Black on Black Grime

The Natalie Johnson Lee/Don Samuels race for city council is one of the nastiest campaigns in local memory

The fact remains that the "personalities" of the two candidates are the most compelling and, in spite of all the nastiness, hopeful aspects of this campaign. Both Samuels and Johnson Lee are willing to engage in brutally honest discussions that put their reputations at risk and their passions on their sleeves. Unlike too many of their past and present colleagues, neither seems to be in politics for the money or to plot their next move up the electoral ladder. The fundamental tension between them is the same one that has vexed and motivated the civil rights movement for at least the last half century, since the days when debates over tactics and philosophy would rage between adherents of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: when to confront, when to accommodate.

Rebecca Stack has known Johnson Lee for six years. "I believe Natalie is color-blind. I am European-American and I have seen people in the African American community who believe they can't be prejudicial. So when I meet someone who is truly color-blind, it is very real and exciting to me. We got to know each other during meetings of the Northwest Area Foundation, years before she ran for office. I liked the way she solicited opinions from the shy people. She had a nice authority that was very subtle, she had good ideas, she was even-handed. But what I appreciated most was the way she treated me as a person."

That was the "confrontational activist" in this Janus-masked campaign. Here's the accomodationist, in his own words. "I have seen people who have lived here for a while see their children getting harder in their attempt to survive, maybe having a 'Don't mess with me' swagger, or seeing their girls get a little edgy. And they get frightened and they leave. And a few years later that person will look at those boys and girls in this community being edgy and they say, 'What's wrong with those kids? Why don't those kids do better?' And yet they fled the community because they were afraid they could not raise their own kids in this environment.

"When you hear that the county is spending $80 million a year in the North Side, know that a huge part of that money is for salaries of people living in Golden Valley and other suburbs; social workers, teachers, cops. So our community is a receptacle of the vulnerabilities and pain and ill, and many people who get the gain from that take it elsewhere, and then everybody can point to the community and say, 'Boy, that is a bad community.' It really is a cosmic joke.

"But I'm not laughing."

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