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Reverend Al Sharpton Says Actor Michael Richards Apologized to Him for Recent Racist Rant at Comedy Club; Thanksgiving Travel; Retailers Prepare For Holidays; Imam Ahmad Shqeirat Discusses U.S. Airways Incident

Aired November 22, 2006 - 13:59   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Don Lemon at the CNN world headquarters in Atlanta.

They say they were grounded because they're Muslim. We're going to talk to one of the imams involved in that flight flap.

LEMON: Are you hitting the road for the holiday? Well, don't let the road hit you back.

We've got your travel tips.

PHILLIPS: And massive inflation in New York. Relax. It has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with tradition.

You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

LEMON: Welcome to the CNN NEWSROOM.

We have an update on Michael Richards' racist rant that happened this weekend at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles.

As you know, he apologized and apologized on the David Letterman show, but today -- you're looking at the video from that captured on someone's camera phone, and that was from But today -- let's listen to this.


MICHAEL RICHARDS, COMEDIAN: (EXPLETIVE DELETED). All right. You see? It shocks you. It shocks you. You see what's buried beneath your stupid (EXPLETIVE DELETED).


LEMON: Well, as you can imagine, lots of folks have been reacting to this -- the men, the two men who this was directed to, and also some national leaders on this.

Joining us now by telephone -- he's in the middle of his radio show -- is the Reverend Al Sharpton.

And Reverend, I'm hearing that you got an apology from Michael Richards today. Tell us about that.

AL SHARPTON,: Well, I got a call about an hour ago, Don, from a -- one of -- a gentleman I know here in New York, Howard Rubinstein. He said that Michael Richards wanted to talk to me and saw how I had expressed outrage not only for what he said and how he said it -- and it was obviously racist -- but then to offer an apology, not even to the people he offended, but he goes on David Letterman's show -- and I have nothing but respect for Letterman, but that's certainly not the venue to address the people you offended.

And he wanted to call me and find out what he felt -- what I felt he should do. And I told him I would take the call, and Michael Richards called.

LEMON: And Reverend -- yes, I was watching that video -- several people -- and I watched it live, at least watched the airing of David Letterman, and people were laughing, and -- because, you know, David Letterman is a funny show, it's a late-night show. So I'm not sure people got the full extent of it.

Do you think that was the right platform?

SHARPTON: I agree. I don't think a lot of the audience even understood that this was serious or understood the weight of it, which only added insult to injury to me.

LEMON: What would you have Michael Richards do? Because I'm understanding that you're not accepting his apology. Do I have that right?

SHARPTON: Well you have -- what I told him, was it's not about me accepting an apology. I certainly can't accept an apology for all people or for me. That I think that what he did was so injurious, that he has to sit down with a group and decide how he tries to, A, deal with healing the obvious problem he's got in his own mind and in his own heart, because it could couldn't come out of you if it wasn't in you. You can't regurgitate food that you hadn't first put in your body, and then how you could be in some way helpful toward dealing with the continuing elements of racism we have in our society.

I mean, here's a guy -- I said, "Here you are, somebody we have in our living rooms. You were Kramer. We were used to you. And to come and see you say this is frightening to many Americans."

I said, "You need to sit down with people. You need to have to deal with this."

I invited him to sit with a group and deal with it in Harlem or south central, wherever. He's agreed to do that. We intend to talk later with his people.

But this is not about accepting an apology. Let me be clear about that. This is about starting a process to really deal with the continual problem of racism in this country, broad-based, and in entertainment. I'm offended Trent Lott has in silence been accepted back in the U.S. Senate, and not one senator's opened their mouth. This is not just about a comedian. This is about lingering racism that we refuse to deal with.

LEMON: And Reverend Sharpton, we know that you're in the middle of your radio show. So when have to go, please tell us and then we'll get you back to that.

But other leaders are saying that it's not just Michael Richards. It's also the larger culture, the media, you know, saying the "N" word in videos and in records, and in people calling each other -- and I know I just saw you on "Headline Prime" and you said you really can't equate the two.

You're not saying that it's right for people to say that word, but calling someone the word in one context doesn't mean it's the same in another situation.

SHARPTON: I think that one -- saying it one way is not the same as another. But I think we have got to stop it across the board.

First of all, we've got to make it clear that people that used now the "N" word as a defense against hate crimes. They're going to the courts saying, "Well, no, I was using it as a hip-hop term, not as a racist term."

