As the war in Afghanistan drew to a long-overdue end, a veteran of that conflict campaigned to represent Staten Island and South Brooklyn in Congress. At a street fair in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in August, Brittany Ramos DeBarros, 32, wore a white skirt over dark leggings, light blue Asics, big hoop earrings, and a T-shirt adorned with her new campaign logo. She talked to her potential constituents about housing, Covid-19 relief, and registering to vote. Her staff ran a bubble machine and handed out candy to the kids.
At one point, DeBarros was approached by an elderly man who was so soft-spoken it was difficult to hear him amid the hubbub of the crowded block party. The two had something in common: Both had faced court-martial for speaking out against a war while still in uniform, in his case Vietnam. They exchanged stories. DeBarros told him, “I felt free. I felt like I did the right thing.” With tears in their eyes, the two looked at each other and smiled.
“People just fall in love with her,” explained Abdullah Younus, who recruited DeBarros to run and was her campaign manager at the time. (He has since stepped back from that paid position to explore making his own run for office.)
In some ways, DeBarros’s political insurgency resembles that of other young leftist women of color—most famously Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, but also Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Cori Bush of Missouri; New York state legislators Julia Salazar, Phara Souffrant Forrest, and Marcela Mitaynes; congressional hopeful Jessica Cisneros of Texas; and numerous others—many of them working-class, who have been challenging incumbents of the Democratic establishment and often winning. DeBarros’s likely primary opponent, Max Rose, is also a veteran of the Afghanistan War. But as a conservative, pro-cop Democrat, he is a natural antagonist for this movement.
Rose, whom the media and political class are already hailing as a “comeback kid” even though he has not yet announced his candidacy, held the seat for a single term, before losing to rabid Trumpist Nicole Malliotakis. Rose and Malliotakis ran dueling TV ads in 2020, each trying to outdo the other in pro-police conservatism—a contest which, not surprisingly, the more right-wing candidate won. Malliotakis’s message was a simple anti-liberal one: “Max Rose: Talks like one of us. Votes like one of them.” She joined the 147 GOP House members who attempted to overturn Joe Biden’s election, and days after the January 6 riot, although Malliotakis condemned the violence, she was still tweeting about voter “fraud.”
At the Bay Ridge street fair, a couple in their 60s stopped to talk with DeBarros. They said they were disappointed in Rose because he was “so conservative”—and because he lost to Malliotakis. The husband, who was riding an electric wheelchair, shook his head, his grief over the election still fresh: “I drove people to the polls for Max Rose.” His wife was mad, too, but ready to move on. “If Max Rose keeps doing what he’s doing, and you keep doing what you’re doing,” she told DeBarros, “I’m with you.” She signed up to register voters.
In 2018, DeBarros went door-to-door to persuade people to vote for Rose, but now she’s opposing him on a progressive platform. And this time the election has a new twist. If DeBarros beats Rose, she will face Malliotakis. If she beats Malliotakis as well, DeBarros will show that working-class, anti-war left politics can defeat not only the spiritless mediocrity of mainstream Democrats but also the dangerous extremism of the far right. It’s an exciting idea, but largely untested.
A daunting fact, and a factor in Rose’s defeat, is that the district voted for Donald Trump twice. In 2016 and 2020, Trump beat the Democratic nominee by 10 percentage points. DeBarros and her supporters, however, point to other relevant numbers: Registered Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans by a wide margin. Plus Bernie Sanders performed impressively there in 2016, running a close race against Hillary Clinton. The district also has the highest union density in the city. DeBarros argues that she can turn out voters who wouldn’t get excited about Rose.
Congressional District 11, with its large share of white voters, is an odd district for New York City. Over half of Staten Island residents drive to work, and over half own their own homes. The median income is above the city average. But with many Muslims and Arabs in South Brooklyn, along with Irish, Italians, and Greeks, it’s by no means homogeneous, ethnically, religiously, or politically. About 8,000 Bay Ridge residents speak Arabic at home. In recent years, there has also been more progressive activism, with the emergence of groups like Staten Island Women Who March and Yalla Brooklyn, as well as electoral efforts like the Rev. Khader El-Yateem’s City Council bid in 2017 and the state senate campaign of Ross Barkan (now a Nation contributing writer) the following year.
Equally important, the boundaries of this eclectic district are likely to change. Redistricting is underway—the deadline for the redrawn map is January, in time for the midterms—and with the Democratic supermajority in Albany in charge of the process, it could benefit the Democrats for a change. The new district might include a more progressive chunk of Brooklyn or possibly Lower Manhattan, which could be bad news for Malliotakis, and possibly even for Rose.
Prognosticators are not yet calling the seat for a Democrat. Richard Flanagan, a political scientist at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, told me he expects redistricting to add a few Democrats but not many. Besides, he pointed out, Democrats nationally are expected to struggle in the midterms. He said Malliotakis was the favorite but added a self-deprecating caveat: “I am serving up a big, hot bowl of conventional wisdom that bold challengers occasionally do tip into my lap.”
