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U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) brought his message of unity to Evanston Township High School on March 3, in a presentation sponsored by the Family Action Network. In introducing Mr. Booker, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “Today in Washington, ‘compromise’ is a dirty word. Sen. Booker’s message of unity is refreshing – and we sure need it.” The two senators are working on a bill to allow judges more flexibility in sentencing, Mr. Durbin said, thanking Mr. Booker for “making criminal justice reform a priority.”
Taking his themes from his book “United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good,” Mr. Booker spoke for almost an hour, interweaving anecdotes of his personal and political life with his belief that residents of this country have a choice to make every day: “Will we accept things as they are, or will we take responsibility for changing them?”
Justice is not dispensed equally in this country, Mr. Booker said. He described walking into the Senate but looking back and “seeing inscribed on the Supreme Court building ‘Equal Justice Under the Law’ – and I just knew that was untrue.” He drew a contrast between the carefree, marijuana-smoking students at Stanford University, where he earned his undergraduate degree, who were not bothered by the police, and poor youth whom he had seen hassled on the streets elsewhere by police officers. “I realized the war on drugs was a war on poor people and a war on minorities,” he said, adding, “Drug arrests are not equal.
“When I got to the Senate, the guy who was at the center of the effort to end the mass incarceration, to end the shameful sin of this country, this cancer on the nation, was Dick Durbin. … One in four people in prison on Planet Earth are in U.S. prisons. This is not a black problem, a white problem, a community problem. This is our problem. … We are down on investing in infrastructure, education and medical research but we leave the world behind in building prisons.”
Mr. Booker also said he opposes the “man view” of history – that heroes or supermen are the architects of change and progress. He espouses instead his parents’ view of history: that “change has always come from ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the call of our country. … My dad kept reminding me, ‘We drank deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig. You can’t pay those folks back – you have to pay it forward.’”
Noting that many celebrities have been guests on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Mr. Booker said many whites have found they have black relatives and vice versa. Still he said, “You may be related by blood, but those bonds are not as strong as the spiritual ties that bind us.”
Deep within the Declaration of Independence, he said, is a declaration of interdependence: The signers pledged their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor.
Mr. Booker cautioned his audience against lapsing into cynicism – “a spiritually toxic state of being.” Hope, he said, is not a synonym for optimism. Hope is “seeing the wretchedness of the world and never letting despair have the last word. You can’t have a great love of this country without getting your heart broken, without seeing the ugliness. … We’re all Americans. We’ve come this far by faith. We cannot succumb to cynicism now,” he said.