By MARY McINTYRE
TULIA, Texas-Across the nation unsuspecting communities have become microcosms of the Drug War, which seems to have become a veritable breeding ground-if not proving ground-of corruption, racism, and injustice while working people foot the bill.
Contrary to what the government would like you to believe, the “bad guys” in this war are not just the big drug cartels and the “kingpins” making millions off of innocent children-as depicted in anti-drug advertisements. Now, the bad guys are your next-door neighbors and the people you sit beside in church. Sometimes the bad guys are the cops themselves.
One morning last year, Mario Paz, a 65-year-old grandfather in Los Angeles was awakened by a SWAT unit. Mario was shot and killed in his own bed. The police, it turned out, were looking for a drug dealer who had once lived next door but had moved several years before the raid.
In Detroit, FBI agents arrested two police officers on drug trafficking charges as part of an investigation into department corruption in November 1998. The officers were accused of stealing cocaine while on duty, putting it in their patrol car for the purpose of reselling it later to a street gang.
In Cleveland, in February 1998, 44 cops and corrections officers from northern Ohio, along with eight of their pals accused of pretending to be officers, were arrested in an FBI sting on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine.
Drug laws have become “Big Brother’s” methods of street-sweeping, removing “undesirables,” in what many feel has the tinge of cultural cleansing or passive eugenics.
In August 1998, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical agency of the U.S. Justice Department, reported that “the increasing number of drug offenses accounted for 30 percent of the total growth among Black inmates….”
“When incarceration rates are estimated separately for men and women, Black males in their 20s and 30s are found to have very high rates relative to other groups. Expressed in percentages, 8.3 percent of Black males age 25 to 29 were in prison in 1996, compared to 2.6 percent of Hispanic males and about 0.8 percent of white males in the same age group.”
In a comparative analysis of drug use and arrests by race in a 1999 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it was found that 16.9 percent of drug users in 1998 were Black while 82 percent were white.
In the year 2000, we have over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States. In the federal prison system, about 60 percent are imprisoned for drug law violations.
In June 2000, Scripps Howard News Service reported that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was secretly tracking internet users searching for drug terms such as “grow pot” by using a pop-up ad banner to drop “cookie” programs into individual users’ computers. The White House reportedly claimed that the cookies are simply tracking its anti-drug media campaign.
Since then, the White House denied knowledge of the program and ordered its contractor to disable it. “We didn’t know it was there. It won’t be shortly,” said Donald Maple, senior policy analyst with the White House Drug Office.
Ethnic cleansing-Tulia style
In April 1998, the War on Drugs oozed its way through a small African American community in Tulia, Texas, when an undercover narcotics officer by the name of Tom Coleman began what would become an 18-month-long drug sting operation.
The first battle was won by the drug-enforcement authorities in July 1999 when that sting resulted in 132 indictments against 43 individuals for drug offenses. The eventual results are still unknown pending appeal processes and trial delays.
Forty of the 43 arrested were Black. In Tulia, a town of about 5000 people located in Swisher County, the African American community consists of 353 individuals. Thus, roughly one-eighth of the Black community was arrested.
Children watched as parents were taken from them. Wives were left husbandless, unwitting widows of the Drug War. They were left to fend for themselves and their families after being stripped of the family breadwinners.
Mattie White has three children and several relatives indicted in connection with the sting. She explained, “It’s all around town; they don’t want Blacks living around town. The police have always targeted my family. It’s terrible here. This town is just pitiful.” Mattie now takes care of several orphans of the Drug War’s Battle of Tulia.
In a sworn affidavit, White asserts that Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart gave Tom Coleman a list of names prior to the investigation. “Sheriff Stewart told me that he had a list of names of Black people in town he wanted investigated.”
Stewart denies targeting Blacks. “I will tell you this: I guess anyone, in their mind, has folks they think could be involved. I did not hand him a list and say go out and do this. He was told to go wherever the investigation led, whether it led to my office, the richest part of town or the poorest.”
“He’s a gonna getcha”
In a July 29, 1999, article in the Tulia Herald, Sheriff Stewart had a message for criminals in Swisher County, Texas: “We want them to notice that we are out there. We know who a lot of them are, and we want them to wonder where we are and if we’re watching. Just because they aren’t arrested at the instant they commit a crime doesn’t mean we won’t get them. It just means their time hasn’t come up yet.”
Brrr! You sure wouldn’t want to be one of “them” that the sheriff named on his obscure “list”. Many of “them” however, were not paying much heed to these threats. And for no other reason than that they were innocent.
