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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden meets leaders of Black sororities and fraternities. This weekend, he delivers the commencement address at Morehouse College. It's a historically Black school, and it's in Atlanta in the swing state of Georgia. In the past, Morehouse would be safe ground for Biden, who enjoyed strong Black support, but it is also a campus in a season of campus protest. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What would make Biden's reception at Morehouse uncertain?

KHALID: Well, you know, it's going to be the first time in months that President Biden has directly engaged publicly with young college students, and it comes against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, which, you know, Steve, as we know, has been a hot-button issue on several college campuses.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KHALID: And Morehouse, in particular, I think is really unique when it comes to social justice issues. Martin Luther King Jr. is an alum. And when I was on campus last week, a student told me that they really take pride in the idea that this school is built upon the legacy of peaceful protests. Now, you know, to be clear, there are certainly folks on campus - in fact, I met one who told me that it is indeed a great honor to have the president of the United States visit.

But this Biden invite has had blowback. A group of faculty wrote an open letter voicing their concerns. There was even some dissent that spilled over during the vote to grant Biden an honorary degree, which is, you know, customary at many graduation ceremonies. But frankly, I will say, Steve, there is some expectation that there will be protests on Sunday. It's just not clear how large or how many.

INSKEEP: How is the White House preparing for that possible blowback?

KHALID: The administration sent a senior adviser. His name is Steve Benjamin. He heads up the Office of Public Engagement. He went down to Morehouse ahead of this speech to meet with a group of students and faculty. He heard out their concerns. And in a press briefing, a reporter asked him about the possibility of protests during the president's speech. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BENJAMIN: The rights of free speech extends to even those who wish to protest, and he respects that. And he makes the point to lean in when there are protesters in the very same space.

KHALID: I will add that Biden has said he supports peaceful protests as long as they're not overly violent or disruptive.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE ALARM RINGING)

KHALID: But, you know, I'll add the concerns that - about Biden's visit are not exclusively about the war.

INSKEEP: Time to wake up, Asma.

KHALID: I know.

INSKEEP: Just letting you know.

KHALID: I apologize.

INSKEEP: That's OK. It's OK. It's all good.

KHALID: I met a young man, Allen Donegan (ph). He was taking graduation photos with friends on campus, and he told me that Morehouse is the school known for Black male excellence. And he does not think that Biden is the right person to talk to them about that.

ALLEN DONEGAN: To me, the agenda of a commencement is for someone to inspire us. And to me, that should be someone that reflects us. There's nothing that President Biden knows about us, our story, what we've been through as Black men in this world today. So I don't believe that he has the capability to inspire us.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is really interesting because Black men have been seen somewhat as a possible swing group a little bit between Democrats and Republicans.

KHALID: I think broadly, Steve, this issue of Black voters is going to be very key this election cycle. They are often the key to Democratic victories, not just in Georgia but throughout the country. And the Biden campaign knows it has work to do. I mean, if you look at the events that Biden is doing this week, you see that. He met yesterday with the plaintiffs of the famous school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. Today, he is visiting the National Museum of African American History. On Sunday, he'll deliver the keynote at an NAACP event in Detroit.

And, you know, Steve, one thing I have heard from Black organizers again and again is that they are not concerned that huge numbers of voters are going to defect to Donald Trump. They are worried that some voters might just not be thoroughly impressed with Joe Biden this time around and might stay home, and that could make the difference in very close races like Georgia, which Biden only won by a little less than 12,000 votes.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid, thanks so much.

KHALID: Good to talk to you.

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INSKEEP: We're about to find out if autoworkers in the Deep South are ready to unionize. A union election at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama wraps up later this morning, and if workers vote yes, they would make history as the first auto plant workers to unionize in Alabama. NPR's Andrea Hsu is here to talk about this. Hi.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do the autoworkers want?

HSU: Well, they say they want to end what they call the Alabama discount. You know, in the Deep South, companies can pay workers less because there aren't a lot of good-paying jobs in the area. Now, I went to Alabama. The plant is just outside Tuscaloosa. It's huge. You can kind of stand on a hill looking over these white rooftops that go on forever, it seems. More than 5,000 people work at this plant, and those who are calling for a union say they think a union could give them lower health care costs, more predictability in their schedules and, of course, higher wages.

INSKEEP: Sure.

HSU: You know, and actually, Steve, for years, Mercedes actually paid really good wages. They were comparable to union jobs up North. But workers at the plant told us over the past five years, wages started to slide. And then, of course, last fall, came the UAW strike up North against the big three automakers. And workers at Ford, GM and Stellantis came out of that with these record contracts, these huge raises.

INSKEEP: Right.

HSU: Mercedes workers thought, you know, we deserve that, too. You hear people like Jeremy Kimbrell, who's been at Mercedes for 25 years. He's saying, this isn't right. You can't underpay people just because they live in the South. His slogan is end the Alabama discount.

JEREMY KIMBRELL: Companies say, we'll go down there to Alabama with those poorly educated workers who will work for less money to do the same job that pays more in other places. I think we've proven ourselves by now. So no, no more discount.

