Tulia Blues


TULIA, TEXAS—Only a few years ago, Mattie White liked to sit on the front porch of her one-story house. In the park across the street, young people played basketball and hung out on the swings, their shouts echoing through the neighborhood. These days, though, Conner Park is quiet. Many of the people who once gathered there are now in prison.

In Tulia, a dry town without a bar or nightclub, Conner Park was a favorite hangout for the town’s black youth. Today, it has become a symbol of the community’s devastation. For Mattie and many others, the park is a lonely sight, a constant reminder of all the friends, neighbors, and relatives who are gone.

Early on the morning of July 23, 1999, cops burst into homes all over this tiny town in the Texas panhandle. Forty-six people—a few whites and almost half the town’s black adult population—were indicted for drug trafficking. Dozens of children became virtual orphans as their parents were hauled to jail. In the coming months, 19 people would be shipped to state prison, some with sentences of 20, 60, or even 99 years.

The last trial ended in the fall of 2000, but this chapter in Tulia history has certainly not closed. Ever since the arrests, prisoners’ relatives and friends have been struggling with the aftermath: destroyed families, traumatized children, townspeople’s cold stares. The ripple effects of a large drug bust may be the same everywhere, but they are especially apparent in a small town, where there is none of the frenzy of urban life to hide the damage.

Mattie, a 50-year-old mother of six, was never accused of selling drugs, but she too has been punished. The undercover drug operation snared her two sons, one daughter, one brother-in-law, two nephews, one son-in-law, one niece, and two cousins. Now Mattie struggles to raise her daughter’s two children and juggle two jobs, including one as a prison guard. (Her ex-husband took in a few other grandchildren.) About the undercover drug operation, Mattie says, “It has made my life miserable. My whole world seems like it fell down on me.”

Drive 45 minutes south of Amarillo, Texas, and you’ll arrive in Tulia (pop. 5117), where a billboard welcomes visitors to the town with “the Richest Land and the Finest People.” Perhaps a more accurate description these days would be “the Driest Land and the Most Divided People.”

Tulia has the feel of a ghost town. Most of the parking spaces downtown are empty and nearly all the fields are brown. Like many rural farming towns, Tulia has been ailing for years. Farmers who received federal subsidies survived, but the poorer residents, including most of the black population, were hard hit. Farmhand jobs disappeared. Two of the main employers for blacks are a meatpacking plant and a Wal-Mart distribution center, both located in a small city 22 miles away. Working there requires a car, which many people here do not own.

In some ways, the civil rights era seems to have never quite reached Tulia. Poor blacks here live in trailers and subsidized houses in

“Sunset Addition,” a neighborhood on the west side that some people still call “Niggertown.” Once an almost all-white town, Tulia is now 51 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent black.

Cocaine has been readily available here for years, as it has been across the rural South. But over the last year, Tulia has emerged as a hotbed of drug-war politics. Activists point to the situation in Tulia as a perfect example of all that is wrong with the war on drugs—from dubious police tactics to ultra-stiff prison sentences to shattered families.

How could such a small, impoverished town possibly support 46 drug dealers? The answer appears to have nothing to do with uncovering a well-organized drug ring and everything to do with a narcotics agent named Tom Coleman. The undercover agent spent 18 months infiltrating the black community here, and the entire drug bust was built on his undercover work. There were no wiretaps, no surveillance photos, and virtually no secondary witnesses. The morning that cops barged into the suspects’ homes, they found no weapons, money, or drugs.

Questions about Coleman’s credibility have been buzzing along Tulia’s grapevine ever since. The black community here insists that Coleman targeted its members, setting up small-time users and fabricating evidence against others. Some defendants charged with selling Coleman drugs said they did not know him. In one case, the agent said he was not certain whether a defendant actually sold him cocaine. The charges against that man were dropped.

