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Roundtable: Fla. Gun Law, Troubles at MLK Center

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Roundtable: Fla. Gun Law, Troubles at MLK Center

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Roundtable: Fla. Gun Law, Troubles at MLK Center

Roundtable: Fla. Gun Law, Troubles at MLK Center

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Thursday's topics include Florida's new "Stand Your Ground" gun law and conflict over the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. Guests: Pedro Noguera, professor in the Steinhart school of education at New York University; E.R. Shipp, Pulitzer Prize-winner and columnist at the New York Daily News; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable, former Washington, DC, Mayor Marion Barry is the focus of a tax probe, and a family conflict over The King Center in Atlanta. Joining us from our bureau here in New York, Pedro Noguera, professor at New York University. He's also joined by Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. And E.R. Shipp, a columnist at the New York Daily News, joins us today from Fire Island, New York.

I thank you all for joining us.

One of the things we want to talk about today, guys, is the idea that we are seeing President Bush address the nation, feeling the need to do so to talk about terrorism and make sure that people understand, in his mind and the minds of many in the White House, the true threat that America is facing. Pedro, when you hear this from the White House today, one has to believe that they're panicking a bit and needing to get the president front and center in saying, `This is where we are in the war on terror.'

Professor PEDRO NOGUERA (New York University): Well, the war on terror has been Bush's issue since 9/11, and even as the war in Iraq has gone very badly, they've had to keep bringing the war on terror to the forefront because it's the one issue that really resonates and brings quite a bit of fear amongst the people. But I would say that he has to really address what's going to happen in Iraq and what's the connection between what's happening in Iraq and this war on terror, and that's where he's stumbling and that's why he's in so much trouble right now.

GORDON: Michael, when you see him address the nation--one knows how close to the vest this White House likes to play things, and when you see the president coming out and addressing the nation in dealing with this--again, I go back to the question of heat they must be feeling.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Direct, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, my Yiddish isn't as good as it used to be, but I think there's this expression that's (Yiddish spoken), `Again?' And this is nothing new. I mean, the president has spoken to the nation about terrorism. He had a recent press conference and he could have addressed the issues of, quote, unquote, "terrorism" there. The problem is not whether or not the American people understand the war against terrorism. The question is: Does President Bush understand the war against terrorism? Does he understand that he's losing, that he's losing in Iraq, that he is--our troops and our forces are becoming demoralized and depleted and that the American people are now losing confidence in his presidency? And I think he understands that, because of the polls--that his sense of confidence about the American people not believing in him anymore is now shattered, and, therefore, he wants to once again do the public-relations spin. And that's all it is, is public-relations spin. People will not buy it.

GORDON: E.R. Shipp, we're seeing this president have to deal with, perhaps more than ever during his tenure as president, the idea, as Michael Meyers puts it--the PR spin, whether it be with the Supreme Court nominees or, as we are talking here, with the continuing decline in his approval numbers and, certainly, concern about how his administration is running this war.

Ms. E.R. SHIPP (New York Daily News): That's very true. We're approaching, I believe, now about 2,000 casualties on the American side in Iraq. And as those deaths mount, as well as thousands more of injuries, many people back here at home are wondering about the usefulness of remaining in Iraq. So to maybe re-convince them that there's a purpose here, he is trying to make that connection between 9/11, which galvanized the nation, and to some extent Iraq, which is dividing the nation very, very sharply. But this president is finding that, particularly since the hurricanes and the debacle with Hurricane Katrina, he's having to not just shore up his own presidency, but he's looking to what's going to happen to members of his party who are facing election next year, in particular. So he's looking down the road, and we're going to see much, much more of this president than we've seen in such a short time frame from here on out than we've done before.

GORDON: All right. We'll continue to talk about this; have much more on tomorrow's roundtable about the president's address to the nation. Talk a little bit about something that's very interesting and it relates to an issue that we've been dealing with in Florida now, and that is that people have the ability now to carry guns on the street in public for their own protection. We have seen this week the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which is, of course, based in Washington, DC, named after James Brady, the press secretary that was shot during an assassination attempt of President Reagan, but their people have been down in Florida airports handing out fliers saying that, `You want to be very careful in terms of getting into arguments with people in Florida now.' The fliers literally offer tips like, `Do not argue unnecessarily with local people. If someone appears to be angry with you, maintain, to the best of your ability, a positive attitude and do not shout or make threatening gestures for fear of being shot.' E.R. Shipp, you laugh. What about this tactic to warn folks and obviously try to push back on this law and ruling?

