Reckless Eyeballin'

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

When the City asked the Justice Department, "What are the consequences if this mediation doesn't work?" the mediator told them that the next visit would be from the Civil Rights Division, and they would come in for the purpose of imposing a consent decree upon you. If you violate the consent decree, they will put your department into receivership.

I assume Mayor Rybak and others know that John Ashcroft has got to be rubbing his hands together over this--that a significant Democratic enclave called Minneapolis could possibly be at the mercy at the Ashcroft Justice Department. And yet the black leadership still refuses to respect the presence of Natalie Johnson Lee.

Natalie represents a new approach, vision, and design, and the community delivered their mandate by electing her. I find it amazing that there is continued resistance to her by some members of the black community, which to me shows a lack of political savvy. Folk are lucky that Johnson Lee, by fate or for whatever reason, was there. We were 72 votes away from an all-white city council. And I think the level of intensity and stress that is occurring in the city right now with respect to police issues would be overwhelming without Johnson Lee down there to bring the perspective of people of color.

Diana Watters

Now [Second Ward council member Paul] Zerby attempts to make it appear that he is sensitive to people of color, particularly Somalians; and I think [Sixth Ward member Dean] Zimmermann also does. I have known Dean for years and I think he legitimately tries to advance the debate. But it is clear that without Johnson Lee, her presence and her words, that we would really have some tensions in this town.

CP: You have also been critical of the work of the city's Civil Rights Department in recent years.

Edwards: The problem with the Civil Rights Department began over a decade ago, when Democratic hacks felt it was more important to do what the Democratic party wanted so as not to embarrass our liberal image. I don't remember the last time the Civil Rights Commission had a public hearing on an issue that was important to anybody. I speak from experience, because one of the things that happened under my leadership, I used the hell out of that portion of the ordinance which dealt with holding public forums.

But once the Civil Rights Department bought into the concept being advanced by the Democrats--"We don't want to rock the boat or make ourselves look bad"--the department and the commission lost its direction. I've been at their last three meetings--intentionally harassing them, if you will--and the chairperson now tells a story that for all of 2001 they never had a quorum. At one point they probably had only about eight functioning commissioners. I think you could make a case that this is gross malfeasance in office by the city council and the mayors, both Rybak and Belton.

CP: Was there a specific point in your life when you knew you were going to dedicate yourself to do what you are doing now?

Edwards: Yes, there were a couple. One was when my guidance counselor at Franklin Junior High School tried to psychologically destroy me, which is in the book. Understand I come from a family where I am the only individual in the last two generations of my family that didn't get a college degree. And the guidance counselor asked me the question, what did I want to be? I had just turned 14. And my dream was to go into the diplomatic corps, into the foreign service. I saw myself working at the African desk. And this cat basically tried to destroy me psychologically. He laid back in his seat, and even though I recognized that I was seeing institutional and personal racism, it hurt me.

The way he came at me, he laughed at me and said, "Ron, what you ought to do is go down to vocational and take some training as a tailor and then maybe see if you can get yourself a job pressing pants." And I said, "Wow. Wow. Okay." It shattered me psychologically from the standpoint that I went from being a B student to the only reason I stayed in school was sports. I was a starter in football and basketball and ran track. That's all that kept me there.

The thing that helped me get over that happened in my senior year. I had a grandmother who always stayed on me; at that time I was her only grandchild. And she always talked about the importance of going on and getting an education. And at the age of 16, 17, I was like, "Yeah, okay, Grandma." But something brought me back. And it led to the second thing that made me know what I was going to do. Two years later, a group of us founded PEP, People Employing People, which was concerned with the importance of people getting job opportunities. We initiated, with the tactical advice of my mentors Dr. Frank Johnson and Frank Alsop, a picketing of the Minneapolis Club, which I think was the point in time when the bosses first began to see me as an irritant. They were pissed. They went and got Cecil Newman and said, "Can you get these people under control?" But see, my grandfather had been Cecil Newman's family doctor in Kansas City.

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