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Trump Posts Video Showing Image Of A Tied-Up Biden; Maryland Governor: Reopening Of Baltimore Port Could Take Weeks; Bodies Of Four Missing Victims In Baltimore Bridge Collapse Yet To Be Recovered; U.S. Officials: Talks With Israel About Rafah Are Back On; Descendants Sue Over Upkeep Of Historic Atlanta Cemetery; Fish Around Florida Keys Are Spinning In Circles And Dying. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 30, 2024 - 18:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Welcome to the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota in New York.

A violent image of President Biden is still up on Donald Trump's social media account. It has been up for 24 hours.

The post shows a video of a pickup truck with an image of Biden tied up as if he is being kidnapped.

The Trump campaign tried to explain it this way, saying: "That picture on the back of the pickup truck was traveling down the highway. Democrats and crazed lunatics have not only called for despicable violence against President Trump and his family, they are actually weaponizing the justice system against him."

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez joins us now from the White House.

Priscilla, has President Biden responded to this?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, the Biden campaign is slamming this image and citing it as another example of how his Republican rival, Donald Trump is inciting political violence saying this in a statement by the Biden campaign spokesman: "This image from Donald Trump is the type of crap you post when you're calling for a 'bloodbath' or when you tell the Proud Boys to 'stand back and standby.'"

"Trump is regularly inciting political violence and it is time people take him seriously, just ask the Capitol Police officers who were attacked protecting our democracy on January 6."

We also asked the Secret Service about this. They would not confirm or comment on what they call matters of protective intelligence. Of course, all of this comes as the Biden campaign in is trying to attract supporters of Nikki Haley, directly appealing to them in a 30- second ad that's going to be running in battleground states, that ad showing or highlighting moments in which Trump said that he didn't need Haley voters and also calling the former Republican presidential candidate, "a very angry person." So, the Biden campaign, hoping that they can pull Haley voters in their direction, especially those who are turned off by the former president's rhetoric and actions. And of course, trying to target those suburban areas where Nikki Haley did well.

Now of course, this also comes as sources tell CNN that campaign officials have been in touch with some of Nikki Haley's donors. So clearly trying to rake in more money here while also trying to bring on those Haley voters -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: So Priscilla, let's talk about this because tomorrow is Easter of course, and this year, it falls on March 31st. Now, years ago, President Biden declared that, March 31st, Trans Day of Visibility, sort of awareness for transgender issues. Republicans do not like that this is happening on Easter. So what is the White House saying?

ALVAREZ: Well, this is another example of how transgender rights has become a contentious issue. Now Republicans, as you mentioned, have slammed that this day is going to fall on Easter, but we should note that this day, the Transgender Day of Visibility always falls on March 31st. It just so happens that this year, Easter is going to be on the same day. Easter, of course, as often changes year by year.

Now, in a statement, White House Spokesperson Andrew Bates said the following: "As a Christian who celebrates Easter with family, President Biden stands for bringing people together and upholding the dignity and freedoms of every American. Sadly, it is unsurprising, politicians are seeking to divide and weaken our country with cruel, hateful, and dishonest rhetoric. President Biden will never abuse his faith for political purposes or for profit."

Of course, one of those politicians who slammed the move was House Speaker Mike Johnson, but again, the Transgender Day of Visibility has always fallen on March 31st. President Biden recognized it in a proclamation for the first time in 2021 and has done so every year since then, Easter again, so happens to also fall on March 31st this year.

CAMEROTA: Okay Priscilla Alvarez, thank you very much.

Joining me now to discuss this and so much more, we have Democratic congressional candidate for New York's district one, someone named John Avlon who of course is a former CNN senior political analyst.


CAMEROTA: John, I am so thrilled to see you.

AVLON: Wonderful to be on with you, my friend. How are you doing?

