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St. Louis County Commissioner skips moment of silence for George Floyd

A fellow St. Louis County Commissioner called Commissioner Keith Nelson's actions "flagrant racism." Nelson says he just wasn't feeling well.

A fellow St. Louis County Commissioner called Commissioner Keith Nelson's actions "flagrant racism." Nelson says he just wasn't feeling well. Facebook

On Tuesday, the St. Louis County Board took a quick, 15-minute recess from a meeting.

Board Chair Mike Jugovich asked the commissioners to stick around for a few minutes to hear a proclamation from Gov. Tim Walz, followed by an 8-minute, 46-second silence. The pause in proceedings was to acknowledge the life of George Floyd, the man killed by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, and the length of the silence was symbolic of how long officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd's neck.

Around the time Jugovich explained the moment of silence, Commissioner Keith Nelson stood from his chair and left the room. He returned to his seat sometime between the end of the moment of silence and the resumption of the meeting.

His fellow commissioner Beth Olson, who attended the meeting virtually that day, published a Facebook post shortly afterward about what happened, saying Nelson had “refused” to participate.

“He refused to stand to honor the life of a brutally murdered man. Refused,” she wrote. “I’m so embarrassed, sad, angry, and frustrated to serve on this board where flagrant racism abounds.”

Here’s that post in its entirety.

At our St. Louis County Board meeting, we just read the governors proclamation and stood in silence for 8mins and 46...

Posted by Beth Olson on Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Nelson disputes Olson’s assessment of what happened.

“Anyone [who] acts the way Commissioner Olson does is no colleague of mine,” he says. According to Nelson, he gave Board Chair Jugovich a heads up that he was leaving because he didn’t feel well. He told Fox 21 he’s diabetic and was dealing with that at the time.

Jugovich didn’t respond to interview requests, but he told Fox 21 something to that effect, too.

“I understand… the timing probably wasn’t the best. But he did not feel well and he does have some health issues,” he said.

Nelson adds that there was “no disrespect intended” and that Olson had “made her own assumptions” because she “disliked” him.

Olson says she never wanted this to be personal.

“Of course I would want him to take care of his health,” she says. But afterward, she heard “no mention” of the moment of silence from Nelson, she says -- no acknowledgement that he hadn’t been present, nothing on the “magnitude” of the event and what it stood for, no apology for his unavailability at that exact time. It was only later, she says, after the public and the media started reaching out, that he gave an explanation.

“This builds upon a history of this kind of behavior from him,” she says. Last year, when Olson raised the question of white privilege during a debate about renaming public works projects for people, Nelson told her he "wouldn't apologize" for being a white man.  

Of particular note is a video that resurfaced this week of Nelson at a meeting back in 2007, in which he said “if the people in [his] district had voted for slavery,” he would as well.

“That’s my job,” he said. “My job is to represent the people in my district. It is not to impose upon them my will. That is called a totalitarian state. Last I saw, we still live in a democracy.”

He ended up walking that back later, after the clip ended up online. He called his comment a “terse response to a smart-ass remark” and said if it came down to “morals,” he would not represent people in the United States who supported slavery.

Olson says she’s “surprised” by how much attention this most recent moment has gotten, though she wishes the public would pay more attention to the county level of government in general. They don’t normally get as much engagement as the state or city, but the county makes a lot of decisions about law enforcement and corrections -- decisions at the top of every Minnesotan’s mind after the last few weeks of unrest and decades of policing disproportionately levied against Black and brown people.

“We play a really big role in how all of this happens,” she says.