At least that was the case for Yul Bryant. In fact, Yul was actually living in another town at the time of his alleged offense. Imagine his surprise when he was suddenly arrested on the accusation of selling drugs to Tom Coleman, a man he had never seen in his life.
In one of Coleman’s official reports of the exchange, he described Bryant as a “tall Black man with bushy type hair.” In another official report, however, Coleman described Bryant as “a Black man with short-type hair.” “I’ve been bald for the last six years,” says an astonished and forthright Yul Bryant, who stands slightly over 5’6″ tall.
The case against Bryant was later dismissed, and he was set free, but not until he had spent over seven agonizing months in jail. He is now starting over with a new job, and you can be assured it’s not in Tulia.
In the same July 29 Tulia Herald article, Sheriff Stewart “stressed the importance of integrity not only to a police officer’s credibility, but also to his sense of professionalism.”
Stewart unabashedly stated, “The officer [Coleman] went to great lengths to be sure that all suspects were correctly identified. We’re not going to put someone in jail on a maybe. The officer swore under oath-and I truly believe that he has correctly identified every suspect. He is a man of integrity and professionalism. He upholds the law and that includes using every means to properly identify every suspect.”
Integrity and professionalism? Prior to working for Swisher County, Tom Coleman had been employed in Cochran County, Texas, as a police officer. During his employment with Cochran County, Coleman was charged with committing an “abuse of official capacity” as well as theft.
In fact, the same sheriff who believes in Coleman’s integrity received a teletype message from the Cochran County Sheriff’s Department on May 6, 1998, shortly after the 18-month undercover operation commenced, informing him of the charges against Coleman. Seemingly in response, Coleman went on vacation during that time.
During his testimony in one of the subsequent trials of defendants indicted as a result of the sting operation, Coleman stated that he was unaware of the charges against him in Cochran County until Aug. 14, 1998.
Coleman testified to his ignorance despite the fact that he had hired an attorney, who on May 30, 1998, had filed a waiver of arraignment in his case bearing Coleman’s own signature. A waiver of arraignment permits the defendant, in this case Coleman, to waive his appearance in court and enter a plea of “not guilty.”
An individual would be hard pressed to be able to sign such a document and hire an attorney to defend him against such charges without the knowledge of there being charges against him.
Former Cochran County Sheriff Ken Burke wrote a letter to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, the licensing agency for Texas officers, on June 14, 1996. In his letter, Coleman’s former superior stated, “Mr. Coleman should not be in law enforcement if he is going to do people the way he did this town.”
With the same verve that Cochran County rejected Coleman, Swisher County embraced him. Tom Coleman was honored as “Outstanding Lawman of the Year” in 1999 following the drug busts. It appears that Coleman was perhaps just what they had been looking for.
The taxpayers will pay
In an Amarillo Globe News article posted April 25, 2000, Swisher County Judge Harold Keeter said that the cost of housing and prosecuting the individuals arrested in the drug bust is expected to be around $230,000, which is approximately 14 percent of the county’s annual budget of $3.2 million. Judge Keeter went on to say that last October, Swisher County raised property taxes 5.8 percent to help pay for those costs.
“There’s going to be a taxpayer’s revolt before it’s all over,” said local rancher Culwell. “I think there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered about the integrity of that undercover cop.”
An interesting aspect of the community climate is that the Tulia Independent School District implemented a random drug-testing policy in January of 1997. The policy stirred up controversy in the town.
In 1997, Tulia High School senior Hollister Gardner sued each member of the school board in a federal lawsuit because of its policy of randomly testing students in extracurricular activities for drug use. The pending suit claims that the school district violated constitutional provisions against illegal search and seizure by enacting the policy.
Remarkably, many of the alleged drug offenses that Coleman found were purported to have been committed in drug-free zones or school zones, which of course enhanced the severity of the offenses. The question is how many of these offenses Coleman orchestrated to be committed within these restricted zones. (Additionally, one might ask about the necessity of having “drug-free zones” when drugs are illegal everywhere.)
In an Aug. 8, 1999, Amarillo Globe News article, Tom Coleman (Mr. Integrity), said, “It was an unpleasant surprise because it meant that the dealers were targeting kids.” His surprise echoed throughout the town, filled with residents who were unaware of the massive drug problem until after the busts had been made.
In an April 25, 2000, Amarillo Globe News article, Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern said that fighting drugs would not be deterred by “a few naysayers.” “Drugs are out there, and we’re here to stop them.”
Here are some of the casualties of the fight: Freddie Brookin, 22 years old, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Kizzie White, 23, was sentenced to 25 years. Joe Welton Moore, 67, was sentenced to 90 years. Kareem Abdul Jabbar White, 23, was sentenced to 60 years. Jason Jerome Williams, 20, was sentenced to 45 years.
