The 'War on Drugs' in Tulia, Texas

By Laurel Frodge 02-10-2009

On July 23, 1999, undercover narcotics agent Tom Coleman executed one of the biggest drug busts in Texas history. Forty-six people were accused of selling to Coleman, filed through swift trials, and put behind bars with sentences ranging from 20 to 341 years. Thirty-nine were African American, accounting for 13 percent of Tulia's adult black population. A headline in the next day's newspaper read "Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage."

One by one, the accused were brought to court solely on Coleman's word -- a former rodeo cowboy known to make racial slurs in front of his office superiors -- and tried in front of a jury with one African-American member. Despite blatant inconsistencies in Coleman's reports, which eventually led to the pardoning of 35 defendants, the rogue investigator was named "Texas Lawman of the Year" and applauded by the white community for "cleaning up the town."

The documentary Tulia, Texas, which premiers on PBS tonight, shows how the quiet post-industrial neighborhoods of Tulia and other Texas Panhandle towns fell victim to the stormy aftermath of President Reagan's "war on drugs." Billions of U.S. tax dollars were spent jailing citizens associated with the narcotics trade by increasing anti-drug task forces around the country. As Jeff Blackburn, the Texas criminal defense attorney who worked pro bono to gain the pardons of all the convicted Tulia defendants, explains, "This is a story about how our idea of justice gets corrupted when we declare war on something."

Though this narrative reeks of the good ol' boy justice we could only hope was in our country's past, more than 600 drug task forces like Tulia's exist across the country under funding from Byrne grants. These grants were enacted in 1988 to bolster the "war on drugs" and have been widely criticized by both political parties and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and The Heritage Foundation.

"Because the program lacks strict guidelines and standards, its task forces have been plagued with corruption and blamed for countless cases of wrongful incarceration

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