Representative Barbara Lee: ‘The Public Is With Us’

Representative Barbara Lee: ‘The Public Is With Us’

Representative Barbara Lee: ‘The Public Is With Us’

In an exclusive interview with The Nation, the representative talks about cutting the defense budget, what Covid-19 has revealed about systemic racism, and her mentor Shirley Chisholm.


Representative Barbara Lee of California cast the sole vote in 2001 against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that George W. Bush and ensuing presidents have employed as their excuse to wage what have come to be known as “forever wars.” Political and media elites decried her vote. But millions of Americans embraced the slogan, “Barbara Lee Speaks For Me.” Since 2001, Lee has kept speaking for peace and for economic, social, and racial justice. And she’s gained allies in Congress. In July of this year, 93 House members and 23 senators supported a proposal by Lee and Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin to cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent—so that money could be freed up to battle Covid-19, mass unemployment, and other domestic challenges.

I spoke with Lee after the vote about how the politics of 2020 have shifted, and how they must keep shifting. She took the long view, recalling the work of two of her mentors, Representative Ron Dellums of California and Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York, and suggested that ideas that movements have been raising for decades—about budget priorities, police brutality, structural racism, and taking down Confederate statues—are finally gaining traction because young people are demanding fundamental change. We also talked about how and why the Democratic Party—which will meet in convention next week—must respond to that demand. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

—John Nichols

John Nichols: You’ve worked for five decades to reorder priorities away from bloated Pentagon spending and toward domestic needs. Suddenly, you’ve got a lot of allies. What happened?

Barbara Lee: I think you have a convergence, or a confluence, that represents the intersectional nature of where people are in terms of economic security, racial justice, and social justice. And I have to give a lot of credit to our groups, our outside organizations, and our grassroots movements that have taken place over the years. There have been a lot of them working on a variety of military budget issues, police issues, justice issues. Now, I think they’re all coming together, which is one thing Ron [Dellums] always wanted to see.

We always talked about how the peace movement needed to involve more people of color and African Americans. The justice movement hasn’t had as many white people in it as it should.… The environmental movement has been mainly a movement of white middle-income individuals. Now, we see environmental justice, and we see the intersectionality of all these movements coming together.…

Then of course, bringing it up to Covid, it’s clear that people are hurting very badly. And, yet, they are told that “Well, the resources just aren’t there.” And of course we know that Republicans got their tax cuts, but the resources are really also within the Pentagon in terms of their wasteful spending.

So I think connecting the two is what is taking place now, as people are suffering and living on the edge in such a profound way. That’s everyone, regardless of race and background, although, of course, it is hitting Black and brown people harder because of historic and systemic racism.

I think that this is the moment when all of this is coming together, where the movement is really pushing the Congress and saying, “We need resources for our domestic priorities and investments in our domestic priorities, and we need to have—yes—a strong national security.” That’s why, in the cuts I’ve proposed—including my own proposal for a $350 billion cut in Pentagon spending—we talk about making sure the troops have what they need, because so many troops are living on the edge.… You can cut up to 40 or 50 percent out of the Pentagon budget and still have strong national security.

So 10 percent is for starters, but it’s great, and I’m so glad we got there—because this $73 or $74 billion is badly needed today in our communities, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface.

JN: How important is it for Democrats to make this new set of budget priorities a part of what they talk about in 2020?

BL: Well, it’s absolutely important, because young people are not going to tolerate [status quo politics]. They’re not going to vote if we don’t make it a part of our new priorities.

When you look at polling data, when you look at where people are on military policy and domestic policy—when it comes to making sure that these unauthorized wars, these forever wars, stop—the public is with us.

JN: Just as you have been talking about Pentagon budgets for a long time, you’ve been talking about structural racism for decades. Do you see something happening on these issues, as well, with the protests against police violence and systemic racism?

BL: I’m cautiously optimistic, and it took the unfortunate and horrific murder of Mr. Floyd for people to really seriously begin to focus on the systemic racist nature of the criminal justice system and our policing.

