(the following article was originally posted on the "Support Chuck Turner" blog)
Reflections from Behind the Wall:
Topic: Anatomy of A FRAME UP!
This is the first installment in an eight part series in which I
discuss my two and a half year experience with the Justice Department
that has led to my being a convicted felon at the work camp at USP
Hazelton, Bruceton Mills, West Virginia.
Installment 1: A Lifetime of Service
My first reaction was that I was dreaming; no, I was having a
nightmare but I couldn’t wake up. After a lifetime of fighting for
justice, I was in handcuffs being led out of City Hall. I didn’t even
know what I was being accused of. Later, it became all too clear, not
only from the prosecutor describing me as a corrupt politician but
also from the newspaper headlines the next morning screaming that I
had been indicted for conspiracy to extort money from a local
community business man and lying about it to the FBI.
How could this happen? I knew I hadn’t done what they said but there
were the camera trucks in front of our house. Reporters knocking at
the door, urging me to talk to them as if it was my responsibility to
answer their questions. Sure, they were just doing their job but they
were part of an establishment that I had been fighting for decades.
Yet, here they were ridiculing me, mocking me, gloating over my
alleged hypocrisy. I felt like Alice in Wonderful and I had no idea
how to get out of the rabbit hole.
The situation was totally absurd. Just eighteen months ago I had
declared my intention to launch a Peace and Prosperity Campaign. I had
said to my constituents that after eight years in office, I was
convinced that we needed to revise our strategy. It was not enough to
organize and fight against the external forces of oppression, those
who believed they had the right to abuse us. It was not enough to use
the City Council process to establish new laws and regulations. We had
to recognize that we had to do for self. We had to be the source of
our strength and development.
We had to recognize, I said, that through our own individual and
collective actions we had to create the foundation for the future that
we needed and desired not only for ourselves but also for our children
and their children’s children. I argued that we needed to recognize
that the prosperity that we hungered for as a community and
individually could only be realized by establishing peace in our
community and dedicating ourselves to using our talents and resources
to regenerate ourselves. I said we needed a Campaign for Peace and
Prosperity. We needed to put into action a pledge to constantly work
to develop ourselves and our community. There was even a motto, “Do No
I wondered what would be the questions in the minds of people who had
heard and remembered my call. What would be the thoughts of those who
had slowly begun to get involved in the strategy I was urging? While I
was trusted in the community that I had lived and worked in for over
forty years, how would they withstand the media bombardment. How would
they resist the accusations that their Councilor was an extortionist,
conspiring with our first female black state senator to extort money
from a local businessman, attempting to get a liquor license for a
club that he planned to open in the community’s new and first hotel.
What could I say to my constituents that could allay their fears and
doubts? How could I convince them that I was not a hypocrite? I knew I
was innocent but I also knew that the constant barrage of convicting
information would make even those close to me wonder what had
happened. At least, I knew that eventually the truth would come out
and I would be able to laugh at what a horrible mistake had been made.
I hadn’t done what they said so how could I be convicted. Even the
FBI’s affidavit was full of holes that would allow my lawyer to
quickly end the nightmare.
Yet, today 31 months after my arrest, I am an inmate at the Hazelton
Federal Prison work camp in the mountains of West Virginia. I am
ending the third month of my 36 month sentence. Despite my optimism
that the truth would come out; despite the fact that the U.S.
Attorney’s Cooperating Witness said in the Boston Globe 6 months after
my arrest that as far as he was concerned I was innocent, naive but
innocent; despite the constant display of support from friends,
constituents and allies before, during, and after the trial; and
despite over 700 letters to the judge saying that I should be put on
probation, here I sit a convicted felon.
