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Commentary :: Organizing : Politics : Social Welfare
Smashing the State, Chuck Turner Style
19 May 2005
The angry anarchists tore through Boston’s business district, their banners flying high, their rambunctious chants demanding that the people take to the streets in protest of two years of war in Iraq. O­n the front lines, linked arm in arm with the anarchists, was good old Chuck - Boston’s notorious city councilor. With a bald head, stylish white goatee, and leather jacket, the African-American politician has represented Boston’s District Seven, encompassing much of Boston’s minority community, since 1999. “I’m still impressed by […] Chuck Turner MARCHING with the unpermitted march, then standing up in between cops and the youth they sought to beat or arrest, and going over to the jail, and staying there until 10:30 PM or so,” said Amatul in an o­nline discussion of the March 20th protest posted o­n the website of the Boston Independent Media Center (Indymedia), a local anti-authoritarian news agency. “I really liked his vibe.”
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The first time I saw him, he was announcing the illegal march behind a podium in the Boston Common to a crowd of hundreds of anti-war demonstrators. Illegal marches and civil disobedience were nothing new to Chuck, who The Boston Phoenix’s Adam Reilly described as “one of the city’s best-known agitators” in a May 21, 2004 article. Originally from Cincinnati, the Harvard graduate settled down in Boston in the 1960’s to a life of community activism. He has since worked o­n a variety of issues that affect Boston’s black community, including affordable housing, jobs for minorities, blocking a proposed highway that would slice his community in half, helping workers start cooperatively owned businesses, education reform, and helping battered women, among other issues, often using non-violent direct action.

Knowing about his deep roots in the community and his history of fighting against the government, I was intrigued at Chuck’s decision to join the Dark Side and run for office, so I thought I’d ask him about it.

With ceilings twenty feet high and so much open space that it made me dizzy, the fifth floor of Boston City Hall was fit for gods, or at least evil, rich men. After wandering around in awe at the beauty of the architecture, I discovered a wall with a poster hanging o­n it: “Not in Our Name: Women of Color Against the War.” Surrounding it was a kaleidoscope of other posters, fliers and stickers, reading, “Anti-Displacement Zone,” “Proud to Support Immigrant Rights,” “Franklin Park belongs to all of us!” and finally a metal plaque: “Chuck Turner.”

Despite his seat in the Dark Side, Chuck was still a rebel at heart.

“This government stuff is… pshhh,” the old radical started, as he leaned back in his chair. “I mean, we have to have it because of the way we’re set up, but it’s deadening, ya know? It’s not living; it’s not breathing; it’s not coming out of us; it’s coming out of a few people that are captured by the corporations and business interests of the city.”

“I don't like to compare Chuck to other politicians because he isn't like them,” explained Alison Ramer, a student activist, emcee of the March 20th rally, and intern at Boston Mobilization, a progressive non-profit organization. “Chuck is like no o­ne else I have ever worked with. Chuck really is a community organizer who has grabbed a seat in the government and allows for many different people to use their voice with that seat.”

And it’s true. Chuck doesn’t run his office like the other councilors. He has started monthly Roundtable meetings at the First Church of Roxbury in which members of the community can raise issues and use his seat as a base for community action around them, and he’s also the “only city councilor who actually has an office and office hours in his district,” according to Ty Depass, Chuck’s long-time friend and fellow activist. “People from the community don’t have to go downtown to see him, so there’s accessibility.”

What’s exceptional about Chuck is that he holds public office, is a respected member of his community, is getting old, yet at the same still manages to be a radical community activist, consistently working outside of the bounds of the ballot box.

“Since I've been a councilor I've been arrested a few times,” Chuck explained, elaborating o­n the various acts of civil disobedience he has participated in recently.

Most recently the battle-scarred radical has begun working with an unlikely ally: Boston’s anarchist youth. O­n March 20th, Chuck announced the unpermitted march that the anarchists planned. He marched at its head until the police began arresting people, calmed down the irate police, spoke to the protesters about jail solidarity for the arrestees, and then spent the rest of the evening plotting bail. He, with the help of legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive legal group, the Anarchist Black Cross, a prison abolitionist group, and activists from Boston Mobilization who played a large role in organizing the protest, made sure that the bail money was paid and that the arrestees were released safely.

“A lot of you have been praising [Chuck] Turner for the solidarity he showed, and with good reason,” posted 'muskrat' o­n the March 20th Indymedia discussion thread. “But when was the last time you showed solidarity with Turner and his constituency, the folks in Roxbury and Dorchester, among the most oppressed people in Boston? When have you tried to reach out beyond the anarchist scene to work with those folks?"

“One of the remarkable things about Turner is that he is willing to take risks by reaching and working in solidarity with people who are different from him--different social background and different beliefs,” muskrat continued. “I've seen him work with not just folks from Roxbury and Dorchester but with the white, middle-class non-profits; with Buddhist peace activists; even with some of the sectarian Leninist groups. And o­n [March 20th], he took a risk by working with a group I'm guessing he didn't know too well and had no personal ties with; the folks from the anarchist youth scene.”

“The question for me is whether the [anarchist groups] are really serious about organizing for systematic change,” Chuck contemplated at his desk. “Because if they are, if there's real commitment in the core, if people in the core are really about trying to bring down the way the government operates, then the question is tactics. The question of violence versus non-violence, the question of how you organize, what your objectives are, what you're doing every day, is in the context of where we're going.”

Other than some work around protesting the Democratic National Convention last summer, Chuck has no history of working with the anarchist community, but he’s excited about opening up dialog.

“What’s interesting is that I think I'm an anarchist at heart,” the councilman considered, sitting in his desk in the fifth floor of the monumentous Boston City Hall. “My perspective is that anarchism is a philosophy that says that as human beings, we have the ability to construct social and economic and political processes of interaction that are not dependant upon authoritarian imposition. In my heart I believe that we have the capacity to live that way o­n the earth, but what’s interesting to me is […] the whole view of anarchy isn’t o­ne of anarchy being the highest state of human enlightenment. It’s like anarchists are the nihilists of society that are just destroying everything because of their rage and anger, and that’s not what anarchy to me is supposed to be about.”

“Personally, I like Chuck quite a lot,” said a local anarchist, anti-capitalist, and Harvard student who identified himself as Shadowboxer. “I know some anti-authoritarians have problems with him just because he is an elected official, but to define him entirely within his institutional role is a mistake. The forces of change have different ways of engaging state power, whether it's bringing radical ideas to the city council and struggling to implement policies that help communities more than they hurt them--as Chuck does--or trying to destroy the state outright. I feel that we in the anti-authoritarian community should respect how people choose to go about that, as long as they disengage themselves from the many coercive activities of the state. And Chuck does that.”

Chuck, who has done work not o­nly with anarchists but also the authoritarian communist anti-war group A.N.S.W.E.R. and the liberal peace group United for Justice and Peace, wants to work together with all of Boston’s activists to create a community that we all want to live in. “Can we get over the ideological differences and the personal hassles and the ego enough to even envision trying to create that community?”

With any luck, this goateed, bald, black politician will serve as a uniting factor in Boston’s progressive community. Matthew Williams, author of the March 20th Indymedia article about the protest, agrees: “The anarchist youth groups (well, mostly youth) with all their energy and militancy, the more established peace groups with their all resources, Chuck Turner with his deep roots in the community--imagine what they could accomplish if they worked together.”

“It's time to cleanse the soul of America by acting the o­nly way that the soul of countries can be cleansed,” Chuck said from behind his desk in the Dark Side, his rebellious eyes shining. “And that's when people rise up and demand change.”
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