Ms. SHIPP: Well, it's political theater at its best or maybe, one would say, its worst, but it's definitely political theater. It's aimed at tweaking the governor, who tells tourists, in particular, that Florida is paradise, but at the same time, he is among those encouraging Floridians to get licenses to carry concealed weapons. So why do you need concealed weapons in paradise, is the issue. So the Brady people are tweaking him and the legislators who are supporting this kind of law, but at the same time, they know that a lot of the money in Florida's economy comes from tourism. So if they can get tourists to at least think about the issue, maybe speak up on the issue, they will help their cause.

GORDON: Well, Pedro, we should note that this law took effect Saturday. The NRA was firmly behind pushing it through. Now that this, what is called the `stand your ground' law is, in fact, in effect--and again, it allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves in public places without first trying to escape, which often--and we teach young kids that that's the thing you're supposed to do. But now that the law is in effect, is this fair or does this throw gasoline on the fire, so to speak, to use this kind of tactic?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, I think the Brady campaign folks are trying to do something to counter this influence the NRA has on the political establishment in this country because the fact is if you look at the polls, a large number of Americans--it varies by state--do support gun control, don't think it's a good idea to have as many guns on the street as we do. But the NRA is powerful. It's a very influential lobby and we've got to find some way to counter it. The United States has more deaths by handgun per capita than any other nation in the world and there's a connection between the amount of guns on the streets and the amount of people being killed.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, my view is that, look, stand your ground, stand your ground. This is a PR war. On the one side, you have the Brady bunch who are talking about gun control and all this other stuff about we shouldn't have concealed weapons, and then there's the PR war on the other side and that's the National Rifle Association, that people who encounter all kinds of people including psychotics, people who come into your homes, you shouldn't have to retreat in your home. You shouldn't have to run away from a person who is threatening your life. If a person is, in fact, threatening your life and you have reasonable grounds to stand your ground, all the law says is that you're going to be protected. You're going to be protected against the psychotics, you're going to be protected from the people who have those guns, and you'll be protected in the sense that you had a legal right to pull your concealed weapon and to defend yourself. And, quite frankly, I don't see anything wrong with that.

Ms. SHIPP: I think what's alarming, though, in a related bill I believe that's pending is that people can leave their concealed weapons locked in their cars and employers are worried that people will be breaking into cars, stealing those weapons and the employers would be liable somehow.

Mr. MEYERS: Well--but that's another issue and it goes...

Ms. SHIPP: I know, but that's the next kind of battle...

Mr. MEYERS: ...that's a question of negligence or other stuff but I'm talking about `stand your ground.' You either have the right to stand your ground or you don't, and the law in Florida now apparently is you have a right to stand your ground, to use a weapon in self-defense.

GORDON: But what about the tactic that the Brady group is using in terms of trying to target tourists and others?

Mr. MEYERS: I...

GORDON: Do you believe that that is going to exacerbate this issue...

Mr. MEYERS: No.

GORDON: ...or problem?

Mr. MEYERS: No. I think...

GORDON: You think most people will throw those fliers away as we do most fliers and...

Mr. MEYERS: They will not take them or they will read them and I think the fliers are very imaginative.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. MEYERS: I think the fliers are--it's good First Amendment activity. Fine.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. MEYERS: It's a PR war.

Ms. SHIPP: First Amendment, Second Amendment, hey, we're having a good time with the Constitution.

Mr. MEYERS: Exactly, First and Second Amendments right here not in conflict.

GORDON: Let's move our attention to something that again we've been talking about over the course of the last few months. Once again The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is letting us in on some of the concerns and problems down in Atlanta in terms of the running of The King Center. There's been a continuous battle on who should be in charge of The King Center and problems with how financially it's been run or whether staffing is adequate, etc., etc., but now we're seeing that it's seemingly, seemingly, I underline, causing a rift between family members and that's the idea that Dexter King, the youngest son of MLK, had been ousted by the board of directors and Martin King had taken over. It is said, and again these are alleged reports from close allies and the like, that it really has caused a tremendous rift between the brothers and it again brings, E.R. Shipp, to light in I think particularly for African-Americans and many people in this country a venue that one wants to embrace and hold almost sacred and it is disappointing to see this. Can anything be taken from this, or is this just more family squabble that's played out and you have to live with that?

Ms. SHIPP: Well, there are a lot of things there. The King Center doesn't have really a firm direction, a real firm focus. So when one brother is heading it and steps down, the other brother takes over and wants to switch directions. The first brother comes back and wants to switch it over again. It shows that the institution is in trouble. If the fight to the extent that one can say there's a fight goes beyond the two brothers apparently, the board is made up of family members. The only non-family member on it is former mayor, former Ambassador Andrew Young, and he's been quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as knowing that there was some kind of struggle, but he doesn't seem to be on top of what's really going on nor do some of the other board members who are members of the family seem to know what's really going on. So this is an institution that probably needs to have some outsiders come in and help them figure out what is the purpose right now. If this is the guardian of Dr. King's legacy, you're doing a very poor job of it, but what is to be done? Do we change the board? Do we change the mission? But something has to be done.