However, I have learned during my 71 years that the art of living is
not demonstrated by how you celebrate your victories but by your
ability to turn seeming defeats into victories. Yes, I feel battered
but certainly not broken. The struggle for justice is a continuing one
and my commitment to devote my life as a warrior to that struggle
still burns bright. The question as always is what to do and as usual
the answer is clear. Even before I entered USP Hazelton I knew I
needed a plan to guide my actions. My plan would have to focus on
preparing myself to reenter the struggle stronger on every level than
when I left. It would have to enable me to continue to share my
thinking with my community, and finally it would need to enable me to
fulfill a commitment made to my community at a rally in front of my
community office six days after my arrest on the day before
At the rally, energized by having survived a plot initiated by the
City Council President (and others I assume) to drive me from office
on the day after my arrest, I decided to focus on the opportunities
that the situation presented us. I urged my supporters to build a
communications network among friends, coworkers, and colleagues. I
talked about talking points that they should raise to counter the
media’s incessant attacks on my character. It was an opportunity, I
declared, to stimulate critical thinking and increase our community’s
capacity to see through the smoke screens put out by the
I emphasized that while I was fighting for my survival, the struggle
is more important than anyone one individual. I stressed that those of
us who commit ourselves to struggle for justice have to be prepared to
use the attacks to strengthen our community despite the casualties
that will inevitably take place. From that perspective, I knew that
regardless of what happened to me, i had a responsibility to turn this
attack into a learning experience through which we all could learn and
Since it was obvious that US Attorney Sullivan and his police force,
the FBI, were conspiring to frame me for a crime that I didn’t commit,
I pointed out the golden opportunity we were presented to examine up
close and personal how they operate. They continuously study us to
assess our strengths and weaknesses. We should do no less if we are
serious in our pursuit of justice. Through such a rigorous analysis
and examination of their tactics, we could help our brothers and
sisters in the struggle become wiser in evading the “criminal justice
system’s” continuous attempts to thwart justice and use prison to turn
us into a permanent underclass and thus re enslave us.
With this focus on education, I will share with you each week over the
next seven weeks an installment exploring the twists and turns of the
Frame Up that led to my incarceration. As with all initial attempts to
deepen understanding of our experiences, I know that there will be
gaps and issues that others will see the need to explore. The
objective of this exercise is to stimulate our thinking and sharpen
our ability to critically analyze the stratagems that are used against
us. It is clear to me that if we are to be successful in ending the
use of the “criminal justice system” to perpetuate injustice, we have
to sharpen our thinking so that we can act more effectively.
In 1975, there were 500,000 people of all races in jail in this
country. Today, there are 2.3 million and the numbers are growing.
Over a million are of African-American descent. The correction
officers union, I’ve been told, is the fastest growing union in this
country. It is clear that if we are to lay the foundation for justice
for future generations we have to stop the prosecutorial terrorism
that is plaguing us all. In that spirit, please view this as an
initial attempt to use my personal experience to broaden the needed
national dialogue on how to end this terrorism.
In the remainder of this installment, I am going to share my
background and the life of activism that it inspired. I have always
believed that a fundamental principle of organizing is that the
organizer should not be the focus. Campaigns are successful when the
focus is on the goals to be achieved, the plan to achieve them, and
the process of analyzing successes and failures. Too much attention on
the organizer is distracting and dims the organization’s focus.
However, since one of the objectives of former US Attorney Sullivan’s
plot was to create the image that I was a fraud, hypocrite, and
fundamentally corrupt, I think it is important that I begin by helping
people better understand who I am.
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1940. I was blessed to have been
born into a family that had two predominant passions–a thirst for
knowledge and a desire to serve. Education was the “family business”
on both my mother’s and my father’s side of the family. My mother’s
mother was a teacher who became an elementary school principal. My
mother was a school teacher and my brother became a college professor
and dean. My father’s father was a high school biology teacher by day
and a scientist by night having earned a PHD in Zoology from the
University of Chicago in 1907. Upon his death in 1923, he was honored
by the St. Louis Science Society for his work on animal behavioral
psychology. Later the City of St. Louis named a school after him.
While education was viewed as a service, other members of the family
found other ways to serve. My mother’s sister was a social worker,
focusing her work on children. Her brother, my uncle, was a
landscaper. My father was a pharmacist and owned with his brother, my
uncle, a drug store that had the unique feature of having a pharmacy
on one side managed by my father and a bar on the other, managed by
his brother. Other members of the family sorted themselves out along
the same lines of education and business with service to our people as
the link. One of my grandmother’s brother was at Niagra Falls in 1909
as a participant in the founding of the NAACP.
My father and mother divorced when I was young and I grew up in
Cincinnati with my mother and her family while my father lived in
Chicago where he operated his business. Given Cincinnati’s location on
the Ohio River, I remember as a child hearing stories of my
grandmother going with friends and her children down to the landing
where the river boats would bring new arrivals from the South. My
grandmother’s purpose was to welcome the new families into Cincinnati
and help them establish a new life as part of the community. I
remember going with my family to Ms. Stewart’s Home for Young Women
which was a boarding house for young “colored” women coming to
Cincinnati. Outings to Ms. Stewart’s where we would have dinner with
the young women were a delight not only because of the food but also
because of the beautiful young women and delightful conversations.
