Rashad Turner knows how to rile the establishment.
In the past 10 months, the demonstrations he’s led have shut down a gate at the State Fair and threatened to disrupt the Twin Cities Marathon, St. Paul’s Crashed Ice extravaganza and light-rail transit before a Vikings game. Some of the actions were denounced by Gov. Mark Dayton and all of them sent St. Paul leaders scrambling.
Just last week after a teenager’s arrest at Central High caused controversy, the president of the St. Paul Police Federation, David Titus, fired off a news release saying “social media in general, and Rashad Turner of Black Lives Matter St. Paul in particular, once again used video released without context to fuel the flames of an anti-cop sentiment that is irresponsible, inaccurate, and dangerous to St. Paul Police Officers and St. Paul residents alike.”
Yet Turner’s public persona is hard to reconcile with the private Turner, a soft-spoken, 31-year-old master’s degree student. As he tries to pivot from in-your-face activist to a campaign for the state House of Representatives — aiming to unseat the only black woman representative in the state — Turner wants to emphasize his diplomatic side, without shedding his rebel past.
“I really want to try and hone in and figure out how we can eliminate some of the social injustices that we see in law enforcement,” Turner said, noting he’s passionate about many issues, from education to housing.
Turner is part of the new wave of black activists who emerged nationwide after police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and other communities where white officers shot and killed black men.
By last summer, he was in the spotlight after some protesters in the march he helped organize at the State Fair were heard chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.”
Although he said he disavowed the sentiment and had nothing to do with the slogan, he had to face the media onslaught and defend the demonstration, which demanded, among other things, more diversity in State Fair vendors.
“It is a lot of pressure,” Turner said. But he stands by the demonstrations, saying, “If people were being violent, or we were advocating violence or being destructive, or advocating for destruction, I wouldn’t be a part of it.”
‘He had a charisma’
Turner was only an infant when his father, 18, was shot and killed in St. Paul. At age 3, he and his younger brother went to live with their grandmother after his mother, strung out on drugs, left them alone in their St. Paul apartment.
“A village raised him,” said his grandmother, Viola Turner. “He had a charisma as a child. People gravitated toward him.”
Turner graduated from Highland Park High School where he was an all-state wide receiver and an all-metro baseball player. He went on to college at Hamline University.
He wanted to be a police officer, hoping to prevent deaths like his father’s. He interned at the St. Paul Police Department in high school and after college attended a training program for law enforcement officers. He said he began having doubts during lessons about justifiable use of deadly force.
“I started to understand why my friends didn’t want me to be a cop,” he said.
Turner also ran into some legal trouble. Five years ago, his then-wife filed for a restraining order, alleging he hit her, which Turner strongly denies. His ex-wife has declined to comment. The order was never considered by a judge because neither of them showed up in court.
Turner began working in education, first as a cultural liaison for the White Bear Lake schools and later at Century College, where he helped low-income, minority and first-generation students. But he resigned his job at the college after feeling that a Black History Month program he organized with a speech by Nekima Levy-Pounds, the outspoken president of the Minneapolis NAACP, was not well received by some staff.
Turner and Levy-Pounds’ friendship took off when they both went on a St. Paul church trip to attend the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march last year in Selma, Ala.
“As we crossed the bridge, he said it was a life-changing moment,” Levy-Pounds said.
Turner met other Black Lives Matter members and last March, with their encouragement, he formed a St. Paul chapter.
Focus on ‘sacred’ places
The group never officially joined the national Black Lives Matter network, Turner said, because he does not agree with its fundraising. But within a month, he organized his first protest.
A sign outside Summit Church in St. Paul was promoting an event with the slogan “Love the police.”
“We went inside of the church on a Sunday during the service,” he said. “All seven of us stood up and we started to read off the names of unarmed people who had been killed” by police.
They were ushered out of the church but as they left, the minister offered to meet with Turner. The church later decided to alter its slogan to “Love the community.”
Buoyed by their success, the St. Paul chapter called more protests. There aren’t segregated lunch counters or buses to boycott, Levy-Pounds said, so Turner has “gone into sacred white places and challenged the status quo.”
“I think he’s taken as much heat from white moderates and liberals as from white conservatives,” she said.
The threat to close down the Twin Cities Marathon last October and Crashed Ice in January led to meetings with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. They have met over coffee several times since.
“I think he’s very sincere,” Coleman said. “He’s very concerned about what he views as racial inequities.”
Turner, emphasizing racial disparities in education, ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for the St. Paul school board last fall.
Now he’s looking to the Capitol, challenging Rena Moran, a three-term DFLer in District 65A, in the August primary.
On her website, Moran touts her record in support of early education, a higher minimum wage and closing the pay gap for women. She did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Some have criticized Turner for running against the only black woman in the state House, but Turner defends his candidacy, saying “Ms. Moran has been ineffective.”
Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP, said he doesn’t particularly agree with Turner’s campaign since Moran “seems to be doing all right.”
But he calls Turner a maturing leader with “unlimited potential” and said, “I certainly would not discourage him for seeking political office. This is democracy.”
During the campaign, Turner has dialed back his leadership role in Black Lives Matter St. Paul. But he still attends almost every local demonstration. At a recent campaign fundraiser at the French Hen Cafe in St. Paul, Turner told attendees, both white and black, that he can strike a balance.
“I’ll continue to be radical, continue to push the envelope,” he said, “but I will also continue to build bridges to make things better.”