Forty years after race riots in dozens of cities stunned the nation, has anything changed? Bill Moyers interviews Newark Mayor Cory Booker for a frontline report on race and politics today.
BILL MOYERS: Cory Booker was only 32 years old in 2002 when he first ran as a reform candidate for mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
CORY BOOKER: I can’t even see you, I’m talking to a screen but I’ll just let you know, I’m running for mayor
BILL MOYERS: His campaign was documented by the Oscar-nominated film STREET FIGHT.
CORY BOOKER: Newark faces real challenges. We have a murder rate that’s twice the Bronx. We have almost a third of our people living below the poverty line. And we graduate only about 40% of our kids from high school. There’s no excuse for this. This city could be doing so much better for the people that live here.
BILL MOYERS: Booker ran against a powerful and popular, though corrupt incumbent. Opponents said this Rhodes Scholar, Stanford football star, and Yale Law School graduate wasn’t black enough—called him a pawn of white society trying to take over Newark—Booker lost. But four years later he came back again – to win.
The city he took over was one of the most dysfunctional and dangerous in America. Poverty rates, unemployment, and crime all higher than the national average — while education and quality of life standards remained dismally low.
But Cory Booker had long been driven to save Newark. His commitment began over a decade ago when he left the comfortable suburbs to move into the city’s notorious Brick Towers housing project -he stayed for 8 years – battling an entrenched bureaucracy and challenging thousands of tenants to fight for better living conditions. As mayor, Booker has defied liberals and conservatives alike with innovations in every department of city government.
After the brutal murders of three young people last year his changes in the police department have resulted in Newark’s longest stretch without a murder since before the 1967 riots. I talked with Mayor Booker in his office earlier this week.
BILL MOYERS: Do people in Newark even talk about the Kerner Commission? Even talk about the riots of 1967? Do they remember them?
CORY BOOKER: You know, it’s interesting. I mean, there is a generational divide. I was born after the Civil Rights Movement. I never saw Martin Luther King alive. But there’s still a scar here in the city of Newark and it’s never been talked about, I think to the point where we can really start healing.
You have to understand the Newark Riots – a lot of people understand that the pain was the initial explosion of anger and alienation, but after that, the response, sending the National Guard troops — a lot of violence was carried out and perpetrated by those who were allegedly coming here to protect residents. There were thousands of rounds of bullets that the National Guard couldn’t account for as they were sweeping through firing into — indiscriminately into — housing projects.
People here will still tell stories, tell me, especially around the anniversary of the riots about having to sleep on the floor, talking about people that were murdered or killed by bullets coming through their window that were being shot by friendly fire. So, it was this time that there is a lot of pain and I still think we as a city we as a culture have to heal.
BILL MOYERS: Most people don’t know that up until the riots, Newark was run by the mob, along with a corrupt Democratic administration in politics.
CORY BOOKER: And people don’t realize that the overt racism that was being exacted upon the population here. The good intentions of the Federal government sending large block grants to the city that were then doled out in corrupt ways really starting to aggravate the frustrations of residents of this city that really felt that the judicial system was not a place they could go for justice, the government was not a place that they could go for justice. They were being locked out of job opportunities. It became a sense which is the most toxic element in American society then and now, there began to be a sense of hopelessness that the system was not making a space for their cries for justice.
BILL MOYERS: To what extent is race still casting a pall over what you’re trying to do here?
CORY BOOKER: It concerns me especially now that a new generation of African-Americans are coming to the fore and I hear reporters ask me all the time, that “You are part of a generation of blacks who is creating a race-transcending society.” And that bothers me–
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CORY BOOKER: Well, I don’t want us to be an America that is sanitized, homogenized, “deodorized” as a friend of mine says, and forgets about race. The richness of America is that we are diverse. We’re not Sweden. We’re not Norway. We are a great American experiment. And as soon as we start trying to forget race or turn our back on race, number one, we don’t confront the real racial realities that still persist. But, number two, is we miss the great delicious opportunities that exist in America and no where else.
So, I don’t want to be a race transcending leader. I want to be deeply understood as a man, as African- American, as a Christian, all that I am. But, ultimately it’s a portal to punch through to a deeper and more textured, more nuanced understanding of the beauty and the brilliance of America. So, that involves a difficult conversation — not a sound bite.
