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In 2001, California representative Barbara Lee cast the only vote against the authorization to use military force (AUMF), which George W. Bush and subsequent presidents used as an excuse for the so-called “forever wars”. Political and media elites have rejected their vote. But millions of Americans have adopted the slogan “Barbara Lee speaks for me”. Lee has been committed to peace and economic, social and racial justice since 2001. And she has won allies in Congress. In July of this year, 93 House members and 23 Senators backed a proposal by Lee and Wisconsin’s Representative Mark Pocan to cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent to free up money to help fight Covid-19, mass unemployment, and others domestic challenges.
After the vote, I spoke with Lee about how 2020’s policy has changed and how it needs to change further. Taking the long term, she recalled the work of two of her mentors, Rep Ron Dellums from California and Rep Shirley Chisholm from New York, suggesting ideas that have been rising up movements for decades – about budget priorities, police brutality, structural racism , and the dismantling of Confederate statues – are finally gaining traction as young people demand fundamental change. We also talked about how and why the Democratic Party, which will meet in the Convention next week, must respond to this demand. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
– John Nichols
MORE FROM John Nichols
We have always talked about how the peace movement needs to involve more people of color and African Americans. The judicial movement didn’t have as many whites as it should … The environmental movement was mainly a movement of middle-income whites. Now we see environmental justice and we see the intersectionality of all these movements coming together. …
If you then bring it to Covid, it is of course clear that the people are very seriously injured. Yet they are told, “Well, the resources just aren’t there.” And of course, we know the Republicans got their tax cuts, but the resources are also in the Pentagon in terms of their lavish spending.
So I think the connection between the two is happening now that people are suffering so deeply and living on the edge. They are all, regardless of race and origin, although of course black and brown people are more affected due to historical and systemic racism.
I think this is where all of this comes together, where the movement is really pushing Congress, saying, “We need resources for our national priorities and investment in our national priorities, and we need – yes – a strong national security . “That is why in the cuts I propose – including my own proposal to cut Pentagon spending by $ 350 billion – we’re talking about making sure the troops have what they need because so many troops are on Live on the fringes. … You can cut up to 40 or 50 percent from the Pentagon budget and still have strong national security.
So 10 percent is a starter, but it’s great, and I’m so glad we got there – because that $ 73 or 74 billion is badly needed in our communities today, and it doesn’t even scratch that Surface.
JN: How important is it for Democrats to make these new budget priorities part of what they’re talking about in 2020?
BL: Well, it’s absolutely important because young people won’t tolerate it [status quo politics]. They won’t vote if we don’t make it part of our new priorities.
When you look at survey data, when you look at where people are in military and domestic politics – when it comes to making sure these unauthorized wars, these eternal wars, stop – the public is with us.
JN: Just as you’ve talked about Pentagon budgets for a long time, you’ve talked about structural racism for decades. Do you also see something in these questions with the protests against police violence and systemic racism?
BL: I am cautiously optimistic and it took the unfortunate and terrible murder of Mr. Floyd for people to really focus seriously on the systemic racist nature of the criminal justice system and our policing.
I’ve been involved in police matters since the 1970’s. I went to San Quentin, then prison, counseled and worked with inmates. I started drilling more with the Black Panther Party before that. You know, the Black Panther Party dropped the police for killing people and brutalizing our communities in Oakland and across the country. I was a community worker at the Black Panther Party so I got it and understood that we needed to have some systemic changes in the criminal justice system.
Fast forward to when I was in [California] Legislative branch. I was a member of the Public Security Committee where we approved bills like “Three Strikes” or “Improvement of the Penalty” or a really terrible, draconian public policy regarding the criminal justice system. Of course, I was one of the few no-votes to three strikes and many other issues. I actually had to ask for security, I had so many death threats when I voted “no” on “three strikes”. It wasn’t quite as bad as it was after 9/11, but it was horrible how people came after me.
To see where we are now, it comes full circle and it is really hopeful as members of Congress see the injustice in the system.
I keep going back to the idea that this is a marathon for justice. It was a marathon for me. You have to keep fighting, you have to run this lap of the race. Ron Dellums gave me the baton, we gave the batons to younger people. We see Black Lives Matter and Dreamers. We see our movement for black lives, everyone get together now, take those batons and run with them!
JN: We are also starting a discussion of systemic racism in healthcare and in so many of our necessary services. In a way, I think Covid-19 opened a discussion about the injustice of a for-profit healthcare system.
BL: Yes, it has. Let me say one thing about the differences in health care systems: you have been with us since the first enslaved Africans were brought to America 401 years ago. This is nothing new. We have fought for universal, accessible and affordable health care. I mean, blacks have always fought for it.
If you look at Covid-19 and the disproportionate impact it has on African American and Latinx communities, I have in my constituency [Oakland and other communities in the San Francisco Bay Area] My progressive white friends called me and said, “What’s going on? What’s happening? Why is that? “They couldn’t understand. And I’ve talked about health care differences and ethnic health care differences forever! And so does Ron! But it never subsided until they saw what was going on. I think that was shocking the conscience of many people who claim to be progressive – and who are progressive on many issues, but not on all issues when it comes to racial justice.
