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President Obama Speaks Out on Zimmerman Case

Aired July 19, 2013 - 15:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news here on CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

A shocker at the White House this afternoon. "This could have been me 35 years ago" -- those words from President Obama not too long ago in the White House daily briefing, breaking the silence on the not guilty verdict that rocked America, George Zimmerman acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Speaking without a teleprompter, speaking off the cuff here in a tone we really haven't heard before, a deeply personal tone. It's his take on his own experience. Here's the president.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator.

There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And I don't want to exaggerate this. But those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.


BALDWIN: That was just a piece of the president. He spoke for just about 20 minutes.

There she is, our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

And, Jessica, you have been covering the president for a bunch of years. Have you ever heard him speak in this manner before?

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: No, Brooke. I mean, it's not just how blunt he was, but also how personal he was about his own experiences of racism. It's not like the president to open up that much. And it's also not like him to talk about race in America.

He usually tries to look past it. And for him to use this as really, you know, it's cliche, but as a teaching moment, what is truly a marked change in his approach. And I think we saw him stand before us in that Briefing Room and he seemed very relaxed, very at ease. He was not parsing his words.

He wasn't being very careful and legalistic about how he chose his words. He just seemed to be speaking with comfort about his own experience. And so I think this marks a change for him and I suspect we will see him do this more. What the president was trying to do -- and this is why the black community has been calling on him to speak out in the wake of this verdict -- is to explain not the details of this case, not the specifics legally of what happens next, but to speak to so many people who don't understand the upset and rage in some parts of the black community, why there is so much frustration about the verdict, because it has to do with a larger historical experience and with the experience of racism and use this as an opportunity to call for empathy and a conversation, Brooke.

BALDWIN: That's what the president brought up, people's own personal experiences given the history of this country. Jessica, thank you.

I want to pivot to someone who knows the White House Briefing Room very well, Ari Fleischer on the phone with me, former press secretary for President Bush.

So, Ari, good to talk to you. Let's just begin with -- this whole thing was a huge surprise to everyone. What do you make of how this all went down?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's a big surprise. For the president of the United States, who represents all the people, it's a very interesting change of pace in operation for the president to come out here and do this today.

It tells me he's been under considerable pressure from the liberal base, the African-American community in the country, to say something. But it's (INAUDIBLE) for the president to put on one hat and not the hat of all the American people, especially when a jury has spoken.

BALDWIN: At the same time, though, I have been talking to Jessica. She was saying and others have agreed that not only was the president talking to the African-American community, whether or not he's been feeling pressure or not, but possibly also white America, sort of explaining, this is our own personal experience. Yes, I have been in an elevator and a woman's clutched her purse. And she's clutched her purse because of me, trying to help other races within this country understand the frustration, the rage, the sadness that African- Americans have been feeling in the last week.

FLEISCHER: But where has the president been, then, for the last five years? Why did it take the Trayvon Martin case for the president to come out and raise some of these very valid issues that would be constructive for our nation to talk about in a unified fashion?

But, you know, this president when it comes to racial issues has really been touch and go. He touches on it under moments of pressure or stress, and then he lets it go. There's really no commitment, no ongoing follow-up for the president doing anything about urban matters, poverty matters, matters affecting the black community.

Frankly, when he said in his remarks today that poverty and dysfunction we see in these communities can be traced to a very difficult history, I think frankly that's a terrible excuse for some of the terrible decisions that get made, principally by fathers who walk out on their children's lives and never come back.

That's the biggest cause of poverty in the black community today. It's not the history of slavery, which is what the president's alluding to in his remarks. I wish this was something consistent with the president, that was determined with the president. We as a country are only as strong as the poorest communities among us. And poverty is something that I think the president could have and should have focused on a lot more in his presidency.

BALDWIN: Hmm. Ari Fleischer, appreciate it very much for calling in and giving us you're perspective. It's one we had yet to hear.

I want to bring in Candy Crowley, host of "STATE OF THE UNION," just to sort of react to Ari's searing criticism. No surprise there are critics of what the president just did. What do you make about what Ari said?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think all -- it kind of a little bit gets back to prisms and what prism you look through.