CAMEROTA: I'm doing well, John. You've had a bit of a change since I last saw you. You are now running for office and I really can't wait to get to what you are seeing out on the stump. What people are saying to you, how it is going, why you want to get into that racket? And we are going to get to all of that in a moment. But first, because you and I were on the set so many times together talking about the direct line between violent rhetoric or imagery that has led to violence. I mean, there are just a host of examples that I could give you, everything from the hideous Walmart shooting in 2019, where the shooter had a manifesto that echoed Donald Trump's rhetoric about immigrants to obviously January 6.


So the fact that it is happening again and that he is sharing this image of President Biden tied up, I mean, what next? What more -- how many more times do we have to learn the lesson that it does lead to violence from some of his supporters?

AVLON: We shouldn't have to keep learning this lesson, but when people show you who they are, believe them. Donald Trump, especially in the wake of January 6, none of his supporters this time around can conveniently claim ignorance. If they're supporting him, they're supporting a man who for the first time in American history is a major party likely nominee running on an authoritarian platform, praising dictators and engaging in the politics of incitement, constantly, at a time when the atmosphere in our politic is suffused with violence, particularly in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

So it is about trump, but it is also about those who would enable or empower his rise to the presidency again. They have to own this. They can't slip it off to the side. Its core to his appeal and it is dangerous to democracy in the most fundamental way.

CAMEROTA: I mean, we were talking earlier in one of our political discussions, who does this appeal to? Does he think that this is expanding the tent? Why is this happening?

I mean, what his campaign put out basically said, well Democrats do this as though they really didn't like being on the receiving end of violent rhetoric, they didn't give any examples of times that Democrats have done it, so I can't share those with you, but they acted as though they really didn't like it. So why are they doing it?

AVLON: Look, I think its muscle memory and they are defending whatever their boss does, which is what Trump flunkies do. But I think it is important to not buy into the whataboutism of it all. This is something different. It is something distinct, it is something characteristic to him.

And as you say, there is a long steady stream of incidents we can point to that have ultimately gone downstream and resulted in real violence. And so don't buy into the false moral equivalents, not even a little bit. I think in some ways, people are getting hip to the fact that one of the things about this election is I think it is about a war on normal people.

I think there have been a small number of folks who are Trumpers, who are hardcore extremist and ideologues who hijack the Republican Party, wholesale. But I think when normal people look at the way there in this sort of hermetically sealed extremist outfit, excusing whatever it is Donald Trump does, no matter the cost for democracy, they begin to see that this isn't normal. This is an assault on basic mainstream American values, and there is something palpably odd and a little dangerous about those folks, not in a way that's interesting, but in a way that we should keep them aside and sort of say, are you okay because what you're threatening to do and the people you're threatening to put in power don't seem to have the national interest at heart, not even a little bit.

CAMEROTA: So John, is that your message when you're going door-to- door? I see you out there campaigning. So what is the reaction that you're getting? What are voters telling you?

AVLON: It has been a fascinating process, Ali? I mean, I decided I really needed to get in the arena because I wanted -- I felt that too much was at stake at this election. We've talked about this for a long time and sometimes it feels like talking isn't enough. You want to do something.

And I think this is one of those times in American history where we all need to step up as citizens to defend our democracy. When I knock on doors across Suffolk County, I here -- talking to Democrats, the importance of defending our democracy against Trump. But the number one issue, everybody brings up is affordability, and that cuts across partisan lines.

The cost of housing, the cost of health care, the cost of food -- that's something that people feel and I do think that strengthening and defending the middle class and make them feel like government and democracy works for them again is a key obligation.

People are concerned about abortion rights, absolutely. They're concerned about climate change, particularly here on the island. But it is democracy and affordability and a woman's reproductive freedom. Those are the things I hear the most.

CAMEROTA: Really interesting. And do they blame President Biden for the affordability? Do they think that former President Trump could fix that?

AVLON: No. No. it is interesting. I've had an increasing number of folks sort of say, they think there might be price gouging involved, while they're cutting coupons at the table. They know that the economy is starting to get better in ways that people feel, but the middle class still feels under understandably that they've been getting squeezed for decades and the system seems to be working for the super- rich and big corporations, but maybe not a little guy.

