Reckless Eyeballin'

Longtime civil rights activist and agitator Ron Edwards talks about the city he loves and hates

Another indicator that we are not wanted here would be the composition of the city council and the composition of the police department, both of which play against the diversity of the city. And there was the composition of the fire department. Nobody can tell me about the Minneapolis Fire Department: I was the overseer [of a longstanding federal decree ordering the department to desegregate] for more than 20 years. I know how they got to the little numbers of blacks and other people of color that they got to. And it really didn't happen until you got a chief, Rocco Forte, who decided he wanted to do the right thing. It was the fire department finally saying, "Okay, we are tired of fighting this. We need to get rid of Ron Edwards. It is an embarrassment for him to be over us."

It is just the reverse with the composition of the police department, where the number of people of color is declining. Where are the liberals? Where is the acceptance of the doctrine that it is important to begin to provide a department that reflects something of the way the citizenry looks?

CP: In that regard, there are two city officials who are often at odds with each other: Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson. In your book, you accuse Rybak of being chosen by the city power brokers because he is a weak man who can be manipulated.

Diana Watters

Edwards: First of all, Rybak and I have a bit of a personal problem. After the Natalie Johnson Lee letter [regarding the shooting of MPD officer Melissa Schmidt] generated so much controversy, he stated publicly--and later confirmed to Natalie--that he believed I wrote the letter. So I sent him a letter in August, asking him to retract that and make a public apology. And of course he didn't. The first four or five months he was in office, at least we could speak. He sees me now and he doesn't speak to me and so I don't speak to him either.

I just think he is playing a little game with his claims of openness at city hall. But it is not like I couldn't work with him. I met with him in February. I went in with a small delegation of African-American ministers, in the role of an advisor. In fact it was I, back in February, who told him that he needed to look at his situation with respect to the police department, and the lack of diversity, and the fact that Chief Olson has really shown no great enthusiasm to increase minority participation. And he then said back to me that he knew the numbers were shrinking. And I said, Not only that, but the current numbers that are being used are not accurate.

But that is on [former mayor Sharon Sayles] Belton. The wrong numbers went on with Belton for seven years. It wasn't until her last year in office that she started listening to people and having a meaningful dialogue about this. I've known Sharon since she was a little girl, but she owns a piece of that.

As for Rybak, it was clear to me that people went to Rybak right off the bat and said Ron Edwards is bad news, he's negative, he doesn't speak for his community, he doesn't know what the hell he is talking about. And he bought into it. When I made reference to him as a weak man in the book, I meant that.

CP: What are your feelings about Chief Olson at this point?

Edwards: Olson lives across the alley from my nieces and has been over for barbecue. I don't have any personal animus toward him. In fact I think that Robert Olson is a good man. I met with him about three months ago after someone had gotten the crap beaten out of him by the police. It was a good meeting. I don't see Olson as a racist or a negative person. I just see him as a law enforcement person. Right now his big ambition is to move on to the Department of Homeland Security. He has visions of becoming regional director or something.

One of the problems between Olson and me is over Kevin Brewer [the 11-year-old boy who was unintentionally shot during an alleged gang dispute near a park on the north side in August, 2000]. I told him that he had dropped the ball and tried to cover it up by continuing to raise the question over who killed Kevin Brewer. The history is, six black police officers, along with yours truly, solved that case. The person who killed Kevin Brewer had been executed shortly after it happened.

I criticized Olson at his confirmation hearing in December of 2000. And he was pissed. One of the things that happened was that [former Eighth Ward city council member] Brian Herron changed his vote and Olson was reconfirmed. A lot of the people in the community were dependent on Brian to carry the ball and Brian didn't do it. Brian changed his vote, because of pressure from [then-council president] Jackie Cherryhomes. But what happened, if you go back to January of 2001, there was an article in the Star Tribune where Olson was asked about criticism from Ron Edwards, who, said the author of the story, David Chanen, allegedly represents the Black Police Officers Association. And Chief Olson said that Ron Edwards doesn't know what he's talking about and we will have the Brewer case solved very quickly. After some consultation with my black police officer friends and associates, who had respected me by letting me be their spokesperson, I met with two homicide detectives for three hours around the middle of January. I walked them through what had happened and how the person who killed Brewer had in fact been killed himself. It made sense to them, but they were over committed, they were too far out there because of the chief.

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