Nook Turner’s Fight to Deliver Economic Justice to Austin’s Black Community

by | Apr 6, 2021 | Politics, Social Justice

In the summer of 1997, thousands of Black Austinites streamed to Rosewood Park, a historic space on the capital city’s East Side. They were headed to Jump On It, an event created by rising rapper Nook Turner and longtime civil rights activist Dorothy Turner (no relation). Blending music, food, and entertainment with key offerings like healthcare and job resources to unite Austin’s Black community, Turner said the gathering was an inflection point for an area that had been fractured by years of redlining, heavy policing, and dwindling opportunities. 

“We brought out at least 5,000 people a week that first summer. We were creating history and tradition in real time,” he said. “I can’t understate the importance of that. Because at one point, 90 percent or more of the people who grew up with me were in prison, getting out of prison, or dead. When you see that firsthand, you know something isn’t right; that you’re being stripped of any real chance at happiness and prosperity.”

Though he was only 18 at the time, Turner had long been aware of Austin’s deep-seated inequities and systemic racism. As a ten-year-old, he watched as the crack epidemic swept through his neighborhood. Later, as a teenager, he was dumbstruck by how differently his private school peers (all of whom resided in the city’s wealthy, white areas) lived. It was obvious none of them faced the daily struggles and ceaseless fears he did. Even more, he said, they were oblivious to decades of city policies that had worked to actively oppress Black residents, especially the infamous 1928 Master Plan.

Created by Austin’s City Council, the edict forcibly moved all Black Austinites to an area totaling six square miles east of IH-35. Beyond stripping many African Americans of their valuable central city properties (including countless in neighborhoods that now represent some of the town’s richest regions), the move limited zoning restrictions and encouraged commercial and industrial uses — some of which were hazardous to the health of people in adjacent neighborhoods. All of this laid the foundation for the gentrification that’s now ravaging East Austin, he said, leaving him increasingly resigned to the notion that Black people no longer had a place in Austin. 

But then, George Floyd was murdered. Spurred to take action, Turner teamed up with organizations like the Austin Justice Coalition, which led the charge to reduce the city’s police budget by $150 million, to steer the conversation around race and reconciliation in the capital city. After weeks of negotiations, he co-founded the Black Austin Coalition (BAC) with the aim of delivering financial restitution and economic justice to his community. “Whether it’s through music, fashion, or any number of things, we, as Black people, have made a lifestyle out of struggling and surviving,” he said. “It’s what influences and fuels popular American culture. But we’ve been actively excluded from receiving the profits from our labor. That’s true here in Austin, too. The time has come for that to change.” 

In the months since, BAC has grown from a grassroots campaign comprised of Black leaders, businesses, and nonprofits to one on the brink of creating revolutionary change. That’s because last month, with the organization’s backing, Austin’s City Council unanimously passed a resolution acknowledging its role in perpetuating racist policies that fueled massive gaps in health, wealth, and equity for generations of African American residents. The council didn’t stop there, though: Rather, the legislation directed the city to calculate the monetary impact of its systemic racism and invest in a Black embassy/resource center.

The significance of this can’t be overstated, said Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who grew up in East Austin and now represents the area. “I know people are tired of hearing about race, but we’ve reached the point where you just have to engage in these critical conversations about reconciliation, truth, and atonement,” she said. “We’re moving in the direction of revolutionizing how a modern, progressive city operates from the perspective of equity. This is a really exciting moment — one that could shape policy around the country.”

While the city’s internal analysis won’t be available until early August, Turner anticipates that its findings will exceed $500 million worth of economic restitutions. If he’s right, the move would deliver vital capital to fund Black-owned businesses and reinvigorate Black neighborhoods (or even construct new developments entirely), providing new life and new hope for communities that have been deprived of both for years. But let’s be clear, he said: These payments are restitution for generations of city-sanctioned economic disparity, not reparations. 

The possibility of a monetary payout is undeniably powerful, but the idea of a Black embassy is equally intriguing. Given the systemic failures that African Americans have been exposed to from a policy-making perspective and at a citywide resource level, Turner believes it’s time to allow Black Austinites some much-needed agency within their communities. In that vein, he said, the prospective embassy will be home to a myriad of offerings in various sectors, including workforce development, healthcare, finance, and transportation. It would also seek to localize law enforcement in hopes of decreasing the likelihood of escalations between officers and community members. 

“If you increase people’s opportunities, increase their access to resources, the level of crime and the need for police intervention will naturally go down,” Turner said. “But when law enforcement is necessary, you need people from within the community responding, who live there, who know the people there, who care about the people there, to be the ones stepping in. That’s how you truly protect everyone.”

Despite these potential gains, Turner knows that many steps remain before his dream becomes a reality. That means more coalition-building, boosting BAC’s presence around town, and ensuring local officials stay true to the commitment they made in March. And while he’s had to essentially put his rap career — which has included collaborations with artists like Ying Yang Twins, DJ Michael “5000” Watts, and Chalie Boy — on hold, he’s planning to resume making what he refers to as “freedom music” in the coming months, too. This is just the beginning of a larger movement, he said.

“This has to be a collective, people-driven effort. That includes the people here who aren’t Black,” he said. “Whether it was during slavery or the civil rights movement, there have always been allies to help Black people in their fight for equality. We need that type of solidarity now more than ever.”

Photo: Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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