And I think that's something that President Biden, going back to the 80s, has been making the case. But I think Democrats need to follow through on that.

I will tell you one other really interesting conversation I had, because it goes with this this theme of law and order, right? Trump always saying he represents law and order, well, of course, what you topped the segment with indicates anything but. I knocked on the door in Smithtown of a guy who was an FBI agent. He is an Independent voter and he knew right away that Republicans were proposing to cut the FBI six percent, and said you know, that can hurt, that can hurt.


So I do think there is this fundamental disconnect with the rhetoric of law and order and the reality of what is being pushed in the budgets, let alone the kind of rhetoric that is being floated by this president. It is the opposite of law and order. So we've got to flip the script.

CAMEROTA: Well, on that note, I mean, former President Trump is also going out after judges in his various criminal trials and as well as one of their daughters, and you know, he is under a gag order in the hush money payment for Stormy Daniels, but it doesn't appear to be working on some level. What's the answer to stop this kind of, call it what you want, harassment of judges and law enforcement?

AVLON: Look, there needs to be accountability. There needs to be equal justice under law. You can't let Donald Trump play the ref and play the victim, which is what he has done very effectively.

You know, there is such a thing as objective facts. There is also a thing that is basic human decency and I think most folks realize that if anybody else was attacking the child of a judge repeatedly with intentional cruelty, that that wouldn't stand.

Again, this is what's wrong, this is the war on normal people, normal values, basic decency that Americans, I think having and depend upon being violated by the guy at the top of the ticket who claims to be super patriotic.

Here we are in the middle of Holy Week on the verge of Easter, and I think this is a time for that kind of reflection. This represents nothing resembling kindness or decency. It is a fundamental lawlessness and an arrogance of power that whenever, especially he feels like he is being held to account.

The answer is to apply the law equally and hold power to account.

CAMEROTA: John, a lot of members of Congress seem to be wanting out. They are retiring at the end of their terms. You sure you want to get into this racket?

AVLON: Look, I mean, I think this is one of those its darkest before the dawn moments, hopefully. Look, democracy requires citizens to step up. That's the thing, right? No one else - we don't wait for anyone else to come save us. It is up to us as citizens to step up and take part in our democracy for at least a time and to hopefully try to make things better.

I get the joke that everyone is trying on to leave Congress right now because it is so divided and dysfunctional, and I think that is a function of the fact that the American people should pay attention to, but nothing is getting done, right?

This is what happens when ideologues and extremist capture our democracy. They don't try to solve problems on behalf of the American people. They think bipartisanship is the problem. I think most of us know it is the solution, that's how we solve problems in our daily lives and our daily jobs across all are interesting differences.

I think that dysfunctional environment -- when President Biden and Nancy Pelosi was Speaker in the first year of the presidency, over 300 bipartisan bills got passed. This is a do-nothing Congress, but with an added degree of sort of dysfunction that's leading its own members to head for the hills.

We've got to do something a little bit different and restore people who actually believe in bipartisan problem-solving again and that will restore faith in democracy, I hope and belief.

CAMEROTA: John Avlon, so great to talk to you as always.

AVLON: We can talk maybe again, next time, and my congrats on your memoir, by the way, I love it. I'm proud of you.

CAMEROTA: I really appreciate that, John. While I've been doing radio tours and they go, hey, is anybody else a secret closet punk rocker at CNN? I go, oh yes, John Avlon. I always mention you. I out you.

AVLON: I am flushed.


AVLON: I love it.

CAMEROTA: Thanks, John. Great to talk to you.

AVLON: Take care, Ali. Be well.

CAMEROTA: Okay, still ahead. Progress is being made to clear the Baltimore Harbor after that massive bridge collapse. We are seeing sparks from the saws cutting through the metal, but how long will it take to get ships moving again there?

Plus, a fishy mystery. Fish are doing something strange lately. They are spiraling around in circles and flipping upside down. Why scientists think they may be doing this.

You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.



CAMEROTA: A massive cleanup effort is underway at the site of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. You might be able to see here the power saws that are trying to cut through the metal into more manageable pieces, but of course it is slow going. Today, the governor of Maryland calling the efforts complicated and dangerous. Crews will soon try to lift the first piece of the structure out of the water.

CNN's Gloria Pazmino joins us live from the scene. So Gloria, what are they saying about the timeline?

GLORIA PAZMINO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Alisyn, you know, we talk about them cutting those different parts of the structure that's left behind, every time they cut something, whatever is underneath it and around it shifts around and they have to stop to think about how that's going to affect the overall process.

I want to step back and remember number the sheer scale and magnitude of what we are talking about here. You can see the wreckage in the distance behind us. In terms of the timeline, the governor made it clear today that they are trying to prioritize the reopening at least of a portion of the waterway so that they can get the traffic back and moving.

And he believes it is going to be at least a few more weeks until they can clear enough wreckage so that the waterway can be clear and some vessels and boats can start making their way around the Dali.


The wreckage that's on top of the boat, that's going to take much longer to clean up and that is another part that is critical to this mission because remember, the other priority that the responders here have is to get into the water so that they can continue the search for those bodies that have not yet been recovered.

CAMEROTA: And what about that, Gloria? When can that happen?

PAZMINO: Well, look, Alisyn, its extremely dangerous, right? And officials here have made it clear that they want to make sure the divers go in when it is safe. They are not ready to do that right now. Visibility is extremely limited and there is all this debris in the water that makes that mission extremely complicated.

So that's part of the reason why they are focusing on lifting the pieces out of the water, lifting the pieces that are on the boat, lifting what is left of the bridge so that they can clear as much area as possible so that divers can then go in and continue that mission.

The governor knows that those families are waiting for a resolution that they want and they need disclosure, and he has made it clear he is committed to that. But there are many factors that are going to affect just how fast they can move, including the weather conditions, and just how fast they can move to make sure that the wreckage is removed.

CAMEROTA: Yes, okay. Gloria Pazmino, thank you very much for reporting from the scene.

Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore joins me now. General, great to see you. Thank you for being here.

Before we get to talking about the structure, let's talk about those victims. I mean, it is awful to think about their family members grieving, waiting for their bodies to be recovered. But as you heard, Gloria say, it is very dangerous for the divers. What could make it safer for the divers? I mean, how long will it take for them to get in there?

LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE (RET), FORMER COMMANDER, JOINT TASK FORCE KATRINA: Well, one thing, the temperature of the water. Warmer weather will help. They won't have to fight with the heavy suits on, and they are just going to have to move some of the debris as one might suspect, having worked a couple of these deep water, this is only 50 feet.

The good news is, it is close to shore, Alisyn. If did -- this couldn't happen as bad as this is and the empathy condolences we have for the family, but if this has happened offshore, this would be a lot harder job.

So the industry will get in there, they will get this metal out of water and they have a good command structure to do it. With the governor overseeing this, but the president pinned the rows on the Corps of Engineers. It is their job to clear the waters and keep them clear. It is the Coast Guard's job to control the boats, and the actions of the boats on that water.

So it will get done, but it is going to be -- it should be days, not weeks. You know, we built The Pentagon in 16 weeks. We need American industry to show up, our engineers to show up and work as a team and get this done and get the best and the brightest we've got in terms of our skilled water workers, which by the way, we have a lot of them in the Louisiana up the Gulf of Mexico who are capable of coming up and help.

But the teamwork is most admirable at this time, but remember, Corps of Engineers, it is your damn job to clear that and we are all watching. We understand unified command, but it is your job. Let's get it done.

CAMEROTA: General, I have seen you mobilize the cavalry when you've had to obviously, famously in Katrina, but then we were also together after the hurricane in Houston and I mean, I've just watched you working the walkie talkies and getting everybody together to work together, to try to salvage what can be salvaged and save people.

And so I've heard some people say that it will take six months to get this resolved. Do you agree? I mean, do you think it can happen faster?

HONORE: Oh, hell, no. I think it is six weeks. The heat is on.

Again, we were commanded by committee, but there is one person, and that's that lieutenant general that lead the Corps of Engineers. He needs to operate 24 hours a day which he has committed to, but this is a problem, but it couldn't happen in -- and I hate to say this, we are in a better place with all resources we have, they will get a lane closed within days, then to get the cranes on the other side.

Once they start working from both sides, Alisyn, this is going to be -- I am sure they don't want to over promise and under deliver, but if we have good weather and it warms up, this should be done within a matter of weeks, not months.

CAMEROTA: That's good to hear. I hope that that is what ends up happening.

Let's talk about Haiti and the horrible situation that is happening there. Just yesterday, the interim prime minister extended the curfew in places like the capital, Port-au-Prince through Monday because of this continued gang violence.


You believe that President Biden should get involved. Why?

HONORE: Absolutely. We had a meeting yesterday led by President Marc Morial of the Urban League and Reverend Al Sharpton, and others to discuss the situation in Haiti from the perspective of the Haitian diaspora for whom I volunteer and work with.

And the message to the president and the plea with the president is to make Haiti a priority just like he has made Gaza and Ukraine, and that has not happened.

The president has also said no boots on the ground. We are asking other countries to put boots on the ground. We need special forces and police assistance to work with the Haitian Army and the Haitian Police.

The other thing we ask the president to do is to waiver the Leahy Act, Alisyn, which prevent the United States government providing arms and equipment in terms of armored cars, heavy machine guns, and equipment and intelligence that the Haitian Army and Haitian Police.

The Leahy Act is, you can look it up, it prevents us providing equipment to those who committed humanitarian atrocities, and the Haitian Police and the Army is not the problem, it is the gangs, but right now, the gangs outnumber the police. The other thing we ask the president to do is to declare an emergency for humanitarian assistance, as well as security assistance.

Of the 10 million people of Haiti right now, the word I am getting and I just finished a Zoom call with 300 people supporting Haiti and in Port-au-Prince that there is up to two million people that are starving in Haiti right now because the food is not flowing. We need the American involvement. We need France and Canada to step up, and we need the US to provide heavy equipment, armored cars that the Haitian Army needs.

CAMEROTA: Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore, always great to talk to you. Thank you for all of that. HONORE: Happy Easter. God bless Haiti. God bless Ukraine, and God bless Gaza, the people in Gaza. Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, General.

Still ahead, thousands of Israeli staged a major protest in Tel Aviv. Families of hostages being held by Hamas locking themselves in cages, demanding their government do more to bring them home.

Plus, high-level talks between Israel and the US on military operations in Rafah are back on. We are talking with former Defense Secretary under Donald Trump, Mark Esper. We are asking him will he vote for his former boss in November.

You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.



CAMEROTA: Thousands of protesters took to the streets across Israel today demanding the release of all hostages being held in Gaza. Families of hostages being held by Hamas locking themselves in cages demanding their government do more to bring them home. High-level talks between Washington and Israel over potential military operations in Rafah are back on U.S. officials saying it could happen as soon as Monday in Washington. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly called off this week's scheduled meeting as relations with the Biden administration deteriorated even further. More than 32,000 people have now died and more than 75,000 injured in Gaza since October 7th.

This is according to Gaza's Ministry of Health.

Joining us now to talk about all this, we have CNN Global Affairs Analyst and former defense secretary under Donald Trump, Mark Esper. Mark, great to see you. Thanks so much for being here.

When you look at (inaudible) ...


CAMEROTA: Well, let's look at the protests that you just saw in Israel. Does this sway Prime Minister Netanyahu to do something differently and does he survive this politically?

ESPER: Well, first of all I don't think so because they've been protesting and demanding the return of the hostages since day one nearly and It's been a persistent issue. And for good reason, they should be returned there's - there should be far more pressure on Hamas to return what is believed to be a hundred or so a Hostages maybe 30 or so bodies of those who were killed in captivity, so the pressure is there.

