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‘This Is a Moment of Profound Possibility’: A Conversation With Cory Booker

Cory Booker speaking at a podium
Senator Cory Booker on June 2, after introducing a resolution to condemn President Trump for tear-gassing peaceful protesters at the White House. Photo: CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

In recent days, New Jersey senator Cory Booker has been a prominent voice standing with protesters and responding to the nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. In the Senate, that’s meant working with California’s Kamala Harris and members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the House to write legislation for police reforms, including the building of a universal registry of police misconduct. But Booker, the former mayor of Newark, also sees a transformational moment in the making, and he wants you to remember that these protests would be even bigger if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. “I’ve heard the anguish of people,” he tells New York. “They’re torn between wanting to save their own lives and wanting to be out there in the streets, where they’re potentially putting their health at risk, but to try and save the lives of their children or brothers or sisters.”

Let’s start with the protests that began late last week. Where was your mind when you started to see them spread from Minneapolis around the country?

I think that this is obviously the result, so much so, of Floyd’s death. But I’m also very conscious — as I spoke about on the Senate floor — that Breonna Taylor, that Ahmaud Arbery, and even that Central Park moment are all a part of this picture of utter exasperation that’s just like a point of ignition, of explosion, for so many of the people I talk to and engage with — many of whom are at protests, who are part of protests, who lead protests. It’s this culmination of all of that; it didn’t cross the point at which people are fed up. It blasted folks into a new orbit beyond just being fed up.

And I don’t think what people are giving enough deference to is that seeing between 100 and 150 cities experiencing demonstrations, that the numbers of demonstrators could be anywhere between two to ten times the number of people in the streets right now were there not a pandemic going on. And in my circles of family and friends, how many people I’ve heard say to me — because, remember, the African-American communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID crisis — I’ve heard the anguish of people; they’re torn between wanting to save their own lives and wanting to be out there in the streets, where they’re potentially putting their health at risk, but to try to save the lives of their children or their brothers and sisters, because of this feeling that black bodies are under siege from a pandemic, from the police, and also right now under siege being disproportionately impacted by this economy.

We are in a raw period, and this moment has so just torn up the soil of our souls, as I’ve been saying. And the question is what’s going to come from this. And I think that there’s an unwillingness — I feel it personally — to accept anything less than real substantive change.

Did your thinking change at all about this moment once we started to see police in some cities respond to protesters with violence?

It is a painful reminder of the imagery from the 1960s. You know, I just feel like I’m watching hauntingly similar scenes to Eyes on the Prize, when I would watch that documentary series and see police officers beating people who are nonviolent in their protest. And I don’t think that that is the norm out there. I think that there’s an overemphasis, for one, on rioters and looters, who are such a small fraction relative to peaceful protesters and activists. But clearly the highlighting of these incidents — in which you’re seeing more police officers be arrested, in America, more police officers now under investigation — clearly it’s further highlighting the problem we have with policing in America.

So did you see it as part of that same continuum when the president cleared out the peaceful protesters in front of the White House or something different?

That was a moment where, again, it was reflective of the tactics of the generation past. It was a depraved abuse of power that further ignited the will of not only grassroots protesters but many of us who are fighting for change here in Congress.

So what happens now? You’ve put forth this framework for police reform, but there’s also the coming election. How do the next few months need to look? And are you worried that even if Joe Biden and other Democrats win in November, Trump’s actions are going to leave lasting damage on this front?

I think that the movement we’re seeing right now is so much bigger than any individual, even Donald Trump. And I think that as much as he’s trying to center this on him, the reality is I think you’re seeing a force unleashed in this country that is far greater than any elected official. And, as we’ve seen in every great movement for change, whether it’s the suffrage movement or the civil-rights movement, it was led first by the streets of this nation.

