throat, makes this book a fascinating and consuming read. Be prepared, as once you start reading Taking Out The Trash, chances are you won’t put the book down until you’ve finished.
Much along the lines of Amy Bach’s Ordinary Injustice, the story of Tulia, Texas is disturbing in its depth and ordinariness at the same time. Bean struggles to make the point that the “good people” of Tulia don’t perceive anything racist in their willingness to sacrifice 15% of their town’s black population to clean up the streets. That testimony might not be entirely accurate, or crimes not exactly committed, doesn’t change their heartfelt belief that this is all for the best, something that just had to be done.
The tendency to concern ourselves with instances of particular moral outrage, discrete and horrendous instances of what we perceive to be injustice, makes for higher profile and flashier stories. While the scope of Tulia’s abdication of law in favor of order makes this story stand out, that Alan Bean, Gary Gardner and the Kikers, the Friends of Justice, were able to capture the interest and imagination of the outside world in the ugliness of some dusty backwater in Texas where a bunch of poor blacks were railroaded is a story of courage, personal risk and dedication to a cause that would otherwise have never made a ripple in the world of criminal justice.
Alan Bean tells an important story, and tells it in a way that draws a reader into a seat at Jazzie’s cafe and forces them to feel the dirtiness and stench of the holding cell at the Swisher County Jail. What distinguishes Taking Out The Trash is one’s sense that Bean has been an honest broker in the retelling of this sordid tale, and that despite the locale and feeling of dusty streets around you, it’s the story of how most people in this country feel about those tagged as criminals. So what if the fine details of law are missed here and there, as long as our police take out the garbage, most good people are just fine with it.
Thankfully, Alan Bean wasn’t fine with it, and wrote a fantastic book so that the rest of us wouldn’t be fine with it either.