I’ve been involved in police issues since the ’70s. I was going into San Quentin, into prisons then, counseling and working with inmates. I started drilling down more, well, even before that with the Black Panther Party. You know, the Black Panther Party stood down the police because they were killing people and they were brutalizing our communities in Oakland and throughout the country. I was a community worker with the Black Panther Party, so I got it then and understood we had to have some systemic change in the criminal justice system.

Fast forward to when I was in the [California] Legislature. I served on the Public Safety Committee, where we would authorize bills such as “three strikes” or “sentence enhancement” or some really terrible, draconian public policy relating to the criminal justice system. Of course I was one of the few “no” votes on “three strikes” and many of the other issues. I had to actually ask for security, I had so many death threats when I voted “no” on “three strikes.” It wasn’t quite as bad as after 9/11, but it was awful how people came after me then.

So to see where we are now, we’ve come full circle, and to see members of Congress recognizing the injustice in the system really is hopeful.

I keep going back to the notion that this is a marathon for justice. It’s been a marathon for me. You have to keep fighting, you have to run this lap of the race. Ron Dellums passed me the baton, we passed younger people the batons. We see Black Lives Matter and Dreamers. We see our Movement for Black Lives, everyone coming together now, taking these batons and running with it!

JN: We’re also starting to have a discussion about systemic racism in healthcare and in so many of our necessary services. In a sense, Covid-19 has caused, I think, an opening up of a discussion about the injustice of a for-profit healthcare system.

BL: Yes, it has. Let me tell you one thing on the disparities in the healthcare system: They have been with us since the first enslaved Africans were brought to America 401 years ago. This is nothing new. We’ve been fighting for universal, accessible, affordable healthcare; I mean, Black people have been fighting for this forever.

When you look at Covid-19 and the disproportionate impact on African Americans and Latinx communities, I have, in my constituency [Oakland and other communities in the San Francisco Bay Area] my progressive white friends calling me saying, “What is going on? What is happening? Why is this?” They could not understand. And I’ve been talking about healthcare disparities and ethnic disparities in healthcare forever! And so was Ron! But it never sunk in until they saw what was taking place. So that shocked, I think, the conscience of a lot of people who claim to be progressive—and who are progressive on a lot of issues, but not on every issue as it relates to racial justice.

It’s so horrible because it’s taken the disproportionate deaths—and virus transmission rates—to get others to wake up to what we’ve been talking about, why we want to fund the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities when Trump tries to zero out all of the budgets in healthcare.

So, yes, I think now hopefully the rest of the country sees what African Americans have known and felt. People are recognizing that this [racism] is part of the issue as it relates to why there’s such a difference in death rates and mortality rates.

You look at these underlying conditions, such as hypertension—I mean, you know, racism is stressful! Racism is a horrible way to live, live under, and that creates a heck of a lot of stress for African Americans, and historically we see how racism has impacted the health that creates in many ways these underlying conditions.

JN: You make a point that these are not new issues. These are issues that your mentor, Shirley Chisholm, talked about long ago. You were a Shirley Chisholm delegate at the 1972 Democratic convention. Do you think that the kind of politics Shirley Chisholm talked about—“unbossed and unbought,” “catalyst for change”—is finally taking hold?

BL: Absolutely, and I know Shirley is smiling right now. She would be so proud of women in Congress, especially the women of color, saying, “Enough is enough.” Can you imagine?

[In the early 1970s], when I was here working for Ron after his election to Congress, I got to see Shirley Chisholm [who was elected in 1968], and she mentored me. Let me tell you, John, she was the only Black woman dealing with this entire power structure within the Congress! It was amazing! And she never backed down.

Now, she had her moments. I was with her a lot when she broke down. But she was a brilliant, progressive-thinking, smart, politically strategic Black woman! And she took it all on.

I mean, she was actually—and a lot of people don’t know this—one of the first board members of NARAL, you know, when there was all this tension between white women and women of color as it relates to the pro-choice movement. She took on the movement, the feminist movement, and said, “You’ve got to understand race is a factor for Black women.”

Shirley did, when she was in Congress, fight hard for gender equality. She fought hard for domestic workers…fought hard for low-wage workers.