So now we are faced with the reality, and all of us have fault in this, that the only group in America that you can't commit a hate crime against is black folks. If I call a gay person out there names, hate crime. If I call a Catholic out there names, hate crime. A Jewish person out there names, hate crime.

And it should be. But if you call a black a "Nigger," it's permitted or it's debatable. We cannot do that whether it is blacks on blacks or whether it's whites on blacks. We must make it clear.

I put out buttons (INAUDIBLE) saying, "I'm not a Nigger," or "Nigga." Let's not argue the spelling, the significance is too deep.

LEMON: And Reverend Sharpton, we have only a short time left, but Chicago Urban League president Cheryle Jackson, and CEO, saying that this may actually open some dialogue, there could be some positive out of all of this, at least we're talking about it. And also she said, "And if you look at that tape, black and white people got up and walked out of that club."

SHARPTON: And that was the good news. Cheryle Jackson's right. She's a great upcoming leader in the Urban League. She ought to be part of the ones that push this dialogue, because we're not dealing with the problem back in the day. Unfortunately, there's still some problems in our day.

LEMON: Reverend Al Sharpton, thank you so much.

SHARPTON: All right, Don. LEMON: We know you're very busy today. Get back to your radio show. Thanks for calling in and speaking with us.

SHARPTON: Thank you.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think our current health care system is Duct-taped together at best.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you don't have health insurance coverage, it's really a problem. They're torn between paying an electric bill and getting medication.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even the people that have health care are still spending enormous amounts of money for it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of us feel like we're paying a lot of insurance but we aren't getting value.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the government has to step in. It's going to definitely take some big turns.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The cost of health care sure has a lot of Americans up in arms these days, and for good reason. Premiums have risen 87 percent in the last six years. But there is some good news among the doom-and-gloom headlines.

(voice-over): Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt admits America's health care system is in trouble.

UWE REINHARDT, PRINCETON ECONOMICS PROFESSOR: We do not get the best value for our dollar. There's too much waste in the system. Too many Americans have trouble getting access to health care when they should have it, or if they do they go broke.

O'BRIEN: In fact, in the next decade we may be spending 20 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on health. But Reinhardt says that is no reason to panic.

REINHARDT: Think about it. Gross Domestic Product is growing by two percent per year. And if you compound that out for 10 years, the pie out of which we carve the 20 percent is going to be huge.

O'BRIEN: The conventional wisdom tells us our aging population is driving health costs through the roof. But Reinhardt says it's just another myth.

REINHARDT: It's so gradual it doesn't drive anything.

O'BRIEN: So now that we know who can afford it, Reinhardt says inform is inevitable.

REINHARDT: In 2008, it will be in the presidential debate. And the whoever wins will have to do something. It's just a matter of political will and leadership that you need. (END VIDEOTAPE)


PHILLIPS: The world's biggest retail apparently thinks the way to a consumer's wallet is through the stomach. Susan Lisovicz joins us live from the New York Stock Exchange.

Is that true?

SUSAN LISOVICZ, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely. You know, works for some of us, Kyra, like myself.

Wal-Mart's really good at that. It calls them loss leaders, where it will take a loss on a certain product -- any category -- but drives people in. You go into Wal-Mart, you don't generally just buy one thing. Wal-Mart has a very aggressive strategy for the holidays. It's already cut prices on toys, appliances, electronics, clothes to attract more shoppers.

Now, Wal-Mart is slashing prices on hundreds of grocery items just in time for Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart says it will lower many grocery prices by 20 percent or more, including such seasonal favorites as stuffing, cranberry sauce and turkey. The move puts pressure on grocery stores to cut their own prices.

You know, Wal-Mart only went into the business, the food business, 18 years ago and it is the biggest seller of food here in the U.S., so it's totally transformed the landscape -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Retailers have to be doing other things to attract customers, too, though, right?

LISOVICZ: Yes, no question. They're being very aggressive as a rule as well. A lot of stores are opening at 5:00 a.m. on Black Friday for post-Thanksgiving shoppers. Even that is too late for some retailers. Some will open their doors at midnight. And others, including Comp USA and BJ's Wholesale Club, will try something new and different. They'll be open for a few hours on Thanksgiving Day.

But early openings can also create challenges for the retailers because they have to boost their labor costs to handle the expanded hours. Not everyone wants to work on Thanksgiving. It seems like not that many people want to work today.



LEMON: First up, we're going to give you the 411 on the so- called 311 rule. Jumbo tubes of toothpaste, supersize shampoo, piling up in the no-fly bins at airport checkpoints while savvy flyers give thanks for travel-sized toiletries.

