Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town

Nate Blakeslee. <i>PublicAffairs. $26.</i>


Investigative journalist Nate Blakeslee’s tale of an infamously crooked cocaine sting has plenty of villains. The most prominent is Tom Coleman, the rogue police officer whose uncorroborated testimony led to the arrest of 46 people in Tulia, Texas, in 1999—most of them black and most of them innocent. Also sharing the blame in Tulia are unscrupulous county officials, a hanging judge, and gullible white juries infected by small-town racism and swayed by the overheated rhetoric of the war on drugs.

Working undercover, without witnesses or a wire, Coleman, by his own account, made more than 120 purchases of powder cocaine—odd in itself, considering that crack was the drug of choice in Tulia’s less-than-prosperous black community. His bust led to 38 drug-dealing convictions in a town with a population of only 5,000. Most resulted in long prison sentences—up to 434 years—before the tide turned. Blakeslee, an editor at the Texas Observer, broke the story of Coleman’s checkered past, including an arrest for theft and allegations of dishonesty, paranoia, and domestic violence. But in Tulia he also credits the phalanx of appellate attorneys who rode to the rescue, eventually winning the release of most of the defendants and a substantial civil settlement as well.

Blakeslee’s prose is crystalline, but there are so many characters in Tulia—scoundrels, victims, and heroes—that sometimes it’s hard to keep the story straight. The flashback-heavy narrative, at once intimate and panoramic, can be a slog. In the end, though, Blakeslee’s portrait of Tulia—a place where white and black live side by side but separately and warily—is indelible.

OUR NEW CORRUPTION PROJECT

The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate