U.S. Senator Cory Booker

Cory Booker: George Floyd Is a Referendum on Us

A couple weeks back Senator Cory Booker appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to talk about George Floyd and the protests and the reaction. It’s an incredible interview and I encourage you to watch it.

The whole interview is about half an hour, but there’s about a 15-minute chunk that gets away from the current politics and focuses on racism and this moment in America that is just powerful stuff.

Booker and Colbert have been discussing the protests in Washington D.C. and how President Donald Trump cleared out Lafayette Park for a photo opp, and Colbert asks what it’s like in D.C. right now and if this is a harbinger of things to come. Booker launches into a very personal and emotional response that is worth your time:

Transcript of Cory Booker’s Interview

I’m posting a transcript because there are so many good thoughts and lines and words in this. Please note that Booker was speaking live, off the cuff, and so there are a lot of starts and stops. If I were a better transcriber with more time I’d clean it up, but I think it helps to see those stops and starts. It’s even better to watch the video and see his raw emotion, but sometimes you just need the text. I’m also bolding some of the powerful lines, so that’s my emphasis, not Booker’s.

Here it is:

Booker: What it is is sad. What it is is hurtful. What it is is scary. I’m a United States Senator and I left here late last night and I literally thought twice about putting on my shorts and a T-shirt to walk home because the painful thing that, and the conversation I’ve had with many black men this last week is to know you have this fear, you’ve had it all your life. When I was 12, 13 years old, I was already about six feet tall and to have a nation where the elders, the men in my family, felt this need to begin to educate me that I would make people feel scared or uncomfortable they had this chilling sort of—it was a time I was feeling strong and playing football—to try to help me understand that when I was getting my license, this is not a joke you need to listen to us, because a misunderstanding or an interaction could mean your death. And then to have experiences in my late teens and early 20s with police officers with weapons drawn on me, my car surrounded, accused of stealing my car, being followed in malls for years upon years to being confronted by security guards. The feeling of a Untied States Senator—you know Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, has talked on the floor of the Senate about how many times he was stopped on the way into the Senate in ways that his colleague Lindsey Graham said never happens to me. 

And so when I said about the Rodney King thing when you brought up the Insurrection Act, it’s hard for me to think about that moment in my life where literally I wrote down, I was president of my class at Stanford, I was a Rhodes Scholar—had just been awarded the Rhodes Scholarship—and that night of that Rodney King verdict, I wrote an article and I still remember my hands shaking as I wrote, called “Why Have I Lost Control” because the rage and the hurt and the anger that led me to the streets to march peacefully, but I was so angry because for that point it had been a decade since those conversations I had with family members about how this country will treat you differently. And yet here I had all these titles, all these things I worked for but I knew that there were experiences happening to people that could easily be me. And I think that what has made this moment in American history so difficult for all of us after Ahmaud Arbery, after Breonna Taylor, after a black man in Central Park bird watching—having police called on him—and then seeing the death of George Floyd in front of us, this horrific, violent pornography of a killing, I think the thing that’s made a lot of my friends just break down in tears this week is 30 years ago at Rodney King when we were marching at Stanford we felt we could change this and we wouldn’t have to have these same conversations with our kids, with my nephews. And decades have passed and we haven’t put this nation to a point where you have kids now in our streets again like I was in my 20s who are really questioning this nation and wondering if a country that has spent generations in search of itself—the values I would die for, liberty and justice for all, equality under the law—we are still in search of making those real. 

And this is one of those times where it’s good to see, it’s so good to see Americans—black and white, the whole rainbow—it’s so good to see their anger, it’s so good to see people who for too long have been too comfortable in this country. Too comfortable to accept a nation that says they’re the land of the free but one out of every three incarcerated women on planet Earth are in our prisons and jails, predominantly, disproportionately people of color. A nation that, the most, the greatest indicator of whether you will be around toxicity, that will give you cancer and respiratory diseases, the number one indicator of whether you live around toxic sites in America is race. More than any other indicator. Where the safety and security of black bodies is being exposed in a way right now with COVID-19, with African Americans losing jobs at greater rates than others, and now displayed for all of America to see something that is an everyday haunting part of your thoughts that maybe when I’m walking home as a United States Senator I might get mistaken and something might happen, and that’s wrong. 

So it’s this weird moment, Stephen, where I am emotionally raw, I’ve had moments on the Senate floor, I just came from another one, where I got, I’m yelling—with respect—to a colleague who’s stopped—99 Senators ready to vote for an anti-lynching bill for dear God, a bill that had been killed for a century when thousands of Americans have been lynched and we finally get a bill passed, only four dissenters in the House, Republicans and Democrats, and it was stopped.

Colbert: Who stopped it?

Booker: It was Rand Paul, and I don’t want to question his character and good intention. He’s been a partner of mine. But I—

Colbert: Is it OK if I question them?