Our Jonathan Freed is at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and how are passengers dealing with all of these restrictions on their carry-on bags and all of that, Jonathan?

JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Don, so far today, it has only been moderately insane as opposed to the absolutely insane, packed day that people were anticipating today. And the word from TSA is that people have, by and large, gotten the message about what they can and can't bring on board if it's liquid, gel or otherwise.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is Passenger Training 101.

FREED: On an average day at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Liquids, gels, lotions, potions, creams and aerosols must be 3.4 ounces or less.

FREED: Transportation security officers like Tim Wachowiak (ph) are confiscating 4,000 prohibited items per shift as people pass through checkpoints.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All your toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, moustache wax, hair gel.

FREED: Well, holidays are anything but average traffic days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mascara, nail polish and lip glosses.

FREED: So TSA Tim is on high alert for people traveling for the first time since new rules recently went into effect limiting the amount of liquids and the like you can carry on board a plane.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These items that have been confiscated at the checkpoints are not OK in carry-on bags because they don't meet the requirements, but these would have been OK to place in checked baggage.

FREED: The trick to avoid having your stuff chucked, remember the 311 rule.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's three-ounce containers or less, travel sized containers; one quart clear plastic zip top bag; and then one per passenger. And this must be taken out of your carry-on bag and placed into the security bin.

FREED: Close to 25 million people are expected to travel by air this Thanksgiving, and airlines say new technology lets passengers take more control of their trip even before getting to the airport.

MARY FRANCES FAGAN, AMERICAN AIRLINE: Check in at home. Use your computer. Print your boarding pass. Check on the status of your flight. Go to your airline's web site and see what other information you can get.

FREED: As for inevitable in-flight delays, the folks giving up their turkey to staff radar screens controlling the skies urge that you not take it personally if you end up late for your holiday plate.

RAY GIBBONS, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: There's a very important reason for that holding pattern or for being placed in that holding pattern, and that's to guarantee their safety and their safe arrival.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And where do we place a one-quart bag of 3.4 ounce liquids?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the tray; very good. Thank you.


FREED: Now Don, it has been a steady flow of people here today. We can see one of the main security checkpoints behind me. There are several lanes open right now. And we're hearing words that we never thought we were going to hear on a day like today, people walking in saying, oh, this isn't as bad as I thought it was going to be or this is great.

Now, what is also great is that CNN has a second live camera beyond the security, and we're going to go to that shot now. You can take a look at what it looks like here at O'Hare, with the planes getting ready to push back. People here, you would think there would have been grumbling today, Don. You would think that people would be walking in here, some of them ready for a fight, ready to mix it up to get on the plane, but they are quite surprised to see that it's been very manageable here today.

LEMON: Fancy stuff, Jonathan with the two-camera shoot. You travel a lot. I just traveled back from Chicago yesterday, and I noticed that, I guess those TSA guys -- they've had a talking to or some sort of training because they approached me and said hello, sir, how are you? You've been selected for our special screening. I thought it was, you know, I won a prize or something.

FREED: That's right. They're very good at trying to make you feel as comfortable as possible and you saw the gentleman that we're affectionately calling TSA Tim. In that story he is really like that. The reason that we sought him out to help us out with this story is one day when we were traveling ourselves, we ran into him and it was very early on, after they implemented this 311 rule, and he's hysterical. He loves his job and it really does make it a lot easier for people when these guys are just rolling with it and talking to you like people.

LEMON: Yes, absolutely. Good for them. Thank you Jonathan for joining us.

FREED: Thanks.

LEMON: Most Americans will hit the road for Thanksgiving, even if it's just down the block. A CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation finds just 45 percent of us will dine in our own homes. More than half will eat at restaurants or at the homes of family or friends. The average distance of our Thanksgiving travels will be 85 miles.


PHILLIPS: Well, racial profiling or playing it safe. Six Muslim clerics grounded at a U.S. airport. We have the latest straight ahead.


PHILLIPS: Flying while Muslim. Advocates for a group of Muslim clerics who were taken off a flight this week in Minneapolis say that that was their only offense. But others say the group gave fellow passengers ample reason for suspicion. CNN's Dan Simon has our report.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm asking you to please leave our ticket counter right now.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. I have given you a number that you can contact.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It had the look and feel of a reality television show ...

SHAHIN: This is obvious discrimination. Nobody can argue with me on that.

