HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Freedom Ride Hits Tulia
Pubdate: Mon, 23 Jul 2001
Source: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (TX)
Section: Front page
Copyright: 2001 The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Author: Dirk Fillpot
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


On Anniversary Of Drug Bust, Town Keeps Up Cry For Justice

TULIA - About 300 people helped celebrate an anniversary Sunday for Billy 

Wafer was among 43 people - 40 of whom are black - arrested July 23, 1999, 
during a drug sting operation that has been widely contested as illegal and 
a violation of civil rights.

The 7th Court of Appeals in Amarillo dismissed the drug charge against 
Wafer in January.

"It's an extraordinary moment for Swisher County. It's amazing," he said. 
"We're celebrating that we were able to make an impact on the world out of 
our misfortune."

Friends of Justice, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union 
organized a Freedom Ride, which began Saturday night in Austin and carried 
civil rights leaders, drug police reform activists and victims of the drug 
war to Tulia. The ride included a stop at the prison near Plainview where 
one of the defendants is imprisoned.

People listened to music and poetry readings, played basketball and ate 
hamburgers and hot dogs as they waited for the speakers to take the stage. 
The rally was to conclude with an 11 p.m. march to the Swisher County 
Courthouse for a candlelight vigil.

The rally was peaceful Sunday afternoon. Police occasionally circled the 
block, and about 35 officers, including a Department of Public Safety riot 
team, waited at police headquarters.

Charles Kiker, treasurer of the Tulia organization Friends of Justice, said 
the 1999 sting operation in his town exemplifies why the country's war on 
drugs is misdirected.

"Tulia is an extreme example, but it's not atypical. The war on drugs all 
over the country is a war on poor people, and that tends to be people of 
color," Kiker said.

Amid the controversy following the operation, the town formed a chapter of 
the NAACP.

"This gathering hopefully will open people's eyes to the war on drugs. The 
problem with the war on drugs is that officers don't need corroboration," 
said Freddie Brookins, president of the Tulia NAACP chapter.

"It's been happening throughout America, but until the sting operation here 
in Tulia, they were able to cover it up. The operation here took so many 
where it causes you to stop and look at it and see what the real picture is."

Brookins' youngest son was among the 43 people arrested during the sting 
and is sitting out a 20-year sentence. Brookins has doubts, however, about 
whether his son committed the crime.

"My son wasn't in town when the officer stated he sold him the drugs," he said.

The 1999 arrests were based on an 18-month undercover investigation by 
officer Tom Coleman, who worked alone and used no surveillance equipment.

A lawsuit has been filed against Coleman, Swisher County Sheriff Larry 
Stewart and Swisher County. The suit alleges that officers "conspired to 
carry out Swisher County's policy to eliminate the county's 
African-American population."

Coleman, who was honored as Outstanding Lawman of the Year following the 
bust and currently resides near Waxahachie, declined comment Friday.

The sheriff and Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern, who 
prosecuted the cases, have denied allegations of racial bias.

The U.S. Justice Department is conducting an investigation into the 
undercover operation. An FBI agent based in Amarillo said Friday that the 
investigation could wrap up in about a month.

Ezra Teter, 22, took the Freedom Ride from Austin to attend the rally and 
to learn more about the bust. He said he sides with those who challenge 
Coleman's investigation.

"I think that he is the perpetrator of everything," he said. "I'm furious 
the U.S. appeals court hasn't thrown out all of the sentences from the 
sting operation."

Wafer filed a civil rights suit claiming racial discrimination led to the 
arrests. Officials in Tulia have defended the sting operation. The lawsuit 
remains pending.

Teter said he disapproves of the country's war on drugs, of which his 
father, imprisoned several times for drug offenses, is a victim.

"I don't like the fact that they're taking my dad, who's an addict, and 
putting him in jail. I think he should be treated as an addict, not a 
criminal," he said.

Some audience members advertised different viewpoints on the drug issue, 
but Brookins said they all had something in common.

"We know that the drug war needs reforming," he said.
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