Tulia's Freedom Ride
'Never Again!' Rally Keeps Drug War Spotlight on Panhandle Town
For James Ray Barrow, the strangers who poured off the buses from Austin into Tulia's tiny Conner Park weren't just idealistic protesters. They were "a blessing from God."
Perhaps that's why Barrow, who was charged two years ago in the now-infamous Tulia drug bust that jailed 10% of the town's black population, was one of several local residents on hand hours before the "Never Again!" rally was scheduled to begin. He believes that the attention of outsiders could be the only chance for him -- and the others arrested solely on the word of one man -- to get the justice they feel they deserve.
Barrow's story is similar to many of the others in this down-and-out Panhandle town that's as hot as it is small. When he learned that undercover agent Tom Coleman had fingered him for allegedly selling cocaine on two separate occasions, Barrow was puzzled and ready to go to trial. But after watching other defendants get multidecade sentences, he decided to make a deal, accepting 10 years of probation. Barrow may have escaped prison time, but he lives with the stigma of the drug bust every single day.
"People you have been raised with here now look at you funny," Barrow explained without a trace of emotion. And those neighbors have made it impossible for Barrow to find steady work. Instead, he hauls bales of hay, weighing as much as 100 pounds each, at a nickel apiece. For a day's work, Barrow, who is in his early thirties, said he usually nets less than $20. He said he never really had problems in high school, where he was a star athlete. But since then, "I'm just a piece of trash to them."
Barrow said he stayed in Tulia because of his elderly mother, but he worries about the racism his children might encounter.
Stories like these are what made about 80 Austinites and others meet at Crockett High School Saturday night to ride buses hundreds of miles, in the style of the Sixties freedom rides across the South, to show their support for those targeted in the 1999 drug bust. Like Barrow, Darlene Grant, an associate professor of social work at UT, worries about the children of those arrested. She decided to spend her 41st birthday taking a bus for 10 hours from Austin to Tulia because she wanted to make sure the children were doing okay, and, "I want to hear it from the kids themselves."
Grant and other riders shared their reasons for making the trip in a quiet park in Lubbock, where the group stopped Sunday morning for breakfast, discussion, and a press conference before continuing to Tulia. As they told their stories, they seemed to come from very different worlds. There was the legalize drugs/abolish prisons crowd, the filmmaker group, and even some who had been personally affected by the drug war. Nearly every activist group imaginable -- from the Travis County Green Party to Copwatch to the Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty -- was represented. And some riders had traveled from as far away as D.C. and Los Angeles to meet in Austin for the trip.
After early-morning peanut butter sandwiches and an impromptu squirt-gun fight, the riders got back on the bus to head to Plainview, site of the state's J.B. Wheeler Unit Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, where they waved signs with messages such as "Education not incarceration" and "How many black people do we have to put in jail before we get white people to stop using drugs?" at incoming guards and visitors. Other protesters joined the bus riders to "let prisoners know that the world is watching and let the families know that people care about them," said Karen Byars, who was representing the group Human Rights in the Drug War. After about an hour's vigil, the riders turned toward Tulia.
In the middle of Conner Park is a sheltered area that the Tulia-based Friends of Justice had prepared for the Sunday evening rally. A crowd of about 300 people -- a mix of black Tulia residents, mostly white activists, and interested folks from around the Panhandle -- sat on makeshift, cinder-block-and-plywood benches for a rally that would feature more than five hours of speakers, singers, and performers.
'A Pattern of Racism'
Despite the somber subject, the rally had aspects of a neighborhood carnival: The NAACP members grilled burgers, local residents sold snowballs, and one man even sold glow necklaces. Libertarians passed out promotional materials promising to end the drug war, and educational displays featured photos of people outside Tulia who were arrested for drug-related offenses. A retired policeman rode a horse around the small park, wearing a shirt declaring that most cops favor legalizing marijuana. In many ways the rally was as much against the drug war -- especially the criminalization of narcotics -- as it was in support of those affected by the Tulia drug sting.
While only a handful of the bus riders sat through the entire rally, many of the Tulia residents -- including some targeted in the 1999 sting -- did. What they heard was an interesting, if lengthy, mix of revival-style preaching and drug legalization speeches.
Will Harrell, executive director of Texas American Civil Liberties Union, announced that the ACLU has asked Attorney General John Cornyn to investigate the cases involving agent Tom Coleman, Sheriff Larry Stewart, and Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern. He accused them of being part of "a pattern of racism and denial of other due processes." The ACLU has filed an ethics complaint against McEachern with the Texas Bar Association, charging that the district attorney violated ethical standards with inappropriate pretrial publicity. (McEachern did not return Chronicle phone calls, but he has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and voiced his support for the sting.)
Dorothy Gaines, a nonviolent drug offender who was granted clemency in December by President Bill Clinton, said that she was sent to prison after she refused to testify against an associate of her ex-husband who was being investigated on drug charges. Gaines told the families of those arrested that she never gave up her innocence or her trust in God, and urged them to do likewise.
The most emotionally wrenching words came not from the official speakers, but from Tulia residents. Kenneth Ray Powell, a soft-spoken man in his early forties who was indicted in the Tulia sting, said it was his first time in trouble with the law. He was accused of five separate deliveries of cocaine to Coleman. Powell has admitted he was using drugs, but insists he did not sell them. Still, like Barrow, he made a deal with prosecutors. Since the sting, he's gotten clean, but said he has trouble finding work and is trying to scrape together enough money to move away from Tulia. "Before, I didn't have no trouble finding a job," Powell said. "For once in my life, I want to do something right and I can't."
Tamara Barrow had four in-laws indicted in the wake of the drug bust. Barrow said life in Tulia for black residents not directly involved can be difficult as well. "Everything is segregated here," she said. "You can't go to the park or the store because if you do [the police] follow you around and say you're neglecting your kids or selling drugs."
While Tulia's dusty streets were nearly empty during the rally, residents who chose to observe the events from their home across the street seemed a bit taken aback by the spectacle.
"Nothing like this has ever happened here," said Elva Flores, whose family moved to Tulia in 1949. Her sister Lorene Frausto said the women didn't quite know what to expect from the busloads of strangers rallying in their town. "We're just trying to listen and see what's going on," she said. "We have friends on both sides."
Both Frausto and Flores said they were concerned about drugs in their community, and said they supported efforts to clean up the town. But both were quick to point out that it is important for law enforcement officials to move beyond just the black community. Frausto said it was possible that those arrested were dealers, but said "I believe that there is probably that many in every race."
The rally finally ended near midnight, with a moving speech by the Reverend Edwin Sanders, founder of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church of Nashville, about turning the arrests into a positive movement. Candles were distributed and a several-block march to the Swisher County Courthouse commenced. Harrell, joined by an NAACP representative, Austin bus riders, and members of Friends of Justice, led the group singing "We Shall Overcome."
Billy Wafer, whose charge of cocaine delivery was dismissed by an Appeals Court in January after he provided time cards to prove that he was at work during the time the deals were allegedly set up, said he hopes that spirit of overcoming can reach those still in jail. "I can only hope those incarcerated see pictures [of the rally] and hold on," Wafer said. "It may take a lot of work, but it's going to happen."