Roxbury’s future in the “post-racial” era
by Shirley Kressel
contributing writer South End News
Wednesday Mar 16, 2011
The race for Chuck Turner’s District 7 City Council seat has been fraught with bitter ironies and troubling questions about the future of Boston’s black community.
As the media have amply reported, Senator Dianne Wilkerson and City Councilor Chuck Turner, long-time black leaders, have recently been sent to prison for accepting money from a paid FBI informant in a liquor-license imbroglio. What does this signify for their fragile community?
The candidates, both black men, represent different visions for the District. Cornell Mills is the son of Wilkerson, who broke the color barrier at the state senate in 1993 and pursued an activist legislative career, while Tito Jackson, son of a labor-rights activist, is endorsed by Turner, an old-school firebrand. Interestingly, Mills echoes Turner’s spirit of fighting to protect the poor and disadvantaged, while Jackson pushes further Wilkerson’s talk about business incentives to attract job creation and developers’ gifts to the community.
Jackson has enjoyed far more funding and voter support. However, his experience is in mainstream politics and his campaign chest is filled heavily by white contributors and business interests outside the district. This has sparked concerns about the dilution of the black community’s power to defend against economic and political exploitation.
Indeed, some suspect a larger strategy to neutralize minority defenses against discriminatory governmental policies.
On March 6, I attended a forum in Roxbury titled, “The Attack on Black Leadership: Is there an ongoing effort by the US Government to destabilize the black community by targeting its leadership?” In impromptu remarks, Wilkerson talked about documents she had read indicating that the FBI had been targeting her and Turner for seven years, looking for reasons to prosecute them. Finding none, she said, the Bureau finally hired a black informant to bait them with money.
If her account is accurate, it is extremely alarming. It is at least suspicious that in the FBI’s lengthy investigation of the license issue, only two black officials were (literally) “caught,” leaving unbaited and uncharged seven white officials implicated by FBI documents. Turner accused the US Attorney of racial bias and, because there was no evidence of previous wrongdoing by him to constitute probable cause, entrapment. The FBI informant, a black man, expressed anger at this apparently biased outcome and tried to refuse to testify at Turner’s trial.
This week, I came across a 2003 South End News bit on now-deceased City Councilor Jimmy Kelly, reporting his acceptance of unlawful financial contributions: “Infractions included accepting individual contributions over the $500 limit and accepting corporate contributions, which is not allowed at the city level.” The full report (pdf) at the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) website listed numerous violations. Kelly paid a $1,000 fine and made a charity donation of $7,500, equaling the contributions he got from business corporations, excess contributions, excess cash contributions, and money from a federal PAC. The matter was never sent to the Attorney General for further action.
Kelly was proven to have committed financial violations worth about $11,000. He simply settled up financially, with no criminal prosecution.
Turner was never proven committing any offenses — before the FBI created one. The informant himself later told the Boston Globe that the money (an amount the FBI said, but never proved, was $1,000) that he handed unbidden to a “naïve” Turner while expressing his “gratitude” (with these words, turning Turner’s scheduling of a hearing on licensing discrimination into a crime, as the FBI instructed), “could have been a gift or a campaign donation.” As a contribution reporting error with no criminal intent, a civil fine would have ended the story. Instead: felony conviction and three years in federal prison.
Unlike Kelly, Turner’s case was all over the media, inflaming a wave of public venom. The City Council enacted an ordinance to expel him. The two young new minority Councilors, Felix Arroyo, Jr. and Ayanna Pressley, cited him as their mentor as they voted him out.
Why such disparate fates?
Perhaps the answer lies in a Boston Globe editorial: “Turner… isn’t a venal man. … But he has spread unreality among his supporters for decades. And that may be his greatest crime. In a Boston neighborhood that so desperately needs sensible leadership to address crime, joblessness, and poor education, Turner has fed his constituents a steady diet of political fantasy.” Do our media leaders believe that Turner’s punishment for an unproven bribe was justified by his discomfiting politics? The newspapers endorsed Jackson; is he their “sensible leader” — bringing practical compromises to counter Turner’s audacity of unbending aspirations?
Selective justice is a great injustice, and one well known to the black community. What really happened here? And what will be the impact on a District ripe for — or vulnerable to — radical change?
Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect and urban designer, and one of the founders of the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods. She can be reached at Shirley.Kressel@verizon.net.