Tulia and the spell of mass incarceration

Gary Gardner, moments before heading down to a protest at the state capital with Friends of Justice and a bus full of Tulia residents, September 2000

By Alan Bean

This is the text of a speech delivered at a Friends Committee on Legislation of California banquet in Whittier, California, March 26, 2011.

When I arrived in Tulia in the summer of 1998, I didn’t know very much about mass incarceration and the war on drugs. I had no idea that Texas, the state we had just moved to, had almost quadrupled its prison population between 1988 and 1998, or that the number of prisons had grown from 16 in 1980 to 108 in 2000.

Nor did I realize that the average family income of America’s poorest 20 percent increased 116% between 1947 and 1979 and had given back half of those gains between 1983 and 1998.

I didn’t realize that the American incarceration rate once mirrored western democracies like Canada, Great Britain and Germany, but had recently grown to six times the size of other nations.

For twenty years our family had been shuffling around the United States and Canada, and Nancy wanted our children to experience the love and support of family. Everything was going according to plan until we saw the headline in the local newspaper, “Tulia streets cleared of garbage.”

The article reported that forty-six “scumbag,” “kingpin” drug dealers had been arrested after an eighteen month investigation headed by Tom Coleman, an undercover cop posing as a drifter on the prowl for drugs. According to the newspaper editor, these scumbags were a cancer on the local community and would soon be getting some “chemotherapy behind bars.”

Nancy’s mother, Patricia Kiker, wondered how a town of 5,000 could support 46 drug kingpins. I had concerns about the presumption of innocence. Since the defendants had already been convicted in the local press, how could they expect to be treated fairly by the courts? Nancy worried that some of her drug-using cousins might have been caught up in the operation. Her father glanced at the addresses published in the paper and told Nancy she had nothing to worry about: “It looks like every last one of them lives on the black end of town.”

When I raised my concerns about the presumption of innocence in our Baptist Sunday school class, the red-faced man across the table informed me that “they’re all guilty, and they’re all going to jail.”

We decided to see what people were thinking in the black community. We were told that Tom Coleman generally hung ran with a group of under-employed crack addicts. “But the funny thing is,” one man told me, “almost all the drugs that man turned in was powder cocaine. Ain’t nobody uses powder in this town; they’re all smoking crack rock.”

The first trial was held in December of 1999, five months after the drug bust. Joe Moore, a local hog farmer, was convicted and sentenced to 90 years in prison. Three weeks later, Cash Love, a former High School track star, was sentenced to five consecutive 99-year sentences.

Only then did we begin to unearth the truth about undercover agent Tom Coleman. We found that he had left his last job in law enforcement in the dead of night, owing over $10,000 to local merchants. Worse still, Coleman had been arrested midway through the Tulia operation when his former employer charged him with theft. A few days later, Tom was back in Tulia saying that he had taken care of his legal problems.

Protest march in Tulia, July 23, 2001

By this time, Friends of Justice was meeting in the Bean’s living room every Sunday night. Our first task was to reduce an enormously complex drug bust to a simple narrative. We reached out to the usual suspects – the NAACP and the ACLU – and sent our narrative to the Texas Observer, an independent progressive magazine. A young reporter published a sixteen-page expose and the civil rights groups began to pay attention.

When Kareem Abdul Jabbar White, the last defendant to stand trial, was convicted of selling an eight-ball of powdered cocaine to Tom Coleman in September of 2000, attorneys from the ACLU and a producer from ABC’s 20/20 were in the courtroom.

Nancy and I were learning some painful social lessons. We couldn’t fight the Coleman operation without embracing the most troubled segment of Tulia’s black community. And we couldn’t embrace the defendants and their families without being excommunicated by the church-going white community. No one could understand why good Christian people would want to stand up for a bunch of scumbag drug dealers. The disturbing facts about Tom Coleman percolated to the surface but it made no difference. The sheriff who hired Coleman taught Sunday school and led the singing down at the Church of Christ. If Coleman was okay with the godly sheriff, he was okay with everybody.

I started spending every free minute down at the Swisher County Library, working through microfilm copies of the Tulia Herald, once the best small town newspaper in Texas. H.M. Baggarly, the editor from 1950 to 1985, was good friends with Lyndon Johnson and it was rumored that the latest issue of the Tulia Herald could be found on Johnson’s night table during his years in the White House.