But this will not be the first criticism from folks who see this differently, conservatives. You know, under what other umbrella they come politically, I don't know. But they will say, listen, there is this question. Was this trial about race or was it not about race?

And the totality of what the president said to conservative ears and to those who feel we had a trial, there was justice, he was found not guilty, and that's the end of it, the president in that speech off the Zimmerman trial, even though he stayed away from the details of it, made it about race.

So I think that's what -- you know, he tried very hard I think or deliberately skipped the details was it about race, was it not about race, but certainly in the stories and in the context, it is taken now you have just made this -- now the president has just made this about race and he's supposed to be president of the all people.

I will add, though, that the president has spoken to African-American males about fatherhood and about families, to the extent that there was criticism from African-American groups saying the only time you ever actually talk directly to us, it's to say, why can't you stick around and be fathers?

There was criticism that that's really all he ever talked about. So he has brought that up. Clearly, he didn't bring it up in this particular context. And so, you know, I don't think he was going to please everybody. There is no doubt in my mind, had he stayed quiet, he would have come under considerable criticism.

BALDWIN: Damned if you do, damned if you don't.


CROWLEY: Exactly.

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes. What about moving forward? Now we have heard from the president. Now what?

CROWLEY: Yes, now what?


CROWLEY: You know, I think we have a huge day of protests tomorrow. That's the next thing off the Trayvon Martin case in, I don't know, the last time I looked, more than 100 cities. We will see what actually happens.

The conversation continues, but, Brooke, I feel like I have been through many things where we were going to have a national conversation about something. And then something else happened and the conversation ceased.

But I will tell you, I thought one of the most effective things that the president said was when he talked about his two daughters and he said, they are better than we are and than we were. And they're better than we are. He talked about the generational change. And he said, and I don't want everyone to think that nothing has changed, because we are a more perfect union. We're just not perfect.

I think from that he was saying, yes, we have made progress. But here's the prism through which the African-American community and others have kind of looked at this.

So I wish I could say I think there'll be, you know, tons of discussions and town halls, and there are, actually, frequently. I know Congressman Bobby Rush is going to have a conference on -- specifically on this, I think about urban living and urban violence. These kinds of things go on. I think eventually it goes off the national scene, as these subjects are wont to do.

BALDWIN: They do. And perfect, we are not, Candy Crowley. Thank you very much.

CROWLEY: Except for you and me, right?

BALDWIN: Right, of course, obviously. Candy, thank you. We will see you Sunday morning. Meantime, in terms of the what now, the what next, the president did outline a couple of ideas that maybe he was bouncing around with his staff, one of which included taking a good, long look at some of these state and local laws, maybe, i.e., stand your ground in Florida. Here's what he said.


OBAMA: And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like the stand your ground laws, I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?

And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?


BALDWIN: Coming up next, two different perspectives, Errol Louis, Ben Ferguson. We're going to have a big old conversation about what just happened, next.


BALDWIN: You have heard the breaking news. I want to bring in two voices, CNN political commentator Ben Ferguson in Dallas, and Errol Louis, CNN political commentator and politics anchor at New York One News.

Gentlemen, welcome

Ben, to you first. I'm reading your notes on the Twitters. And I see the word you used is shocked. You are shocked the president spoke today. Why?

BEN FERGUSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I'm shocked because he said he was going to be the president for everyone. Obviously today he said I'm going to be the president for the African-American community and everyone else better listen up to why I think there is a huge problem in this country with laws that disproportionately affect African- Americans, pouring fuel on the fire before the largest day of protests tomorrow.

The president's job is to be president for everyone. He basically said today to everyone protesting tomorrow, the system is broken for African-Americans. You have a right to be angry by this. You have a right to be upset by the court system. So at the same time he says respect the outcome, he basically said you have a legitimate reason to be angry and protest.

And more importantly than that, the very end, the most shocking part for me was when he said, if there is violence, I will remind people that that does not respect Trayvon Martin or his legacy. There has already been violence. The president should have made it very clear that those who are violent should not be violent and we will not tolerate it. But he didn't do that. That's shocking to me as well.

BALDWIN: The president did mention the vigils, the protests, and he did underscore his hope for peace. Let me just interject that.