BILL MOYERS: I hear what you’re saying, but what do these — I brought some statistics from this week’s Washington Post and I’d like to know what you think about these. “The average black person in America is 447 percent more likely to be imprisoned than the average white person, and 521 percent more likely to be murdered. Blacks earn 60 cents to the dollar compared with whites who have the same education levels and marital status. And because of long standing patterns of inheritance, blacks and whites begin life with substantial disparities in family wealth.” That’s this week’s Washington Post. What do these findings say to you?
CORY BOOKER: Well, I think that anybody who believes in America, who believes in justice, who believes in what we stand for has to find those statistics nauseating and realize that we, as a country, are not complete yet. That this is not a nation that’s seeking a black justice or seeking a white justice — we profess certain values. Our children pledge it every single day that we will be “One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
BILL MOYERS: But, these realities defy that–
CORY BOOKER: Exactly. So, what’s the challenge to my generation? And that’s really where I come back to is, you know, we can have the courage to deplore the situation. But, that’s not gonna heal it. I do not believe– I’m not gonna have the same conversation my father has now. I watched him. He sat with me-
BILL MOYERS: He’s how old?
CORY BOOKER: He’s now in his early 70s.
BILL MOYERS: And what was that conversation?
CORY BOOKER: You know my dad was the most optimistic guy, came up to Newark one day and he said– My father was born to a single parent. He said, “I couldn’t afford to be poor. I was po’. P-O. Couldn’t afford the other two letters. I was a po’ boy from North Carolina “– born to a single mother in a viciously segregated town. And to have my dad say, “Here we are decades later and I still see kids in a viciously segregated world, still see kids growing up in poverty. But, what I worry about is that their life chances are even worse than mine were growing up in the 1930’s and ’40s.
BILL MOYERS: Well there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that. I mean, right here, 20 years ago, the birth rate among single women, fatherless families was very big out here. And now, according to statistics today, nearly 70 percent of children in Newark are born out of wedlock. Can you ever deal with these issues unless you start with breaking that cycle?
CORY BOOKER: Well, if you if you look at single mothers and I love this analysis because there’s been a lot of studies on the increase in unwed mothers, which I think is not a good thing for our nation. But, as much as it’s increased in the black community, the proportion of unwed mothers between black and white has stayed the same. So, it may have increased, it’s actually increased in both.
So, a lot of these issues, and I often say that if you want to take the temperature of America and where we are evolving as a country, it’s good to dip into the Latino community, the black community ’cause you get a clarity of the urgencies that our nation still faces, but that does not mean that these aren’t real issues within the white community or in American in general.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the most stubborn reality that you face here in Newark?
CORY BOOKER: It is a spiritual crisis of people not believing in the greatness of who we are. And I know in my experience, and I’ve dealt with some of the most difficult situations our country has ever seen — if you take away options for people or where they don’t believe, rightfully or wrongfully, that there is hope for their lives in the pathways in which we, as Americans, view as a righteous path, they’re gonna stray, people are gonna stray from that path where they feel they have limited choices.
I mean, take for example, a 15 year-old kid, and I see this, who’s growing up in a household with perhaps their parents are not present, and they are not getting the kind of education available in their schools. And we have some very challenged educational institutions in our nation. And they make a mistake — smoking marijuana or caught with a significant amount — and they don’t have pre-trial interventions available to them, they don’t have lawyers to come and help them out and they get thrown in jail. They come out maybe weeks later and now, they have a criminal conviction. And they have a criminal conviction; they have no education, formal education. They have nobody there to mentor them. All these things begin to mount up for them. They realize I have no other option or believe that they have no other option.
BILL MOYERS: Than the crime, drug trade–.
CORY BOOKER: Than to continue in the drug trade, which is so easy and right there.
BILL MOYERS: So, it’s an economic engine for them that gives them respect? Dignity?
CORY BOOKER: One might say in the rawest form, and I don’t believe it, I think it’s a spiritual deficit. But, in the rawest form, they might say that this is a rational, economic decision that they’re making. But here is America. And what is our response to that? We could just line up and deplore it. We can say that we need to build more prisons and hold these criminals. Or we can say, “Let’s end this madness and look at practical policy decisions that we can make.”
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
CORY BOOKER: We can make a great investment in an alternative to detention program that has statistically has proven through longitudinal studies to reduce recidivism by 60, 70 percent. But, we don’t invest in those programs on the front end.
BILL MOYERS: Why? Is it because of blackness? Race?
