Blackwell emphasized the word “human” as he launched into an emotional dissection of the president’s words. His voice shook. His eyes got teary. The attack was personal.
“You know who did [live there], Mr. President?” Blackwell said. “I did. From the day I was brought home from the hospital to the day I left for college. And a lot of people I care about still do.”
Trump’s tirade toward an African American congressman, who has led investigations into his administration as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, came two weeks after the president posted racist tweets telling four minority congresswomen to “go back” to the “crime infested” places they came from. All of the lawmakers are U.S. citizens, and three were born in the United States.
Speaking Saturday morning on “CNN Newsroom,” which he hosts with Christi Paul, Blackwell — who is black — took note of the similar language deployed against those congresswomen and now against Cummings. “Infested” is typically used in connection with rodents and insects, he said, but Trump seemed to reserve the word for a select few lawmakers.
“Donald Trump has tweeted more than 43,000 times,” Blackwell said. “He’s insulted thousands of people, many different types of people. But when he tweets about infestation, it’s about black and brown people.”
Beyond Cummings and the four Democratic congresswomen targeted earlier this month — Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — Trump has used “infested” to criticize Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who is black and a leader in the civil rights movement.
Lewis should spend time fixing the “crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.” instead of complaining about election results, Trump tweeted in January 2017.
The pattern goes beyond politicians Trump doesn’t like, Blackwell said, pointing to other tweets in which the president has used the word “infest” in connection with nonwhite people and immigrants. There was the time, in 2014, he said, when Trump wondered why the United States was sending its soldiers to “Ebola infested areas of Africa.” Then the time last year when Trump said that California’s “sanctuary” areas for undocumented immigrants wanted out of a “crime infested & breeding concept.”
But the attack on Baltimore hit home for Blackwell. Detailing his connection to the city of more than half a million people — Maryland’s largest — after his long pause, Blackwell looked into the camera and addressed the president directly.
“People get up and go to work there,” Blackwell said. “They care for their families there. They love their children who pledge allegiance to the flag just like people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir.”
“They are Americans, too,” he finished.
Cummings responded Saturday with an address to Trump, as well.
“Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors,” he tweeted. “It is my constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. But, it is my moral duty to fight for my constituents.”
Baltimore has high crime rates, but as The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz noted, Cummings’s district is a subset of the city:
Baltimore is the third-most-dangerous city in the country behind Detroit and St. Louis, according to the FBI’s 2017 crime report. But Maryland’s 7th district, which Cummings has represented since 1996, includes about half of Baltimore city and has a median household income of around $60,000 and a higher percentage of college graduates than the country as a whole.The Washington Post
Blackwell acknowledged Saturday that Baltimore faces challenges, and he has spotlighted the city’s troubles before on CNN.
Blackwell brought cameras to the boarded-up houses not far from the site of protests.
“What you’re hearing from protesters are not just calls for justice for Freddie Gray, not just an end to police brutality, but an end to the economic disparity and an end to the lack of opportunities in this community,” he said, adding that the street of vacant homes had been that way since he was a boy.
But Blackwell pushed back Saturday on the president’s blanket criticism of Baltimore, saying that people are “proud of their community.” During his 2015 visit to the city for CNN, Blackwell also stopped by his brick childhood home, where he pointed out his friends’ houses. Driving, he gestured to the place where he used to ride a bike.
“For me there’s a lot of sentimental value here,” Blackwell told viewers.
Blackwell’s defense of Baltimore and criticism of the president resonated on Twitter, as activists, journalists and others urged people to watch the passionate speech. Blackwell’s name trended on the social media site with more than 16,000 tweets by Saturday afternoon.
“If you watch anything today …” wrote one of Blackwell’s colleagues, CNN writer and producer Chad Phillips, “Make sure it’s this.”