Errol, I have to have you to respond to Ben. Is that fair?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, listen, no, it's not even accurate. Look, the people who are going to protest in 100 cities tomorrow didn't need the president to come out here on a Friday afternoon the night before and tell them that that was a good idea.

They're already angry. They don't need the president to tell them that. In fact, if you listen to the actual text of the speech, if you listen to what he actually said, he sort of threw a little cold water on it. He said, listen, this is a local law enforcement responsibility. Don't expect the federal government to do very much. I can share some thoughts with you. I can start to maybe convene and kick around some ideas with some other government leaders, but he gave them absolutely no reason to think that he's egging them on or encouraging them in any way.


BALDWIN: Hang on. Hang on. Time out.

Before we go there, I want to take the protests out of it, because I want to go straight to your point, Ben, and also it's a point Ari Fleischer made with me moments ago just about how he is supposed to be the president of the United States. Instead, he is speaking, it seems, for and to African-Americans.

Errol, I want your response to that.

LOUIS: I mean, it literally wasn't true.

If he wanted to do that he would have gone on BET or something. Right? That's just -- that's not what happened there. People may think that maybe he's talking past them. But if you listen carefully to the conversations that went on over the last week, a lot of Americans, basically half of America has been talking past the other half.

This was a very narrowly defined outcome in this case. It could have easily gone the other way. A lot of people would have been upset if that had been the case as well. So the president, you know, in my opinion sort of laid out a number of things very broad, very universal, frankly.


FERGUSON: He wasn't broad, though. He was very specific speaking...


LOUIS: There's never a right time for the conversation. All right? There's never a right time for the conversation. It's too early or it's too late.


BALDWIN: One at a time, boys.

Ben, go.

FERGUSON: The president was incredibly specific today speaking on the half of the African-American community and giving specific examples of saying that white women, when a black man gets in an elevator, they cringe, hold their breath and grab their purse.

Guess what? I park in a parking garage. Every time I am walking in my car and we're in a staircase and there's a woman by herself she probably is nervous. And I make sure I stay far behind her. That's not racial profiling. That might be a woman concerned because she's by herself.


LOUIS: Ben, is your point that what the president said was wrong or he just should have kept his mouth shut and said nothing?

FERGUSON: No. What I'm saying is for the president to come out and speak specifically for the African-American community and then to chastise white America saying you need to understand that when, you know, white women, when they're in an elevator, they're terrified of black men, is speaking for only part of the country.


BALDWIN: How is that chastising vs. perhaps just trying to have one group of people understand another group of people's perspective? Just asking.

FERGUSON: Because if it was about understanding you would have had a conversation instead of a stereotype. I would say to any woman that's gotten in an elevator or walked in a staircase to their Car in a parking garage, that they are just as frightened by any man by themselves out of concern for their safety. That does not have to be solely be in a racial context.

If any woman, if you ask them, they would agree. They probably don't want to be with a man by themselves in a closed environment with no one around. That has nothing to do with race. But the president specifically made it today solely about race.

BALDWIN: Time-out. Got to get a break in. Gentlemen, stay there. We're continuing this after this break.

By the way, the entire speech from the president airing at the top of the 4:00 hour on THE LEAD, if you missed it. We will be right back.


BALDWIN: And we're back with Been Ferguson and Errol Louis. Gentlemen, I feel like I should have brought my referee whistle today.

Before we get back to this back-and-forth debate -- I love hearing both sides -- I do want to play just a little bit more of the president when he spoke specifically about young African-American boys. Here he was.


OBAMA: That a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush. And the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent. Using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.


BALDWIN: Errol, hearing him talk about young African-American boys, saying, listen, you know, I could have been 35 years ago Trayvon Martin, I know a lot of folks in the black community have sort of been waiting. They have been frustrated that the president had yet to speak to this community. Do you think the president went far enough?

LOUIS: Well, no. I don't think it was a matter of him needing to sort of bring forward that particular point.

I mean, he said early on that, you know, that there was an ongoing investigation and he'd find out whatever he could find out. I personally wasn't really looking to hear from the president on that dimension of it.

BALDWIN: You weren't?

LOUIS: Not particularly.

