Richard Turner and the Criminalization of Racialized Poverty

This past Wednesday morning, November 16, Richard Turner died in the street surrounded by police officers. We do not know yet how he died, whether it was natural causes, a heart attack, drug-related, the result of something the police did, or some other reason. What we do know is that he “became unresponsive” as he lay in the street surrounded by police officers. We do know that Richard Turner has been in and out of the criminal justice system for years in Champaign County: that he struggled with mental health issues in a county with no mental health facilities that are accessible to poor people, and that he struggled with drug issues in a county with no detox center. We know that Champaign County’s go-to method for dealing with drug and mental health crises is the criminal justice system rather than a community health system.

Community organizations such as Build Programs Not Jails (BPNJ) have been pressuring the County Board about this for years, as the County Board has schemed every which way to put public funds toward jail expansion and law enforcement rather than crucial services such as mental health, drug treatment, and housing for formerly incarcerated and economically marginalized people. The Urbana school board recently considered a proposal put forward by the Housing Authority of Champaign County to evict people from public housing whose children are absent from too many days of school. Again, this evidences a preference the governing boards of this county have for resorting to punitive measures to control poor communities; measures which only serve to increase people’s likelihood to end up on the streets or in jail. Last Tuesday evening, November 15, members of several community organizations such as BPNJ, Black Lives Matter, Black Rose Anarchist Federation, the Graduate Employment Organization, and the Independent Media Center among others, packed the school board meeting to urge them not to pass the measure which would only serve to further criminalize low-income families in Urbana.

While at this point we know little about how Richard Turner died, we can say with surety that this punitive law enforcement system that treated his drug and mental health struggles as law enforcement issues rather than community health issues failed him. Most nauseating, local news outlets have been running stories about how much everyone loved Richard Turner, a man this County left to panhandle in the streets, a man that frat boys from the university used to take selfies with as a joke, a man that fraternity and sorority brothers and sisters used to laughingly refer to as “Black Santa.” Now these scumbags are going to pretend that they not only liked, but loved him. A News-Gazette article that came out Wednesday evening stated that “everybody loved Richie,” but later in that very same article notes that Turner’s probation officer said “when Mr. Turner was in drug court, officials there were unable to find any family locally who was willing to help him.” Local news website referred to Turner as “our beloved campus icon,” as several over-privileged college students lamented how they will miss “Black Santa.” What in the hell did the campus ever do for Richard Turner that it can claim him as its own? If, as the probation officer says, there was no family locally who was willing to help him, and yet everyone was willing to treat him as a joke, as a mascot to take selfies with, and as a criminal, then what kind of love is that?

In response to the shape the local reporting on the matter has taken, Black Rose integrating member Tyler Camp of the Campus Union for Trans Equality and Support likened the disingenuous community love for Turner to UIUC’s racist “Chief” mascot:


“All of the articles I’ve seen reporting on the death of Richard Turner are incredibly dehumanizing, calling him the campus icon in an equation of his life and personhood with things such as the alma mater or ironically enough, the chief. If that doesn’t point out how dehumanizing it is to be called an icon I don’t know what will. The white tears “celebrating” his memory or the cutesy image of him as Black Santa are hypocritical enough when poverty is so often demonized while the person is alive only for them to be missed for the reminder of our (usually begrudging or uncomfortable) empathy once they’ve passed. We have no right to claim empathy for this man. Our condolences are not comforting to anyone but maybe our own conscience and I ask you to challenge your conscience in believing that you can be comforted while millions of people remain in poverty due to systemic violences of classism, racism, ableism, and white patriarchy. The fact that these articles gloss over the police involvement in Turner’s death make me highly suspicious that the incident leading up to it was motivated by the criminalization of racialized poverty. White tears are hypocritical, demeaning and outright oppressive when we are complicit in and perpetuate these racist stereotypes of poverty and homelessness, meanwhile failing to understand the systems that cause people like Turner to be surrounded by police in their last moments. And as of right now due to the absolute shit media reporting and obstruction of information in the police department we have no way of knowing just how much the system has failed Turner in his death, further than the fact of his homelessness which is a failure enough of our broken social welfare system.”


If this community truly loves Turner the way it claims to, then it will seriously begin the work of dismantling the cruel criminal justice system and replace it with needed services, accessible to all, such as healthcare, including mental healthcare services, housing for all with no strings attached, including for people who leave jail or prison with little to no money and no address, and drug detox and treatment that is unconnected to law enforcement and which treats drug addiction as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue. Regardless of how Turner died, he was killed by a heartless, racist, and punitive social system.

Portrait of Richard Turner, Photo Credit – Ryan Fang