Photograph by Caitlin Abrams
John Turnipseed near Lake Street and Fourth Avenue, south Minneapolis
Remember “Murderapolis”? The unfortunate tag was coined in the mid-1990s around the same time The New York Times splashed its front page with a grisly reality that Minneapolis had been grappling with for years: Gang turf battles were ripping the city apart, bumping local murder rates far past those of cities with more dangerous reputations. Many of those murders were happening because, in about 1990, three branches from the same family tree founded a gang called the Rolling 30s Bloods. Their territory stretched from I-35 to the west, Chicago Avenue to the east, Lake Street to the north, and 39th Street to the south. “30s” referred to the run of streets south from Lake to 39th, “Bloods” to the fact that everyone in the gang was a blood relative. (The outfit was not related to the national Bloods gang.)
Once the new crew was established, turf feuds followed on every edge of the territory. The 1992 execution of police officer Jerry Haaf by rival gang members on the edge of Rolling 30s territory was just part and parcel of the trigger-happy culture the Rolling 30s created. Just how trigger happy was never really well understood by average Minnesotans, but if you want to get a taste of it today, read John Turnipseed’s 2014 memoir Bloodline, which tells the tale of a kid who started a career of armed robbery at 12 and went on to co-found one of the city’s most notorious gangs. Now 61, Turnipseed is an upstanding citizen, a sober and devout Christian community leader who runs the Minneapolis-based Center for Fathering, one of the country’s largest, best regarded, and most successful organizations working to heal families as a way to break cycles of poverty and incarceration. Turnipseed’s moral-rags-to-moral-riches story is so remarkable, so seemingly impossible, that local production company Five Stone and actor Lawrence Gilliard Jr.—best known as D’Angelo Barksdale from the HBO series The Wire—are busily trying to turn it into a movie.
But in the Murderapolis days, wow. Turnipseed was one of the captains of the Rolling 30s. He started doing drugs at about age 12 and was an accessory to murder at 14, when a friend he was with pushed over an elderly woman to take her purse, causing a fatal head injury in the process. By 17, he was fighting turf wars with Molotov cocktails. Turnipseed guesses he was shot at at least 10 times. Later, he became a pimp. His first child was born by emergency C-section after her mother’s belly was hit by Uzi bullets meant for Turnipseed (amazingly, both mom and baby survived). His second child was beat to death when Turnipseed was in prison. While in jail, Turnipseed established a prison gang, as well as loan-sharking and drug-dealing operations. An attempt to kidnap his then-prostitute wife was foiled. Dice games were rigged. Tens of thousands of dollars were lost to local casinos. Drugs were hoovered. Children were abandoned. No fewer than 50 Edina businesses had their safes cracked and computers removed. Nursing home residents were relieved of their heirloom diamonds.
In Bloodline, two-year stints at Stillwater are so unremarkable they’re dispensed within a line. Getting shot at or stabbed is so routine, they merit little more than a short pause between commas. Everyone in Minneapolis involved in justice, policing, social services, or just living in the city should probably read this book—and not for the usual liberal bleeding heart reasons. It will completely recalibrate most people’s basic understanding of how bad a bad guy in Minneapolis really can be.
In 1994, inspired by a rival gang’s assassination attempt against his son, Turnipseed accepted Jesus Christ, got sober, and went through the Center for Fathering, an arm of the nonprofit Urban Ventures community center. Turnipseed says his break from the Rolling 30s was relatively clean and that his family respected his newfound Godliness.
Today, in addition to running the very program that helped save his life, he speaks at conferences for jail wardens and business leaders, gives TEDx talks, and has even traveled to the White House with mayor Betsy Hodges to support Minneapolis’s connection to My Brother’s Keeper, a program that Obama founded to help close the achievement gaps for boys and young men of color. It’s as remarkable a turnaround as any in America, and you can see why television stars want to take it big. A sort of first-act short of Turnipseed’s life (produced by Five Stone and starring Gilliard Jr.) won a Best Short award at the Memphis International Film & Music Festival, was an official selection of the Hollywood Film Festival in 2009, and has inspired two more short films by the same team.