I mean, the irony of even that comparison: The first person ever to be arrested peacefully protesting in front of the White House was Alice Paul [in 1917], who was then tortured because she went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. So in front of that same fence, you have peaceful protesters under this president being gassed and shot with rubber bullets. And I just think he’s underestimating the moment in history and how he will be remembered. And ultimately, in the history of great movements in America, the elected leaders are secondary to the leaders we saw in the grassroots. And I think that that’s where we are right now, that’s what the movement is.

And I think that the wonderful thing about this that I’m seeing now, that I’m feeling now is two things. One, the inclusiveness and the diversity of the activists. When a movement grows beyond the people it is advocating for — for instance, Frederick Douglass’ last meeting before he died was a suffrage meeting — when that becomes a diverse movement, when the civil rights movement led to people like Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner dying together, freedom rides of people with different backgrounds, when a movement goes to the point where it’s almost mainstream, from suburban to urban, from young to old, when you see the people who are demanding change, I think that’s one marker of movements. And the second thing that I think is really powerful is having people openly in the streets talking about the intersectionality of all these issues. And that, to me, is so meaningful because I think it furthers the ability not just to make change, I hope, on policing issues, but to understand they’re directly related to economic issues. Directly related to environmental justice issues.

And so this is a moment, to me, of profound possibility all leading up to an election. 2020 could be one of those great years in American history of profound upheaval and tremendous advancement of change. Maybe I read too much history, but the echoes of 1968 — where we passed another major civil rights bill, had, obviously, elections and a lot of challenges, but also had some massive space accomplishments — I just feel that we are in a moment here in America, led by grassroots demand where we can see tremendous change, positive change. And I know that that’s not — I hate to quote King here, you’re interviewing me and not all these people I’m going to quote to you, but I’m always cognizant that change doesn’t just happen, it doesn’t just, as King said, “roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” It has to be worked for, and struggled for, and I think there’s a lot more struggle that we have to sustain. But I’m encouraged by seeing people in the light of a healthcare scare, they’re facing that and still getting out there to demand change.

Have reactions to your policy framework for police reform surprised you, when it comes to issues like reforming qualified immunity?

I’m going to give deference to my partner Kamala in this. We both know that we’re pulling together ideas — we’re the two Senate members of the 55-member Congressional Black Caucus — many of these ideas have been fought for since before I was the mayor of Newark. And so we’re pulling a lot of them together in a bill that we believe has a real chance of becoming law — maybe not in this Congress, with Mitch McConnell, but potentially as early as January of next year.

So I’m very inspired by, No. 1, the broadness of the coalition of people willing to work on this comprehensive bill with us, and that the issues of qualified immunity, Section 242 on the criminal side, all the way to a bill I introduced years ago, about just collecting data on use of force, all of these things, there is definitely a moving of these ideas into the center of thought in circles in Congress. And I just feel like this is a moment of profound possibility in building out coalitions. And I’ve had Republican conversations, by the way, that have been encouraging me, as well as law-enforcement officials and others that have seemingly been willing to engage on ideas that might not have been possible before the kind of uprising people have been seeing.

Are these Republicans willing to talk about this out loud?

No. Nor would I, after six years in the Senate. I’ve learned, unfortunately, the wrong way — not to turn the media onto people I’m negotiating with. It’s in good faith. I think that Kamala and I on the Senate side, along with the CBC on the House side, are really working a good strategy to outline to the country. What is not wanted from me or anybody in Congress right now is just words of affirmation: “Great speech, protests”; “We’re with you.” What people really want is a specific legislative agenda to address the issues that are being demanded by people in the streets to be addressed. So we’re working really hard to get a large bill out there that people can look at, or maybe not — maybe we’ll see activists demanding more. But we’re trying to put onto paper legislation that will actually address in a comprehensive fashion police accountability in this country.

On the protests themselves, Newark keeps being elevated as an example of very peaceful protests, with cooperation between the city and protesters. What do you think has gone right there that’s gone wrong in a city like New York?

