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“I always say I’m running from the president, not for president,” he said, however, “I don’t know what the future holds; right now, I want to be a truth teller.” He cautioned against focusing too much on future ambitions, saying there’s plenty for him to focus on now.
That’s in line with comments Booker, who represents the state of New Jersey, made in January following speculation among political observers that he is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2020 as the Democratic party looks for fresh, young faces to lead it forward following Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. “I am not open to being president,” he said at the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21. “I don’t even want to have the discussion right now.”
The former mayor of Newark is seen as a potential presidential candidate in part because he has been outspoken against Trump in the past. But on Friday, Booker said he blames the heated political climate on political disengagement in the country — not on the current president. “Trump is not the igniting force,” he explained. “We have to understand this happens when people disengage. It’s a message to all of us that if we do not participate, we are the source of the problem, not necessarily the elected official we don’t like.”
Booker’s appearance on the opening day of SXSW comes as the festival — known for its music, interactive and film tracks — has expanded its programming to include tracks on government and journalism. Other politicians expected to speak during the 10-day event include former Vice President Joe Biden, who will detail plans for a new cancer initiative.
Booker opened his talk with a series of prepared remarks around the idea of loving other people. During those comments, he also said that he finds the idea of “tolerance” problematic. “I tolerate a cold, OK? That’s not what we were called to do. We were called to love each other,” he said, explaining that people don’t have to agree or like each other for there to be mutual empathy. “Love says, ‘I see you, I recognize your value and worth.’ Tolerance builds fences, love tears them down.”
After his opening remarks, Booker answered questions from Malika Saada Saar, Google’s senior counsel on civil and human rights, who pushed back on the senator’s comments about the importance of resistance that is also loving. Booker explained that responding to hatred with love is, to him, the only thing that’s ever worked, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous remarks that “hate can’t drive out hate, only love can.”
He stressed that change starts with individuals: “We must give a sacred effort to cut through the divisiveness, to show a courageous empathy, to leave the geographic ideal of neighborliness and to be there for our neighbor.”
Booker has been a staunch advocate of common-sense criminal-justice reform, calling the current system “so unacceptable.” Although he admits his work on the issue has tended to focus on men, he said the hope is to put a bill out addressing the treatment of women in prisons in the near future.
This wasn’t Booker’s first time at SXSW. The prolific tweeter spoke in 2013 about the convergence of politics and social media, something he also discussed Friday in his address, saying that social media creates a “lack of heroic humility” that leads to a dangerous scenario where people don’t see each other.
He acknowledged that social media can be a tool for demagoguery, but said that if it’s used correctly, it can also be a tool for the greater good. To that end, he encouraged the audience to speak out and to speak to one another, adding, “To be silent is to be complicit.”
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