Newark Mayor Cory Booker LAW ’97 has a resume that most people could only dream of — a Rhodes scholarship, a degree from Yale Law School and a place on the 1991 All-American football team. But he chooses to live in a place that is at times nightmarish: “Brick Towers,” one of Newark’s most infamous housing projects.
On Thursday, Booker returned to the Yale Law School auditorium, where he recounted his journey from Yale, through inner city slums and eventually to Newark’s City Hall. The address was the keynote speech for the 10th annual Arthur Liman Public Interest Law Colloquium.
Booker called for more Yale graduates to go into public service.
“We need people in the trenches to ensure that the great revolution that swept this country into being can continue,” he said.
“Trench” warfare may be an appropriate metaphor to understand Booker’s work. He said Newark is facing “incredible problems” and “unbelievable realities,” citing the statistic that up to 25 percent of Newark men have spent time behind bars.
Booker also shared anecdotes from his early experience living in Newark.
“I lived next to a crack house, and I watched men on the street sell drugs with an efficiency that would put Rite Aid to shame,” he said.
As mayor, Booker is trying to overcome a crippling budget shortfall and to overhaul much of Newark’s city government. But he is also focused on the basic needs of his constituents. Once a week, he holds “office hours” where he meets, sometimes for an entire day, with anyone who visits him.
Despite that emphasis on the mundane, Booker’s rhetoric often soared to idealistic heights. Booker warned that the problems plaguing Newark, one of the country’s most segregated and impoverished cities, might be part of a wider decline in American society.
“I think of the fall of Jerusalem in 69 A.D., and the fall of Rome, and of the USSR — no civilization falls because of external threats,” he said. “They fall because of internal corruption, because of failing to be who they say they are.”
Speaking to an audience of many lawyers and law students, Booker recalled the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the civil rights movement who were willing to break laws as part of their fight for justice. He insisted that making changes in history sometimes requires breaking the law to “challenge the order of things.”
After his address, Booker answered questions from the audience. When listening to each question, Booker’s rested his hands on the podium, and his usually smiling face settled into a unblinking stare.
“Booker is a very good listener. He is very interested in what you have to say,” said Andrea Woloski, a student visiting from Harvard.
One question earned a particularly long response from Booker.
“What work can I, a white kid from the suburbs, do in inner cities that is authentic and meaningful?” Dan Freeman LAW ’07 asked.
“You can help in any and every way,” Booker answered. “It’s just a matter of diving in.”
As part of his answer to Freeman’s question, Booker called on students to have a new understanding of racial identity that is free from rigid categories of black and white. Booker described himself as a black reader of the Jewish Talmud, and he also practices Buddhist meditation.
Booker showed an ability to inject some humor into a discussion of race. Joking about Sen. Joseph Biden’s remarks that Sen. Barack Obama is “the first mainstream African-American presidential candidate who is articulate and bright and clean-cut and a nice-looking guy,” Booker said to Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh, “You didn’t introduce me as clean and articulate, but I am.”
Booker’s humor, however, did not cloak the seriousness of issues of race.
“We have a perverse obsession with the murder of young white girls, and no one pays any attention to black kids dying every day,” he said. “No one knows their names.”