News Brief: Democratic Voters, Black Church Fires, Sudan's Transition

Apr 12, 2019
Originally published on April 12, 2019 6:27 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So what happens now that the wall has come down? It's a question on the mind of "Game Of Thrones" fans, of course, but also Democratic presidential candidates.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. For the Democrats, it is the so-called blue wall. This is a term used by political scientists to refer to this cluster of Eastern, Western and Midwestern states that have consistently gone blue in recent presidential elections. But in 2016, this happened.

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MEGYN KELLY: There's a big ol' call to make right now, and that is Fox News is projecting that Donald Trump has won the state of Wisconsin.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you to the incredible people of Michigan.

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DAVID GURA: Some big news here, Megyn - huge news, actually. The AP now projecting that Donald Trump has won the state of Pennsylvania.

MARTIN: So how are 2020 Democratic hopefuls trying to figure out how to win those states back?

GREENE: Well, let's ask NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow who is covering the run up to 2020. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Well, let's start with Bernie Sanders. I mean, it sounds like he is one of the candidates who, I mean, is really crafting a lot of his messaging on the idea that he can win these states back, right?

DETROW: Yeah. I think Democrats have more hope than, you know, maybe the North of Westeros in terms of rebuilding this wall.

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DETROW: They're all - all the campaigns are confident that Democrats can win these states again, and that's part of the conversation. There's been this interesting shift where a lot of Democratic voters are really focused on electability - who can best beat Trump, issues aside.

Bernie Sanders is near the top of most of the polls. His campaign realizes still, though, that he needs to make this case that he is the best person to beat Trump. I talked to his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir. And he is arguing that Trump won those states by sounding very Bernie Sanders-like.

FAIZ SHAKIR: He offered a bunch of rhetoric that I think was stolen right out of Bernie Sanders' language. He talked about draining the swamp, about saving Medicare and Social Security, about cutting fair trade deals.

DETROW: So that's an argument Sanders is going to be making as he becomes just the latest Democrat to spend time campaigning in these states even though, of course, none of them are in that early wave of primary states.

GREENE: Right - but still important. And that makes me want to ask you - how important? Like, are - do Democrats - I mean, are they obsessed with the blue wall and really feel like it all comes down to this?

DETROW: Yeah, I think that's a good way to put it. It is dangerous to talk confidently about an election so far away. But if you look at how narrowly Trump won these states - just tens of thousands of votes - I think that most people agree that these are the states that are going to decide 2020.

And again, with so many voters saying - how can you beat Trump? Tell me your political strategy here - you're seeing candidates focus on that. Beto O'Rourke and Amy Klobuchar both visited some of these states in the very first days of their campaign. Kirsten Gillibrand's been to Michigan, as well. Sanders is doing this swing. I think this is going to be a big theme going forward.

GREENE: And Scott, the narrative that kind of took hold was that white, rural voters were really critical - I mean, that they voted for Trump and that Democrats need to win them over to take these states back. Is that what your reporting shows, or is it more complicated?

DETROW: I think it's a lot more complicated. Think about the fact that if Milwaukee and Detroit voters had been just a little bit more enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton - just the tiniest bit more enthusiastic and voted, she very likely would be president. And this is something that Milwaukee Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore is trying to remind candidates of.

GWEN MOORE: You can't put all your money into trying to make sure that rural folks get your vote. African-Americans are just like any other voters. They need to be dealt into the game. They need to feel like there is something that they can gain from it as well.

DETROW: So black voters are a key part of any Democratic coalition in these states, especially in the rest of the country, of course. So far, Moore says that she's very happy about what she's hearing, Sanders and other candidates talking a lot about criminal justice reform, voting rights, other things that many African-American voters really care deeply about.

GREENE: And briefly, I mean - Republicans, they just feel like let's repeat what we did in 2016 to get those states?

DETROW: That and an increased focus on socialism - warning the Democratic Party is drifting far to the left.

GREENE: NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow. Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. We're going to turn now to Louisiana, where, in the course of 10 days, three historically black churches were destroyed by fire.

MARTIN: Yeah, these churches are in St. Landry Parish. This is about 60 miles west of Baton Rouge. They'd been standing for generations. The fires, though, have destroyed them completely. Investigators are now trying to figure out what happened.

And yesterday, there was a breakthrough in the investigation. Police arrested a 21-year-old white man named Holden Matthews, who happens to be the son of a local sheriff's deputy. Matthews has been charged with three counts of arson. Louisiana's governor, John Bel Edwards, talked after the arrest.

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JOHN BEL EDWARDS: I don't know what this young man's motive was. I don't know what was in his heart. But I can say it cannot be justified or rationalized. These were evil acts.

GREENE: All right. I want to bring in Katie Gagliano. She's been reporting this story for The Acadiana Advocate. Good morning, Katie.

KATIE GAGLIANO: Hi. Good morning. Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Well, thank you for taking the time to bring us your reporting. So who is this man, Holden Matthews? And what might have been his motive here?

