The facts are unbelievable, yet poignantly true. In the summer of 1999, thirty-nine people were arrested and charged with dealing powdered cocaine in the town of Tulia, Texas. The majority of those arrested were black, and they accounted for twenty percent of the town’s African American population. The operation that netted these arrests was funded by a federal grant; undercover officer Tom Coleman collected the evidence that resulted in the pre-dawn police raid that pulled many of the culprits out of bed and forced them to march out of their homes in semi-nakedness.
The egregious part of this entire operation was that Coleman had a dubious background in law enforcement and his evidence could, at best, be called shaky. Yet the entire white community of Tulia lauded the raid and supported the police officers involved. As word trickled out of the deviousness of Coleman and his cohorts in snaring the victims and the lack of due process during their incarceration, Nate Blakeslee, the editor of the Texas Observer, wrote a long story about the chain of events. This brought national attention and, more importantly, help for those imprisoned in Tulia. This book is a detailed and riveting, but ultimately disheartening, account of the antecedents and the denouement to the 1999 arrests.
Tulia is in West Texas, a dry, arid part of the state that saw its zenith and its nadir in the oil boom and bust of the 1980s. Its townspeople do not have many employment opportunities; the town and its neighborhoods are not thriving economically. The situation is worse for Tulia’s African American population. The connection between unemployment and bleak prospects to drug addiction and crime is palpable as the blacks tenuously hold on to their lives.
Sheriff Larry Stewart, aided by District Attorney Terry McEachern, used federal funding to attack the chronic drug problem in town. They hired Tom Coleman, the son of a distinguished Texas Ranger, to go undercover and collect evidence on drug dealers. The problem was that Coleman had a history of problems with authority and a checkered past that included a restraining order by his ex-wife and a litany of bounced checks. Coleman collected evidence to facilitate the arrests of drug dealers in Tulia. The evidence was questionable, yet Stewart and McEachern pursued the cases zealously. Blakeslee’s article brought a team of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to seek justice for Tulia’s victims. Led by the diminutive, indefatigableVanita Gupta (fresh out of law school), the NAACP team fought a valiant battle against seemingly insurmountable odds to obtain acquittals in 2003 for the majority of the victims.
The story is gripping, and Blakeslee’s straightforward narrative keeps the focus on the events and the personalities. Blakeslee takes several detours –about the town’s economic and social history, the marginal characters – that add context and richness to the storytelling. While the denouement is satisfying, the book is depressing in that it presents race relations in the United States in the twenty-first century in stark candid detail. This is no fault of the author’s, though. Blakeslee does a yeoman’s job of chronicling the events and often lets the characters and plot take center stage in the assured knowledge that what happened in Tulia is bizarre enough to capture the reader’s attention and that no embellishments are necessary.