"We're going to bend the arc of the universe further towards justice"

Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, on veganism, racial justice, and leading with love

by Julie Gueraseva
Illustration by Marina Marcolin
Monday, February 1, 2021

He’s always been on a mission to make things better. As a young Yale Law School graduate, Cory Booker opened up free legal clinics for low-income residents of New Haven,CT. When elected to the Newark City Council in 1998, he spent eight years living in a housing project to call attention to poverty, rallying tenants in fighting for housing reform. Then as mayor of Newark, he gave away most of his salary to charity and would often patrol the streets himself in an effort to reduce crime in his city. In late 2014, after winning a full term as a U.S. senator, he announced to his 1.5 million Twitter followers that he was going to “try” being vegan until the year’s end. Over 6 years later, and the former Presidential candidate is not only still vegan but in 2019 he unveiled a bill to end factory farming. Last summer, fellow senator Elizabeth Warren signed on, and a companion bill has also been introduced with six other co-sponsors. In the interview below, excerpted from LAIKA’s 5th issue, Booker talks about his dedication to justice and widening the circle of compassion.

What kind of changes did you observe in yourself and in your empathy after becoming vegan?
I became a vegetarian at the end of 1992. Then quickly after that, I tried to become a vegan, and it didn’t stick. And I found myself for the last 20 plus years not wanting to confront all the information that’s out there about industrial animal production. You find yourself living a life of avoidance, where you just don’t want to know about the egg industry when you’re eating your scrambled eggs. You just don’t want to know about how dairy cows are treated when you’re eating your cheese pizza.
 Living a life where I was denying knowledge and information in order to be in this bubble of comfort was unacceptable. And so finally, I confronted that information and that data, and decided to try making a change. And since I’ve made that change, the bigger thing I realized is: one, it’s much easier than I thought, especially now with so many great vegan options out there. And the other thing is that it’s almost like I got a chance to exhale. And now I feel personally more at peace, because I’m living much more consistently with my own personal values.

Do you feel that your career in politics and your life experience has prepared you for now for this chapter of confronting our society’s systemic mistreatment of animals?
I have a deep and abiding faith in the goodness of humanity. And what I found from my own study of history is that what the marchers and the protesters in the civil rights movement did, through creative protest, is expand the moral imagination of this county. They were able to shine light on injustice. When Americans were sitting at home watching brutal beatings of other American citizens, it exposed the injustice, and people reacted.
 We’ve seen that before in the food industry — people’s consciousness is expanded when they are simply aware of the treatment of animals. I know meat eaters who don’t want the animals they are eating to be treated “inhumanely.”
 What I hope to do is to really affirm this idea that we all should live as best as we can in accordance with our truth. And that’s a very personal thing. And because I have such faith in humanity, I feel like the more the truth of the animal industry is known, the more we will be able to change the practices that are so much an affront to American ideals and the ideals of humanity. When my friends hear about some of the practices that go on in industrial animal production, they themselves will admit, “I gotta figure out a way to not participate in such an unjust practice.”

“Frankly, should our tax dollars be participating in the inhumane treatment of animals?”

So I find a lot of what I’m doing right now is just a consistent life truth. The more you live your life in accordance to your truth, focusing on yourself in many ways, the more you liberate and empower others in their own pursuits. By standing up here in Congress, speaking out against practices that my fellow meat-eating Congresspeople would agree are wrong, by everyone talking about these issues — we’re going to bend the arc of the universe further towards justice.

What would you like to impart on young people and young voters?
I just hope that we all, whatever we believe in, understand that change won’t happen unless we change. And when I say “we change,” that might mean getting more engaged. I always say that unfortunately sometimes we get caught up in what I call a “state of sedentary agitation.” We’re upset about the world around us, but we’re not realizing that, “I have to get up, and be involved, and engaged in making those changes!” And that’s what I’m really hoping more of us do. The public can help get legislation passed by becoming more involved in the political and governmental processes. The more we engage, the more we demand transparency and help raise consciousness, the more positive changes are going to be made.

In fact, you closely worked with one of the most animal-unfriendly ones, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Governor Christie and I had a strong working relationship while I was Mayor of Newark, but there were also many issues where we disagreed. We were able to have a successful partnership by focusing on our areas of agreement. In the Senate I intend to work with both Republicans and Democrats on animal welfare issues, and I believe that there is common ground we can find on many issues.

You’re incredibly personable and have been described as someone who can talk to anyone. How would you talk to the average American about veganism?
I want to emphasize that you always have to lead with love, and not judgment. Lead with love, not condemnation. This should never be about one person saying, “Well, I’m more righteous than you,” or, “I’m better than you.” It should be more a cause about truth. And transparency. It should be about letting people know where their food is coming from, and how their dietary choices might not align fully with their ideas and their values. And that their dietary choices might not align with their love of nature and our environment. Their dietary choices might not align with their passion for this nation, for America’s strength. Their dietary choices might not be aligned with their beliefs on how the government should use its funding and its resources. Frankly, should our tax dollars be participating in the inhumane treatment of animals?
If you fundamentally believe in humanity, then you have to know that if you can be a truth-teller with how you live your life, then you’re going to advance humanity. [This applies to] issues of animal rights, and issues of civil rights, and issues of women’s rights, and issues of the environment. The more that [others] see the truth, the better we’re going to get as a larger human community.