Sunday, January 09, 2005

Lesson from Tulia: Treatment not incarceration

Grits guest blogger Rev. Alan Bean, a long-time activist with Tulia Friends of Justice, was quoted in this Fort Worth Star Telegram story today about Tom Coleman's perjury trial. Expanding on his comments, Alan describes the nature of Coleman's drug cases in Tulia, and the modus operandi sounds eerily similar to what happened recently to 72 black defendants in Palestine. This is part two of Alan's series blogging from the Tom Coleman perjury trial.

Talk to most police officers, district attorneys, probation officers and judges and you get a cynical assessment of America’s war on drugs. These people know they aren’t making the slightest dent in the drug trade. But when District Attorney Terry McEachern told Tulia jurors that stiff sentences were a giant step in the direction of a drug-free community he was taken seriously. Jurors decided that if they were going to send a message it should be the strongest message possible.

A big drug bust in a small town gets very personal. Most Tulia jurors recognized many of the sting defendants from the sports page of the Tulia Herald and the Kleenex box made regular rounds of the jury room in the course of eight trials. "What if the defendant was my kid, or yours?" jurors asked one other. Then they handed down the longest sentences the law allowed. It was dirty work, but somebody had to do it. Many jurors were sick for days when the trial was over.

Swisher County Judge Harold Keeter recently told Bill Hanna of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Tulia has "a substance abuse problem" just like every other community in Texas. He’s right, of course; but are long prison sentences the answer?

Friends of Justice President Thelma Johnson told Mr. Hanna that Tulia didn’t have forty-six drug dealers. Anyone who understands the economics of the drug trade would agree with Thelma’s assessment. But no one in Tulia was accused of being a drug dealer; they were accused of selling drugs to undercover agent Tom Coleman. "Here’s forty dollars," Coleman would say, "get me a twenty rock and keep twenty dollars for yourself." Drug warriors assume that only a genuine drug dealer would fall for a pitch like that. The simple fact is that people who liver in communities where drugs are plentiful and jobs are in short supply would have to think twice before turning down easy money. The Tulia drug sting, like every phase of America’s drug war, was driven by poverty and desperation.

Tom Coleman’s logged 132 separate buys on 46 people over an eighteen-month period and the dim-witted gypsy cop was soon lost in a blizzard of details. I don’t blame Freddie Brookins Jr. for wanting to see Mr. Coleman pay the price for his sins. I’d feel the same way if Coleman had faked a case on me. But Coleman isn’t the first cop to lie on the witness stand and he certainly won’t be the last. Tom is just another pawn in a cynical game, a symptom of a disease they call the drug war.

Some problems can’t be solved, they can only be managed. The first step to managing America’s drug problem is to quit investing in naves like Tom Coleman and to start investing in serious drug rehabilitation programs. My media mantra at the Tom Coleman trial will consist of three simple words: Treatment not incarceration.

Alan Bean,
Tulia, Texas

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