CORY BOOKER: You know, I don’t think it’s as simplistic as that. You have to understand race now is ground into a complicated crucible with poverty and so many other issues — geographic dislocation — you name it. What we have to realize is we can get caught up as pundits sitting there talking about sound bites and race, which is so not helpful. Or we can say, “Hey, black, white or whatever, let’s change policy to react to the concerns that we have. “My passion, my life is not about trying to create justice for one group over another group. It’s to understand that we are one nation. We are in this together. We’re either gonna race together to the bottom or we’re gonna rise together to the top.
BILL MOYERS: But, you’re dealing with the reality right here in Newark. And that is the statistics, the facts, the figures are all devastating here.
CORY BOOKER: Right, but that’s the attitude I’m competing against where people say that we face this leviathan of a problem that’s so implacable that we can’t deal with. “Cory-” and I’ve heard this so much. “We’re 40 years where we’ve been dealing with these problems.” I have people, the most sincere individuals come to me and tell me, “Oh, Mayor, murder it’s going up all over the country. There’s nothing you can do it about it. This year, it’s even gone up in New York City. What can you do about it?”
Well, here we are year to date — we’re down 70 percent on murders because me and a group of very committed grassroots activists and police decided we were gonna choose a different way. We have a choice as Americans. We can continue to talk about problems and I will not have this same conversation when I’m 70 something years old with my child. We are going to shut up in this city and fight.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s the strategy? I think this is what– I’ve got a nationwide audience all over the country listening to the mayor of Newark. What is the new strategy? It’s not civil rights legislation. We did that in the ’60s. Billions of dollars have been poured into the cities, billions right here in Newark. What is the strategy that you think people living in urban areas all over this country should follow to deal with these intractable, real, grim facts on the ground?
CORY BOOKER: I say simply this: don’t look at government to do it, don’t look at somebody else, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “I benefit from this nation. I benefit from incredible sacrifices. What am I willing to do different this year to make a difference in the problems in America?”
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying that to these black kids who are going to– being arrested and being sent to prison?
CORY BOOKER: Absolutely, and I’ve sat with those kids that you’re– that you’re talking about at this point. I’ve sent with young people as a mentor and looked them in the eye. It’s your life, it’s your destiny, you choose. But, I’m telling you this right now. You know, King, again, said it so much eloquently. It’s not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the evil people that threaten us as a nation. It’s the appalling silence and inaction of the good people. And we, as Americans, have to understand that change will never roll in on the wheels of inevitability. It necessitates sacrifice and struggle by true warriors.
BILL MOYERS: Is that money? Do you need more money?
CORY BOOKER: You know, there’s no simple answer and that’s the–
BILL MOYERS: But, do you—
CORY BOOKER: That’s a knee-jerk reaction to spend more money. Well, you know what? I can show you places in the city of Newark where we’re doing more with less simply because we have good people stepping forward and saying, “I’m not gonna tolerate this any more in my nation, in my community, on my block.”
BILL MOYERS: What are they doing?
CORY BOOKER: They’re doing mentoring programs. You have grassroots leaders — young, black men starting up organizations like Prodigal Sons and Daughters here in the city of Newark welcoming people back to the community, because if you’re a Christian, that’s one of the seminal stories. If somebody’s coming back from doing wrong, you don’t just point a finger at them and say, “Bad, bad, bad,” for the rest of your life. You get up and you embrace them, and you help them, and put them back, and I see people in our grassroots doing that.
I hear groups like Stop the Shooting — young, black men who just said they’re tired of seeing what’s going on in their communities. And they reach out. And they mentor and they work with people. The power of our country always has never been the leadership, please! The Civil Rights Movement was done by young kids that, young people that we never will know their names that made this country change.
BILL MOYERS: I’m struck that you’ve been emphasizing so called “quality of life” issues. You know, picking up the liter on the street. I’ve heard that you’ll get angry at somebody in the car ahead of you who throws wrappers out on the street.
CORY BOOKER: Yeah, I’ll stop my car, put my lights on and pull them over and give them the trash back.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CORY BOOKER: Because it’s all about the spirit. It all comes down to a spiritual transformation. And if your city looks messy, we have a lot of challenges with that in Newark with litter and illegal dumping. If you’re unkempt. It’s all about self respect, it’s all about the spirit. And it all starts with how you feel about yourself and what you know about yourself. Look, I’m not saying, I ran to become mayor of the city of Newark because I wanted to make policy changes. And we’re doing it. We’re getting– ex-offenders hired by going out and talking to companies and saying, “Hey, if we trained them, if we give them soft skills, if we help these men to understand who they really are, will you hire them?” And companies are stepping up and doing it. We’re creating incentives to help them. Free, legal services to help our brothers and sisters coming home. So, we’re making clear policy changes.
