Reflections from Behind the Wall
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.
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 Harm".
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 Thanksgiving, 2008.
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 establishment's mouthpieces.
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 grow.
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 aninitial 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 Niagara 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 needed change.
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