Reckless Eyeballin'

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

Go to a meeting of the Minneapolis city council, the civil rights commission, a community gathering at Lucille's Kitchen, or any of a dozen other places where city policy is being discussed and implemented, and you're likely to see Ron Edwards perched in a corner or camped in the back of the room, taking it all in. Tune to Channel 17 at 5:00 p.m. on a Sunday, and you'll see him again on Black Focus, recounting the week's hot issues with minimal notes and plenty of candor, delivering a rambling but ultimately coherent 30-minute soliloquy that's likely to include behind-the-scenes details--municipal machinations and motivations that you won't get anywhere else.

Edwards has been breaking news and raising hackles in this town since the '60s, when he founded People Employing People and began his lifetime work, nearly all of it unpaid, as a community advocate. He has chaired the Civil Rights Commission and the Minneapolis Urban League and served on the executive committee of the local naacp. On November 1, Beacon Hill Press published The Minneapolis Story Through My Eyes, Edwards's compelling memoir that connects the dots between his decades of activism and the current state of the city.

Earlier this month, when we got together to talk about the book at Curran's restaurant in south Minneapolis, Edwards was receiving a steady stream of phone calls regarding his upcoming participation in the federal mediation process that will attempt to mitigate the rancor that has arisen between the Minneapolis Police Department and the city's communities of color.

Diana Watters

The context surrounding Edwards's appointment to the mediation panel is typical of his influence and means of operation. His words and actions have made him plenty of enemies among the various factions that would be expected to have political influence over the composition of the mediation panel, including the mpd, Mayor R.T. Rybak, other city administrators, and the leadership of mainstream black organizations such as the Urban League and the naacp.

Yet it was Edwards who called federal mediators last August, on the night police clashed with residents of the Jordan neighborhood. It was Edwards who wrote a formal letter to the regional director of the Community Relations Division of the U.S. Department of Justice the next day, asking for federal intervention. It was Edwards who later convinced the city's Civil Rights Commission to pass a resolution endorsing federal mediation, and quietly lobbied the city council to pass legislation so mediation could happen. In other words, his involvement made it impossible for him to be left out of the upcoming mediation process.

The Minneapolis Story, like its author, is both convoluted and clear-thinking, egotistical and insightful, racially charged and deliberately colorblind when it comes to criticizing city and community leaders. The book contains some sensational allegations, including claims that former judge and commissioner of corrections Sheryl Ramstad Hvass unfairly influenced an obstruction of justice case against Edwards by tampering with the court transcript; and that wcco-tv colluded with members of the Urban League in an unsuccessful attempt to portray Edwards mismanaging Urban League funds at a national conference in San Francisco.

But there is also praise meted out to former presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; and black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. DuBois, Booker Washington, and Thurgood Marshall. Edwards also cites numerous sources where readers can go for further information on the topics at hand, and he frequently suggests detailed prescriptions for the racial and social problems he describes. Encompassing the period from when Edwards arrived in Minneapolis as a boy more than 50 years ago to events as recent as two weeks before its publication, the book is ultimately a fascinating, opinionated chronicle of a black man's experience in our not-so-fair city.

City Pages: How is Minneapolis different racially from other cities in America?

Edwards: I think we are greater pretenders. We are not honest about how we feel about the question of race, or the question of poverty. There are some enclaves set up around the country where politicians will say, "We don't like you. We have a problem with you being here." At least that way, you don't have a strange relationship all the time. That doesn't happen here, although the feeling is the same. That's one of the ways I have seen Minneapolis be different from a Chicago or a Memphis or a Kansas City or a Denver. There is that Minnesota Nice, which to me is just a big disguise that justifies not being honest about the issues.

I think Minneapolis has always been very comfortable with its whiteness, but that started to fall apart about 1972. You had Wendell Anderson appearing on the cover of Time saying, "Welcome to Minnesota." Well, I will never forget the great migration of people coming up here, particularly from Gary, Indiana, because the steel mills had closed. And when they got here, it was like, "Uh-oh, we didn't mean you." And it increased in the '80s and '90s when you had people coming from Omaha and Detroit and Chicago. The reaction to that showed the raw side of Minneapolis.

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.

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.

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."

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.]

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.

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.

By the time of the racial disturbances around the country in 1964, we were already starting to grow our hair out, following what was being done by the original Black Panthers, with the free breakfasts and the health centers. Not long after that I showed myself to be a good organizer when I took over what was then identified as the CVO, the Central Village Organization. It was a beautiful experience for me because that's where I really confirmed in my mind that I could organize people and identify issues. So I think those were three times--the situation with my guidance counselor, when we formed PEP, and then with the CVO.

Because of my experiences, I understand how the system works. And one of my biggest concerns is that our young men and women are not being educated. Consequently they are like deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. That breeds frustration and anger, when a person knows or discovers that they really can't compete. Then you start reaching a level where your judgment of your success is how well you handle a 9mm or protect your turf or how well you can run a scam.

My friend Nellie Stone Johnson always used to say, "No education, no housing, no hope." Promises have been made and broken to us in education and in the area of the so-called affordable housing debate. I think the Hollman situation [resulting in the razing of several hundred housing units on the city's north side] is a glaring example. I think about all those African Americans who had 70 and 80 years in this community, who were pushed out in 1990, 1991. And this was done by an African-American woman [who initiated the lawsuit], under the administration of an African-American mayor. There is that whole game they talk: "We need industry, and with that industry will be jobs and economic opportunity." But construction contracts aren't there for us and the small businesses that were to be generated for us--none of that is happening. So you have got people who are not only disillusioned but have become distant from the process.

So it is becoming extremely important to develop a cadre that will be the future. At age 63 I look around and I am frightened, because there is nobody coming along. I don't see anything approaching the movement that gave me the encouragement and the passion coming out of the 1960s, where I had elders, some of them mentioned in the book, who gave me a sense of purpose and indicated a course I needed to pursue.

I don't apologize for the passion for my people, but I don't see anything coming up. I see a lot of young people who think they can tuck themselves away either in suburban America or in some protected enclaves of the city and everything will go away. That's bullshit, man. It has become chic to say, "Let's not get into race." But I come from the old school and I know that far too many things are still predicated on race.

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