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National Battle over Confederate Monuments; Charlottesville Remembers Heather Heyer; Trump Talks about Confederate Statues. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired August 16, 2017 - 08:30   ET



[08:32:42] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Overnight, the city of Baltimore removed four confederate statues as the battle to take down these symbols plays out in cities across the country. Still, though, the Robert E. Lee statue stands in Charlottesville. The president weighed in.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, this week it's Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after. You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?


HARLOW: The fundamental misunderstanding of history conflating all of those men together.

But let's talk about it. Joining us now, Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, Kentucky, and Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina.

Gentlemen, nice to have you.

And you have both been in the midst of this fight over these monuments and what they stand for, a confederate general.

Mayor Fischer, let me begin with you because you made the choice last year at the University of Louisville campus to move the big confederate statue and to move it elsewhere. You've asked for a public commission now to consider what you do with the others in your city. The president equated Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, the founding fathers, who, of course, had faults and had flaws, but put them on the same plane as Robert E. Lee. How do you see the argument?

MAYOR GREG FISCHER, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY: Well, there's a big difference between people that started this country recognizing it was an imperfect union and in those that tried to destroy our country and celebrate slavery. So it certainly is a false equivalence.

What we're doing is we're using this as another moral moment here in our city to lean into racism, to have community conversations about how to advance our collective understanding of how we need to be a strong, pluralistic, diverse city.

HARLOW: Major Benjamin, what are the people, the Republicans and the Democrats, or constituents on the streets of your city saying this morning?

MAYOR STEVE BENJAMIN, COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA: People are genuinely sad, Poppy. They're sad. They're outraged. They're gravely concerned about the future of our great country.

South Carolina is a state whose history has been challenged over the course of the life of this great federal republic. But over the last several years, as we've been challenged, after the Charleston and the state came together, Democrats and Republicans, independents, Green Party, libertarians, everyone came together to move forward in the state, to remove the confederate battle flag from our state capitols and do it peaceably.

[08:35:10] And it's amazing, we call it "South Carolina Strong." We've been able to do these things together. We cannot fight the battles of 150 years ago and 200 years ago. We need our president to be looking forward to creating this country in which every single person has value. Every single person is -- we believe here is a child of God and we've got to start making sure that we elect leaders and we support leaders who speak to that value, the value of human dignity and human life.

HARLOW: Mayor Fischer, you used the word compassion a lot as a way to describe your city and the way you work and hope to lead it. There are a lot -- Republicans in Congress are united right now on one thing, and that is condemning hatred and bigotry. But they are pretty much, with the exception of Senator John McCain, Governor John Kasich, silent when it comes to calling out this president by name in all of this and laying it in his lap, in his hand. How do you see that?

FISCHER: Well, I mean, the big issue is here is, how do we rise above any person and relate to what we all have in terms of, we are all born compassionate peeping, loving people, kind people. And that discourse is so absent in the public arena today. And if people are quick to go to hatred, they're quick to go to division. What leaders should be doing is encouraging us to greater aspirations where we're coming together around these basic human notions.

And I mean it's natural to us. Look, when a little baby is born, what does it do? Does it crawl over to somebody and slap them in the face? No. They want a hug. OK, so we are all compassionate beings and that's what we should be focusing on right now.

Yes, we have to deal with the reality of the day. I get that. But let's have a discussion around unity. The world in Louisville is determination. We're not going to let situations like in Charlottesville this destroy our city or destroy our country. We're going to work together around these basic human values of human - of compassion and kindness to move our city forward, realizing we're imperfect people on an imperfect journey but we're in it together. HARLOW: But, Mayor Benjamin, do you believe that unity can come from

this president? Do you believe he has done anything to unite America with the comments that he made yesterday?

BENJAMIN: Poppy, I believe that in some odd and almost perverse way, some of what we're saying from the president is pulling people together. It's pulling a whole lot of folks in my community together who know that this does not speak to the ideals of who America is. It doesn't speak to the critical words articulated in our Declaration of Independence, our U.S. Constitution.

The challenges that I will say here - and since I have a very brief moment -- is that we're still trying to figure out how to make sure that millions of Americans have health care. We're still trying to work to address our trillions of dollars of infrastructure needs across this country.

We have a president who is focused on some shiny, illegitimate object in the corner. And we have people on the ground who are suffering from income volatility, who need to make sure that they're prepared for the future of work in this new information age in which we're having.

People have real needs. We're destroying our environment and not focusing on clean energy and renewable energy. There's work to be done on behalf of the wealthiest and most powerful democratic nation in the history of the world and it's not being done because the president wants to focus on division and hatred.