Booker: King said something, this is the problem, we want an enemy, right? People want an enemy. And I’m telling you right now, it’s not that. King said it so eloquently when his life was getting death threats, bomb threats, when people like Fred Shuttlesworth were being stabbed and bombed, when girls were dying in churches—we want to blame the white supremacists—they still exist. We want to blame people with hate in their hearts, yeah, but that’s not the majority of us. King warned us that what we have to repent for is not the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people. So I’m hoping this is a period in America where we somehow come to a deeper love, where our circles of empathy expand, when we begin to realize what is not just a quaint ideal that we are one nation under God indivisible, no, that is an inescapable truth and if we ignore it, we ignore it at our own peril and we are seeing the results of it right now. 

And so I don’t want to direct ire. Donald Trump wants to make this all about him, it’s not. This season of America is not a referendum on him. This is a referendum on us, on who we are and who we are going to be to each other. Will we be a nation of love? And I’m sorry if that sounds like sentimentality or saccharine, but God that word, it’s sacrifice, it’s service, it’s struggle, it’s saying what happens to you affects me, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If we, this great experiment, the most heterogeneous democracy on the planet Earth, if we can show that we can make our ideals more than just our slogans and our songs, but to live deep into the fiber and the fabric of this country so that all of us experience the same opportunities, the same justice, the same brother and sisterhood, then we succeed as a nation—but right now, we’re struggling and I’m hoping, I’m hoping out of this struggle and out of this hurt in this country right now grows a new harvest of hope. I really do, and that we can make real change in this country. 

Colbert: I accept what you say that this is not about Donald Trump, it’s about us, but don’t a nation’s leaders reflect what the people will allow? And we’re now equipped with the least helpful leader I could imagine in this moment, because you need a sense of unity and a sense of humility especially in this moment so you can reexamine your own values and whether you live the principles that you claim to be for. 

Booker: You put your finger on the test. There’s not a generation of Americans that has not had someone rise to powerful positions of demagoguery, hate, and divisiveness. Father Coughlin with his antisemetic screeds—number one radio show—we’ve had McCarthyism. But how did we beat Bull Connors and George Wallaces, it was a test of us. 

When I was running for president this year, I’m running for a stage and a big guy confronts me and says to me, “Dude I want you to punch Donald Trump in the face!” And I’m like, “Dude, that’s a felony.” You cannot beat Donald Trump by being more like him. You cannot win this country by taking on the tactics of those who try to oppress you. I’m sorry, people can disagree with me, but I really think this is a moral test of how well we are going to create that more beloved community, because, I’m sorry, the 58 million people who voted for Donald Trump—and about three million more voted for Hillary Clinton, I’ll not forget that—but those 58 million people are not my enemy. 

Colbert: I agree that they’re not. I’m not asking you to blame them—

Booker: But we demonize each other as if we are. We have more animus often toward each other than our common real foes who are laughing at us—I read intelligence reports, I know what the Russians, one of their main strategies right now, it reflects Kruschev, we will destroy you from within, they believe if they can make us hate each other enough that we can’t even get a common sense bill passed from anti-lynching leglislation to infrastructure to stuff we agree on—

Colbert: So you’re saying Rand Paul is carrying water for the Russians?

Booker: [Laughs] I’m not. The greatest person in Congress, the greatest human being in this body is a guy named John Lewis. That’s the last thing I did before I walked down the road to get sworn in by Joe Biden. My dad had just died days before I was sworn in and my mom rightfully took me to see John Lewis. And you know one of the amazing stories that he told me was that one day one of his constituents asked to see him, an older man with I think his child or grandchild, was one of the people who beat him on the Edmund Pettis bridge. And he came to John Lewis and asked for his forgiveness, in front of this child of his. 

And I’m sorry, I don’t know if I have that spiritual alchemy that John Lewis has to transform the most wretched corners of our country into an opportunity for redemption, a love that great that could literally have the two men in the end weeping together and holding each other. And so, somehow this nation has a hell of a lot of redemption it needs to do because I’m as pissed off—excuse me—at often the people who do the things that I find disappointing and hurtful and will fight against as I am with the people who are comfortable and just do nothing even though they are people of good will. Remember, King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was written not toward white racists, they were written to good people who did nothing in a time of peril. 

And so a lot of us have to take this moment and ask and wrestle with a question that I’ve been asked by a lot of really good friends: What can I do? And I just say hold on to that question, and six months from now, when people aren’t protesting in the street, keep wrestling with that question, keep asking yourself that question and let it motivate you to act and don’t let your inability to do everything undermine your determination to do something for the cause of your country. Because as soon as we stop sacrificing for others, serving others, loving others—that’s when we start slipping and that’s when the tyrants and the demagogues rise up. 

Colbert: All that’s necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.

Booker: Edmund Burke, yes. 

Colbert: There you go. And I’ll drop some more Latin on you, qui tacet consentire—silence gives consent.

Booker: Yes.

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