WASHINGTON – Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) delivered an impassioned speech on race and the justice system on the Senate floor Wednesday, railing against inequities and saying "our legal system is not a justice system."
Speaking directly to the unrest that has roiled much of the country following decisions not to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo. and New York, Booker said the reactions across the country are about more than those two incidents.
"It is a reflection of a deeper anguish, an unfinished American business that has lasted for decades," Booker said in a remarkable speech. (Video below).
In nearly 20 minutes on the Senate floor, Booker, often stepping away from the lectern and into the aisle to stress his point, decried the incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos, the lasting consequences of minor drug convictions and argued that disparities in law enforcement defy the country's founding principles.
Booker said that growing up his parents "would coach me" on how to act around police "how I should speak and talk, what I should do with my hands," because of the fears of how he would be treated compared to "other Americans."
Issues of race are rarely raised in such stark terms on the senate floor. Booker, one of two African-Americans in the senate, has often spoken about reforming the criminal justice system, but has not used such a high-profile platform, or spoken so pointedly in his brief senate term until today. Few lawmakers have spoken out so forcefully, even as protests have taken hold in Philadelphia and other major cities.
But Booker argued that everyday people "feel this frustration about an American legal system that is falling short of American ideals."
"What is anguishing so many," he said, is "the applications of this legal system in unequal ways to different portions of our population."
Booker pointed to an 800 percent increase in the federal prison population over the last 30 years, saying "over-criminality anguishes this nation, aggravates divisions" and costs taxpayers.
And he pointed to the "collateral consequences" for people who go to jail, saying they become ineligible for federal education grants, loans or work assistance, and can be denied public housing – all services Booker said they need to move onto a different track. Instead, they end up hopeless, he said.
"Hopelessness is a toxic state of being, and those kids then often get back caught up into that underground economy, back into that world of drugs," he said.
Some people who use marijuana can end up with mandatory minimum sentences of up to five years, "but other folks, like the last three presidents, have gotten away with it," Booker said.
Booker, however, repeatedly said the issue was not one of race. At one point he said white people are arrested more than two times as much as black people, but that blacks are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police.
"This is data that should not shock us along racial lines," he said, "but shock us along American lines."