Make time for Tulia, Texas tonight

By Julianne Hing Feb 10, 2009

(photo credit: Ryan Anson) Tulia, Texas is airing on PBS stations across the country tonight, and you need to see this documentary. In the summer of 1999 the small backwater Texas town grabbed headlines after an undercover drug operation staffed by a lone cop nabbed 46 coke dealers in the town of 5,000. The officer, Tom Coleman, allegedly made over a hundred drug buys during his undercover stint as “TJ Dawson,” a gun-toting, mullet-sporting, “kick ass, drive fast,” (his words, not mine) kind of guy. Tulia had been struggling with a drug problem but seemed to be rallying back. The eight people who decided to fight their charges were all convicted and handed prison sentences of 25, 60, 99 years. "It felt good. It was time to make our mark," said Coleman. The townspeople were positively giddy. Seems almost unreal, doesn’t it? Turns out it actually was unreal; many of the alleged drug deals Coleman recorded were completely fabricated. Worst yet, Coleman, with the willing cooperation of all-white juries, targeted the town’s Black community for this operation. Of the forty-six indicted, 39 were black. One in three of Tulia’s Black men was arrested. “They almost got every last one of us locked up,” said one defendant. A few defendants were able to show time sheets from work and deposit slips from bank transactions they’d made while they were out of town while their supposed drug deals were made, but the vast majority of the arrested were convicted solely on Coleman’s testimony against them. A legal battle ensued, and a team of investigative reporters and legal researchers uncovered more to the story than star cop Coleman (who sips from a Phantom of the Opera mug during his interviews, natch) has bothered to share. Watch the film to see the machinations of a desperate, underfunded small-town police department capitalizing on Reagan era drug laws, and the fight for vindication and justice in the face of corruption and systemic racism. It’ll be worth your hour tonight.