We can do better. We must ask our president, we must ask our members of Congress, our governors, to join with our mayor -- because I will say that the work that Greg Fischer's doing in Louisville, that Tom Tate's doing in Anaheim on compassion, the leadership we're receiving from your president, Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans, the president of the United States Conference of Mayors, we have mayors leading all across this country, working to make sure that this wonderful American experiment works for all of God's children.

Thank you.

HARLOW: Mayor Fischer, Mayor Benjamin, thank you both for being here.

FISCHER: Thanks, Poppy.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

HARLOW: Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: You have to remember what matters and you have to remember who matters.

In just hours, Charlottesville is going to remember the brave young woman, Heather Heyer, her life taken by a man using a car as a weapon of terror. We're going to talk with one of Heather's friends, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [08:43:30] CUOMO: In just a few hours, a memorial service is going to be held for the woman on your screen, Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer. She wasn't at the protest in an equally extreme and violent alt-lefty capacity, as the president assumes. She was there to oppose hate, and it cost her her life.

Joining us now is Alfred Wilson. He worked with Heather at the Miller Law Group, where she was a paralegal. Mr. Wilson will be speaking at today's memorial service.

Alfred, thank you very much for joining us. And I'm sorry for your loss.

ALFRED WILSON, HEATHER HEYER'S WORK MANAGER AND FRIEND: Thank you for having me here this morning.

CUOMO: Now we know -- I see from your bow tie, Heather loved purple. People are going to be wearing purple. I see purple ribbons everywhere. I have purple on today because we want to remember what she was about and what was in her heart. What do you want people to know about what the legacy should be?

WILSON: Well, Heather, as you pointed out, loved purple. Purple, as you may know, is a color of royalty. The other thing about purple is, interesting enough, purple actually is a symbol of when people wear purple is a symbol of openness. It basically lets other people know that I'm willing to work with you. And that's something that Heather was. She was a person that was willing to work with anyone. She was a very kind, very generous person and someone that actually was very opinionated and spoke up for what she believed was right.

CUOMO: What do you make of what she's become symbolic of in this situation? Her loss of life is an absolute wrong and tragedy. It's a crime. And it is a huge hole in the lives of all who knew and loved her. But she has now become symbolic of the struggle in Charlottesville and the national dialogue that has come from it. How do you see that part of it?

[08:45:27] WILSON: I see that part as something I know Heather would have embraced. The struggle that all of us are going through as far as basically social equality, as far as basically embracing the fact that there is so much racism still going on in our country, I just know that Heather would be proud to know that she's being recognized for such a fight or such a struggle.

I mean one of the things about Heather is she's a very humble young woman. A woman that would do anything for anyone to help anyone and to see that anyone would actually get a fair treatment. But the fact that the country is standing behind this 32-year-old woman, it just amazes me. I'm so proud of her as - from what she's basically been doing.

CUOMO: We have some sound from her mother who was addressing the man who took her daughter from her, who killed, murdered Heather Heyer. Here's what -- a little bit of what she said. I want to get your reaction to it.


SUSAN BRO, MOTHER OF CHARLOTTESVILLE VICTIM HEATHER HEYER: You took my child from me and I'm going to be the voice that she can no longer be. And so you gave us a national forum.


CUOMO: It's a terrible situation for the mother to be in to have to try and make some significance out of this. How is the pain among those who loved her? I know she was tight with her coworkers. I know her desk is filled with flowers. What's been the hardest part emotionally in this for you?

WILSON: Missing her smile. Missing her challenging intellect. I'm still speechless about that. I've cried many times. Yesterday was the first time back in the office. And, you know, I shed a lot of tears about it. It was an amazing time just to try to actually overcome it.

Heather, when she came down here on Saturday, she wanted to basically stand up for what was right. One of the things that bothered -- I know myself about this whole protest or rally that was coming up is those individuals came here to that rally, they've made no effort to educate anyone about why they wanted this statue for Robert E. Lee to stay there.

This guy wasn't born in Charlottesville. He didn't die in Charlottesville. He didn't fight a battle in Charlottesville. He had no reason to have any significance in Charlottesville. And this organization provided no educational materials or any reason why this should be here in Charlottesville.

What they came to do is just basically to promote hate and try to suppress individuals. And that's what Heather was basically standing up against. She was pointing out, you can't suppress individuals. You need to give everyone a fair chance. You need to understand that all of us are equal. Heather wanted individuals to know that she believed that we are all here equally and that we all should have the same opportunities in life.

When Heather came to work with us, one of the things she was so humble and always second-guessed herself about how valuable she is. And used to tell me, you know, Alfred, I'm just a high school graduate. And I'd say, no, you're more than just a high school graduate. You're a woman with a voice. You're somebody that individuals will listen to and wanted to talk to.