While I grew up with a sense of community, sharing, and service, there
also was the other side of life for the African-American community.
The time was the 40s so segregation was the way of life once you
crossed the river and it had a strong influence on life in Cincinnati
despite the strong and wealthy Jewish community that flourished in the
city. The local amusement park was not integrated until I was 10 years
old and I grew up hearing stories of the times when you couldn’t try
on clothes in a store or had to sit upstairs in the movie theatre.
Black children living in a public housing development in a white
neighborhood were bussed to a black school miles away.
By the time I was a teenager, overt discrimination was not legal in
the city; yet that didn’t prevent the manager of a coffee shop in
downtown Cincinnati refusing me service when I was 13 and looking for
a job in the market area. When she asked me to leave because they
didn’t “serve Negroes”, I said that the law said I didn’t have to
leave so she called the police. Upon arriving, the policeman
apologized to her that there was nothing he could do. She then closed
the coffee shop. By that time, I was enjoying the game and waited
until she opened and again entered. At this point, she decided I think
that business was more important than showing me who was in control
and served me.
So I grew up in two worlds: one warm, supportive, and nurturing; the
other cold and hostile. That is not to say that there were no shades
of grey. I went to an integrated high school where I had friends of
all races. I participated in organizations designed to bring people of
all races together to understand our differences and to work
collectively on the problems confronting us. Yet, the sense of living
in two worlds was always there. Even more disturbing was the fact that
there were constant reminders that as African-Americans, we had to
understand that we were inferior. It was even said that the Bible
documented the sin that had led to our eternal inferiority. Yet, my
mother was the youngest graduate of the University of Cincinnati,
graduating at 18 in 1928 until my brother graduated from U.C. in 1947
at 16. It all seemed like a bad dream–a nightmare in fact.
With an ingrained two world perspective, I headed off to Harvard at 18
with a full scholarship in my pocket. My years there resulted in a
Harvard BA in government and a thorough exposure to the glories of the
Anglo-Saxon culture and its contributions to the world. In addition,
it further ingrained the fact that I lived in two worlds that did not
mesh. Probably, the most frustrating part was that with a Harvard
degree, I was viewed as having a excellent education. However, given
the constant emphasis on the inferiority of my people, I gained no
knowledge that helped me understand why this Christian nation behaved
in such a devilish way. I was looking for answers to the questions:
Where do we come from; why are we here; and where do we go after our
spirits leave our bodies. They were questions that I thought were
reasonable for an educated man but Harvard had no answers.
So off into the world I went. Harvard degree at the bottom of a box of
books. My family’s warning imprinted on my mind. Despite the
impressive individual accomplishments that family members had
achieved, there was a constant reminder that what we had accomplished
had only been possible because of the sacrifices and struggles of
countless unknown others who had laid a foundation upon which we could
build. In other words, no matter how much individual success and how
many accomplishments I might achieve, they would have no meaning if
the accomplishments didn’t create a base that future generations could
use in the continuous struggle for justice. “To whom much is given,
much is expected.”
I didn’t know what I was to do but at least I had a standard to
measure my success. Having majored in government and thinking that law
might provide the framework for the service I was seeking, I headed to
D.C., ironically arriving on August 23, 1963. Thus, I had the
opportunity to stand with hundreds of thousands and hear Dr. King and
others give the call to action. A few days later, I was able to get a
job as a reporter on the Washington Afro-American newspaper that
granted me access to downtown and uptown life.
It was a fascinating opportunity to be in what seemed to be the hub of
the universe, chronicalling the change happening around us. However, I
soon bored of writing about what others were doing. As if life felt my
need, in November I ran into a college classmate and Alpha brother,
Bill Strickland, at a SNCC convention I was covering who asked if i
was interested in joining him in New York as editor of the newsletter
of the organization he was heading, the Northern Student Movement
(NSM). NSM had begun as a northern group of students providing support
for the movement in the South. However, Bill and others had changed
the focus to organizing in black communities of New York, Chicago,
Boston, Philadelphia, and Hartford, Conn.