I don’t know that that’s a question I can answer. I mean, I intimately know my city. I know my leaders. From the extraordinary leadership of Ras Baraka to the experience of leaders past, from Clement Price, the great historian who was also an activist himself, to a lot of the street activists and organizers in our city. And let’s be clear: Our city is the biggest city in New Jersey, but it is 300,000 people. Which, pick a neighborhood in the Brooklyn area. If Brooklyn was a city itself, I think it would be the seventh-largest city in America.

So we’re just dealing with New Jersey’s biggest city, and if you are in Newark, everybody knows everybody. One of my friends who was out marching was like, “If you ain’t from Newark and you’re coming in to tear up our city, we know who you are.” You know? You stand out. So I don’t even want to cast a shadow on other cities without having that experience in a city like New York, a city like Los Angeles. It’s just not the same. And there is a feeling of Newarkers who’ve stuck it out — I mean, I’ve lived in Newark for 20 years and have been the mayor of the city, and I’m still a guy that just got here recently. It’s a city where folks know who your momma is, who your grandpoppa is. And you have these famous families, you know, Mayor Baraka’s father [poet Amiri Baraka] is, like, a legend. Our congressman Don Payne is the son of another legend [former congressman Donald Payne Sr.]. There’s a soulfulness and connection in Newark that I’ve always loved.

I think that Camden is having similar experiences. Camden’s a small city, and people know each other. Because these were cities that were abandoned, that have chips on their shoulder. I don’t mean to go on about it, but I just love my city and what they’ve shown right now is a connection to the roots of activism — Newark is an activist city that is led by activists. Its last four mayors have all been people that led marches before they led a city.

But when you look at plenty of other cities — which don’t have the same kind of activist history in that specific way — there’s been a lot of worry that mayors, including Democrats, have had a knee-jerk alignment with law enforcement. Have you been worried about that, or have you seen examples that concern you?

I can speak to you as New Jersey’s senator who knows from Paterson, Passaic, all the way to Camden and Willingboro. I mean, every one of our big cities is small enough for folks to know folks. My biggest gadflies, my toughest critics, when I see them in Newark, we hug each other. We know each other. We put each other on blast, but we know each other. And the police department, which is far from perfect — I had my own learning curve to go through as mayor — but the fact is that people know who the police are, that they know each other. The public-safety director right now, Anthony Ambrose, has the relationship with the activists of our city to go back decades — he’d be mad at me if I was aging him — where he can pick up a phone and call the people. They may not always get along, there’s a constructive tension, as there should be, between people who need to be held accountable, i.e., public officials. But we are a city where we are in relationship with each other, but there are activists and leaders who work together to create a more beloved community. There’s still a lot of work to do. A lot of work to do. And who knows what’s going to happen next week in any city in New Jersey? I’m not trying to predict that there’s not going to be more challenges. But I just think my state, because of a lot of reasons — history, painful history — there is a protectiveness over our communities, there is a closeness in our communities. I’m not making it relative to other communities, I just don’t know them, but I know my community has that spirit.

Of course, the police-reform measures you’ve been talking about would be nationwide. So even if what’s true in some New Jersey cities isn’t applicable elsewhere, what about your time in Newark can be applied as far as these reforms are concerned?

Let me go to my own personal experience. We wanted to be about police accountability. And we were making reforms, but we were not making them fast enough, nor did we have the capacity to collect the data necessary to create more transparency, which is fundamentally necessary to have accountability. And so when the DOJ came to our city and utilized what I always call more than a million dollars’ worth of free consulting and they had the data collection and analysis methods that we didn’t have, they were able to demonstrate that here you had a majority black city council, black mayor, people with roots in the city, and the same goals as everybody from the activist world — we all have the same goals. But the ability to collect applicable data helps us all realize we were not moving fast enough to reaching the goal. So whether you are a city where you don’t have people that share the same goals, or not, there should be national data collection on police use of force, looking at disparate treatment at traffic stops. We should have a system of national data collection that provides transparency and accountability to police departments. I became a devotee of this by the time I was finishing my mayoral term, and that’s why years ago I introduced legislation to create this national collection, and now among the things Kamala and I are working on, with this bill, is collecting data on everything from use of force to police misconduct cases.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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