But the other competing pressure on the Netanyahu government is that they - the Israeli people want to see Hamas destroyed as it's been roughly defined. And so those are two competing priorities at a time when frankly I don't believe that Hamas wants to return the hostages because once that happens, of course, they lose all leverage or most leverage with Israel and that's a problem for them.

So that's why I think you see them dragging out these negotiations.

CAMEROTA: And then of course, there's a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the United Nations says that Israel denied 30 percent of its humanitarian aid missions into northern Gaza this month. Israel says that letting aid into Gaza means that it could be used by Hamas or that the route could be used as an avenue to smuggle Weapons into Gaza. So what about this problem? What do you say to those claims?

ESPER: Yes. Look, I think both things can be true. There's a long history of Hamas smuggling things into Gaza right to conduct war against Israel. I mean - there Hamas is still launching rockets at times into Israel from - even though Israel's occupied most of Gaza now.

So I think it's a very real concern there's a lot of finger-pointing on both sides. Israel does need to move things through inspect more quickly, get more truckloads going in. Before the war, it was estimated 500 trucks a day were going into Gaza and now it's down to 100 or so.

I don't know why the United States frankly doesn't step in here on the ground and officiate this a little bit more On the ground and sort this out to get aid flowing.


That's the quickest way to provide humanitarian relief. It's not going to be through airdrops. It's not going to be through a ship to shore mechanism that's being set up. The quickest best most effective way is to ground convoys.

CAMEROTA: Okay, let's change topics and see what's going on domestically here. I'm Imagining that you've seen Donald Trump's social media post of this photo - video actually that shows President Biden - it shows an image of President Biden tied up in the back of a pickup truck.

What's your reaction to things like that when Donald Trump posts things like this?

ESPER: Look, it's bad when he or anybody from any side of this contest right now from our political - in the political space posts things like this, say things like this, it just lowers our civil discourse and it risks - which is the big concern - inciting people to violence or to take actions and we don't need this. We need to return to comity in our politics. We need to return where we treat each other with respect in our political realm and debate policies and debate ideas and aspire Americans to greater things and not to kind of drag us down into the mud or to, again, in this case possibly incite violence against one or another political candidate.

CAMEROTA: Yes, you said return to comity, C-O-M-I-T-Y, you ... ESPER: I-T-Y, yes.

CAMEROTA: Yes, I get you. You however made an appearance with comedy last night. You were on Bill Maher's show. Let's watch a clip.


BILL MAHER: So you'll vote for Biden?

ESPER: Well, you know with every ...

MAHER: (Inaudible) ...

ESPER: I'm not there yet. I'm definitely not voting for Trump but I'm not there yet.

MAHER: See, I - this you ll have to explain to me sir. I really - I ...


MAHER: ... respect you so much. Thank you for your service, I mean that so sincerely with - but I just don't understand smart people who don't get binary ...

ESPER: I understand.

MAHER: ... binary. I --

ESPER: Look, you also have the option of not voting.

MAHER: How can you not be there after what you just said?

ESPER: There's no way I will vote for Trump and - but every day that Trump does something crazy, the door to open - to voting for Biden opens a little bit more.

CAMEROTA: Okay. So now this morning, are you there?

ESPER: Well, like I said every day that something happen - like that happens, the door opens up. And look, I like to feel - in many ways I represent the 70 percent of Americans who are really frustrated that this is the choice we have. They're two bad choices frankly.

And I've been arguing for some time, we need a new generation of leaders from both parties. I asked some of my fellow panelists last night, is there any chance that you know Biden might step aside the convention? Who knows, I mean, we can only hope.

But, look, I'm definitely not voting for Trump and I'll take my time on this. I got - we got seven months to figure this out.

CAMEROTA: I understand. I guess that I think what Bill Maher was getting at is that it's wishful thinking. I mean we have what we have, so there's - at some point, voters need to accept that this is the choice. And after you see things like threatening the judge, mentioning the judge's daughter ...

ESPER: Sure.