While he was working undercover in Tulia, Coleman himself was arrested. The sheriff at a police department where he’d previously worked filed charges of theft and issued an arrest warrant in 1998, after Coleman disappeared mid shift and never returned, leaving behind a pile of debts and a police car parked next to his house. Coleman paid back the money after he was arrested. He did not spend a night in jail. (The NAACP is planning to try to get Coleman indicted for perjury based on a statement he made about his past during a court hearing.)

None of these incidents curbed the Swisher County district attorney’s enthusiasm for prosecuting Coleman’s cases. Over the next year, Mattie and many others spent hours pacing the corridor of the town courthouse. Mattie’s three children decided to go to trial; not one of their jurors was black. Mattie knew many of the jurors, including a few who had played with her on a town softball team. In the end, all three juries voted to convict her children. Of the eight defendants who did not plead guilty and instead went to trial, everyone was found guilty.

Shortly after the arrests, The Tulia Sentinel ran a story on its front page with the headline “Tulia’s Streets Cleared of Garbage.” A reader skimming the newspaper might have thought the article had something to do with local sanitation efforts. In fact, the first paragraph stated that the arrests of the town’s “known” drug dealers “had cleared away some of the garbage off Tulia’s streets.”

The first of Mattie’s children to go on trial was 30-year-old Donnie Smith, a former Tulia High football star who briefly attended a local college. Afterward, for several years, he battled a crack habit and eventually went to rehab. By the time of his arrest, he had been clean for six months. During his trial in March 2000, Donnie admitted to smoking crack, but said he was not a dealer. The jury disagreed, convicting him of delivering three-fifths of a gram of crack. He received a two-year sentence.

Donnie still faced charges of delivering cocaine on six other occasions. He insisted he was innocent—these charges involved powder cocaine, which Donnie said he did not use—but he decided to accept a plea bargain to avoid the sort of lengthy sentences other defendants received. In return, Donnie got 12 years.

Donnie’s 24-year-old sister Kizzie might have expected to receive a mild punishment, since she had no felony record. During a two-day trial in April 2000, Coleman testified that he had bought cocaine from Kizzie seven times. The jury gave her a 25-year prison sentence. Five months later, another jury convicted her brother Kareem Abdul Jabbar White, whom everyone calls “Creamy,” of delivering one eight-ball of cocaine (about $200 worth). Because he had a prior felony, 25-year-old Creamy got 60 years.

To Mattie, it seemed the motives of the sheriff, the prosecutor, and the undercover agent had less to do with shrinking the town’s drug supply than with shrinking the size of Tulia’s black population. “They don’t want no black people in this town,” she says. “I don’t care what nobody says. If I put a [for sale] sign in my yard tomorrow and . . . all the rest of these black families [did], they would be the happiest people in the world. They’re seeing colors. They’re not seeing that we’re human just like they are.”

District Attorney Terry D. McEachern, who stands behind Coleman’s investigation, denies racism motivated the arrests. “Nobody was targeted that I was aware of,” he says. The prosecutor contends that once Coleman, who is white, befriended a few members of Tulia’s black community, he could not penetrate the town’s other ethnic groups. “Some of my best friends are blacks,” McEachern says. “I feel sadness for the families of everybody that has to go to the penitentiary because it puts them through pain, but the person who goes to the penitentiary made a choice to commit a crime, and so they must pay for their choice.”

On a recent afternoon, Mattie did what she has been doing for weeks. She lay on the flowered sofa in her dark living room, propped her sock-covered feet on a pillow, and watched The Young and the Restless. Seven weeks ago, a surgeon operated on both feet to remove bone spurs and bunions. Her doctor told her she would heal by now. But every time she hobbles to the front door to check on her grandchildren outside, the pain returns.

The morning that Mattie’s three children were arrested, she was in class, learning how to be a prison guard. Since she was a teenager, she has always worked two or three jobs at a time—picking cotton in the fields, pressing pants at a Levi’s factory, selling insurance policies, fixing radios, styling hair. Once she became a prison guard, Mattie hoped to get by on just one paycheck.