INSKEEP: OK, he's got that message, but hasn't the South been a tough place for unions in the past?

HSU: Yeah. In fact, the UAW has been trying to organize autoworkers in the South for decades. And for decades, workers just weren't that interested. There was this acknowledgment that the reason the jobs even existed in the Southern states was because it's cheaper to build cars there. But last month, the UAW finally put a crack in that shield. Workers at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted to unionize. It was the UAW's third attempt to organize that whole plant, and 73% of the workers there said yes to joining the union.

INSKEEP: So, do you have any idea about how the 5,000 workers at the Mercedes plant are leaning in Alabama?

HSU: I really don't know. There's been one really big difference that sets these two campaigns apart. Workers at Volkswagen told us the company didn't really campaign against the union. But at Mercedes, it's a totally different story. Workers say Mercedes has just been relentless with its anti-union messaging over the past few months. They say Mercedes has warned them unions don't always deliver, and you have to pay union dues, and you don't have a say on how that money is spent. But Mercedes has also been telling workers we hear you. We know there are things we need to fix. And just a few weeks ago, Steve, they even named a new CEO in Alabama. Workers got this video message from Jorg Burzer. He's a Mercedes board member back in Germany.

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JORG BURZER: In my opinion, the only path forward is for us to work together as one team to bring about the positive change you deserve.

INSKEEP: What are Alabama officials saying about this?

HSU: The state's governor, Kay Ivey, has warned that Alabama's model for economic success is under attack from the UAW. Her commerce secretary has warned that unionizing Mercedes would put jobs at risk because why would Mercedes stay in Alabama if they could build cars elsewhere for less? Now, analysts who watch the auto industry say it's unlikely Mercedes would just up and leave Alabama at this point because the plant is so successful. But still, these are really powerful messages, and I'm sure they've resonated with at least some share of workers at the plant.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thanks for coming by.

HSU: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: A Texas man walked out of prison after being convicted of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester back in 2020. Governor Greg Abbott pardoned Daniel Perry. Andrew Weber from our member station KUT in Austin has been following the story and joins us now. Andrew, good morning.

ANDREW WEBER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I want people to know that you covered some of the protests back in 2020 that led up to this shooting. So what were they like?

WEBER: I did. Yes, sir. It was July 2020. It was in the wake of George Floyd's murder, and there were a lot of those protests that summer around the police headquarters here in downtown Austin and around the state Capitol. And Garrett Foster was at a lot of those protests with his fiance. She uses a wheelchair, and Foster sort of helped her get around protests. And every time I saw him, he was armed with a rifle, and he wore military fatigues. He was an Air Force veteran, and he was legally carrying that gun.

And that July, he was walking down Congress Avenue downtown. He got into an altercation with Daniel Perry, and he was driving for Uber at the time, and he was also legally armed. And after that altercation, Perry shot Foster multiple times. He was later indicted by a grand jury here in Austin and convicted of murder.

INSKEEP: OK. And I remember our coverage of the shooting at that time. How did Governor Abbott then get involved in this case?

WEBER: Well, the case caught the attention of a lot of conservative media outlets, kind of like the case of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

WEBER: And it caught the attention of former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Abbott appeared on that show, and he vowed to pardon Perry. And yesterday, a board, with all of its members appointed by Abbott, recommended that, and so Abbott pardoned him and defended the state's stand-your-ground laws. He also kind of took a swipe at the district attorney here for prosecuting the case, saying that the laws can't be nullified by a jury or a progressive district attorney. And Perry, within hours, was released from prison.

INSKEEP: OK, you mentioned stand-your-ground laws. Those are laws under which you can say, I feel afraid, and therefore, I can shoot. I can defend myself. And that's Perry's story - I defended myself. Is there any case that Foster, the man who was shot, did anything to get shot?

WEBER: Well, I mean, he was carrying a gun in Texas at a protest that was being sort of - it was a peaceful protest being, you know, monitored by Austin police. So that could be argued, but Perry's attorneys would argue that he felt threatened and that he had a right to defend himself. But Foster was legally carrying a gun. Perry was legally carrying a gun. And, you know, it's one of those things where, in the trial, that was brought up, but the district attorney argued that Perry had a history of making racist comments in the lead-up to this shooting. He made racist slurs on social media and through a messenger app, and he said - and this is a quote. He said, I might have to go kill a few people on my way to work. They're rioting outside my apartment complex.

INSKEEP: What's been the response to this pardon now from Foster's family and his supporters?

WEBER: The district attorney said that this was - again, quoting - "a mockery of our justice system." His fiance said that the governor's pardon kind of set a dangerous precedent because, you know, her fiance didn't agree with the governor's politics, and because of that, she said, quote, "Texans who hold political views that are different from Abbott's can be killed in the state with impunity."

INSKEEP: Can I just ask, now that Perry has been pardoned, does he face any other legal issues?

WEBER: He can get his record expunged. He can get his military service reinstated, and he can now legally carry a gun.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Andrew Weber with KUT in Austin. Thanks so much for the update. Really appreciate it.

WEBER: Yes, sir. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.