Mr. MEYERS: The question is: Who are we? This is a family feud. It's not televised, but it seems to me that--and Coretta Scott King, who's probably the only one who could save The King Center, is very ill, but I fear that The King Center will go into the ground long before Coretta Scott King does or the opposite. Once Coretta Scott King passes, The King Center will go into the ground. I don't know how you can have a non-profit run by a person--or a non-profit in Atlanta, Georgia, run by a person by phone from his home in Malibu, California, as Dexter King apparently did. I don't know how you can place the staff of The King Center on the payroll of Dexter King's for-profit company. I don't know how you can have Dexter King be president, CEO and chairman of the board of the not-for-profit. I don't see how you can have, by funders at least, a board that's completely family controlled. So I say this is something--that's why I ask you-all who's the we. It seems to me they need to reorganize The King Center and get the family members out and get some prominent independent sorts on the board of directors.

GORDON: Pedro, it's so difficult to deal with this situation because of the importance and the legacy of Dr. King and many people don't want to, as I said earlier, tread on what is seen as hallowed ground. How do you think you deal with the idea of a situation, as Michael has suggested, that really is a family feud. Yet because of the importance--and this to a great degree is the first family of black America and to minorities in general and people in this country. You know, Dr. King's legacy is such that you do not want to see this center fail. How can you deal with it and reconcile both sides, the business side and the family side, and is it even possible for outsiders to do so?

Prof. NOGUERA: Well, that's the hard part. What role do outsiders have in helping to resolve this? The simple fact is it shouldn't be run as a family business. King's legacy is far too important for it to be caught up in family squabbles in this way. And the outsiders who could bring some real leadership and direction are needed. It may end up being that the funders have to start to exert some influence and control over the direction of the center, especially given now that it's in deficit. So it's sad to see that state of affairs, but it's a reflection of the family and probably Coretta has to take some responsibility for this, too, managing it as a family business rather than recognizing the larger public legacy.

GORDON: E.R. Shipp, is it realistic to assume that funders and others, even those of us outside, are going to bring that pressure to bear on an almost untouchable family in many people's minds?

Ms. SHIPP: Yes, it is, especially because so much of the money that is going into operating this center as well as the other historic sites connected to the center are already coming from federal government and private foundation. So the funding community, public and private, should have some say over what's going on. There are apparently a couple of audits under way now to determine if federal monies have been used as they were supposed to have been used. So there is some way for the outsiders, those of us who care about this center, to influence its direction. But I think the first question has to become: What really is the mission of The King Center in the 21st century? Because the federal parks department controls many of the historical sites, it doesn't seem to me all that necessary to have The King Center itself. Many of the valuable papers are in archives elsewhere or have been sold to commercial entities. So we have Dr. King's grave site but that could be managed by the Park Service also.

GORDON: Well, Michael, that's a fight that's been going on for some time. The federal Park Service wanted to take over the management of the site. The family fought against that. Again, it goes back to the question of dealing with people, some who say is almost sacrilegious to go against. Can the King family now in turn say, when they were going through financial difficulties with the center, `Where were you then, those of you who want to tell us how to run it now?'

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I don't think that we should be telling them anything. I agree with Pedro. Maybe the funders ought to be saying, `Look, we're not going to fund it anymore,' and the government that funds it apparently can say that. I mean, all money has strings attached to it.

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MEYERS: It's not sacrilegious. It's paternalistic to say, `Because this is our, quote, unquote, "first family" and that because The King Center is The King Center, it cannot be expected to be run in the high-performance way as a real not-for-profit.' The family members should not be head of The King Center. It shouldn't be Dexter. It shouldn't be Martin Luther King Jr.--I mean, Martin Luther King III. These are not the brightest bulbs in the world and they're not the brightest bulbs in the United States.

GORDON: No.

Mr. MEYERS: I'll say it. It may be sacrilegious, but we need visionary real smart leadership.

GORDON: All right. Well, I don't know what either one of those gentlemen's SATs were. So that being said...

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I...

GORDON: ...I would bet a dollar to a doughnut you don't either. So we'll leave it at that. Michael Meyers, thank you very much anyway. Pedro Noguera, E.R. Shipp, thank you all for joining us. Greatly appreciate it.

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