GAGLIANO: Yeah. So Holden Matthews is a 21-year-old from Opelousas, La. That's the area where these fires occurred. As you said, his father, Roy Matthews, is a sheriff's deputy for St. Landry Parish. We know that his father actually assisted in facilitating his arrest.

We don't know too much about him. We're still discovering things. We know that the sheriff said he doesn't have a reported history of violence or an arrest record. We've also discovered, as they said in a press conference yesterday, he has connections to the death metal movement. On his Facebook page, he's listed as the lead singer for a group called the Vodka Vultures. And he also has a lot of online posts connecting him to paganism and beliefs in Norse mythology.

Now, some of these offshoots can have some connections to neo-Nazi movements or white supremacy. It's still undetermined if he was involved in any of those subsets.

GREENE: OK. So we're just learning more about this young man.

GAGLIANO: Yes.

GREENE: Can you talk about these churches and how important they've been in this community?

GAGLIANO: These churches are very central to the lives of the people that live in this area. Religion and faith are a cornerstone of these people's lives. As you said, these churches have been in the communities for generations. Congregants that I spoke to said their families have been there for years. They've - many of them have celebrated all of their religious rites in these churches - they've been christened, they've been baptized, they've been married there.

It's - you know, they said seeing these churches burn - though losing a building can't destroy their faith, it's still a very heavy emotional and sentimental loss for them.

GREENE: Well, I just want to listen to the voice here of a pastor at one of the churches, Reverend Gerald Toussaint. Here he is.

GERALD TOUSSAINT: A lot of people want to make it a hate thing. Well, we don't represent hate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

TOUSSAINT: We represent love.

GREENE: Is that the sentiment that the leaders of these churches are basically expressing right now?

GAGLIANO: Yes. And that's what they've really been expressing from the beginning. You know, as you heard the governor say, hate doesn't have a place here. And that's really what these pastors have been leading with. They've been wanting to keep the focus on, you know, the endurance of their faith, the importance of love and spreading that message.

You know, we're still trying to determine, as you said, what the motives are in this case. And of course, given the nature of these fires, they are looking at this as, you know, a potentially bias-motivated event. But until they determine that, the pastors are wanting to keep their communities calm and keep the focus on facts.

GREENE: Katie Gagliano with The Acadiana Advocate, thanks a lot.

GAGLIANO: Of course. Thank you.

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GREENE: And so on Thursday morning, Sudan awoke to word from the state news broadcaster that the military would be making an important announcement.

MARTIN: Later came a declaration from Sudan's defense minister.

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AWAD IBN AUF: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: The defense minister announced that longtime President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has led that country for 30 years, had been arrested and removed from office. It was the news protesters had been waiting for. Thousands were on the streets celebrating. But the joy was short-lived after the defense minister said he would oversee a transitional government - not what protesters had wanted to hear.

GREENE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been following these developments. Hi, Ofeibea.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

GREENE: So I mean, al-Bashir has been known for so long as just a ruthless African tyrant. Does that pretty much capture his reign over these 30 years? Or is it more complicated?

QUIST-ARCTON: It is a little more complicated. He is a political survivor. He came in 30 years ago. He was a military officer - a senior military officer. But his (coughing) - excuse me - political opponents and his critics say that he has overseen - Sudan - which was one of the biggest countries in Africa and should have been one of the richest - had oil, had a southern part. He has overseen a war with the South, which has now become an independent country, economic mismanagement and, of course, Darfur and the, quotes, "genocide", as Colin Powell called it. So Bashir is seen as somebody who's been a political maneuverer, an operator, but somebody who has not done well for his country.

GREENE: Well, as Rachel mentioned, I mean, protesters wanted him out. It seems like they've gotten that. But they did not want the military in charge of their country for the foreseeable future. So how are - how is the protest movement feeling at this moment?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, it's been a bittersweet moment because, of course, they heard that Bashir was going. And initially, in December, when these demonstrations started, it was because the price of fuel had shot up. But soon they said, no, Bashir must go - but not just Bashir, Bashir and his political and military clique that have mismanaged the country. So when they heard that the defense minister, who's one of Bashir's lieutenants, is going to head this military council, these protesters - and all ages, all genders, men, women, young and old - said absolutely not. They have defied a ban and a curfew to stay out in the streets to say no, there must be a civilian administration.

GREENE: Well, what is next for al-Bashir? I mean, he's still wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide. Right?

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. And let me - before that, let me just - let us listen to Dalia el Roubi. She is one of the main organizers of the protests.

DALIA EL ROUBI: Unacceptable....

QUIST-ARCTON: Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court...

ROUBI: ...The assumption that people will actually believe that this is not another face of the NCP is really quite insulting. And they're underestimating the knowledge and awareness and commitment of the people on the street and their convictions for change.

QUIST-ARCTON: Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide and war crimes charges. The U.S. says the civilians must be included in the new government, and the African Union has condemned the military takeover.

GREENE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

Thanks so much, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure - thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.