Former Councilor Chuck Turner back in Boston, working with activists
Two years after he entered the U.S. Penitentiary in Hazelton, W. Va., former City Councilor Chuck Turner has returned with a burning desire to tackle black America’s most pressing problems.
“The reality is we’re in a worse situation than we were in 1963, the year of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech,” Turner says, sitting in the dining room of his Fort Hill home. “We’re living in the cities by the grace of government subsidies. Fifty percent of the people I represented in District Seven lived in subsidized housing.”
Turner was convicted in 2011 of accepting a bribe and making false statements to FBI agents in a court case that many observers said never should have gone to trial. The prosecution’s case hinged on grainy footage or a meeting between Turner and a confidential informant, who allegedly handed Turner $1,000, but later told the Boston Globe that the money was not a bribe.
Despite the prosecution’s seemingly weak case, Turner’s prospects turned sour when he took the stand in his own defense — against the advice of his attorney and many of his supporters — and denied he remembered any specifics of his meeting with the informant.
In January 2011, he began serving a three-year sentence at Hazelton. In July, Turner was released early on good behavior to a Boston halfway house, but it almost didn’t end up that way.
According to Turner, early in his incarceration, he began having problems with fellow inmates and corrections officers in the work camp where he served time, a 150-inmate dormitory housing nonviolent offenders serving sentences of 10 or fewer years. Turner and the other prisoners in the work camp were given freedom of movement, access to a track, pool tables, card games and other recreational activities.
“Even though it was a relaxed atmosphere, you had 150 men living together,” he says. “I went in there with some raw emotions. I found myself reacting strongly to situations. I got into verbal disputes.”
Turner, who turns 72 this year, says he was forced to rely on his faith in a higher power.
“I said to myself, ‘Chuck, this is the testing time,’” he says. “After three or four months, I realized there was nothing I could do to change the situation I was in. You’re in a situation where there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself. You can’t allow your emotions of anger, bitterness and fear get in the way of your connection to the higher power.”
Turner says he was able to stop reacting out of anger to situations he encountered in prison, including an incident where a corrections officer wrote him up on bogus charges after he complained about the guard’s behavior. The officer’s charges against Turner were dismissed.
A few days before Turner’s early release date, which had been scheduled for July 8, a corrections officer told him the halfway house he was assigned to had no vacancies.
“If that had happened when I first came in, I would have had some reaction,” Turner said. “I just said ‘okay.’ I knew there was nothing more I could do. Instead of getting angry, I focused on what to do with the rest of my time there.”
As it turned out, Turner had just 10 more days in prison. He was released to the halfway house on July 18.
“What really happened is that as I began to think about the power I had in the situation, I went from thinking I was powerless in the situation to a conviction that I really do have power,” Turner said.
Turner will remain under the supervision of the halfway house until January of next year. In the meantime, he is working out of Imani House, a Grove Hall nonprofit, to plan a convening of activists to strategize a new movement to better the lot of blacks in Boston.
“What I’d like to do is call on the elders — those who are 50 years old and up, those who were born at the time we declared our intent to become citizens of the United States with full legal rights,” he says. “As the first generation that has integrated into American culture, we have to report back on the progress we’ve made in business, economic development and other areas and begin an assessment of our failures and successes.”
Turner’s conversations with activists have sparked reflection on the state of blacks in Boston. He says that while some blacks have made material gains, the black community has abandoned the values that it relied on to make the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
Turner himself was part of the movements of the ‘70s and ‘80s that paved the way for blacks in Boston to participate more fully in the city’s civic life — the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s public housing and schools and the consent decrees that led to the hiring of black and Latino police officers and firefighters.
But the Civil Rights Movement has had limited success, according to Turner. Many blacks have been unwilling or unable to participate in the expanded opportunities the older generation has fought for, instead becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system and effectively barred from working or even receiving housing subsidies.
“The reality is that there are a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who have not had the experience of working in an organized environment and have no skills,” he says. “When you look at us, we’re on the margins of the economy.
“For 350 years we’ve experienced what it’s like to be at the bottom of a society that’s based on wealth and power. We’ve been on the outside. Now, some of us are on the inside pushing a strategy for individual advancement.”
Turner says he hopes to expand his conversation with elders to include representatives of the younger generation and talk about creating a new system of values that helps build community.
“I think we have the responsibility as elders to help the younger generation think about a value system that can replace egoism and materialism,” he says. “We’ve been caught up in a struggle for wealth and power, but we’ve lost our values.”