It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since thirteen people were released from prison at the Swisher County courthouse after Judge Ron Chapman declared that undercover agent Tom Coleman was not credible under oath. I address the amazing events leading up to this dramatic scene in my book, Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas.
This brief account from the AP appeared in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News (subscription required):
Ten years ago
Twelve people sent to prison as the result of a Tulia, Texas, drug bust were released on bail by a judge who said they’d been railroaded by an undercover agent. (A total of 35 people were later pardoned by Texas Gov. Rick Perry; 45 of the 46 who were arrested shared a $6 million settlement in a civil rights lawsuit.)
This is Day 6 of our Friends of Justice Reunion Tour. We started off in Houston, Texas at a vigil for Ramsey Muniz. Nancy Bean opened and closed the event with prayer while I explained how, back in 1994, Ramsey Muniz was framed by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Then it was on to Church Point, Louisiana, where we visited with Ann and James Colomb, their children and grandchildren. Six years ago, Nancy and I were in Lafayette when Ann and three of her sons were released from prison. At their trial, thirty-one convicted drug dealers testified that they had sold millions of dollars to the Colomb family. I had been arguing that this testimony was the product of perjury parties behind bars produced and directed by Brett Grayson, the ethically challenged Assistant US Attorney. Three months after the Colombs were convicted, the truth finally emerged in all its sleazy glory and federal judge Tucker Melancon ordered that Ann and her sons be released immediately and that a full-scale investigation of the federal prison system be launched. It was the Department of Justice that should have been investigated, but that would have landed a bit too close to home.
The next day we drove to Jackson, MS where we visited with attorneys associated with Curtis Flowers, the native of Winona, MS who has been tried six (6) times on the same murder charges. The Office for Capital Defense is now located in the Robert E. Lee building in Jackson, an elegant art nouveau building constructed in the 1920s as an homage to the iconic Confederate general. (more…)
Alan Bean couldn’t miss the headline splashed across the top of his hometown paper one summer morning in 1999. It spoke of big news for the 5,000-person burg in West Texas: a big drug bust that landed a sizable portion of the town’s black community behind bars.
“Tulia streets cleared of garbage,” the banner headline read. Like many aspects of the American war on drugs, the wording smacked of insidious racism.
Bean recalled his reactions to that news story a few days ago, to a roomful of people at a Fort Worth hotel. The event, examining the 40-year-old war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on minority communities, was hosted by the Tarrant County Libertarian Party but drew speakers from several parts of the political spectrum.
At the podium, Bean acknowledged that he’d known nothing of the lopsided statistics when he picked up the paper that morning. The drug bust in his small town would change all that, though, and suddenly push him to the front lines of a war that locks up seven black men for every white man incarcerated in the United States, devastating minority neighborhoods while white enclaves, where drugs are every bit as prevalent, are left mostly unscathed. The more Bean read and researched, the clearer the drug war’s racism became to him. (more…)
This review of Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texasappears in the current issue of Christian Ethics Today, a journal published for pastors and ethicists on the thoughtful end of the Baptist spectrum. Dr. Larry McSwain was Professor of Church and Community, Dean of the School of Theology and Provost of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1970-1993. Since 2003, he has been Associate Dean of the Doctor of Ministry Degree Program and Professor of Leadership at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, GA.
Alan Bean, Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas. DeSoto, TX: Advanced Concept Design Books, 2010.
This is a difficult book to read. It is difficult not because of the vocabulary, the writing style, nor overblown conceptualization. Its content is shocking, earthy, and so realistic as to surprise most Christian Ethics Today readers. It is difficult to accept the reality of the story told here, but it is a story that can be repeated across communities of the nation, large and small.
Alan Bean collected dozens of vignettes of events surrounding the arrest for drug dealing of nineteen black residents of Tulia, Texas in 1999. There were 132 indictments in the Texas panhandle generated by the testimony of an undercover policeman named Tom Coleman. Some in the community were incredulous that there could be that many drug dealers in the relatively small, poor black community of Tulia. The saga of the surprise arrests in the early morning that brought defendants to the court house in various stages of undress soon moved to the courtroom where incompetent defense attorneys, suspect legal procedures, and dominant white juries assured the conviction and excessive sentencing for each.
The characters of the book could be taken out of a Flannery O’Connor short story. Joe Moore is an older black hog farmer who is a key leader in the community arrested with the group and sentenced to 90 years in prison. Gary Gardner, an overweight, arthritic “redneck” wheat farmer with an uncontrollable foul mouth is a long-time advocate of civil rights, offended by the treatment of blacks in Tulia, and enters the fray for justice. Alan Bean is a central character in the book: a Canadian with a Ph.D. in church history, married into the Kiker clan of Tulia, a guitarist and composer of folk music, he becomes a central opponent of the criminal justice process at great person sacrifice for himself and his family.
In response to the multiple convictions with little due process for the black residents of Tulia, Bean and his family, Gardner, Charles and Patricia Kiker and leaders of the black community form Friends of Justice to take up the cause for black defendants labeled “scumbags” in the local press. The knowledge of networking skills of this leadership group of Friends of Justice soon has locals organized for protests at the state capital in Austin and drawing the national press and civil justice organizations to Swisher County to challenge the veracity of Tom Coleman and the justice process. After years of effort, the details of which require reading the book, Coleman’s credibility was challenged, convictions were overturned, and the Texas justice system paid heavy judgments to the defendants and their attorneys.
This is a book worth reading for its analyses on multiple levels of insight. It is a remarkable analysis of the social changes affecting American agriculture with the consequences of growing racial polarization in small towns. Its anthropological insights into the black culture of a small community and the interactions between black and white neighbors are on the level of classic studies such as Street Corner Society. The impact of a few dissenters to the dominant ethos with all of the conflict it generated in the community is a study in community change and the power of a determined few. The role of small town newspapers is analyzed historically in both positive and negative ways. The attention of national media in bringing pressure on local entities is a case study in the importance of outside resources to create change. And finally, the role of a few families with deep community roots who choose to live against the grain of the community’s values and the costs paid for their stubbornness is worthy of study by those who would be prophets of change in their own hometown.
I wanted to like The Help, Hollywood’s adaptation Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel.
Having read the reviews, I was pretty sure what I was getting myself into. I did like the movie–as a movie. Given the limitations of Hollywood storytelling, The Help was an enjoyable slice of popular entertainment.
Reviewers often refer to the movie as a “surprise success;” which is odd when you consider that the book was a big hit, especially with women, and the movie appears to be a faithful adaptation. The middle-aged black woman standing in line next to us assured us that the movie got it right–she was seeing the film for the second time.
The Help is a chick flick. There are few male characters (none of any consequence) and the audience was at least two-thirds women, most of them middle-aged or older. The movie reminded me of Fried Green Tomatoes, a film about women in the South that centers on a particularly shocking image that is funny because it is shocking (humor is rooted in surprise). I won’t spoil the story by telling you about the shocking image in The Help, but it definitely made the story go. (more…)
-Can a system that routinely gets it wrong justifiably execute anyone?-
Predictions are always dangerous, but I am quite confident about this one. The state of Georgia will NOT execute Troy Davis.
Why am I so sure about this? Because public officials are averse to embarrassment. Politicians will back away from a sinful decision for the same reason they generally adopt a tough-on-crime stance–it’s the easiest way to go. (more…)
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.” (more…)