SIMON: ... as this Muslim leaders clashes with a U.S. Airways ticket agent, less than 24 hours after being pulled off a plane. News cameras were there as the clerics demanded answers.

SHAHIN: We are American. Our loyalty to this country. And they are -- discriminate us.

SIMON: The trouble started in Minneapolis, when a passenger passed a note to a flight attendant, expressing concern about the behavior of six Muslim clerics bound for Phoenix.

Police boarded the plan prior to takeoff, and took them into custody. The men say they were handcuffed and humiliated.

SHAHIN: They make us stand there for 45 minutes, have no right to talk, no -- don't do this. Don't do that. And they brought dogs to search for -- if we have anything suspicious.

SIMON: The imams say the only thing they could have done to draw attention was conduct their normal evening prayers in the terminal prior to boarding, and say they are victims of blatant religious discrimination.

SHAHIN: It's worst moment in my life, when I see six imams being taken off the plane without any reason, any. There is no reason to do that.

SIMON: But the Department of Homeland Security tells CNN, the concerned passenger claimed to have heard the group making anti-U.S. statements. All six imams said they simply did nothing wrong.

MOHAMMED ABUHANNOUD, COUNCIL ON AMERICAN-ISLAMIC RELATIONS: They were humiliated, and in the view of other passengers, which is very, very inappropriate, to treat religious leaders that way.

SIMON: The Council on American-Islamic Relations called for Congressional hearings on religious and ethnic profiling in the wake of the incident.

SIMON: U.S. Airways released a statement, saying -- quote -- "We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation, until we know the facts of this case and can provide answers for the employees and customers involved in this incident."

As for the imams, they eventually got home to Phoenix today on another airline. Surrounded by friends and family, they say we haven't heard the last of them.

SHAHIN: I will never allow ignorance to destroy my beloved America.

SIMON (on camera): We're getting a better understanding in terms of why the airline did what it did. The Associated Press got its hands on a police report. That report says three of the clerics had one-way tickets to Phoenix and no checked luggage. It also says that some of them asked for seatbelt extensions, and the flight attendant felt like it wasn't necessary. Even so, the clerics say they may file a lawsuit.

Dan Simon, CNN, Tempe, Arizona.


PHILLIPS: Well, we wanted to interview a spokesperson for U.S. Airways, but the airline declined to participate. Imam Ahmad was one of the Muslim clerics kicked off the flight. He joins me live from Phoenix. And just in, to be fair, let me read the statement from U.S. Airways real quickly, Imam, and then I'll let you respond in-depth to what happened.

U.S. Airways said that "We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation until we know the facts of this case, and can provide answers for the employees and customers involved in this incident. We are always concerned when passengers are inconvenienced and especially concerned when a situation occurs that causes customers to feel their dignity was compromised."

Did you feel your dignity was compromised?

IMAM AHMAD SHQEIRAT, ISLAMIC COMMUNITY CTR. OF TEMPE: Yes, ma'am. I feel we have been humiliated and our dignity has been comprised in this, and also, I strongly believe that U.S. Airways discriminated against us and they have been repeating misinformation after misinformation, mistake after mistake, one time after another.

PHILLIPS: OK, Imam, let me get you to respond to the allegations. First of all, you were not praying on the plane. You were praying in the waiting area there at the airport. What type of reaction did you witness from other people while you were praying with other imams?

SHQEIRAT: We arrived early to the waiting area, so after being seated there for about half an hour, waiting for the boarding time, it was time for the prayer. We were sitting in a quiet area, away from everybody, socializing together, only three of us.

He stood up in the front of us to conduct the normal after sunset prayer, and they did not bother anybody. They did not annoy anybody. They did not interrupt anybody, and the other three, including myself, were just sitting there watching.

In some cases, similar cases, we witnessed a man or a woman coming out of curiosity to ask us, guys, what you are doing, so we would explain that, but this time, nobody stepped forward to ask a question. The prayer took only a few minutes.

After that, maybe 15 minutes after that, they called for the boarding, so we stood up, lined up with everybody, and did the boarding, and we entered the jet and took our seats, quietly, politely, normally, just like every other passenger.

PHILLIPS: OK, so let me ask you this then. Homeland Security issued this statement saying that "it was a difficult spot for airport police, and for the pilot. We recognize that these six individuals were inconvenienced and delayed. A passenger reported they had made anti-U.S. statements before boarding. On board, they split up into groups of two, and did not sit in their assigned seats."