It’s so terrible because it took the disproportionate deaths – and virus transmission rates – to get others to wake up to what we were talking about, why we want to fund the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Differences when Trump tries to get zero make all healthcare budgets.
So, yeah, now I think hopefully the rest of the country will see what African Americans have known and felt. People realize that [racism] is part of the problem as it relates to why there is such a difference between death rate and death rate.
You look at these underlying diseases like high blood pressure – I mean, racism is stressful! Racism is a terrible way to live, and that creates a lot of stress for African Americans, and historically we see how racism has affected health, which in many ways creates these underlying conditions.
JN: They indicate that these are not new topics. These are topics that your mentor Shirley Chisholm spoke about a long time ago. You were a delegate for Shirley Chisholm to the 1972 Democratic Congress. Do you think the kind of politics Shirley Chisholm talked about – “unshacked and unsought,” “catalyst for change” – is finally starting to work?
BL: Absolutely, and I know Shirley is smiling right now. She would be so proud of women in Congress, especially women of color, who say, “Enough is enough.” Can you imagine?
[In the early 1970s]When I was working here for Ron after he was elected to Congress, I saw Shirley Chisholm [who was elected in 1968]and she looked after me. Let me tell you, John, she was the only black woman who dealt with this entire power structure within Congress! It was wonderful! And she never withdrew.
Now she had her moments. I was with her a lot when she collapsed. But she was a brilliant, progressive, smart, politically strategic black woman! And she recorded everything.
I mean, she was actually – and a lot of people don’t know – one of the first board members of NARAL, you know, when there was all this tension between white and black women relating to the pro-election movement. She took over the movement, the feminist movement, and said, “You have to understand that race is a factor in black women.”
When Shirley was in Congress, she fought hard for gender equality. She fought hard for domestic workers … hard for low wage workers.
She was a teacher by profession. She supported public school districts. And Shirley was an immigrant. Your family was. She was very, very vocal about the rights of immigrants. She was very vocal against the Vietnam War. She was up for choice when very few others were up for choice.
I mean yes! I think she would be happy. She would be happy, and I think she would be proud of the seeds she sowed, especially on women of color and especially black women.
JN: She kept you busy with electoral politics.
BL: Without Shirley Chisholm, I would not have registered for the vote. Trust me!
[In the early 1970s] The Democrats have not achieved what I expected in terms of an agenda for everyone, for the people, and for the Republicans too, and I also said, “Forget it, I will become President of the Black Student Union and a community worker the Black Panther Party. “That was my political work.
And here comes Shirley Chisholm, and she convinced me that she thought I had something to add to the political system, and the rest is history!
JN: The Democratic Party is obviously at a critical juncture with an important race for the President and important races for Congress. What would you say to Democrats at all levels that they should learn from the ethics of Shirley Chisholm / Ron Dellums / Barbara Lee? What does the Democratic Party have to learn at this point?
BL: I think the Democratic Party needs to learn that it has to be inclusive and democratic, which means that young people, the black life movement, our dreamers and all of our young people across the country hear different points of view. and knowing that although your proposals may be bold and different and visionary, hey, you have to embrace visionary and bold ideas now if you really want systemic change.
Republicans have their bold and visionary ideas that are so far to the right. Ron always told me, if you start out with a far right party in the center, where do you have to go? You can only negotiate on the right. On the other hand, if you progressively come out with bold, brilliant, and visionary ideas, you have a way of achieving your goals because you have such leeway and space to perhaps negotiate center-left. But you don’t start in the center because then we never get where we need to go.
I’ll tell the party and I will do Tell the party – you know, I was on the editorial committee for the party platform – that you need to be brave on this platform. You can’t start in the middle. You can’t go back and go back to 2016. You have to go forward. It has to be something that really reflects where the country is, where young people are, what it means to have a society that is only for everyone and lives up to the ideals of this country – which it still has not! 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 as vice president. I wonder what you thought about it.
BL: I was very humble. I was just thinking 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? It is that important. It really is life and death.
JN: In conclusion, let’s talk about a topic that you have been working on for some time and where the settings have changed significantly. This battle for Confederate statues removal isn’t new to you.
BL: Oh boy. You know, I passed the laws to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol. I originally launched it in 2017 and got a few [cosponsors], but not enough. Now, in 2020, people were screaming! We combined it with several other statues and busts and pictures and what-have-you that other members of total racists had and these men who committed treason. So we got it off the floor!
JN: What was strived for in 2017 became possible in 2020.
BL: This is the point i make! We have to get out of there when we know it’s the right thing to do. Even if no one is with you, if you are the only one, and if you really have a vision of what you think would break some of these barriers, you have to do it. You wait, you work, you organize. It’ll happen sooner or later!
You can’t be impatient knowing I am impatient. I’ve always been But I have to somehow temper my impatience so that I can educate and explain and organize and study and put the arguments down.
It’s hard work, but it’s honorable work. … You can set the marker early on on progressive topics and on topics that I have worked on in the past. That’s why you have to have a vision. You have to have an agenda. You have to know where you are going. Otherwise you just react.
JN: If you had the chance to put a few statues up, who would you like to see honored?
BL: Congressman John Robert Lewis, Congressman Ronald V. Dellums, and Congressman Shirley Chisholm.
JN: That’s a good trio!
BL: It is. These three really should be together.