CAMEROTA: ... showing the video. I mean what more do you need to be pushed over to voting for President Biden?

ESPER: Sure. Look, things happen though, too. I'll pull that lever on November 5th. That's six seven months away. I'll make my decision then. But look as I said, you didn't show that part of the clip I actually believe that Liz Cheney got it right when she says, look, we - I disagree with many of Biden's policies, we could kind of walk through them, but we can survive bad policy at the end of the day. I'm not sure we can survive another four years of Donald Trump and that's kind of where my head is.

But look, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican and given what I've seen in the last three years with many of the failings of the Biden policies, it takes people like me and there's other Republicans out there who are sitting on the fence and - or who aren't going to vote for Trump who need some time to get their head around this.

And like I said, I think that's - there are many Americans out there that are in the position.

CAMEROTA: Mark Esper, I really appreciate talking to you. Thanks so much for being here.

ESPER: Thank you, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: We'll be right back.



CAMEROTA: In an upscale part of Atlanta a historic cemetery with graves dating back to slavery is so overgrown that Descendants of people buried there cannot even visit. Now there's a legal fight over who should maintain these neglected graves.

CNN's Rafael Romo went there.



AUDREY COLLINS, DESCENDANT AND PLAINTIFF: This was cleared. And it was - you could walk up the hills.


RAFAEL ROMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): At first sight, this looks like a forest, but look closer and you'll see the rocks here are engraved.


COLLINS: You can see a tombstone right there, look.


ROMO (voice over): This one acre plot of land, this back in the heart of Buckhead, an upscale community in Atlanta.


ROMO (on camera): Can you tell us how many members of your family were buried here?

RHONDA JACKSON, DESCENDANT AND PLAINTIFF: My grandmother, my grandfather. I have a baby brother, two great grandmothers, uncles, and aunts.


ROMO (voice over): Piney Grove Cemetery, a historic African American graveyard that traces its roots to the 19th century, is now at the center of a legal battle between sisters Rhonda Jackson and Audrey Collins, descendants of people buried here and the Bluffs Atlantics Homeowners Association, which now owns this land.



COLLINS: We cleared all of this. All this was clean a few years ago.


ROMO (voice over): In the lawsuit filed in January, the sisters claimed the HOA has failed to clean and maintain the cemetery, but also has interfered with plaintiffs' rights under Georgia law to care for and maintain the cemetery. But the HOA claims the cemetery was abandoned before it acquired the land and until recently, no one took responsibility for maintaining it.


KATHRYN WHITLOCK, BLUFFS AT LENOX ATTORNEY: The plaintiffs themselves had been to the cemetery when they were children and had not been back in years and when they got back, it was overgrown and it was difficult to find grave markers and boundaries.

ROMO (on camera): The thick vegetation here has made it very difficult, if not impossible for the surviving relatives of the people buried here to visit their graves.

But we were able to get to the top of the hill and this is what we found. This is the grave of Joshua Thomas, buried in 1987. He happens to be the grandfather the two sisters who filed the lawsuit.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMO (voice over): According to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation at Piney Grove, there are over 300 burials, some of which are believed to be burials for enslaved individuals, and other people who came from thriving African-American communities that were displaced over several decades.


WRIGHT MITCHELL, PRESIDENT & CEO, GEORGIA TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION: That's been going on since, you know, Emancipation, where African American communities are displaced through a measure of different tactics.


ROMO (voice over): For the last few years, the sisters in a small group of supporters have been fighting a losing battle against the vegetation that is so thick, they can no longer reach their grandmother's grave.


COLLINS: It was too treacherous going up the hill, I'm 71 years old, almost 72 with a bad hip.

JACKSON: I guess I get emotional because on the very first cleanup I promised my grandma when we cleaned her graves, I said, I promise you, this is not going to happen again. We're going to make sure that you are treated with respect.


ROMO (on camera): After the first hearing on the case held in February, both parties made an agreement that among other things gives the sisters access to the cemetery which had been a problem before. The agreement also allows the plaintiffs to take measures to clear vegetation including the use of goats, which was a source of disagreement in the past.