One factor that might tip that bowl over: This month’s elections were bad for normie Democrats. Most prominently, the avowedly centrist Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the gubernatorial race in Virginia, with many Biden voters flipping Republican. There is so much distress in centrist circles over recent results like these that it’s possible that some conservative Democrats, like Rose, might decide not to run in 2022.
Indeed, DeBarros’s case against Rose is partly a strategic one: He failed to beat the GOP last time, so why leave the fate of the seat in his hands again? When she canvassed for Rose, DeBarros said, voters’ biggest objection was that they didn’t see a difference between Democrats and Republicans. DeBarros and her supporters argue that a real progressive running against a January 6 Trumpist could excite volunteers and grab voters’ attention.
Knocking on doors, you hear that the issues of most concern in the district tend to be education, climate, and the opioid epidemic. The Staten Island side of the district has some of the highest opioid overdose rates in the city. People also worry about the effect of real estate interests on their neighborhoods, particularly on housing affordability. But the race has also drawn interest far beyond South Brooklyn and Staten Island. DeBarros has raised over a quarter-million dollars in small donations, with no corporate PAC money. She’s attracted a range of endorsers: liberal groups like MoveOn, BlueAmerica, and Brand New Congress, celebrities like Gloria Steinem and Mark Ruffalo, and radical left intellectuals like Barbara Smith and Barbara Ransby. If Rose runs, according to Paul Sperling of the Staten Island Progressive Action Network, he faces a formidable competitor in DeBarros. “Brittany is a far better fundraiser than anyone who ran in the 2018 primary,” said Sperling, who ran his own campaign for Congress against Rose that year. “Progressives and many liberals are strongly opposed to Rose’s candidacy. They want someone who will be more honest with voters and more aggressive on left-wing issues.”
As for the general election, less progressive Democrats who want to beat Malliotakis may want to give DeBarros a look too. Faced with a “raging radical” like Malliotakis, Sperling said, “it would take an energetic and inspiring woman like Brittany Ramos DeBarros to win.”
I stood with Younus on the corner of Third Avenue and 84th Street in Bay Ridge, the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives. We could see a shawarma place and Italian, Greek, and Chinese restaurants, and I asked him why he encouraged DeBarros to run for Congress.
“We threw down for Max Rose,” he explained, speaking of the Arab and Muslim communities in the district as well as the progressives. But, he said, they were disappointed when Rose attacked the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and posed, smiling, for a photo with Trump. “Those were some of the nails in the coffin of his relationship with Arab and Muslim communities.”
Younus also mentioned Rose’s tepid response to police brutality, which was especially glaring given that Eric Garner—a Black man who was killed by police as they attempted to arrest him on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes in the street—took his last breath in Rose’s district. As 2022 approached, Younus didn’t want progressives to have to unify behind Rose again. At the same time, he said, “Nicole is a problem.”
Younus went looking for a candidate who would support Medicare for All, strong climate action, and other urgent left priorities, someone who could unite the district on both sides of the Verrazzano Bridge. He found DeBarros last November when he attended a birthday party at her house in northern Staten Island, where she lives with her husband. DeBarros said she was able to buy her home because of her veterans’ benefits, but that everyone should enjoy this security. You shouldn’t have to point a gun to have a comfortable home, she told him. Younus was delighted by her political potential: “anti-imperialist, anti-war, nuanced, a veteran, and a homeowner!” he recalled, laughing at his own electoral calculations. He tried to talk her into running for Congress on the spot. DeBarros told him she wouldn’t discuss work at a party and asked him to call her on Monday. DeBarros confirmed Younus’s anecdote and rolled her eyes: “Leftists are such nerds.”
T he week after the street fair, on a hot August day in Staten Island, I met DeBarros for coffee outside an outlet mall by the harbor, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Though she has lived in Staten Island since returning from her deployment, she grew up in Texas. Her mother had served in the Army and did not want her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but DeBarros, eager to assert her independence, did so anyway. Her mother did talk her out of joining the Marines (“Brittany, they treat their women the worst,” she warned). DeBarros said she also signed up because she wanted to go to college, and the Army would pay for it; she knew her parents were struggling to afford their house. Along with the practical reasons, she recalled “this hunger to make something of myself, to feel like I was doing something meaningful.”
She joined the ROTC, went through officer training, and got a scholarship to the University of Miami. At the time, “I had never met an activist or organizer,” she told me. She probably would have identified as an independent or a Republican, she added. She did think the world needed better leaders who would make better decisions, and she resolved that she was going to be one of them. Looking back on her lack of politics, she said, “It’s because I didn’t have a class analysis. Even though people had bought us groceries and we had gotten several foreclosure notices, if you’d asked me, I would have said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re comfortably middle-class.’”
In college she suffered from depression, and during ROTC training, she said, she was taunted over her weight in sexist and racist (“your people like to eat rice”) ways. After graduating, she was deployed to Afghanistan. She thought as an officer, she’d finally be respected. Instead, as a platoon leader she was constantly undermined and insulted, even physically assaulted, by her sergeant. When she complained, she was removed from her position. The problems she faced with the sergeant were her fault, her supervisor said, because she had “failed to create a positive leadership environment.” Remembering this, she teared up. “The saddest thing is, I think I believed him,” DeBarros said.
It wasn’t these experiences of racism and sexism that turned her against the war, however: “What made me anti-war was seeing how abusive the culture could be, and the way that was turned outward.” That came from her exposure to the perspective of the Afghan people. She was reassigned as a “strategic communications officer,” which meant, she said, “doing propaganda for the Afghan national army.”
To find out what kind of messaging would work, she needed to talk with Afghan people, who she found were terrified of being killed or kidnapped by Americans and their allies. The more she heard their side, the more she questioned the mission. “A military is designed to maximize violence,” she said. “You can’t take an institution that is designed for violence at its DNA and just do some trainings and shift it around and have it be a force that is contributing to healthy, safe, happy communities.”
After her deployment, DeBarros worked for a nonprofit focused on racial and economic justice, but it wasn’t until San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem that she felt she had to speak out as a veteran. “I’m watching the flag and people like me—veterans—being weaponized against this man for taking a stand for the very freedoms that I supposedly was signing up to fight for in the military,” she said, realizing that “if we don’t address this empty nationalism, this plastic patriotism, we are never going to get the economic and racial justice that we say that we want.”
For the first time, she told me, she understood that as a veteran she had special credibility in speaking out against war and injustice. “I jumped with both feet” into the anti-war movement, she continued, becoming active in About Face: Veterans Against the War.
DeBarros also joined the Poor People’s Campaign, and at a rally in Washington, D.C., in June 2018, in front of thousands of people, she gave an impassioned three-minute speech on why she opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, connecting that opposition to poverty in the United States: “There can be no true economic, racial, gender liberation without addressing the militarism that is strangling the morality and empathy out of our society,” she told the crowd.
Reflecting on that speech now, DeBarros said, “It was one of those moments in your life where you just know that you’ll never be the same after. It was an almost spiritual moment of truth-telling.”
At this point, DeBarros was still in the Army Reserve. She said her husband would bring home a bottle of wine the night before her monthly drills, and “I would just get wasted.” At the time, she said, she “didn’t have the language” to describe the psychic conflict of being an Army officer while not supporting the wars. She feared the financial consequences of leaving before her contract was up and adding student loan debt to her family’s burdens. It didn’t stop her from posting, though. She tweeted that the United States was bombing seven countries on any given day. She kept doing her job in the Reserve so no one would be able to say she was a bad officer. Not only was she experienced in messaging from her time in strategic communications in Afghanistan, but when she returned, the Army sent her to psy-ops school. Now she was turning her training against the military itself.
Her tweets landed in Army Times, and she learned she was under investigation. As a comms expert, she was thrilled that her message was getting out. She was receiving death threats and facing the prospect of military prison. But she said she remembers it as the time she began to feel of service: “I think in my soul, I felt like it mattered that I did this, because at least a lot of people saw this truth that wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.”
The investigation dragged on. A court-martial, she said, would have forced the Army ”to have to explain why me sharing publicly available facts is ‘[conduct] unbecoming.’” The comms professional in her relished that prospect. “I think they also knew that was what I wanted,” she said with a laugh. Eventually, with her contract nearly over anyway, the Army found a way to allow her to wind down her service.
Vince Emanuele, a Marine who was deployed to Iraq twice and is now an anti-war activist and community organizer in Michigan City, Ind., told me that having “somebody in Congress who has seen what war is like, at a time when a smaller and smaller percentage of the population is experiencing these wars, is priceless.” If DeBarros can start “to question fundamentally what the military is doing—that it’s not fighting for our freedom—if she can bring that to the table, to me that would be maybe as big as what AOC and the rest of the Squad have brought.”
In fact, Emanuele added, what DeBarros is doing is long overdue: “One of the fundamental mistakes of the anti-war movement early on was that we did not have an electoral strategy.”
It may be a good time for DeBarros’s anti-war message. I spoke with her again this fall and asked whether the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan had changed how people respond to her. On the campaign trail, she was finding that, despite the media coverage, people were “grateful that we had left” and were curious about how defunding the war machine could help sustain their communities and create “true safety here.”
The Army-trained comms expert is still posting facts on Twitter, this time without the threat of court-martial.
On Veterans Day she used the platform to call attention to an awful statistic: On any given night, more than 50,000 veterans are homeless. She also tweeted about PTSD and suicide, adding the hashtag #MoralInjury. DeBarros urged people to join the fight to end unjust violence and ensure that everyone has a home, a job, enough to eat, and “the care they need.”