She was an educator by profession. She supported public school districts. And Shirley was an immigrant. Her family was. She was very, very vocal about immigrant rights. She was very vocal against the Vietnam War. She was pro-choice when very few others were pro-choice.

I mean, yeah! She would be happy, I think. She would be pleased, and I think she would be proud of the seeds that she had sown, especially with women of color and specifically with Black women.

JN: She got you engaged with electoral politics.

BL: I wouldn’t have registered to vote had it not been for Shirley Chisholm, trust me!

[In the early 1970s] the Democrats didn’t bring anything to what I thought they should in terms of an agenda for everyone, for the people, and neither did the Republicans, so I said, “Forget it, I’ll be Black Student Union president and a community worker with the Black Panther Party.” That was my political work.

And here comes Shirley Chisholm, and she convinced me that she thought I had something that I could contribute to the political system, and the rest is history!

JN: The Democratic Party is at a critical juncture right now, obviously, with a vital presidential race and vital races for Congress. What would you tell Democrats running at every level that they should learn from the Shirley Chisholm/Ron Dellums/Barbara Lee ethic? What does the Democratic Party need to learn at this point?

BL: I think the Democratic Party needs to learn that it’s got to be inclusive and democratic, which means listening to different points of view from young people, from the Movement for Black Lives, from our Dreamers, from all of our young people throughout the country—and to know that even though their proposals may be bold and different and visionary, hey, you’ve got to embrace visionary and bold ideas now if you really want systemic change.

The Republicans have their bold and visionary ideas, which are so far to the right. Ron used to always tell me that if you start in the center with an extreme-right-wing party, where do you have to go? You have nowhere to negotiate but to the right. Whereas if you come out progressive with bold and brilliant and visionary ideas, then you have a way to accomplish your goals because you have that kind of wiggle room, and you have that space to negotiate maybe, you know, center-left. But you don’t start in the center because then we’ll never get to where we need to go.

I will tell the party, and I do tell the party—you know, I was on the drafting committee for the party platform—that you’ve got to be bold in this platform. You can’t start in the center. You can’t go back to 2016 and go backwards. You’ve got to go forward. It’s got to be something that really reflects where the country is, where young people are, what it means to have a society that’s just for everyone and lives up to this country’s ideals—which it still hasn’t done! I mean, that’s what I told the party. I tell them that all the time.

JN: Bernie Sanders delegates to this year’s Democratic National Convention recently suggested that Joe Biden should consider you for vice president. I wonder what you thought about that.

BL: I was very humbled. It just made me think, on a very personal level, “Well, maybe our progressive work and movement, maybe people see us and hear us and understand what I’m doing or trying to do.”

JN: How important is this 2020 election, the presidential election?

BL: Well, it’s a matter of life and death. What can I say? That’s how important it is. It truly is life and death.

JN: Let’s finish off by talking about an issue that you have worked on for some time and where we have begun to see a significant shift in attitudes. This fight over the removal of Confederate statues is not a new one for you.

BL: Oh boy. You know, I did the legislation to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol. I introduced it initially in 2017 and got a few [cosponsors], but not enough. Now, in 2020, people were clamoring! We combined it with several other statues and busts and pictures and what-have-you that other members had of total racists, and these men who committed treason. So we got it passed off the floor!

JN: What was an aspiration in 2017 became possible in 2020.

BL: That’s the point I’m making! We’ve got to step out there when we know it’s the right thing to do. Even if nobody’s with you, if you’re the only one and if you really have a vision for what you think would break through some of these barriers, you’ve got to do it. You wait, you work, you organize. It’ll happen, sooner or later!

You can’t be impatient, although you know I’m impatient. I always have been. But I have to kind of temper my impatience so I can educate and explain and organize and study and get the arguments down.

It’s hard work, but it’s honorable work.… On progressive issues and on issues that I’ve historically been working on, you can put the marker down early. That’s why you have to have a vision. You have to have an agenda. You have to know where you want to go. Otherwise, you’re just reacting.

JN: If you had a chance to put up a few statues, who would you like to see honored?

BL: Congressman John Robert Lewis, Congressman Ronald V. Dellums, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

JN: That’s a good trio!

BL: It is. Those three should be together, really.

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