There’s so much going on in our country, for good or ill, that you can always find a news item to illustrate a point. Blender ravenscrafte contributed an incredible comment in a thread yesterday that included the statements “I really am starting to resent this “Of Color” nonsense” and “let’s drop the whole people of color thing can we please?” and “I see very little use in always harping on “color” as though it somehow makes some people different.”

Well, friend, don’t we all wish that color didn’t make a difference. From Tenaha, Texas, a story about the literal price of driving while black.

You can drive into this dusty fleck of a town near the Texas-Louisiana state line if you’re African American, but you might not be able to drive out of it — at least not with your car, your cash, your jewelry or other valuables.

That’s because the police here allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: Sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.

More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, Ohio, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with or convicted of any crime.

This is a lengthy piece, and it turns your stomach; it’s worth the click over. Nacogdoches attorney David Guillory filed the federal lawsuit, and in his investigation of Shelby County court records he found nearly 200 cases of the Tehana cops seizing property of drivers after a pullover. While about 50 resulted in drug charges, for the others, it appears there was a police shakedown occurring for questionable charges.

But in 147 others, Guillory said the court records showed, the police seized cash, jewelry, cellphones and sometimes even automobiles from motorists but never found any contraband or charged them with any crime. Of those, Guillory said he managed to contact 40 of the motorists directly — and discovered that all but one of them were black.

“The whole thing is disproportionately targeted toward minorities, particularly African Americans,” Guillory said. “Every one of these people is pulled over and told they did something, like, ‘You drove too close to the white line.’ That’s not in the penal code, but it sounds plausible. None of these people have been charged with a crime; none were engaged in anything that looked criminal. The sole factor is that they had something that looked valuable.”

More at the San Antonio Express-News, and you have to read the comments there. I love this defense by the mayor of Tenaha, btw — it’s one for the ages.

Tenaha Mayor George Bowers, 80, defended the seizures, saying they allowed a cash-poor city the means to add a second police car in a two-policeman town and help pay for a new police station.

It’s always helpful to have any kind of income to expand your police force,” Bowers said.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding