TCB Q&A: What’s Next for Don Samuels?
photo courtesy of Neighbors for Samuels

TCB Q&A: What’s Next for Don Samuels?

After his narrow primary loss for the U.S. House, Minneapolis' teller of inconvenient truths takes stock of where we are.

Don Samuels’ defeat in his campaign for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District was a double-edged sword for the Twin Cities. As one of 435 members of the U.S. House, his brand of no-holds-barred truth-telling on issues of race and equity would have had less impact than it does at home. Samuels has carved out a unique visage locally, as an advocate for racial justice who is impervious to the winds of political fashion. A resident of North Minneapolis, he served on the Minneapolis City Council from 2003-14, then did a tour of duty on the city’s school board from 2015-19, after calling for the city to burn down North High due to its inability to educate students of color.

Post-George Floyd, Samuels has been a darling of Minneapolis’ liberal elite for his emphatic pragmatism, as he became the target of contempt from the city’s young Black activist establishment. His Wikipedia page, for example, is peppered with jabs of contempt and attempts to discredit him.

A Jamaican immigrant, Samuels does not parrot the current orthodoxy on race, nor is he an apologist for the inequity deeply rooted in Minnesota culture. He was an early opponent of efforts to defund the Minneapolis Police and a plaintiff in a lawsuit to compel the city to maintain a force consistent with city charter obligations. The lawsuit ended after our interview, when the city committed to budget targets that the plaintiffs deemed sufficient. Samuels, 73, is also CEO of MicroGrants, a Minneapolis nonprofit that makes modest grants to low-income people. We spoke to Samuels at his home in the Jordan neighborhood.

Q: How do you plan to focus your time going forward?

A: I am back at work. Gotta eat. But I’ve always taken a very vigilant posture in the community and will insert myself if I am potentially useful.

Q: So you’re going to stay involved.

A: Always.

Q: Was the police staffing suit successful in your eyes?

A: We were satisfied with the mayor’s budget. We want to make sure the City Council does not undermine it and there are the resources to support that. This was not a lawsuit against the mayor. It’s a lawsuit for the delivery of sufficient resources to keep people safe. So anyone who gets in the way will have to deal with us.

Q: How do you respond to critics who say there are simply too few people going into policing to adequately staff the department and that the lawsuit was merely symbolic?

A: I want to see a sense of focus and urgency. People will put up with a lot if they feel that people care and that their inconvenience is recognized. That speaks to the care and mutuality that exists in a city. I like to point out that on Fourth of July, if you see a flag on a house it’s most likely a white family because there’s a sense in the white community that this is my environment, designed for me, it cares about me. That’s when people get loyal and put up with inconvenience. Even beyond the delivery of resources, it’s the tone you have. I’m looking for that tone among our leaders—that we have something to work with, that there’ll be a response.

Q: The activist left holds you in disdain and not only opposed your suit but suggested that the spike in crime was somehow not real or impactful. Did you notice that?

A: Yes, absolutely. That public safety is not that important an issue and that it is worth putting safety at risk to experiment with alternatives because people can ride this out. “That’s what you get when the cops kill people!” they say. As if we should be doubly victimized.

Q: Do you feel like after George Floyd’s death there was a historic consensus that change was needed, but that consensus is gone now?

A: It was an opportunity lost, and it continues to be lost. The whole world’s eyes were on us after seeing George Floyd brutally tortured, and they saw that it is real how black people are victimized. I mean, corporations were making Juneteenth a holiday. They flooded nonprofits with resources, and government got involved.

Everyone has shifted to defending against crime, which becomes racialized quickly and creates political division. Age played a part in this. A generation who saw this cycle in the 1960s saw the opportunity, whereas a younger generation did not understand the moment we had and the possibility that moment could be squandered. And it was.

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Q: You served on the school board. What’s your sense of how to fix MPS, which lurches from crisis to crisis, superintendent to superintendent, strategic plan to failed strategic plan.

A: One of the problems is the [teachers] union is the boss of the board. Then there’s the failed relationship between the educational system and dark complexion. But you can’t institute a solution that addresses the problem, because then it is racial. If you try to solve it, the unimaginative response is it is reverse racism. This is what makes it difficult to address. This time, the union compromised and agreed not to lay off black teachers first [due to low seniority]. But for me and Sondra, the focus is also equally what happens in the families. [Editor’s note: Samuels’ wife, Sondra, is CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone.] It’s both/and, not either/or. If we come at things from one angle, we won’t solve the problem.

Q: Do you accept the current critique that racism has poisoned all of our institutions and they must be rebuilt from the ground up with an anti-racist philosophy?

A: To empower whites from the role of oppressor to savior is not a good thing. We need to participate in our own salvation. The folks who are talking about this philosophy, I’m talking to them from the Jordan neighborhood, where during the ’90s there were bullets in [the walls of] every house. I’m [living] here to be part of the solution. I don’t want to hear people talking to me from a university corridor. Do something and then let’s talk. That’s how you authenticate your philosophy.

Q: Where do you see corporate Minnesota’s place in all this?

A: I would ask business to be aware of the landscape and history. This is the education that should have been shared in the K-12 system, but it is imparted in adulthood, in offices.

Sondra came here to work for Ford, left for the Peace Corps, and decided never to come back, because it was so hard for an African American professional woman. Realtors showed her a place in Minnetonka—she’s the only black person there; Ford assigned her to South Dakota; the Minnesota tradition of “up north,” having a weekend life only for your close friends and family—it [all] creates an unfriendly sense where people want to leave. It’s baked in hard to the culture. We could talk all day on that one.

Q: What about now?

A: The benefits of frequent interaction, development of new ideas, and growth of business culture has not been helped by the current violence because you’re putting yourself at risk to come into our communities. The last thing we needed was another disincentive to congregate and collaborate.