Again, while editing was interesting, when the opportunity to join a
rent strike organizing project in Harlem came, I went. I joined with a
group of young organizers who were apprenticing with Jesse Gray who
had been using the rent strike tactic to challenge landlords for
decades. In 1964, the courts had declared the strategy legal as long
as certain guidelines were followed. So into the streets of Harlem we
went ready to organize all those who previously had been afraid but
After a few weeks, the romance wore off. Despite deplorable conditions
and the new law, we encountered people’s internal resistance to
change. Hearing our frustrations, Jesse would patiently say to us,
“People know when they are ready. You don’t. Your job is to test their
readiness. If they aren’t ready, move on”. As my experience grew over
the years, I began to understand how that philosophy had enabled Jesse
and others to maintain their energy and optimism despite the
frustrations and slowness of the process.
From Harlem, I went to Hartford to replace the director at the NSM
project in Connecticut’s capital city. The challenge of building and
maintaining a multifaceted organization was fascinating and
frustrating. We organized around a variety of issues from slum
landlords to job discrimination, raising money to pay ourselves when
national funds ran scarce. Challenging people to stand up was
exciting as well as grueling work. However, it came to a screeching
halt when a demonstration we organized to confront police brutality
led to confrontations between the police and community, resulting in
my arrest and the arrest of others in the organization and community.
We were charged with sedition and a variety of other charges that
hadn’t been used since the Sacco and Venzentti days. In view of the
media focus around outside organizers, the national organization
suggested that those of us who were not from Hartford should leave
until the trial to allow for the situation to cool down. Given that
there was an NSM project in Boston’s black community I went there. By
the time the cases were heard and I received probation, I had obtained
a job as an organizer with a local poverty program and was ready to
plant my roots in Roxbury, the heart of Boston’s black community.
During the three years between my leaving Cambridge in 1963 and
returning to Boston in 1966, I gave up the idea of becoming a lawyer.
While organizing was tough, demanding work, I was convinced that
organizing people always needed to be at the core of my work. I had
come to realize that through organizing I would be able to meet my
family commitment to have my life’s work have benefit and meaning for
the African-American struggle for justice. It was also beginning to
become clear that organizing could be a means to bring together the
two worlds that I lived in. Perhaps, most important, it satisfied my
growing appreciation for our human ability to create new realities as
we come together to focus our physical, mental, emotional, and
spiritual energy on a common purpose.
During the last forty five years, I have been driven by a desire to
both fight back against oppression and to demonstrate the power of
organized action to bring justice. My motto could have been, “Have a
need, let’s organize”. Organizing the burning of trash as a community
worker in Lower Roxbury in the late 60s led to an agreement with my
boss to leave the organization but pushed the City to clean an area,
ignored for years.
The need for unity in the late sixties in the Black and Latino
community led to the formation of the Boston Black United Front which
became the voice of the progressive community of color in Boston. A
highway threatening our community spurred the development of Operation
Stop, the joining of a regional transportation alliance against the
highway, and the formation of the Southwest Corridor Land Development
Coalition which produced a plan that guided the development of the
land once the Governor rerouted the highway around Boston.
The need for a greater share of the construction jobs in Roxbury
stimulated the development of a state wide black, Latino, and Asian
alliance, The Third World Jobs Clearing House with offices in Boston,
Cambridge, Worcester, and Springfield that operated for five years
until the Reagan administration eliminated the funding base.
At the same time the need for a multiracial political alliance in
Boston to protect affirmative action in the construction industry led
to the formation of the Boston Jobs Coalition, an alliance of black,
white, Latino, and Asian community groups, that led the fight for a
local jobs policy, guaranteeing a share of all City financed and aided
projects to Boston workers of all races, people of color, and women.
This policy, linking affirmative action to residency, became a
national model that is used today in cities across the country under
the name, the First Source Program.
My need to see workers develop economic power by pooling their talents
led to my becoming education director of the Industrial Cooperative
Association, a nonprofit consulting firm, focused on aiding workers in
the formation of businesses that they could own cooperatively. I then
spent the next five years helping workers throughout the country
develop the capacity to be owners as well as workers.
Organizing around the need for a community voice in the land use
decisions in Roxbury led in 1983 to Mayor Flynn granting the Roxbury
Neighborhood Council a guaranteed role in all land use decisions and
granting five other communities the right to establish such Councils
with similar powers.