William Cash Love is 24 years old, a white man in an interracial child-producing marriage. In January 2000, he was sentenced to 434 years of imprisonment. “Cash” is pending appeal of his sentence, but there’s no court to hear the appeals of his children as they sorrowfully await the return of their father.
After observing some of the harsh sentences that others received, many of those accused elected to sign plea bargain agreements for as much as 18 years in prison. Each of these individuals was convicted on the sworn statements of Tom Coleman.
What about the Constitution?
The Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” which according to law includes sentences that are “grossly disproportionate” to the seriousness of the crime being punished.
One man in Michigan, a first-time offender convicted of merely possessing cocaine, was given life in prison without chance of parole. When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, two of the five judges claimed the Constitution didn’t prohibit disproportionate sentences; the remaining three judges said that while there is a bar on grossly disproportionate punishments, the drug crisis was so serious that the sentence was not disproportionate-and the sentence was upheld.
There is a surreal lack of a relationship between the huge Tulia sentences and the severity of the crimes charged, which after all involve small amounts of cocaine-a drug that the governor of Texas, George W. Bush, has admitted to using before.
“The fact is that this punishment doesn’t even begin to fit the alleged crime,” says Jeff Blackburn, a noted Texas civil rights and criminal defense attorney. “Even if these crimes were committed, the punishment these people have received is absurdly out of proportion to what they ought to be.”
Blackburn points out that “in general, in drug cases, criminal defense lawyers and smart observers have seen for many years now that defendants of color are sentenced far more disproportionately to other defendants. Their arguments aren’t listened to. Their excuses are not accepted and their stories don’t count.
“This is nothing new because this is the story of the entire criminal justice system in this country. This is why death row is full of people of color and not white people. This why drug cases have resulted in the kind of outrageous sentences seen in Tulia.”
The Tulia bust took in a record amount of powdered cocaine, much to the surprise of local residents since crack cocaine is more prevalent in the economically depressed community. “There is no market for the expensive stuff,” claims one resident.
Much of the powder appears to have been provided by the Drug Task Force, where Coleman received money and drugs for buying and selling drugs to and from would-be offenders. Essentially, Coleman was being paid to deal drugs to people whom he deceptively befriended.
If one were to take the trial transcripts of Mr. Coleman’s testimony in these trials and lay them side by side, highlighting the conflicting statements made by him under oath when cross-examined by defense attorneys, one might be able to detect the vile jaundice this police officer has spread.
Just think, if Tom Coleman could cause such anguish and despair in a hamlet of 5000 people, what could he or others of his ilk do in your community? Unfortunately, it could happen. Mr. Coleman no longer works in Swisher County, but is currently working as a law-enforcement agent in Ellis County, Texas. Where will he show up next?
Protests in Austin and Amarillo
The Amarillo Chapter of the NAACP is looking into the drug sting in Tulia and the questions raised as to Coleman’s credibility. Local activists and other groups, including the ACLU, are taking actions as well.
Jeff Blackburn, who is on the local ACLU board, states, “Right now we are in the process of assembling a team of lawyers throughout the state. This story is far from over because the extent of the corruption has proven to be so vast and the cases so dramatic that we believe that through concerted legal effort we may be able to ‘jimmy open’ some truth around these convictions.
“On the other hand, ultimately it’s what people do outside the courthouse that matters. The more people understand this kind of injustice, and the more that they are willing to mobilize themselves through direct action against it, the greater are the chances we can do that. And we are inspired by the fact that a lot of local activists have come out in support of the new legal effort to overturn these convictions and examine what lies underneath them.”
On Sept. 29, hundreds of protesters-including 43 who came down from Tulia-rallied in front of the governor’s mansion in Austin. The rally was organized in conjunction with the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Yul Bryant, whose attorney is Jeff Blackburn.
On Oct. 3, about 140 attended a town meeting on the frame-ups, which was held at the Black Cultural Center in Amarillo. Speakers included Alfonso Vaughn and Iris Lawrence of the NAACP; Randy Credico and Sara Kunstler of the Kunstler Foundation; and the Rev. Kiker, from Friends of Justice (a support committee for the Tulia victims and their families). Jeff Blackburn spoke for the ACLU.
Two buses came from Tulia, including 35 children whose parents have been victimized. The Rev. Kiker introduced them on stage, saying, “There are now 43 POWs of the War on Drugs in Tulia, and these are the 35 POW orphans. This is the collateral damage of the War on Drugs in Texas.”