H.M. Baggarly was an ardent New Deal Democrat who featured page-length anti-Republican rants every week. His controversial views drew passionate reactions from readers across Texas and it wasn’t unusual to find twenty letters to the editor published in a single week. The racial history of little Tulia, Texas emerged from the thrust and parry of this political fencing.

Times were hard for farmers in the Texas Panhandle until somebody discovered a way to pump the waters of the immense Ogallala Aquifer up to the parched Texas prairie. Soon the Panhandle was blooming like the proverbial rose and farmers were desperate for hired help. African-American sharecroppers from Deep East Texas started migrated to Tulia, drawn by the availability of steady work. A hardscrabble shantytown sprang up across the tracks from Tulia. They called it the Sunset Addition.

Virtually all of the men and women rounded up in the Tulia drug sting of 1999 either grew up in Sunset or were raised by folks who did. Life was brutal in Sunset. None of the old shacks hauled in from the country had running water, there were no baths, sinks or showers and in the winter, wood-burning stoves provided the only source of heat.

But there was an upside to life in Sunset—a string of bootleg bars brought people flocking from miles around. Swisher County was officially dry, but law enforcement looked the other way. During the week, the denizens of Sunset worked hard from dawn to dusk, but they partied around the clock every weekend. The population of Sunset could double and even triple on a Friday night and the combination of gambling and alcohol led to violence. The police only crossed the tracks to collect the body and every killing was ruled self-defense.

From 1950 to 1975, the agricultural economy of Swisher County boomed. Then everything started falling apart. Irrigation water gave out. Commodity prices plummeted while the cost of production soared. One-by-one, Swisher County farmers started throwing in the towel.

After H.M. Baggarly died in 1985, stories about crime, punishment and the criminal justice system dominated the headlines of the Tulia Herald. As the agricultural economy contracted, money for police cars and police officers flowed into Tulia from state and federal government programs. By 1990, Swisher County was part of the 26-County Panhandle Narcotics Task Force headquartered in nearby Amarillo.

Around the same time, a private prison went up west of town. A group of bright-eyed entrepreneurs from Houston figured that, with all the law-n-order rhetoric about drug-and-crime-free communities, building prisons was a surefire proposition. “If we build it,” they reasoned, “they will come.” By mid-decade, Democrat Ann Richards and Republican George W. Bush were vying for the governor’s mansion, each trying to out-tough the other. Ann said she wanted to build prisons so recovering addicts like herself could get rehabilitated. George (himself a recovering addict) countered with the argument that prison was rehabilitation.

Larry Stewart gave up farming in the late 1980s and hired on with the sheriff’s department. Terry McEachern ran for District Attorney when his farm debt soared past the $2 million mark. Other failed farmers signed on with law enforcement or took jobs as prison guards. The shift from barbed wire to razor wire was complete.

Only farmers who could afford big farms, insanely expensive farm machinery, and round-up ready cotton stayed in business. The shacks comprising the Sunset Addition were condemned and bull-dozed and its residents were relocated in HUD housing on the South end of Tulia. Most students, (black, white and Hispanic) left town after graduation, but not everyone could make the transition to city life. Black males who remained in Tulia ended up living with their parents or grandmothers, bouncing from dead-end job to dead-end job. For most, marriage was an aspiration but not an option.

Drug bust stories started appearing in the pages of the Tulia Herald in the late 1980s and became bigger and more prominent with each passing year. In 1995, a drug bust targeting a former football star netted 17 defendants, all of them black or brown. Three years later, Tom Coleman answered an ad in the Tulia Herald. The undercover narcotics position only paid $17,000 a year with no benefits. Coleman, the only man to answer to ad, was hired without a background check.

Tulia’s big drug bust finally unraveled when Bob Herbert wrote a dozen fire-breathing columns in the New York Times, prominent Senators like Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer fired off angry letters to Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in an utterly uncharacteristic move, granted an evidentiary hearing to four Tulia defendants (Joe Moore, Freddie Brookins, Jason Williams and Willie Hall).

In the course of a full week of testimony, Tom Coleman was exposed as a lying, racist idiot and Dallas Judge Ron Chapman ruled that Coleman was not credible under oath. A few months later, the Swisher County Courthouse was swarming with reporters from every major newspaper and television network in America. Sixty Minutes wrapped a shocking expose around Tulia. The City of Amarillo eventually paid the wrongfully convicted defendants a total of $6 million and it wasn’t long before all fifty narcotics task forces in Texas had disbanded. In January of 2005, Tom Coleman was convicted of aggravated perjury and sentenced to ten years probation.