The need to assure that community workers would get jobs as part of
the Boston Jobs Policy led to the formation of the Greater Roxbury
Workers’ Association which became a major force in securing
construction jobs for community workers for the next fifteen years.
Frustration with the level of violence in the community and the need
to develop strategies to change the thinking of the perpetrators led
me to take a job as a counselor and eventually a manager at Emerge,
the nation’s first organization to provide counseling services to men,
convicted of domestic violence. My objective was to develop an
understanding of the psychological dynamics that lead to violence in
order to develop behavior modification strategies.
The need to educate the community on the devastating effects and
extent of domestic violence in the community, led to the development
of the Community Task Force on Domestic Violence, as a vehicle through
which education and organizing could be initiated.
After 35 years of fighting against injustice from outside of
government, a need to strengthen organizing in the community led me to
attempt to use elective office as an organizing tool. In 1999, I ran
for and won a Boston City Council seat representing the community in
which I had lived and worked for decades.
Once in office, the need for a vehicle through which to link my
political representation to community organizing led to the
development of the District 7 Roundtable, a monthly forum bringing
residents and activists together to discuss issues, exchange ideas,
and develop policy initiatives that could lead to political organizing
and legislative action.
The 2000 Census showing that people of color were now the majority
population in the City put a spotlight on the need for more political
operational unity. To strengthen the unity between groups and people
of color, the institutes at U Mass Boston focused on the black,
Latino, and Asian communities sponsored a conference which led to
organization of the New Majority Coalition.
The need to end the discrimination against those with criminal records
led to the formation of the Boston Workers’ Alliance (BWA) which
played a leadership role in the development and passage of a state law
combating such discrimination as well as removing the question of
criminal conviction from the state job application.
Knowing that political victories alone are not enough, the BWA in its
six year history has also established a worker staffing agency to
provide income to the organization and jobs for its members. In
addition it has helped its members establish businesses based on the
philosophy that a job is not enough.
The recognition of an opportunity for additional community resources
in an era of shrinking dollars led to my advocacy for the City to
lease rather than sell City owned land in Roxbury designated for
economic development. Eventually the City agreed to the policy on the
city owned parcels in the Dudley Square area and to share the lease
fees with the community. Negotiations are now taking place regarding
the size of the community’s share and the vehicle for the
determination of use and distribution of the funds.
Obviously, those of us who seek to institutionalize the practice of
justice in this country are far from our goal. Therefore, the struggle
for justice and a civilized society must continue through the
development of new forms of organization and strategies. As Maulana
Ron Karenga said in the January 11, 2011 issue of the Final Call,
“…to be organized is to be in ongoing structures that harness our
energies and house and advance our interests and aspirations and unite
us into an aware and active social force for African and human good in
the world”. Former Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan has
temporarily succeeded in removing me from the front lines of the
Boston struggle for justice. However, while I rest and prepare myself
my return to the battle, others are continuing relentlessly to
struggle to make Boston and this country a beacon for the practice of
justice throughout the world.
As I look back over my 48 years of activism, I realize that I have
been walking in the footsteps of my grandfather, Charles Henry
Turner*, for whom I was named. His passion focused on studying the
behavior of mice, roaches, insects of all kinds, and particularly bees
and ants with their highly organized group behavior. He focused his
life on understanding the behavior of life forms that many consider as
“pests”, unwanted intrusions into their space rather than seeing them
as my grandfather saw them, as an essential aspect of God’s creation.
My passion has been and continues to be the study of the innate
ability of human beings to create new realities through organized
action. Because of my African-American ancestry, I have focused on the
demonstration of those capabilities by those human beings considered
by many in this country as inferior life forms, an unwanted intrusion
into their space. Hopefully, we will soon learn to recognize all human
beings as beings created “in the image of God”, each possessing a
divine creative spirit.
A Luta Continua–The Struggle Continues,
* The following books have more information on my grandfather’s scientific work:
1) Bug Watching with Charles Henry Turner, Michael Elsohn Ross, 1997
(A children’s book)
2) Selected Papers and Biography of Charles Henry Turner, 1867-1923:
Pioneer of Comparative Animal Behavioral Studies,
Professor Charles Abramson, The Edward Mellon Press, 2003 (An
academic study of his life and work including a history of
the Troy-Knight-Turner Family that I wrote at the author’s request)
Next Week: Installment Two: The Keystone Cops Strike Again