Self-Described 'Prisoner Of Hope' Fights Violence

Newark Mayor Cory Booker answers a question during a news conference on May 27, 2011, in Newark, N.J. where the name was announced of the off-duty police officer who was killed in a drive-by shooting at a Newark fast-food restaurant. i i

Newark Mayor Cory Booker answers a question during a news conference on May 27, 2011, in Newark, N.J. where the name was announced of the off-duty police officer who was killed in a drive-by shooting at a Newark fast-food restaurant. Mel Evans/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

itoggle caption Mel Evans/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Newark Mayor Cory Booker answers a question during a news conference on May 27, 2011, in Newark, N.J. where the name was announced of the off-duty police officer who was killed in a drive-by shooting at a Newark fast-food restaurant.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker answers a question during a news conference on May 27, 2011, in Newark, N.J. where the name was announced of the off-duty police officer who was killed in a drive-by shooting at a Newark fast-food restaurant.

Mel Evans/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A recent spike in violence and other crimes has hit Newark, New Jersey after successful years of reducing the city's notorious crime rate. Host Michel Martin joins Newark Mayor Cory Booker in a newsmaker interview to discuss the city's new "Safe Summer" program aimed at fighting crime.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up we'll talk about two high profile legal cases. The case of former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and that verdict in the Casey Anthony murder trial. That's in our Beauty Shop and we'll hear from the author of the novel Push which was turned into the film called "Precious." The writer who prefers to be known as Sapphire is out with a new book which picks up the story where "Precious" left off. She's here in just a few minutes.

But first a news maker interview with Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey where three people were killed early Tuesday during a bloody morning, where six people were shot in four separate incidents. This comes after years of success in bringing down Newark's notorious crime rate. But now the city finds itself facing a summer of violent and other crimes. Mayor Booker who was first elected in May of 2006 and reelected in May 2010 talked about this issue in June as he announced the new Safe Summer program to fight crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CORY BOOKER: This is not a reflection of the capacity and strength and power that we have as a people. This to me was not a time or not a result of individuals who we can blame. The truth of the matter is there's no more time for finger pointing. There's no more time for blame. It's time that we as a community take a greater and greater responsibility for what is going on.

MARTIN: I caught up with Newark mayor Cory Booker as he was traveling yesterday on his way back to Newark and I asked him about the mood of the city after the shootings.

BOOKER: Well, I think people are really upset. It all happened within a 45-minute stretch in three different locations. There were three different murders. One was a domestic violent incident, where a man shot a woman who was involved with over a fight, and then two were narcotics related. So, everybody's got a heavy heart and it's a very frustrating when you make so much progress, especially as we did during the month of June and then you have 45 minutes that cast a shadow over what was happening and how much we were moving forward.

MARTIN: We actually talked to you last April 2010 when this city had just enjoyed its first month without a homicide since 1966. Since then the city like a lot of cities and states around the country it has to be said has experienced some serious budget problems and as part of that more than 160 police officers were laid off and I'd like to ask you what role do you think that plays in what is going on now?

BOOKER: Well, this is what I know. We had a very tough time since the police had been laid off, but in May we began a huge initiative where we pulled together really people from every sector - non-profits, clergy, business, and started our Safe Summer initiative and so from June 1st until today we're 24 percent down on murders. So, it just goes to show you this is compared to the same period last year when we had the police officers, that if people come together, if you have the right strategy and the right efforts you can drive down the murder rate.

So, we now have about five weeks where we've shown we can reverse those trends. Last night was tragic but I'm telling you we are more determined than ever. I've been in conference calls with my police director, chief of staff, other leaders from the community this morning and everybody is not deterred. We're going to show by the end of this summer that we can drive down murder by much more than 25 percent.

MARTIN: Now, the second quarter has just closed but according to the data we have this was just reported on NPR last week that in the six and a half months since the lay offs compared to the same period the year before murders are up by one-half; 52 percent; car thefts were up by a third; shootings are up by 66 percent. Now, the police union says that these officers who were laid off - that was about what 14 percent of the force weren't just sitting on the shelf someplace.

Why wouldn't those two be a related phenomenon? Why wouldn't the lay offs be related to what you're seeing now?

BOOKER: Well, again the best thing I can tell you is look at we saw the problem, we came together and met. We came up with about 20 different independent strategies. We literally shifted more police officers to the streets from behind desks. We got a new Safe Summer task force, is more undercovers, partners with the federal government and with the county police who offered us more detectives. So, as a result of all that all the data that you just gave me is now old.

It's over five weeks old, and the pendulum has started swinging back so. What I'm saying is that you definitely have challenges but if you take the month of June this year where we were 40 percent down on murders for the month of June, compared to last year were we had more cops and we actually had a spike last summer with those more police officers. Correlation is not causation. You cannot say that was the reason why we went through those bad six months that you just showed.

I really do believe that when you have challenges it's a challenge to your moral imagination and your creativity as a community. And right now what we see happening in the last five weeks of June 1st is that we are actually meeting the challenges and driving down the numbers.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

One of the other incidents that's gotten a lot of attention was that an incident is too small a word for what I'm about to talk about but, you know, this better than anybody but last month there was a 13-year-old young man named Dante Young who was shot and killed during a parent altercation with a 24-year-old man who has been arrested and charged in this.

This happened at 11:30 P.M. despite the eleven o'clock curfew for young people in the city. What role do you think that plays in this because on the one you can see both sides of this. On the one hand you could say people think, gee, do we really need our officers enforcing the curfew when we have other more serious things going on and then on the other hand there are people saying yes but if you get some of the young people off the street that minimizes the opportunity for some of these things to happen.

