Independent Lens: Tulia, TX

Tue, 02/10/2009 - 10:00pm

The Tulia defendants arrive for the evidentiary hearing.

Andrew Lichtenstein/ITVS

A product of the nation’s “war on drugs,” narcotics agent Tom Coleman was hired to work undercover in a now-infamous drug sting operation in Tulia, Texas. On July 23, 1999, Coleman executed one of the biggest drug busts in Texas history; by the end of that blazing summer day, dozens of residents of the small farming town of Tulia had been rounded up and thrown behind bars. Thirty-nine of the 46 people accused of selling drugs to Coleman were African American. Independent Lens: Tulia, Texas airs Tuesday, February 10 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

Named “Texas Lawman of the Year” for his investigation, Coleman’s arrests led to quick trials and severe sentences. But it soon became clear that there was more to Coleman than met the eye, and revelations came forward calling into question many of the arrests. Later, as lawyers fought to clear the names of the victims and residents of Tulia joined forces to tackle prejudice within their community, another story emerged.

Coleman, the son of a legendary Texas Ranger, worked the Tulia operation alone and never used surveillance equipment. The Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force and Swisher County sheriff Larry Stewart together hired and supervised Coleman; the funding came from a federal grant program conceived at the height of the drug wars in the late 1980s that empowered communities across the country to hire freelance agents like Coleman. Although the arrests in Tulia devastated much of the black community, many in the white community applauded Coleman for “cleaning up the town.” When his supervisors learned that Coleman himself was wanted by the police, they kept the information quiet.

With its gripping story told through interviews with the accused, Coleman, and the police officers, jurors, lawyers, families, and activists involved, Tulia, Texas takes you from the personal to the political and back again. The film explores how one part of the community consented to systematic prejudice while another was unwilling to sit back quietly as their neighbors were victimized by one overzealous rogue drug agent and the culture that celebrated him. Tulia, Texas tells the story of a small town’s search for justice and explores how the war on drugs actually plays out in communities across the country.

Get a complete schedule of Black History Month programming from WXXI.