Don Samuels: The Great Black Hope?

Can Don Samuels heal what ails the North Side and Twin Cities’ race relations in one fell swoop?

Don Sameuls: The Great Black Hope?
Photo by Craig Bares

Samuels is chortling over his new city business cards, which have a unique feature—they fold out to reveal not just his contact info, but that of every council colleague, the mayor, the governor, and even newly elected Congressman Keith Ellison. Samuels goads North Siders to call the list when they experience neighborhood trouble so the rest of the city can’t ignore problems that haven’t yet become crises. But ultimately, he says, he tells constituents, “You owe me a nervous breakdown, and until I have one, I will always consider the people of north Minneapolis are underengaged and underserving themselves.”

Benjamin Myers took Samuels at his word. One night, Myers discovered his new neighbor at 26th and Logan Avenue North screaming at a juvenile. The cops drove by, but did nothing. Furious, Myers then called Samuels. “Fifteen minutes later, there’s Don sitting in front of the house in his car,” Myers remembers. “It’s after 10.” Says Samuels, “I walked into a group of guys and said, ‘Hey, how you doin? Whatcha doing?’ ‘Ain’t doin’ nothing, man. Who are you?’ And one says, ‘Oh, that’s Council, man’—they call me Council. I could tell this was one of those cases where you don’t assert—show no fear, but don’t engage too much. So I went back to my office, did some research, and I found out that there was no rental license and an unpaid water bill. So we shut it down! In seventy-two hours!”

Some might fret about a family being thrown out on the street or another set of boards being thrown up in a town full of homeless. But, like the Iraqi who knows nothing matters without security, Samuels pooh-poohs such talk. “You can worry about boarded-up houses if you live somewhere else, but if it’s an alternative to a nasty gang house, pshhh, board it up!” (Myers says the house was soon occupied—by a “respectful, quiet” family.)

Samuels has been there. In 1997, he and Sondra, newly married, bought a home in what was then “Murderapolis.” Why make such a dangerous move? “Because it was very clear that this is where the need was,” Samuels says, adding with a laugh, “It was all over the news. So many of the first middle-class African Americans had joined the white middle class in exiting the inner city as fast as we could, it created this whole void of leadership in the community, and we needed it to flow back the other way.”

He ticks off the roster of cancers on his new block: “We had two houses of prostitution, three drug houses—not, ‘Gee, officer, there’s suspicious activity,’ but real brazen stuff. So Sondra and I revived the block club, and together with the neighbors we got rid of all of those problems.”

Block club residents took down drug buyers’ license plate numbers and picketed dealers’ houses, and occasionally the landlords who rented to them. At a problem house, Samuels recalls, “fifteen of us would line the fence, two people go to the door, knock on it, and say we just had a meeting about you, and you guys are scaring us to death, and we want to help you in whatever way we can to make your home situation better. What can we do?”

A neighbor, Bill Ullom, erected a backyard basketball hoop to blow off steam with the gangbangers. He says he was shot at twice, once while working on his car in the backyard. When the worst trouble arose, he says, “I’d call 911 and Don. Guess who got there first? He’d never act scared. At the time, he’d say, ‘That’s a close one; we’re lucky the Lord protected us.’ ”

Eventually the miscreants drifted away, probably to find less nosy neighbors. But Samuels and Ullom did see blood spilled. Says Ullom, “One time, down in front of Amos & Amos on West Broadway, Don was talking to three young men selling drugs. They called him a Tom and an Oreo, but he said, ‘Man, I care for you, you’re going to die if you keep selling drugs.’ He walked around the corner, and not more than two or three minutes later five or six shots rang out. The one youth who didn’t get shot came around the corner screaming for help and threw himself into Don’s arms as his two friends lay there bleeding.”

Samuels’s passion for public safety can undermine his real-world efforts. After voting against a last-minute budget request for the city’s libraries, he was talking to Star Tribune reporter Terry Collins about the city’s sixtieth homicide, a high since the Murderapolis days. Samuels, referring to his library vote, said, “When you are a person on the other end of a gun . . . the only use for a book is to throw it at them or block a bullet with it.” The remark drew furious letters to the editor and a tut-tut editorial saying libraries deter crime by providing a positive alternative for kids. In real life, Samuels has been a Hennepin County guardian ad litem for troubled kids, a tutor, and a Sunday school teacher.