What's your take on this?

BOOKER: Well, again it's easy to point fingers at a lot of individuals when you have a tragedy like that and what I loved about that situation, in the midst of that heart-wrenching murder, you know, so many people came together and said lets talk about what we can do. So, we have more people coming forward to talk about expanding mentoring programs in Newark. We didn't have just a curfew enforcement with police, but we had clergy come forward and say and to the police officers picking up kids and bringing them to the police department, let's bring them to churches and mosques in the city of Newark and work with them to find out, hey, why is the kid out there at two o'clock in the morning that's 13-years-old.

And in this case a young man who had - a 13-year-old who had been in trouble with the police a number of times before, why weren't there more of a community response the first time the young man got in trouble, that prevented him from living a life of real danger on the streets.

MARTIN: You talked about the fact that many of things that Newark is experiencing are in fact being experienced elsewhere around the country that might be one of the reasons why you have a very large national profile. Your time as mayor has been chronicled in the award winning television documentary series "Brick City." The second season just wrapped up earlier this year on the Sundance channel. I actually just will play a short clip from the series if you don't mind for people who to refresh peoples memories about it.

BOOKER: This is a scene where you're talking with your advisors about the city budget.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRICK CITY")

BOOKER: If it stinks kill it, if it jiggles, cut it. And then after that's done, then we got to go into the bone and the muscle now. We just need 20. We need to.

BOOKER: Stop selling me the love. Right now for this budget as much as I can squeeze everything else but police and fire. Every department we have to go through and just say too much, too much. I don't know how you're going to do it, you need to find a way or else we're going to find a way.

MARTIN: One of the things that I was wondering is that you have this big national profile and I wonder if in some ways does that work against you, where people might think that you have magical powers that people may have outsized expectations for what you can accomplish in part because so many people around the country look to you and I wonder do you ever think about that?

BOOKER: You know, I guess I do but at the end of the day, you know, it's not about me it's about what's happening in our community. So I think one of the biggest problems we have in Newark and New Jersey and America is that we've been damned by low expectations for a long time. You know, I sat with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from Los Angeles on a panel and he was talking about a grade school where they took the juvenile crime rate of 250 kids being arrested down to 10. And when he finished I just stopped and looked at the audience and said, how can we in the country be satisfied with 10 grade school children being arrested? Why don't we see this as a national emergency?

And the problem is it's not that we don't have the capacity to do something about it, it's that we don't have the collective will. And so, you know, look, I feel very blessed that New York has been getting a lot of national attention for very positive things for once, from a nationally recognized ex-offender reentry program to our drops in crimes that we had in, especially my first term.

We need to do something in this country to capture that moral imagination I mentioned before - again, to begin to believe that this is the nation of impossible dreams. And so take one thing, for example, we in Newark had the largest parks expansion in over a century. We took back the abandoned lots, vacant fields, broken basketball courts and did 46 acres of new parks in a down economy. People told us it couldn't be done.

And it's just a testimony to me that there's nothing we can't achieve in Newark. There's nothing we can't achieve in America. But somehow along the way we've fallen into this toxic cynicism in our country. And, also, what's even worse than that is this sedentary agitation where we all get upset about what we see on TV, but we're not getting up.

And there's something I said earlier this weekend at this conference where I worry that we've gotten to the point in our history - and you see this with us involving two wars, but yet for the first time ever, we've gotten tax breaks during war time. It's never happened in the history of our nation. But we seem to be expecting more but willing to sacrifice less.

If we want a country that's different, we ourselves have to take responsibility. And we're not be called to storm beaches in Normandy, we're not be called to get on buses and do freedom rides. But we must in our country realize that there's a crisis in America, a crisis in our schools, a crisis of violence, a crisis of imprisonment. And if we don't change things, these things are like cancers in our country, and they're going to begin to eat up at the soul of America..

MARTIN: Finally, Mr. Mayor, before we let you go, this has to be - this is a discouraging night, as you said. You're disappointed about, you know, what happened. This has to be a discouraging moment. How do you keep your city's spirits up at a time like this - and your own, for that matter?

BOOKER: Well, I guess I'm a prisoner of hope because I think America is a screaming testimony to the perpetual achievement of the impossible. If you look at our history in general, if you look at the history of what we've done to eradicate problems, to (unintelligible) Crow, to overcome the incredible poverty we used to have amongst our seniors. We're a nation that every generation has shown the ability to do things that were beyond the expectations of their parents.

And I'll never forget my mom and dad reminding me recently of this moment with my grandfather where he said, you know, my grandfather's living a life that where dangerous dreams were - even to have that he could live. And so my prayer is that I can live in America where one day I can see the life that my grandchildren are living, and it is a testimony to their unwillingness to accept what is and to continue to dream and do incredible things that can be.

And so every day when I get discouraged like today, I just have to look around in my city and see these people - the fearless face, the most determined love and unyielding - a sense of self-sacrifice that are still every day getting up, despite three murders in a night and going back to work. Having the courage to day after day work with a child, mentor a child, get involved in their community and say we will never ever here in Newark, New Jersey, never ever give up on the dream of America.

MARTIN: Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. We caught up with him on the phone on his way back to Newark from Aspen, Colorado where he was attending the Aspen Ideas Festival. Thank you so much for joining us.

BOOKER: No, thank you so much. I'm a big fan of your program, and I appreciate the chance to be on it.

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