Pubdate: Sun, 16 Nov 2003
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 San Antonio Express-News
Author: Cary clack
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)
Bookmark: (Corruption - United States)


TULIA - The Statue of Liberty greets me as I drive into Tulia on U.S.
87. She doesn't know that Tulia scares me more than Jasper. Say the
name Jasper, and the image of a screaming man being dragged to his
death on a dark East Texas road is pulled across people's minds.

Mention Tulia and it's likely to invoke little more than a furrowed
brow and vacant gaze. If its significance is known, it's doubtful that
anyone will associate it with the Statue of Liberty. Yet she salutes
me with her torch.

It's actually a green and weathered 6-foot replica of the statue that
stands in front of a motel named Liberty Suites. She was there June 16
to welcome Freddie Brookins Jr. and 12 other defendants who returned
home on a bus after spending years in prison for crimes they didn't

It's why they were taken from their homes that Tulia scares me more
than Jasper. Not the tiny town itself, hidden in the Panhandle between
Amarillo and Lubbock. With its brick streets and more than two dozen
churches, Tulia is an economically depressed town with closed and
boarded-up businesses and where at 10 o'clock on a Friday morning, its
pulse is hardly livelier than at 10 o'clock Sunday night.

Nor is it the people of whom I'm wary, people who are polite and who
easily shake your hand and engage you in conversation.

Tulia scares me because this community's tragedy of people arrested,
convicted and sentenced for things they didn't do could just as easily
happen to me. Or you. And it's more likely to happen than our being
victims of a motorized lynching.

Values we hold dear to our national soul, enshrined in our laws and
engraved on our public conscience - civil liberties, the presumption
of innocence, fair trials - were shattered in Tulia, and it's now up
to this farming town of less than 6,000 to pick up the pieces.

The danger of picking up broken pieces is in cutting yourself, but
Tulia has been cut enough and already has bled too much.

Tulia is Spanish for "destined for glory." But Tulia's name is a
mistake. When it was settled in the 19th century, it was supposed to
be named after nearby Tule Creek, but a misspelling changed its name.
The mistake has outlasted the now anonymous man who made the clerical
error. With fortune and reflection, Tulia's name will outlast that of
Tom Coleman, the strange and devious man who did so much to tarnish
its name and the names of its citizens. In another town, by mistake or
malice, the tarnished name could be mine. It could be yours.

The people of Tulia can't be blamed for bringing Coleman into their
midst. The fault lies with those who hired him as an undercover agent
for the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, despite
the soiled reputation he'd earned in previous law enforcement jobs.

Nor can the people of Tulia be blamed for the infamous pre-dawn raid
on July 23, 1999, in which 46 Tulians, 39 of them black, were
arrested. That raid led to 38 of them being sentenced to prison with
no evidence that Coleman actually made the drug buys from the
defendants that he claimed.

On Aug. 22, Gov. Rick Perry issued pardons to the defendants. Coleman
has been indicted on three counts of perjury.

What the people of Tulia must ask themselves is why so many of them
were willing to believe the worst about fellow citizens with whom
they'd lived for years. Why would they take the word of a stranger who
had lived among them for only 18 months?

Like Jasper in its moment of infamy, Tulia deserves the opportunity to search
its soul for answers. When I visited Jasper on Easter weekend in 1999, between
the trials of the men who murdered James Byrd Jr., I was impressed with the
people's willingness to understand how this crime could happen in their
community and to talk openly about it. Blacks and whites admitted to working
harder at a civility they'd taken for granted, but the most powerful comment I
heard came from Willis Webb, publisher and editor of the Jasper Newsboy:

"We all have to ask ourselves, what little have I done that might have
contributed to this - that allowed this to happen."

Last month, I visited Tulia. Before my trips to both Jasper and Tulia,
there were warnings from friends to be careful. The warnings were both
playful and serious, but had I been white I doubt anyone would have
been concerned about my safety.

I understood. Race played a role in both crimes. I'm a black man. Most
of the Tulia defendants were black males. Many people, including Jeff
Blackburn, the Amarillo attorney who was the lead defense counsel for
all the defendants, believe that the drug sting was an attempt to get
blacks, about 8 percent of the town's population, out of Tulia.

Tulia scares me more than Jasper, because the threat of physical
violence doesn't frighten me nearly as much as the possibility of
being falsely accused and convicted of something I didn't do and
having people believe the charges.

The brutality in Jasper and the injustices in Tulia were so egregious
as to transcend race. In Tulia, especially, what happened isn't simply
an example of one rogue lawman turned loose on one community, but what
can transpire when people become lax in safeguarding their
constitutional rights and liberties. What happens when they neglect to
assume responsibility for neighbors whose rights and freedoms have
been violated?

In Tulia, it doesn't matter now what Vicki Fry's ethnicity was when
she was wrongfully arrested. What's important is that a woman who was
seven months pregnant lost her baby days after her arrest.

I'm not one of those who sees the government as some demonic entity
dispatching its agents in black helicopters to burst into the homes of
law-abiding citizens and ferry them away into the darkness. Still,
that's what happened to Freddie Brookins Jr.

On the morning of the raid in Tulia, Brookins was sleeping when his
wife woke him to tell him someone was knocking on the door of their
duplex in Tulia. He wrapped a bed sheet around himself and went to the
door. When law officers brought him out of the house, they stripped
him of the sheet he was covering himself with, revealing his nakedness
in front of bright lights and television cameras.

"Kids and everybody were outside," Brookins says. "Every corner you
looked at they (law enforcement officers) were running into houses."
Now 26, Brookins spent 31/2 years in prison for something he didn't
do. On the jury were people who'd known him since he was a child.
"Everyone in the jury, I knew," he says. "One guy was my basketball
coach when I was a kid. I spent the night at his house, even as a
teenager. His boys have spent the night with me. This man knew me, and
he still convicted me."

Inside Rip's Country Grill, Brookins walks by an older white man who
shakes his hand and talks to him for a couple of minutes. "That's
Darrell Stapp," he says. "He's good people."

Near the Swisher County Archives and Museum on Southwest Second
Street, I met a white woman who'd served on one of the juries. She
says she reluctantly voted to convict one of the defendants. But that
was before she knew about Coleman's duplicitous and criminal past.

"I'll never serve on a jury again," she says, not wanting her name
used. "Not if it's going to hurt people."

Alan Bean, a Methodist minister in Tulia who helped publicize the
plight of the "Tulia 46," believes that once the hurt caused by the
sting operation is acknowledged, the town can move forward.

"Anytime that you can get people on both sides of the issue to sit
down at the table, it's positive," says Bean, referring to
conversations now taking place. "If we can change the economic
development instead of who was right and wrong about Coleman, we're
putting it behind us."

In the Jasper City Cemetery, the grave of James Byrd Jr. has a
metallic tomb in which someone, an entire town even, can see his or
her reflection.

There is no similar monument in Tulia on which people can pause to
reflect, only the faces of living men and women and the pain they're
trying to get over. It's only when all of Tulia's citizens see each
other and the promise of a future together that they'll bridge that

When that's done, it will no longer be symbolic that the Statue of
Liberty standing in front of Liberty Suites has her back to the town.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin