On September 14, 2001, three days after New York’s Twin Towers were flattened by two hijacked airliners, with the ruins of the building still smoldering, 3,000 dead, more than 6,000 injured, Congress met to consider President George W. Bush’s request to wage war against the perpetrators.
On the floor of Congress, speakers echoed the pain, outrage, anger and shock of a wounded nation. A flood of sentiment across the country demanded action. All members of Congress – the House and the Senate – agreed. Almost. The House vote on the expanded Wars Act was 420 to 1.
In this time of crisis, when there was a lot of pain alongside many acts of heroism, we were alone. Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California’s 13th District, representing Oakland and Berkeley, voted against Joint Resolution 23, Authorization for the Use of Military Force, 2001. She voted against war.
As Lee addressed Congress on that fateful day, she spoke from her conscience, from her heart. She warned, as the Reverend Nathan Baxter had done at the 9/11 memorial service: “Let us not act in such a way as to become the evil we mourn.
But people didn’t want to hear that the War Powers Act was too broad. That it gave the president sweeping powers that had been constitutionally vested in Congress. That it could be used, and later abused, for various illegal pretexts more than 40 times after its adoption.
For his calm and measured act of reason, which proved prescient, Lee received a torrent of harsh criticism, cruel words and death threats. For the next several weeks, she had to be covered by Secret Service agents for protection. Wherever she went, even to visit relatives, the streets were blocked, the houses put under surveillance.
This singular and solitary act of courage helped define MP Barbara Lee. But that should not overshadow a remarkable life and an exemplary career both before and after his stand alone.
The new film from writer/producer/director Abby Ginzberg Truth to Power: Barbara Lee speaks for me tells his story well. Of course, Ginzberg has a little help from Barbara’s friends! What appears to be half of Congress, including the Honorable Lynn Woolsey, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Gwen Moore, John Lewis and even a cross section of Republican lawmakers in addition to family members, allies and voters. They are complemented by a gallery of films and images, itself an introduction to the social activism of the past five decades.
But the story begins badly. Lee was almost not born in El Paso, Texas in 1946. The hospital she was born in was unwilling to admit African Americans. So he kept his mother, who nearly died in childbirth, on a stretcher in a hallway. She moved with her military family to Southern California, where she followed in the footsteps of her lieutenant colonel father and activist mother, upholding their principles and challenging injustice.
She was an avid learner. But she had to fight the “blonde hair, blue eye hierarchy” to become a high school cheerleader. She was one of the first twelve students to enter the University of Texas at El Paso.
After escaping an abusive marriage and relationship, Lee experienced homelessness, floating around in flea-market hotels just to stay off the streets. When she continued her studies at Mills College, this single mother without childcare had to bring her two young sons to class with her. A keen student, determined to help others the way government programs had helped her, Lee pursued a master’s degree in social work from the University of California, Berkeley.
Shirley Chisholm’s campaign changed Lee’s life. Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, has launched a campaign to run for president. “When the powers that be won’t give you a place at the table,” Chisholm preached, “then bring your own folding chair!”
At that time, Barbara Lee, a Black Panther volunteer, wasn’t even registered to vote! “I considered the vote too bourgeois,” she laughed. “Little girl,” Chisholm liked to call her, “you have to be part of the system to change it.” Lee ended up becoming a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and went to work for Berkeley’s charismatic black congressman Ron Dellums. “The election solution may not be the complete solution,” Dellums said, “but it is a platform and you can no longer allow this platform to be occupied by status quo men. and expedient liberals”.
Lee worked for Dellums for 11 years, became his chief of staff, then went on to the California Legislature and eventually the House of Representatives, where she served more than 20 years and is now the fourth Democrat.
Ginzberg’s film describes this career. We see her fighting for the poor and destitute, the working class, people of color, women and immigrants. “The US budget is anti-American because it punishes them,” Lee says. “You are forcing families to choose between a roof over their heads and putting food on their table. This is wrong!” Lee sets up the poverty and opportunity task force, asks the UN to investigate the war crime of caging children at the border, is among the first to prioritizing AIDS education and direct treatment The Lee Racial Healing and Transformation Commission seeks to deconstruct systemic racism.
Finally, 18 years after the 9/11 war rush, Lee’s tireless work forged a 2019 bipartisan congressional amendment repealing the 2001 authorization to use military force that led to the Afghan and Iraqi wars. Finally, she was no longer alone!
As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez observes, “Barbara Lee paved the way for change for us. When I am attacked, I think of his solitary vote against the war. The strength of his conviction emboldens and gives us permission to do the same.
Truth to Power: Barbara Lee speaks for me is streaming now.
Barbara Lee speaks for me!
Full disclosure: The author is a 40-year friend, co-author, and co-conspirator with Congresswoman Lee, who served as a public servant during her marriage.