Turnipseed offices near the corner of Lake Street and Fourth Avenue, where he used to run prostitutes. Each morning, he passes buildings he once robbed with a firearm, and walks over patches of sidewalk where, years ago, some of his cousins bled to death from gunshot wounds. “This is my territory—why lose it now?” he says plainly when I meet with him at his office. He’s wearing a suit and looks young, his skin barely creased, the faint salt and pepper color of his moustache the only giveaway that he has occupied this particular quadrant of the city going on 50 years. He sits behind a wide desk that hosts a little vase of pipe cleaner flowers made by his grandson Davon, whom he and his wife are raising.
He knows the neighborhood by heart: “I got shot right over there, I got stabbed over there, my prostitutes were right there,” he gestures with one hand, through the walls to the nearby landmarks he sees in his mind’s eye. He traces the origins of all of this mayhem to the destruction of his family. His alcoholic father routinely beat his mother, making young Turnipseed want to become big and strong enough to protect her. That day eventually came, and Turnipseed went after his old man with a gun, which, if nothing else, made the abuse stop.
“The number one problem in cities today is that men are walking away from their children,” says Turnipseed in the sort of baritone, musical cadences that instantly bring to mind a preacher—which he is today, licensed and everything. “I did it. My own mother raised my girls. The streets raised my boys. My girls came out fine. My boys suffered greatly.” The crisis in education and the equity gap is, too, at its root not a school issue but a family issue, adds Turnipseed. “We are sending a broken product to the schools, expecting them to fix it. You can’t teach a kid who had Ho Hos for dinner and then sat up till five in the morning listening to their mother get beat up. Have you ever looked into a shark’s eyes? I see kids like that. There’s nothing in those eyes. Just get in the water.”
The way to reverse this problem, according to Turnipseed, is one family at a time. His Center for Fathering now graduates around 1,000 parents a year from its responsible parenting and healthy relationships classes. Those parents report stronger bonds with their children after the program concludes. In addition to leading classes at the Center for Fathering, Turnipseed acts as a sort of hands-on, open-door problem solver for residents of his little patch of central city. During a typical day, half a dozen clients will drop by with problems for him to solve. Typical: a guy whose ex-wife won’t let him see his kid. When Turnipseed asked him about the situation, the man admitted to hitting his ex-wife. “I told him, ‘You have to become a better person so your wife wants you to be around that child.’ What we do here [at the Center for Fathering] is not Pampers and brain development. We’re going to work on the character of the man. Are you clean and sober? Are you working? What values and ethics are you bringing to that child?”
Once Turnipseed gets a father working on a plan to get his life on track, he will call the mother and negotiate a way to reunite the father and child. Another typical drop-in: men who’ve come to loggerheads with their parole officer. When that happens, Turnipseed calls the officer and arranges to attend the next meeting to see if he can’t ease communication. On the day I met with him, Turnipseed was enmeshed with trying to help a 70-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who had been kicked out of her homeless shelter. That night he would be visiting gunshot victims at Regions Hospital in St. Paul; he has found that young men emerging from a near-death experience are uniquely open to a message that change is possible.
Turnipseed, of course, speaks from experience. “I don’t say, ‘You can change’ because I went to college and I get paid to say it. I know you can change because I did it. I get people in here who have hurt kids—bad. But I have to be non-judgmental. And I think leading the life I did helps. When I tell you, ‘This is not the only life you can have,’ I am not telling you this because I read it in a book, I am telling it to you from my life.” For those amenable to starting over, Urban Ventures gives felons and others job training, and hosts private job fairs with businesses that are open to hiring convicted felons. The organization places about 200 people a year in full-time jobs and estimates that, over the life of the program, it’s moved some 600 people from poverty to full-time employment, thus returning $5 million dollars a year in wages to the community.
Turnipseed says that even with all his successes at the Center for Fathering—and even if that movie happens—he has no plans to leave his work. “Every day I see the tremendous need of my community,” he says. “We came through slavery because of a family culture. The way back has always been charted for us. You give me a girl, age 14 and selling her body on the street—I guarantee there’s no daddy at home. Show me a kid with his pants around his ankles and a gun in his pocket—there’s no daddy at home. How do we put family culture back together in my community? With God, I think we can do it. I’m living proof change is possible. I never expected to be 60 and friends with the sheriff and the mayor. I never expected to be 60! [God] must have kept me around for a reason.”