But, at the end of the day, I need that law firm like the one in the city of Newark who’s willing to give those free legal services. I need those companies who understand that you can do good and do well at the same time. I need the churches who are willing to run some of the programs.
BILL MOYERS: But, you need jobs too, don’t you?
CORY BOOKER: Yeah, but, the thing is if you re-imagine your economy-
BILL MOYERS: How? How so?
CORY BOOKER: Oh, there’s so many ways. Look, we have to save inner city buildings like, the city of Newark, we’re hemorrhaging energy — nobody’s weatherized the city of Newark. Nobody’s looking at insulation. So, all of the sudden, you realize wait a minute, you could save money, millions of dollars for government, for schools, for businesses if you weatherize, if you insulate. And all of the sudden, you realize, wait, you’ve created a business model right there.
Then you can create businesses and, therefore, jobs right here in the city of Newark running around and doing these things. If you re-imagine your economy and realize and go to people and say, “Wait a minute. You’ve got a law here that makes no sense whatsoever preventing young, black men who have criminal convictions from getting jobs in the port area. Why are you denying..”
BILL MOYERS: In the port area?
CORY BOOKER: In the port area. Or let me give you a worse. I had a guy that came to my open office hours who couldn’t get a taxi license ’cause 20 years earlier he had a criminal conviction. He wanted to be an entrepreneur. But yet government was restricting his ability to get a license because of 20 years ago. Every state in America has these nonsensical laws that undermine the potential of individuals.
There’s so many things that we can do that are sound, rational policy that are not right and not left. Not Democrat, not Republican, that are American, in my opinion, that we all can agree on, but we’re just not doing it, and any elected leader like me is betraying their office if they run for office, and they sit in office and say, “Government’s gonna do for you.” What I’m looking for in leadership whether it’s my president, whether it’s my governor, whether it’s my mayor — I want leaders that are going to ask more from America.
BILL MOYERS: We’ve seen the specter of race intrude into the presidential race, and I know you experienced it when you were running because some people said, some blacks said you weren’t black enough to be mayor of a basically black city. How is race playing out in your life here now?
CORY BOOKER: Well, I think that’s the frustrating for me often is the dialogue I hear on the news in the media is very different than the dialogue for real Americans on their everyday lives. You know, I spent a lot of years of my life, you know, did my undergraduate study in urban issues. I did my masters degree studying that. In law school, my focus was all these issues. And I could sit here and give you a treatise on the causal factors of racial disparities. But, at some point, I think we need to start having a conversation about what are we gonna do to solve it?
What I’m trying to say is that you can get so caught up in looking for blame. Who’s to blame? Is society to blame? Is it white folks to blame? Is it the prisoner himself to blame? But at some point in America, we’re going have to get beyond blame and start accepting responsibility. So, again, I have to say, I’m not that old–
BILL MOYERS: How old are you now?
CORY BOOKER: Thirty-eight years old. But, I’m already getting fatigued with the conversation, and feeling that there’s a dearth of action. That it may be in vogue right now because of this presidential election to talk about race, to study and to flip it over. But at the end of the day, is it gonna motivate action? We had the courage to deplore the reality in which we live, but we will we show the equal courage to do something about it? Not wait. Not point a finger. Not sit and have debates about a divided America. But, to get into the trenches, to roll up your sleeves, to do the hard, difficult work it takes to manifest the greatness of this nation.
America was born out of collective sacrifice, out of a lot of fights and a lot of struggles. And here, our generation of living Americans, has to decide what they’re gonna do. If they’re gonna sit back and just let this be a spectator sport, we will devolve in the same way the great Roman empire did. But, if you’re willing to get up and continue the fight, to continue the struggle, to understand that we are not a nation who has manifested their ideals. That when our children pledge allegiance to that flag whether they’re in Newark, New Jersey or Beverly Hills, those kids are saying words, “One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” that are aspirational. We haven’t achieved that. And, therefore, this generation has to manifest the same struggle that my parents’ generation did. And my parents’ parents’ generation did.
BILL MOYERS: But the founding fathers who proclaimed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as our ultimate values also nurtured slavery in the cradle of liberty.
CORY BOOKER: Absolutely, and I love that civil rights leader that said, “Constitute, Constitute,” I can’t say the full word. I can only say two fifths or three fifths of the word because Americans were judged in, black Americans or Americans were judged in that fraction. That in the very Declaration of Independence, Native Americans are referred to as savages. Obviously, there is racial divisiveness, degradation that seeped into the very founding of our nation.