Mattie has been supervising prisoners for two years, and she has few complaints. “I love my job,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.” The average per-capita income in Tulia is $9113; Mattie earns more than twice that amount. About her children, Mattie says, “They were proud of me being a guard. If they hadn’t got in trouble, I imagine all of them probably would’ve gone to school to be a guard.”

The promise of paying her bills with one employer vanished after Kizzie’s children moved in. Supporting seven-year-old Roneisha and four-year-old Cashawn meant that Mattie had to get a part-time job too, this time as a home health aide. Now her workday begins at 8 a.m. and ends after 10 p.m. Still, Mattie is deep in debt. Behind on her mortgage payments, she worries she may lose her four-bedroom home.

When someone goes to prison, the family left behind often suffers financially, charged with a slew of unofficial taxes. Mattie’s phone bills soared to $500 a month with all the collect calls she was receiving from prison. Whenever she can, she tries to send her children money to get shorts (the prison only provides long pants), buy food from the commissary, go to the doctor (each visit costs $3), and purchase shoes when theirs wear out. Better than most prisoners’ mothers, Mattie knows what inmates need to get by. “Ten or 20 dollars a month is really not enough,” she says.

Each of Mattie’s three children is in a different prison, so seeing them requires gas money and plenty of stamina. Kizzie is the farthest away, at a prison in Gatesville. Visiting her means driving eight hours for a four-hour visit, then turning around and driving another eight hours home. She cannot afford a motel, or she would spend the night and visit Kizzie for two days in a row. Donnie and Creamy are closer. If Mattie leaves around 3 a.m., she can squeeze in visits with both sons in one day.

Sometimes Mattie takes her grandchildren along on these car trips, but the ride home is never fun. “I try to hold myself up for them,” she says. “I try not to cry because it makes them cry.”

Mattie has noticed a change in the children since their parents went to prison. Cashawn, especially, has not coped well. He cries in school and is sometimes mean to other children. “He’s not a bad little boy,” Mattie says. “He likes to play. But when they make him mad, he’ll kick one of them. You can’t tell him nothing.”

She rarely talks to the children about their mother because the subject makes everyone too sad. Instead, she just says, “I’ll be glad when your mama comes home.”

Mattie is hardly the only grandparent in Tulia buckling under the burden of raising young children. Her ex-husband, Rickey, a 50-year-old machinist, lives nearby in a three-bedroom trailer. Rickey’s girlfriend was locked up in the same drug bust. Now he and a daughter-in-law are raising six grandchildren.

Mattie tries to stay strong by reading the Bible and going to church. Across the computer monitor in her dining room, a screen saver flashes, announcing “Jesus Will Fix It, He Is Always on Time.” “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do none of that stuff,” Mattie says. “I work, I go home, and I go to church. Jesus is the only drug I take.”

Over the last two years, a small group has started in Tulia on behalf of the people who were arrested. Mattie joined the organization, Friends of Justice, which is run by a white minister’s family. On the night of July 22, Mattie, Rickey, their grandchildren, and 200 other people gathered at Conner Park across from Mattie’s house for a rally put together by the organization. The event coincided with the second anniversary of the drug bust.

Preachers, farmers, and lawyers joined prisoners’ families to eat hamburgers and listen to speakers. Two busloads of activists arrived from Austin. Five mothers of drug prisoners flew in from New York City. Parked along the edge of the park, a police officer in a patrol car monitored the action, a video camera mounted on his rearview mirror.

The six-hour event featured several rounds of “This Land Is Your Land,” led by a minister strumming a guitar. Many people wore T-shirts listing the names of all the defendants. A yellow banner hanging behind the makeshift wooden stage proclaimed “Never Again. Not in Tulia. Not Anywhere.” The event ended with a midnight march to the courthouse.

The rally temporarily boosted Mattie’s spirits, but now she is back where she was in the days leading up the event, her feet resting atop pillows, wondering when she will be able to return to work. “Sometimes I be so tired that I just be wanting to give up,” Mattie says. “But I say, ‘No, I just got to go on a little bit farther. I’ll be OK.’ “

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 31, 2001

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