So first of all, let me ask you, were you making any type of anti-U.S. statements in front of these other passengers or among yourselves?

SHQEIRAT: I assure you, and to everybody, that our talk was social, cultural talk. It did not touch any political aspects at all. We never mentioned any anti- or pro-American politics statements. We never mentioned the name of President Bush or Iraq or anything. We were talking about the convention and culture and social issues.

I'm saying this while we talk politics in other occasions in front of the media and public situations all the time, but in that particular flight, on that particular jet, we were talking about the convention in that waiting area. I assure you, there is no single political statement, and we challenge anybody to come forward and to swear that he or she heard us saying any political statements.

PHILLIPS: So, Imam, why didn't you sit in your assigned seats? SHQEIRAT: I assure you, I was sitting on my assigned seat. All of us had kind of e-ticketing. We, one after one, stepped forward to the machine that -- the boarding pass, that ticket we got. We observed our assigned seats.

One of us imams, Omar Shaheim (ph), was sitting on the first class in the front, because he is a gold member with U.S. Airways because he travels a lot, so as an appreciation, whenever he reserves a ticket with them, they, free of charge, promote him and give him first seats, first class seat. This is why he was setting there because they gave him that seat. They promoted him to first class. That's because...

PHILLIPS: Do you know why -- Imam, let me ask if you know of why three of six of you just had one-way tickets and didn't check any baggage. If you remember after 9/11, this was part of the checklist, part of the things that security worried about because of the hijackers. Do you know why the imams only had one-way tickets and didn't check baggage and were you one of them?

SHQEIRAT: Really, you are shocking me and surprising me the amount misinformation in this incident. I assume you...

PHILLIPS: So you're saying this is all wrong? You're saying that all of this information is completely wrong?

SHQEIRAT: Yes, all of us, six of us, ma'am, had two-way tickets. We came with airways airline from Phoenix to Minneapolis on Saturday for the convention, and we were returning with the same airways. None of us, absolutely, had one-way ticket. Where did this information come from?

PHILLIPS: Interesting. It's coming from the airlines and it's coming from the Associated Press, which actually published or printed the police report. So the information is actually coming from a police report.

SHQEIRAT: This is a misinformation, and the police report, U.S. Airways, need to correct themselves, need to double-check to be sure. We came to Phoenix with Northwest Airlines, one-way, because the U.S. Airways refused to carry us and to bring us back to Phoenix. We asked them time after time, and they refused.

They said you are not allowed to fly with us, even though the FBI agent in Minneapolis talked to them, told the airlines these guys are clear, we have no governmental restriction on them, but still they refused to carry us so we have to go to Northwest Airlines and to purchase our tickets back to Phoenix.

PHILLIPS: So, Imam, let me switch the conversation here. Let's say that what happened was due to a couple of paranoid passengers. They saw you praying, they felt uncomfortable, they thought it was weird, and so they just said whatever they wanted to say. Let's just say that's the case, that they didn't tell the complete truth, and it was paranoia that created this. If that were to be the case, let's talk about misunderstanding the Muslim culture. Do you feel that, even with all the learning that we have done and the education that we have done since 9/11, do you think Americans are still in the dark in many ways about the Muslim culture?

SHQEIRAT: Interestingly, that most of us imams, including myself, we conduct intercultural and diversity training for companies, employees, even for police officers in our city here, in Phoenix, all the time.

And we teach these intercultural communication, and we feel there is a lot of lack of education about others, about what Islam is, how Muslims are, how the Muslim -- why Muslim men might have a beard, why Muslim women might have a head scarf and cover their hairs, how the Muslim prayer looks like.

Yes, we feel there is a need of a lot of education and understanding, but since 9/11, all of us, as American citizens and humans who live in America, we have been showing a lot of concern and I do not blame any citizen who would call when notifying any abnormal thing for the sake of protecting the security of the nation.

I myself would do that any time if I noticed any suspicious activity, but I'm blaming the U.S. Airways employees and the police officers who are supposed to be more professional. When receiving a call or a complaint about some suspicious thing, one basic question could have all of us avoid all of this, just to ask what was the suspicion thing? And the answer...

PHILLIPS: And, Imam, I'm going to have to leave it there. I apologize. We're hitting the top of the hour. We've got to get to a break. But I understand what you're saying, and you have my word that we will follow this case and we will stay in touch with you, OK, imam?

SHQEIRAT: Thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Imam Ahmad Shqeirat. I appreciate it. Quick break.

SHQEIRAT: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: We'll be right back.