Chuck Turner: Activist, Councilor, In Fight For Political Life

This article is more than 12 years old.

Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner and former state Senator Dianne Wilkerson of Boston face new legal troubles.

A new federal indictment alleges they were co-conspirators in a public corruption and bribery scheme.

Wilkerson has already pleaded not guilty to other charges. Turner has a court appearance today.

Turner, age 68, a long-time Roxbury activist, is waging a very public fight to salvage his reputation, and save his seat on the Boston City Council.

As WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports, Turner's outspoken style hasn't changed much since his early days as a community organizer.

RAY FLYNN: His style was confrontational and combative and getting his point of view out there. And going to the press and flamboyant and you know...and the rhetoric was high volume.

Ray Flynn was mayor of Boston between 1984 and 1993. He worked closely with Chuck Turner while he was in office.

FLYNN: I did understand the utility value of it. You know, you get the people's attention, you certainly get the media's attention. Chuck Turner didn't go anywhere that he didn't command some kind of attention from the media.

Flynn is talking about Turner decades ago, when Turner was holding protests and waging sit-ins to stop the federal government from routing I-95 through Roxbury. Then, when, Flynn was mayor, Turner helped convince the city and private contractors to hire minorities, women and city residents for construction projects.

FLYNN: As opposed to advocating on behalf of a cause, that nobody pays attention to. Chuck Turner would advocate on behalf of a cause and no one could ignore him.

Turner grew up in Cincinnati, the son of a pharmacist and school teacher. He studied government at Harvard and then covered the civil rights movement for an African American newspaper in Washington, DC. He returned to the Boston area in 1965 to work as an organizer and has been antagonizing people in power ever since. But in 1999,Turner became a person in power, garnering more than 80 percent of the vote in a race for city council.

Turner is now fighting to keep that seat, not to mention avoid going to prison. He's held rallies like this one at city hall just days after his arrest, where he's insisted that he's innocent of charges he allegedly accepted a $1,000 bribe and later lied about it to the FBI.

CHUCK TURNER: After 45 years of what I believe has been a career of integrity and service to my people, I now find myself in a very, very difficult situation.

Turner has sought so much media attention that one Boston Globe columnist wrote he's either "full of righteous anger or delusional".

Turner has yet to explain directly why he was shown in photos with what looks like a wad of cash in his hands.

But hundreds of defenders who show up at rallies give him the benefit of the doubt. Including Mel King, the former Boston mayoral candidate and long-time activist.

MEL KING: When you saw all those folks down at City Hall, they were there because he has an incredible track record of community service to the people. He listens.

TONESS: King says Turner is good at getting different people to come together around a common goal.

But one group he hasn't cooperated with as much are the black ministers who make up the Ten Point Coalition. Rev. Ray Hammond founded that group and says he and Turner have similar goals but very different approaches.

RAY HAMMOND: I might say that I might take a more nuanced view of institutions and the people who are a part of it.


TONESS: Institutions such as the Boston Police Department.

RAY HAMMOND: It's meant that I, not just I, but Ten Point, and other groups, have been willing to think seriously about building partnerships that I think he would find troubling or suspicious.

TONESS: This year Turner helped to quash a Boston police plan to remove guns from private homes at the request of family or neighbors. The police had promised to grant immunity to the gun owners, but Turner said the plan would still have violated their constitutional rights.

HORACE SMALL: My friend Chuck is a dreamer and a visionary.

TONESS: Horace Small heads up the union of Minority neighborhoods.

SMALL: He dreams of a world where black folk can have their own land. Govern and take care of themselves. He dreams of a just economy, where it's not just about money, it's about bartering, and people's skills and abilities are a currency. And I consider myself the dreamer and the pragmatist. Like this is what we've got to do right now.TONESS: Small and Turner strategized in 2005 to take on the criminal records system.They wanted the city council to pass an ordinance prohibiting the city and city vendors from asking job applicants for a criminal history, also known as a CORI, before interviewing them.

SMALL: They're 6 million in the state and close to 3 million have CORIs, and if blacks only made 5 percent of the state and Latinos 3 percent, that meant there were an awful lot of white boys running around who had criminal records. So our organizing strategy was, lets go find them.

TONESS: Small and Turner got those people to speak at a city council hearing. The ordinance passed 13 to 0.

But Turner says legislation hasn't been his main objective while on the council, which after all doesn't have a lot of power. But he still says being a city councilor has helped his agenda.

TURNER: Oh, it's helped immeasurably. One is it's given me a salary, I was making 40 and now I'm making 50 thousand dollars more than I was making when I ran for office in 1999. I mention the resources because that's given me the flexibility, with my wife's permission, to run the organizing.

TONESS: Turner says he used his salary to rent a district office in Roxbury's Dudley Square. The rent is $12,000 a year, and he's the only city councilor who has such an office. He's chided reporters for never doing a story about it or his other council work, like CORI reform.

But campaigns like that are taking a backseat now to Turner's main project: defending himself against bribery allegations.

TURNER: This moment is the most exciting struggle I've ever had and I think what is going to come out of it is going to have the most impact over the last 45 years.

TONESS: [(to Turner) I think it would surprise a lot of people that this would excite you. Why does this excite you?

TURNER: I'm an organizer. That's what I've spent my whole life doing. And because the media gives me very little coverage, I think this is the first time you've interviewed me.

TONESS: I interviewed you about Shawn Drumgold.

TURNER: Oh, okay.

TONESS: I interviewed Turner in person at his district office earlier this year about the case of Shawn Drumgold, a Roxbury man who was suing two retired Boston police officers for wrongful conviction. I've also exchanged emails and interviewed Turner by phone several times before this in-person interview.

TURNER: But the the reality is that the newspapers and the media give little attention to what it is that I do, so to have the U.S. Attorney's office bring a very flawed case against me, draws the media. They see my blood in the water, they smell the kill coming in and like sharks they feed on my carcass. But part of that process means they have to shove a microphone in my face.

Turner says his attorneys have warned him against defending himself publicly,since he could say something that can be used against him by the prosecution. Even though his critics and fans say there's a risk Turner could overdo it.

But Turner says there's a bigger risk if he keeps his mouth shut.

TURNER: No, I've lived all of my life saying to people "Don't let them do it to you, if you let em do it to you,then they'll do it, and do it, and do it." And so if I go to jail, then I'm going to go to jail fighting. And telling them who they are and how unjust it is. Because if I can't advocate for myself you know after 45 years advocating for others. then I am old and tired and ought to get off the scene.

TONESS: It appears to be working in one aspect. The Boston city council was poised to punish Turner after his arrest but back backed off after Turner's first rally. The councilors said they'd hold off removing Turner from his seat until after he was indicted. Anticipating yesterday's indictment, Turner has argued that it would be unfair to do anything unless he's convicted. He has been banned from speaking to some of the councilors about the allegations against him, so Turner says he wouldn't be able to defend himself.

This program aired on December 10, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.