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

Asked about police brutality, Samuels says, “You never see people who live on a tough block in the community talking about ‘My priority is police brutality and what they’re doing to our young boys.’ You will never”—he thumps the table—“hear it from people living in some streets in my community unless that family is involved in crime.” Thundering now, he adds: “The absolute priority is ‘I can’t take this!’ ”—thump—“ ‘My family isn’t safe!’ ”—thump—“And ‘If I had the money, I’d get out of here!’ ”

Few would argue with Samuels’s emphasis on public safety, but to claim police brutality doesn’t matter seemingly ignores the millions the city has forked over settling claims and the legitimate concern for legitimate victims by people who reject a choice between safety and responsibility. But here’s the thing: Samuels supports toughening the city’s civilian review of brutality accusations; he knows it is a legitimate community problem. He earned the enmity of the Minneapolis Black Police Officers Association after forwarding to the police administration a brutality claim from a black constituent about two black officers.

Though he’s earned headlines for calling on his own community to see its role in its problems, he will also slaughter white sacred cows if he thinks their failures hurt black kids. To Minneapolis liberals with a near-religious belief in public education, the man who as a single father raised his son by his first wife says, “My children will not darken the door of a Minneapolis public school in this city at this time under these conditions. I’ve said burn North High School down! I can’t be paying as a taxpayer for the education of my neighbors and 72 percent of them are failing—meaning black boys. Something worse than vouchers could come along. If it works, if it sacrifices the entire school system, fine! Get rid of the damn thing! It hasn’t worked!”

And lest this all sound like music to the ears of, say, voucher-loving Republicans, Samuels has a message for them too: “You realize the Republicans have fought against just about all the principles that have allowed me to participate in the American dream? I couldn’t be a Republican.”

Still, when it comes to personal responsibility, Samuels doesn’t means-test. Late last year he voted to increase fees to reconnect city water that’s been shut off, even though some colleagues argued his poor constituents would be hit hardest. “I know some people might be hurting,” Samuels said later. “But what I’ve seen a lot is an acceptance of bad behavior in the community because the leadership doesn’t live [among] it, they live somewhere else. Let’s talk about a payment plan, not just no responsibility. Believe me, there are people who learn to work the system. We have to have ways to alleviate the worst situations. But if we take the rules off the table because those caught up in the net are poor people, we’ll have mayhem.”

Yet, at the same time, he has led a push to make it easier for the city to hire ex-felons, removing questions about criminal records from job applications. (The city still does criminal background checks for jobs involving safety and kids and vulnerable adults.) He has also kept a 2002 campaign promise to honor the humanity of North Side murder victims—even gang members—with day-long vigils where they were killed. Says Father O’Connell, “The guy’s brilliant. His theology and spirituality is just . . . I learn from him. I learn something from his witness. The fact that the guy is always there, with his vigils . . . it leads me.”