CUOMO: Well that voice --

WILSON: That is something that I really enjoyed about Heather is her voice.

CUOMO: That voice is going to echo through your memories today at the memorial and what everybody else has been saying and what was in her heart that hopefully will remain in yours.

Alfred, thank you very much for joining us. And, again, I'm sorry to have to meet you under these circumstances, but hopefully something bigger than just her death will come out of that memorial today.

WILSON: Yes, I hope so as well. Thank you for having me this morning.

CUOMO: Thank you for taking the time.


HARLOW: Changing history. That is what President Trump called the removal of confederate monuments. Is that the case? We will put the question to a leading civil war historian.


[08:53:20] CUOMO: President Trump criticizing the removal of Robert E. Lee and other confederate statues as, quote, changing history, even conflating Lee with Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

This can be a little bit of a complex subject, but it matters now more than ever. So, let's bring in Harold Holzer. He's a leading historian of the Civil War era and author of "Lincoln and the Power of the Press."

Harold, a pleasure.


CUOMO: Good to have you.

HOLZER: Good to be her.

CUOMO: So let's talk about what the concepts are that are involved here. The president saying, who's next, Washington, Jefferson? Why does that make sense? Why does it not make sense?

HOLZER: Well, it's false equivalency, like the other comments we've been hearing. One set of people, the founders, may have been hypocritical in their concept of liberty, but they created the foundations of government. They created -- they articulated the vision of all men of (ph) power created equal, even if they weren't prepared to live by it.

The confederate heroes, quote/unquote, who are monumentalized and monumentalized in the south defied that tradition and their own bloodlines in some case and they tried to wreck the republic that the founders had created. And it was all about slavery. That one stain on the founders concept of the country.

HARLOW: And Robert E. Lee, a leading general in a war that claimed 600,000 lives.

I think context is important because I bet a lot of Americans don't know when most of these statues went up. Most of them went up at two points. First, during the turn of the century and Jim Crow.

HOLZER: Right. HARLOW: And, second, in the '50 and '60s during the civil rights movement. And that matters a lot, doesn't it?

HOLZER: It does. I mean there were two subjects here, history and memory. History is not erasable. We know what happened. We know the death toll which most historians now think is 750,000, which is worse than we'd imagined for a century.

[08:55:08] But the way that memory was altered to create heroism out of destructiveness and out of clinging to human bondage and inequality is the truly disturbing part. The statues fall somewhere in the middle for me, but that's another story.

The first major statue of Lee was like a mummy lying down, hands on chest, in the college -- the chapel of the college that he was president of in retirement. Sort of appropriate. His cause was over and he was dead and so was the idea of secession and slavery. But then he stood up in the next series of statues and eventually rose to the might of the -- the symbolic might of at equestrian portrait, which is a whole different story.

CUOMO: And while you get enough course (ph) there's, you know, there's an iconology issue here about why they put you on a horse and what that's supposed to symbolize in terms of dominance and prowess and the timing and the fact that he had no connection to Charlottesville in personal and military history. He was just there, as you would suggest, in your face about the confederacy and yet the president seems to be deferential to it. What does that mean to you about what's in his head?

HOLZER: I don't think he knows that much about history. I don't think anything is in his head except people didn't like his first statement. That's my political view, which I'll try not to dwell on because I'm supposed to talk about the statues. I don't think he gets it. I think he knows the difference between history and memory. I don't know how he -- I don't think he knows the history and I certainly don't think he understands the nuances of (INAUDIBLE).

HARLOW: But that's dangerous.

HOLZER: It's highly dangerous. You've got -- not only do -- should we have maybe a week ago discussed whether these statues are so offensive to so many people that they ought to be either counter sculptured, as they did in Richmond. A big statue of Lee, a big statue of Jackson Davis. And what did the people of Richmond do? They put up a statue of Arthur Ash to confront them. I mean and the controversy was unbelievable, by the way, tragic, but they did it and maybe there should be Frederick Douglas in Maryland, for example, where they're taking down a statue of Roger Taney. They already have Thrugood Marshall. There have been these ideas of doing parallel statues to give both sides of the story.

What the president has done, unfortunately, along with the demonstrators, but what he has condoned is the idea that these statues are the touchstones for a movement to resurrect the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. And that's so abhorrent that I think the statues are going to be the losers and deserve to be the losers at this point.

HARLOW: Professor, thank you. It's an important history lesson for everyone. We appreciate your time.

HOLZER: Thank you.

HARLOW: Thank you all for being with us today. We'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

A quick break and then "NEWSROOM" with John Berman.


[09:00:02] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

The big question this morning is, what now?