Rafael Romo, CNN Atlanta.

CAMEROTA: And still ahead, what scientists think may be causing this strange behavior in fish.



CAMEROTA: An underwater mystery in the Florida Keys, fish are spinning in circles and flipping upside down. Scientists are trying to figure out why?

CNN's Bill Weir explains.



GREGG FURSTENWERTH, FLORIDA KEYS LIFETIME RESIDENT: I started diving when I was eight years old with my mom, so I've been in the water for a very long time.


BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Gregg Furstenwerth has seen a lot in his life spent underwater around the Florida Keys but he'd never seen anything like this.


FURSTENWERTH: I noticed the fish were spinning and so I started taking video of that. But I really had no idea what I was looking at.


WEIR (voice over): Since last fall, he's seen stingrays moving upside down, Goliath groupers flailing on their sides, and dozens of other species swimming in tortured flailing loops.


FURSTENWERTH: Well, I mean, I've said that it's like I'm in the middle of a disaster movie and I'm that guy yelling from the mountain top, trying to get people to pay attention.


WEIR (voice over): State Fish and Wildlife officials, and Florida's Bonefish & Tarpon Trust have logged nearly 200 incidents with over 30 species acting this way, mostly in the lower Keys but as far north as Miami.


MICHAEL ROLPH, CAPTAIN, MYKEYS TOURS: Yes, this is crazy. I was out on a six-hour charter, I had two people on the boat, and we we're down off a ligament by the bank and we've happened to see a fish floundering on the flats.

And then, so we got close to him. We wanted to see if there was a problem. And we could obviously tell that he was in distress.


WEIR (voice over): It turned out to be a sawfish, a critically endangered species that might lose four or five mature adults a year. But in just a few months, at least 27 have beached themselves or died after intense episodes of what anglers are calling the spins.


ADAM CATASIUS, RESEARCHER, THE WATER SCHOOL AT FLORIDA GULF COAST UNIVERSITY: So typically, when we think of fish acting strangely or dying, we either think of low oxygen conditions in the water or red tide and so we saw neither.


WEIR (voice over): At The Water School, Florida Gulf Coast University, Mike Parson's team is part of a statewide effort to solve the mystery of the spinning fish.

And while tests for most toxins have turned up empty, the most promising suspect is found living off seaweed at the bottom. A tiny critter named Gambierdiscus.


MIKE PARSONS, PROFESSOR, THE WATER SCHOOL AT FLORIDA GULF COAST UNIVERSITY: This is the highest we've seen of the Gambierdiscus cells in the Keys. We don't know if it's the main cause.


WEIR (voice over): The single-cell algae can produce various neurotoxins and is showing up at record-high levels. But it's just one more stressor on Marine life already reeling from pollution, overfishing, and off-the-charts ocean heat waves brought by climate change.


PARSON: So there's concern and curiosity, I guess, on - could the hot temperatures in the summer cause some changes that may be led to the fish behavior now? And we just don't really have all the pieces together to try to link one for the other.

WEIR (on camera): They really have no idea what is happening.


I mean, there is no concrete conclusive proof of what is happening yet. And that is still to be determined, which is quite terrifying.

FURSTENWERTH: It is scary, isn't it?

WEIR: It is because, if it continues, it's going to be the end of this ecosystem as we know it.


ROMO (on camera): Off the charts, ocean temperatures are of course just one of the massive stressors on marine life down here these days. There was a three-year study recently in which a hundred percent of the bonefish that were tested in the Keys turned up at least seven different pharmaceuticals from opioids to anti-depressants.

And so this behavior has not been seen before, but it is sort of an attack from a thousand different angles for the creatures living down here and may be a warning for the rest of us.


CAMEROTA: Bill Weir, thank you for that.

All right, still ahead, after skipping Good Friday events at the last minute, we have an update on the Pope's health heading into Easter Sunday. We'll speak with Father Edward Beck.