In the eyes of progressive America, Tulia was a racist aberration; a bizarre throwback to Jim Crow justice. But what happened in Tulia was strictly business as usual.

As in Tulia’s Sunset Addition, life in American ghettos has always been hard, but during the 1950s and 60s, unskilled labor was readily available, almost everyone was working and a solid majority of adults were married. Here as elsewhere, Tulia was typical.

The farm crisis that hit Tulia was analogous to the economic crisis that ravaged rustbelt cities in the Midwest during the same period. Industry moved south or out of the country altogether. Factories shifted from inner cities to light industrial parks in the suburbs. Before long, millions of poor Americans, disproportionately black and Latino, were trapped in jobless ghettos. As in Tulia, most people moved up and out and those who couldn’t make the jump were in trouble.

President Reagan knew that drugs were a convenient proxy for race. The Great Communicator understood what most liberals have never figured out: the American public prefer images and narratives to evidence and logic.

But how do we explain th3 almost complete lack of protest against the drug war between 1980 and 1999? As Nancy and I discovered in Tulia, if you take a stand against the war on drugs, folks think you are standing up for drug dealers, and everyone was desperate to avoid that impression.

The drug trade is just as active in suburban neighborhoods as it is in the ghetto. This is just as true in Tulia as it is in Toledo—Americans use drugs at about the same rate across racial and class lines. But the rules of the drug trade are different in the jobless inner city. Middle class users can afford their addictions. Poor people rarely have enough money to pay the light bill and buy groceries; there is nothing left over for drugs. For this reason, poor addicts almost always resort to prostitution, property crime, drug dealing, or a frantic combination of all three.

Poor people grow weary of watching their neighbors doing drug deals on the corner. They don’t like having their homes burglarized on a regular basis by addicts desperate for buy-money, so they pick up the phone and call the police.

When tough-on-crime politicians introduced laws attaching a mandatory five-year sentence to the mere possession of crack cocaine, black opinion leaders like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the Congressional Black Caucus flashed a thumbs-up. When the federal penalty for crack cocaine (a poor man’s drug) was made 100 times as stiff as the penalty for powder cocaine (the preference of the affluent) the civil rights community was completely on board.

Overnight, urban neighborhoods were transformed into virtual police states complete with automatic weapons, riot gear and paid informants.

At both the state and federal levels, progressive politicians won election by promising to be even tougher on drug dealers than their conservative counterparts. In states like Texas and California, prisons provided jobs for economically strapped communities.

Social scientists were slow to get a handle on these dramatic developments. You couldn’t describe the mechanics of the drug war without getting painfully specific about the plight of poor people of color. Sociologists, wishing to discourage the familiar association between drugs, violence and people of color fell silent. They didn’t want to be accused of blaming the victim.

But this silence came at a horrible price. When proponents of free market fundamentalism rolled out slash-and-burn narratives about welfare queens and pathological urban predators, no one countered with a fact-based depiction of what was really going down.

The law of supply and demand cannot be revoked by legislative fiat. Arrest one cadre of drug dealers and a new crew of hustlers fills the void. As rival gangs fight for turf, violence escalates. When jobs are scarce, underground economies flourish. Think of Al Capone’s Chicago and you’ve got the picture. Draconian laws failed to keep illegal drugs off the streets, but they were highly successful at filling America’s jails and prisons with scores of poor, uneducated young men, most of them black or brown.

Tagged with a felony and conformed to the rhythms of prison life, ex-offenders often abandoned the quest for legitimate employment. We had no jobs for the inner city; but we had prisons.

In the 1950s and 60s, prison was considered a solution of last resort. It was widely assumed that the interests of society and the interests of the offender could, and should, be made to coincide. Offenders were treated as distinct individuals and rehabilitation was the goal.

After thirty years of mass incarceration, that has all changed. Criminologist David Garland puts it this way:

Offenders, once they offend, are no longer ‘members of the public’ and cease to be deserving of the kinds of consideration we typically afford to each other. There is a social and cultural divide between ‘us’, the innocent, longsuffering middle-class victims, and ‘them’, the dangerous and undeserving poor. By engaging in violence or drug abuse, or recidivism, they reveal themselves for what they are: ‘the dangerous other’, the underclass. ‘Our’ security depends on ‘their’ control. With this equation we allow ourselves to forget what we once took for granted: that offenders are citizens too and their liberty interests are our liberty interests.

The Old Crow Medicine Show has a song with a haunting refrain:

We’re all in this thing together

Walking the line between faith and fear.