The thing is, look, there's a broad problem that he just alluded to in the clip that you played, which is that there's ongoing violence in black communities where both victims and perpetrators are young black men.

BALDWIN: Look at Chicago.

LOUIS: This is a serious problem, Chicago, New York, everywhere else. And so there's a basis. I think that's what he was trying to get at. It may have been misinterpreted by some listeners.

But what he was trying to get at, I think, was that there's a basis for some of the profiling, for some of the bias. And yet you still have to work past it because it doesn't matter what the statistics say. A kid in front of you is just a kid. You can't treat him like, you know, some murderer that you read about in the newspaper last week. It's just not fair. It's not right. It's not even legal.

BALDWIN: Ben, is it the fact that the president spoke on this, period, or was it the way in which he spoke, the words he used, the tone he used?

FERGUSON: I think there's two different issues here.

If the president wants to come out and talk about violence in the African-American community and how many young African-American men are committing crimes against other African-American men or he wants to talk about fatherhood, and unfortunately in lot of predominantly African-American communities we have a lot of women that are raising children by themselves without a dad around, that's a separate issue than talking and interjecting yourself into a single court case, as the president has done that and then tried to...


BALDWIN: But did he do that? Because he didn't talk specifics of the case. It was a launching pad to what seemed to be a much broader discussion. Am I wrong?

FERGUSON: But it was -- at the beginning and the end, it both related to this specific case.


FERGUSON: So he came out, and it's unprecedented for the president of the United States of America to come out in the Briefing Room to talk about one specific case where it's, to me, incredibly obvious that he is not OK with the outcome of this case.

Eric Holder, the Department of Justice, not OK with the outcome of this case. This is still an open case in the eyes of Barack Obama. When he says, respect the court system, look at his actions. He's saying I don't respect the court system. When you have the president of the United States of America implying to anyone that doesn't like the outcome of a case you can be angry and upset and have protests over it, that to me is a very scary ground for the president to go there on that specific issue.


LOUIS: Let me make a prediction.

BALDWIN: Go ahead.

LOUIS: When we see the demonstrations tomorrow, there will be a lot more people there from a lot of different communities than just the African-American community. And I don't think you're going to see anger so much as sadness.


BALDWIN: We won't see anger as much as sadness.

FERGUSON: I hope you're right.

BALDWIN: Let me just -- where do we go from here? We talk, we talk, we talk. We now hear from the president, which raises this whole story to a much higher level. What next? Ben first. FERGUSON: Well, I mean, I hope that the president would come out with a plan before he comes out with such intense, bold statements. Why not come out and say, we have to do a better job, whether it be mentoring inner city children, whether it be having role models that are through churches and community groups to mentor, Boys and Girls Clubs? He didn't mention that today.


BALDWIN: He did mention at the very -- hang on, hang on. He did mention the very third sort of specific thing he'd been bouncing around with his staff, the fact we need to reinforce just messages.


FERGUSON: Reinforcing is not saying -- he has to come out and say with a plan, the same way that take a note from your wife on getting fit young kids in America with her program. She's come with a direct goal to get rid of the fried foods and bad foods and change children's diets.

As an African-American man, if you're going to describe yourself in that way, instead of just being the president, then you better have something to back it up saying we have to go in these communities. I'm going to put a board together to figure out what we can do, and if the government can be involved, because we have an epidemic problem with African-American men dying in this country. And many of them are because of other African-Americans. I will totally get behind the president on that purpose if that's what he does moving forward.

BALDWIN: Errol Louis, you get the final word. I hear you chuckling.

LOUIS: Well, I assume that Ben would agree with me that there's not going to be any solution that's of any worth if it's just directed to one community. Right? This is something we all have to take on...

FERGUSON: But he talked about one community, though.

LOUIS: ... as a national challenge, which I think the president has issued time and time again. We will see how well it goes. The conversation can't really in seven minutes or eight minutes, however long his speech was, encompass everything, but a step in the right direction, I hope. People of goodwill I think will see it for what it is and maybe take him up on the challenge to move forward.

BALDWIN: Errol Louis and Ben Ferguson, I love hearing both sides, gentlemen. I appreciate it very much. Stand by for me. We will be right back.