WFYI airs 'Tulia, Texas' 

For those who think we're living in a post-racial nation, I can refute your belief in two words: Tulia, Texas.

That's both the name of a town and a new Independent Lens film that examines what happened when the white power structure hired a rogue cop who arrested and helped convict more than three dozen black citizens on trumped up charges of dealing drugs.

It's an appalling story made worse by the law enforcement officials and townspeople who refused to apologize for sending innocent people to prison.

What happened was this: In the late 1990s, facing a worrisome drug problem, Tulia hired an undercover agent named Tom Coleman. For 18 months, he took on the identity of T.J. Dawson, a hard-charging partier who liked fast cars and cocaine.

Then, in 1999, he spearheaded the arrests of 46 people - 39 of them black - from whom he claimed to have bought cocaine. The law allows jurors to convict a defendant based solely on the word of one lawman, and that's what happened here - even though some people had seemingly airtight alibis, some supposedly sold Coleman/Dawson coke on days he wasn't even working and some couldn't have been the people who were described in the arrest warrants.

Jurors rammed through convictions, and the defendants who didn't plead guilty were given sentences as long as 99 years for allegedly selling slightly more than a gram of cocaine.

Fortunately, some people in the community recognized that injustice was being served. The most important of those was a lawyer who approached Jeff Blackburn, a defense attorney in nearby Amarillo. He pointed out to Blackburn the mistreatment of the defendants, the harsh sentences and alleged errors in Coleman's work.

Blackburn assembled a team of investigators, and Coleman's work slowly began to unravel.

The Tulia scandal received national attention when the defendants were cleared in 2003, so Tulia, Texas isn't an exposé. Rather, independent producers Cassandra Herrman and Kelly Whalen have used the luxury of time to tell the entire story - from the hiring of Coleman through the townspeople's reactions.

That's where their film truly shines - when they talk to average Tulians. We're told that the initial arrests didn't curb Tulia's drug problems, but that doesn't appear to matter to some locals. "I think they'll be back in jail for another crime within the year," one says.

They're black, so they must be guilty of something? That kind of blatant racism is just breathtaking.

We may have a black president, but as this film shows, racism is hardly a thing of the past. And as we know, Texas did not vote for Barack Obama.

More information about the film is available at

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