Feb. 12, 2007: 'This is what drives me'
- Article by: Terry Collins
- Star Tribune
- June 6, 2013 - 11:20 AM
Don Samuels admits he went too far this time.
A suggestion to "burn North High School down," he now admits, was "an error [made] out of passion" to argue that Minneapolis public schools are failing black males.
Yet the City Council member for the Fifth Ward remains unapologetic for challenging the status quo on the North Side, even if it further distances him from other black leaders who argue that "he doesn't get it."
It's been that way for awhile, particularly since 2002, when Samuels marched up and down a drug-infested 26th Avenue N. in the Jordan neighborhood with a group of neighbors who clashed not only with the mostly teenage dealers, but with other groups who also wanted safer streets.
Those same neighbors convinced Samuels, a Jamaican-born toy designer turned community activist, to run for the open seat of Joe Biernat, who was headed to prison after a corruption investigation.
Since Samuels' election victory in 2003 and even after his hard-fought reelection two years later, he has been both admired and disliked for his outspokenness.
He has been praised for taking a hard line in trying to reduce crime in one of the toughest parts of town. Yet some question why he didn't demand that city surveillance cameras be installed in his ward first. There are also constant claims of young black men being racially profiled by the police.
Samuels, chairman of the council's Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, accepts the challenges.
"This is a life that I have chosen - to do whatever it takes to make our communities safe and livable, even if I am misunderstood at times," he said. "This is what drives me."
Yet despite all of the on-site vigils for murder victims, shutting down of convenience stores catering to drug dealers, and urging the middle class to move into his ward to bring prosperity, some of Samuels' ardent supporters might not so easily let him off the hook for his North High statement, which appears in a Mpls.St.Paul magazine article.
"I can't get that comment out of my head. I can't think of a white person who would say that," said Mona Miller Harris, who voted for Samuels in 2005. "He picked on a community institution. We feel victimized. There's already this underdog mentality on the North Side, and to have someone who lives here publicly pick on us is pretty unfathomable."
Another supporter, Natonia Johnson, who went door-knocking for Samuels during his last campaign, said she has mixed emotions.
"Don will really have to watch what he says," Johnson said. "We're not going to tolerate that. All that talk and balk means nothing if you can't deliver. I'm calling you out: Can you deliver?"
This wasn't the first time Samuels has said something to agitate the black community. Nearly two years ago, he was accused of making racist and elitist comments during a live radio broadcast. He said that his great-grandfathers, "mullato slaves," had benefitted during slavery:
"The reason my family got a leg up on people in our village in Jamaica is that we were in the Big House. They saw books read, they saw the piano lesson directly because they were in the Big House.
"That's why my wife and I say that our house is the Big House on our block. We're going to open it up to every kid on our block."
The "Big House" usually refers to the plantation owner's house, and slaves who lived there had certain privileges over other slaves.
Two activists responded with their own sharp words (some perceived as death threats) on a public access television show. Samuels then filed a police complaint, which was later dropped. He then filed a formal complaint with the city's Civil Rights Department that is still pending.
But "this latest comment tops that," said Harris, program director for the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, a nonprofit designed to increase minority academic success. "It shows how unconnected [Samuels] can be."
Samuels will pay a price for what he said, but it probably won't end his political career - in fact he just might benefit from it, said Larry Jacobs, director of the center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.
"He's still got some explaining to do. In some sectors, it might be the straw that broke the camel's back, but my sense is that he has some support in the black community," Jacobs said.
"There are some who share his frustration, and he may have just tapped into that sense of disappointment and concern," Jacobs added.
Whatever the student graduation or failure rate is, Samuels now says that education, in addition to public safety, will be his main platform. He wants to work on a partnership with the Minneapolis schools to narrow the achievement gap. To that end, he wants to bring in noted educational experts from the public and charter sectors to share what works. He also wants to ask foundations and lawmakers to help the Minneapolis schools replicate the successes and form an independent group to monitor the progress.
Samuels knows it won't be easy to win people over. He will likely face more questions, including why his two daughters attend a Minneapolis private school.
Samuels has been invited to attend an at-large community meeting Thursday night at North High. He said late Sunday that he's likely to be there.
North High students are anxious to meet him in person.
"If he has any remorse, he would come on a regular basis to see what we need to improve on," Lydia Atlas, 18, a college-bound senior, said last week. "We need to see him, hear from him. Apologize to us in person. Show us that you care. Truly care."
Samuels said that on Friday a North teacher e-mailed him an idea: Have a contest for students to respond to his comments. The first-prize winner gets to spend a day shadowing him.
"I'm going to tell her, let's do it," Samuels said. "I want to make this happen."
Terry Collins - 612-673-1790
© 2014 Star Tribune