Sen. Cory Booker kicks off book tour with talk at Rutgers
A few weeks after Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was first elected mayor of Newark, he was called to the scene of a murder. The victim turned out to be a protégé of his, a young man by the name of Hassan.
Hassan’s father is a convict imprisoned in West Virginia, and had little contact with his son leading up to the latter’s death. On Tuesday night, Booker spoke about prison reform, his own life and his political background to students at the Douglass Student Center.
The talk kicked off Booker’s book tour following the release of “United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good,” his first novel. Some of the themes it focuses on is bipartisan accomplishment while still remaining true to one’s convictions.
“I think that what we all crave for, not just in our politics but in our friends and professors, is authenticity of spirit,” he said. “I think the sentiment is that everyone is born original but some die a copy.”
His father was born during the Jim Crow era and faced discrimination, poverty and other obstacles during his upbringing. Through the help of the community around him, he grew up and later raised Booker on tales of activism and change.
“I needed to be my father’s son. When I found Hassan’s dad — it was amazing I could track him in West Virginia — I was apologizing for not being there for his son,” he said. “And Hasan’s dad wasn’t there for his son because he was in prison.”
Since 1980, the amount of people in federal prisons has increased by 800 percent, he said. Despite hosting only 5 percent of the world’s population, 1 in 4 people imprisoned on the planet are in a U.S. prison.
“We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent,” Booker said. “(New Hampshire) blacks make up about barely 1 percent of the population, but they're over 11 percent of the prison population.”
The problems continue once they leave prison.
“We release people from prison and we legalize discrimination,” he said. “For people who come out of prison, you can’t get food stamps in most states. You can't get public housing. You can't get business licenses. You can't get a taxi cab license in New Jersey, you can't get loans from banks.”
Their circumstances leave them only one option.
“So what do we do to ourselves? About 75 percent of people go right back into prison,” he said.
The situation has become so grim, he said, that the children's show, "Sesame Street" has begun airing programs targeted at the children of the incarcerated.
Booker later recalled voting at the 2008 and 2009 elections, the first for president of the United States and the second to elect the governor of New Jersey.
In 2008, huge lines extended from the polling place he went to, he said. He waited to vote in the election that would ultimately elect the first African-American president in the nation. The following year, he “hugged a poll worker because she seemed lonely.”
Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) won the gubernatorial election in 2009, and immediately made sweeping changes that had a more direct impact on the state’s residents than President Obama’s victory the year prior, he said. These changes hurt the working poor and middle class in New Jersey.
“Elections have consequences,” he said. “We created this reality.”
People need to have "courageous empathy," he said, especially those who love their country. They need to be able to accept each other beyond merely tolerating them.
The concept of love lets people recognize their need to support each other, he said.
“I hate this idea of tolerance,” he said. “It sounds weird. I think tolerance is a form and we as a society need to move beyond tolerance, which is ‘I’m tolerating your right to be different,’ and move to love. Love recognizes a need, recognizes that we have a common destiny.”
Nikhilesh De is a School of Engineering junior. He is the news editor of The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @nikhileshde for more.
Nikita Biryukov is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @nikitabiryukov_ for more.