Reckless Eyeballin'

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

I heard the chief just the other day at Lucille's Kitchen, talking about how he hopes the community comes forward to help them catch whoever killed Kevin Brewer. There remains a professional need to make the homicide unit look good and to ignore the contribution of the black officers. And that is an albatross that continues to hang around the chief's neck. Olson doesn't understand how I can have the respect of the black officers and still have the ability to criticize the police on occasion. He is frustrated because he is used to the idea that black people can be controlled. Instead, let's have a real debate, where we lay the issues and the evidence on the table.

CP: In your book, you cite events that occurred as recently as mid-October of this year. It must have been a hectic time getting everything in before publication.

Edwards: We were still doing corrections and additions the second and third week of October. The book was published on November 1. We wanted to put it out before the election because of the observations made about the Democratic party, coming off what had happened to former mayor Belton. I was bothered by how easy it was to sacrifice her. I find it ironic that we are now going full cycle with this gang hysteria. I know for a fact that that is what brought Sharon Sayles Belton into that seat in 1992--because we needed to lower the gang problem and we could probably do it with a tough black mayor who could get away with things like allowing the police department carte blanche. And so, particularly in her first term, Sharon was very popular. As long as she was talking tough about the gangs and working with the "right" leadership and helping them with their hustle, then the official propaganda was, "We are now solving the gang problem."

Diana Watters

So how and when did these gangs come back to fruition? It was clear that there were always all kinds of gang problems. You've got Asian gangs, who, as far as I'm concerned, are the toughest gangs right now. They in some respects make African American gangs look like little sissies, okay? The Hispanics are tough, brutal. And then you've got the white gangs, the meth gangs, operating in the suburbs, and they've got a different kind of protection. But once again the blacks are the popular target when the subject of gangs is raised.

CP: You specifically criticize some of the black leadership in this city, but there is plenty of praise for the Fifth Ward council member Natalie Johnson Lee. Talk about that dynamic.

Edwards: First, I think the problem with the leadership is that they have become comfortable, too comfortable. In some cultures they would be identified as having gotten fat. They say, "We have to look at and protect our funding; we've got alliances to maintain." But to me, the primary alliance is the protection of the franchise of your people, who by their existence made your prominence possible.

The Johnson Lee situation was different. There was a tragedy with Brian Herron, who was young and had a lot of folk wishing for and anticipating his success. He came from a good, longstanding family here. People thought he would have a long career. With his demise, the black community here was in real trouble because there really wasn't any heir apparent, any legitimate contender. Then Natalie Johnson Lee comes along and takes on the person who may have been the most powerful local politician in the city, and as far as I am concerned, pulled off the largest political upset in the history of the city. What was really amazing about that was that she was under attack during that time by the "established" black leadership in the city--who, by the way, have still not made a reconciliation with her more than a year later. The Democrats are opposed to her. You've got Phyllis Kahn's legislation, saying that [because of redistricting] there has to be another election in Johnson Lee's ward in 2003. And I know for a fact that some members of the leadership and those in the Democratic party want to make that move. And when Johnson Lee runs again in 2003, they will renew the attacks, raise questions, and measure her performance in her first year in office. My sense is that they will not prevail. But it will be interesting to see what Keith Ellison and other members of the black leadership do.

One of the great problems we have is how little information and knowledge of the community the so-called black leaders really have. They have gotten so comfortable that they don't show up and try to educate themselves or familiarize themselves. Instead they try to wing it. That is how they got burnt in the mediation process. The NAACP and the Urban League are not officially part of the mediation process. And folks are going, Wow, how did that happen? Easy. By and large the community gave them every chance to facilitate things and it didn't happen. [Editor's note: The role of the NAACP in the mediation process may still be up for grabs, see "Busted," p. 12.]

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