This life don’t last forever;

When you cry, I taste the salt in your tears.

Mass incarceration will not end until we understand this simple truth: rich and poor; black, brown and white; Christian, Jew, Buddhist or Muslim; Republican or Democrat; preacher or drug dealer, we’re all in this thing together.

Alan Bean answers questions at the FCLCA event with Nancy Bean and FCL lobbyist, Jim Lindburg

Mass incarceration will not end until there is meaningful work for the kind of people that were swept up in the Tulia drug sting. Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration may provide the best model. The private sector will continue to produce fewer and fewer jobs for the uneducated and the unskilled; that is a given. We have two problems: a crumbling urban infrastructure and millions of idle hands—the solution seems obvious.

Am I really suggesting, in this bleak economic and political environment, that state and federal governments can be expected to shell out billions of dollars for a make-work project?

Actually, it’s already happening. As the story of Tulia makes clear, mass incarceration has been an insanely expensive job creation program. Poor urban neighborhoods are bereft of employment, so we wait for desperate young men to plug into the underground economy and then we pack them off to prisons staffed by working class men and women in the hinterland.

Tulia is America writ small. If we are serious about scaling back the war on drugs and backing away from the horrors of mass incarceration, we simply must provide work for our people.

We’re all in this thing together; walking the line between faith and fear.

This life don’t last forever; when you cry, I taste the salt in your tears.

Since there is presently little public will for a government-financed jobs program, we need to change the public will, we need a new national consensus. How are we supposed to do that?

By telling stories.

Ronald Reagan was right: Americans respond to narratives more than logic. No one ever marched on Washington in response to a pie chart. But before we attempt to change the hearts and minds of America, our own hearts must change. Theologian Miroslav Volf talks about the need for double vision; an honest attempt to see the world through the eyes of the other.

Before we can tell the right kind of stories, we must see the world through the eyes of two very different sorts of people: low-level drug dealers and Tea Party enthusiasts. Let’s start with the kid on the street corner. Imagine all the things he doesn’t know, and all the things he knows far too well. Let your love encircle and embrace that kid. Claim him as an American citizen in good standing. Want what is best for him.

Now turn your attention to the woman in the funny hat at the Tea Party rally. Spend a few moments viewing the world through her eyes. Has she been swept away in a torrent of xenophobic rage? Sure she has. Does she have any idea how hard things are for the poor, the homeless and the unemployed. Of course she doesn’t. But, like all Americans, she loves a good story.

She doesn’t like all stories, of course; nobody does. Tell a story of American oppression, a story about racist white people grinding the face of the poor, and you won’t get a positive response. But tell her a story about American aspiration and you will fare considerably better. Tell her a story about the kind of nation you want to live in: a nation in which every boy and every girl grows up with hope and opportunity; a nation where there are no throw-away people; a nation where white people stand in solidarity with people of color; a nation where we taste the salt in everyone’s tears.

She likes that story. If she hears it enough, she might even come to love it. But as things stand, she never hears it. This story stands in logical contradiction to all the mean-spirited stories people have been feeding her, but remember, people are moved by narrative, not by logic. I have recently come to the conclusion that I am spending far too much time critiquing my ideological opposition and not nearly enough time telling stories about the kind of America I want to live in. We are all collateral damage in the great American culture war; but we were created for something infinitely better.

Mass incarceration is a nightmare that has played non-stop in a theatre near you for three decades now. It must stop; and it is up to ordinary people like you and me to make it stop. But first, our hearts must change. The Old Crow Medicine Show got it right:

We’re all in this thing together

Walking the line between faith and fear.

This life don’t last forever,

When you cry, I taste the salt in your tears.

2 thoughts on “Tulia and the spell of mass incarceration

  1. Dear Alan,
    Thank you so much for ” Taking Out the Trash in Tulia.” I am a former Tulian, and I wanted to know what had really happened in the drug sting which made my home town notorious. Besides the story of the drug bust, which I thought you told with candor and grace, I appreciated the section on the history of my home town. I hadn’t really known what had happened there from the time I graduated from high school in 1956 until now. All I knew was that the town seemed to be a sad shadow of the vibrant community it had once been. Thank you for the work you, Nancy, and the Kikers did to try to keep its citizens honest. Ruth Massey Stiles

  2. My wife Patricia (Culwell) Kiker, graduated THS in 1954. She graduated in three years so she was in the class of 55. Thank you for your comment. A little encouragement is always appreciated. Charles Kiker

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