But, the beauty of America is that the people of this country, black and white and Jewish and Quaker, saw within this nascent nation, saw within it the, the very manifestation of the divine. And helped this country overcome itself, its limitations and its divisions and created a nation in which I’m proud of. But, ultimately, which I know is not complete yet. If you realize that, what are you doing about it?
That’s the final question people should ask. What am I doing to deserve this country? I’m an American. That comes with obligations. We have the Statue of Liberty on one side. I think we should build another statue in this country called the Statue of Obligation, the Statue of Responsibility. And people should understand that by the very nature people are fighting to become citizens of the United States of America, willing to do whatever it takes, but, we’re taking for granted what that legacy means.
BILL MOYERS: I’ve watched you since your first race, which you lost. I’ve watched you on the city council. I know that you’re trying to move us into a new direction. How do you adjust to not being able to do all the important things you want to do?
CORY BOOKER: I’m stubborn. And, I made a decision in my life what I’m willing to die for, what I’m willing to live for. And I’m, maybe call it an arrogance, to believe that I live in a time where me and my team members and my community can do anything. And I’ve often been criticized for it. I’ve often been told I’m unrealistic. But, I think this country was formed on unrealistic ideals.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve also been the subject of death threats?
CORY BOOKER: I’ve been the subject of death threats. I’ve seen my share of violence in my days.
BILL MOYERS: A young man died in your arms, didn’t he?
CORY BOOKER: A tragic situation where a kid was shot and fell backwards into my arms, and I held him, vainly trying to stop the blood. You have a choice to make every day. Will you do everything you can despite the circumstances to generate love and light? Or will you give in to the darkness around you?
And I believe that in this city that I love, I’ve been able to connect to so many people that you will never read about or see on TV. Not people who are involved in debates about race on TV, not people who are pointing fingers. But, you see these neighborhood leaders on their block who step up who take time to sweep in front of their house and even a little bit further down the street even though they don’t own the property who watch the kid walking home from school and ask them how their day is. Ask them what kind of grades they’re getting.
The tenant leader in my building when I lived in some projects who on Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day — she ain’t Irish – but yet, she’s collecting money from all the residents in the basement of the building to have a St. Patrick’s Day party for a bunch of black children. This is the spirit of America. You know, this same tenant leader, I’ll never forget — her son was murdered in the building in which we live. And I remember saying to her, “Why would you stay here after your son, who served in the American military no less, and came home and was savagely murdered?” And she folds her arms and looks at me with a toughness. And she says, “Why am I still here in Brick Towers? These high rise projects?” And I said, “Yeah, why are you still here?” And she says, firmly, “Because I’m in charge of homeland security.”
Now, here’s a woman that gets it. It’s not about the President. It’s not about the Congress person. It’s about me. This is my country. I’m gonna fight for it. I’m gonna remake in the image of our ancestors. I’m gonna show that love will prevail over ignorance, over bigotry, over division, that I will unify our country through my spirit, through my blood. And if everybody stopped talking and started focusing on doing something more than I did yesterday in order to change tomorrow, then we’re gonna have the America of our dreams.
BILL MOYERS: We remember the Kerner Report for its searing conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white- separate and unequal.” African-Americans at the time were fast becoming concentrated and isolated in metropolitan ghettoes, and the Kerner Commission said that by 1985, without new policies, our cities would have black majorities ringed with largely all-white suburbs.
The commissioners acknowledged that government policies like urban-gentrification, and the construction of huge high-rise projects had helped to blight stable black communities. So they offered some specific and practical remedies – new jobs, affordable housing, and new steps to confront the destructive ghetto environment. But following the civil rights movement of the mid-sixties – the peaceful marches and demonstrations, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the riots triggered a mounting white backlash. LBJ’s escalation of the war in Vietnam added fuel to the fires.
The Kerner Report was published on March 1, 1968. Hardly five weeks later – on the fourth of April, forty years ago next week – Martin Luther King was assassinated. Flames again engulfed dozens of cities, and the possibility of large-scale change perished in the blood and ashes and racist toxins. The president had told the Kerner Commission: “let your search be free—as best you can, find the truth and express it in your report.” They did. But the truth was not enough. The country lost the will for it.
Cory Booker wasn’t even born when this report appeared my generation read and shelved it. His must now write the next chapter.
That’s it for the JOURNAL. See you next week. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on June 15, 2015.