Barbara Lee’s War on War

Washington’s voice of conscience since 9/11.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook

Throughout her career, Rep. Barbara Lee has been an outspoken champion of progressive issues both foreign and domestic. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Congressional negotiations over the Pentagon’s annual budget are usually a staid affair, with much of the focus on lawmakers’ favored pork projects. But on June 29, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) won nearly unanimous support on the appropriations committee for her measure to sunset the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, essentially a blank check for American wars.

"Being a part of the Black Panther movement toughened me up, it made me realize that racism, sexism, economic exploitation, poverty, inequality ... are a by-product or result of a system of capitalism that relies on cheap labor and keeping people fighting each other."

Though Paul Ryan stripped the measure from the bill later in the summer, Lee singlehandedly launched a debate on the issue in Congress, with Republicans and Democrats alike asking whether the president should have this power.

Lee’s success also comes as a vindication; she was the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF.

“September 11 changed the world,” she said at the time. “Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States.” Boondocks cartoonist Aaron McGruder paraphrased Lee’s speech this way: “You people are being intensely stupid right now. Please stop.”

To date, the passage of that resolution has left more than 100,000 dead in Afghanistan, including more than 30,000 civilians and over 2,000 U.S. soldiers. Since 2001, the AUMF has been used to justify at least 37 military actions in at least 16 countries, including ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Niger and Yemen.

But the landscape has changed enormously since the House voted 420-1 to approve the AUMF. Lee’s protest of Ryan’s decision to excise her AUMF sunset language was retweeted 18,000 times. The 10-term congresswoman has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity as an outspoken voice on racial justice and war and peace. Lee, who got her political education in the Black Panther Party, channels long-suppressed, now-emergent forces in American life: a bipartisan war-weariness and a restiveness among people of color, principally Black folks, organizing and speaking out against police violence and mass incarceration.

Lee has the singular honor of having her name next to the word “woke” in Merriam-Webster. She brought Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza as her guest to President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address. She introduced the first legislation to remove Confederate monuments from the Capitol. Peace activists have floated the idea of Lee running for president.

At a moment when the Democrats desperately need to retake the House and yet are riven by internal divisions (witness, most recently, controversy over the Democratic National Committee’s removal of several officials aligned with Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison), Lee is a crucial figure. Hers is a politics that traverses the fault lines established in the long and contentious 2016 primary, argues labor organizer Bill Fletcher Jr. “Bernie Sanders needed to understand the centrality of race and gender and the fact that it needs to be infused into his populism,” says Fletcher. “Hillary Clinton was advancing justice issues for the traditionally excluded, which ran smack into a wall when confronted with her neoliberal economic agenda. Barbara Lee is someone who has been a champion of justice, both economic and otherwise. That inclusive and multifaceted analysis of justice grounds her conception of politics.”

Indeed, there has been an attempt to paint the efforts to increase the representation of women and people of color in politics as being in opposition to efforts for economic justice. It’s a clever parlor trick for the 1%, as it plays on the weaknesses of the broadly defined U.S. Left. Too often, progressive institutions have failed to implement basic affirmative action policies. Meanwhile, groups focusing specifically on racial or gender justice rely on foundations underwritten by the wealthy and powerful, inhibiting their ability to advance structural critiques of what bell hooks calls the “white supremacist patriarchal capitalist” system.

Bernie Sanders’ failure to win the 2016 primary was due in significant part to this tension. Sanders was hit hard, early and successfully, on his limited capacity to speak about racial justice, and was accused of downplaying the importance of abortion rights. It’s true that the right to choose was not an integral part of how Bernie defined himself in the 2016 campaign. He was a white man running against a candidate tapped as the first woman president, in a country still woefully bereft of representation for both women and people of color at all levels of government. Clinton, on the other hand, explicitly rejected a $15 minimum wage and said that real universal healthcare would “never, ever come to pass.” While she messaged effectively about racial justice, she also had a legacy of calling Black youth “super-predators”—not to mention an often-racist campaign against Obama in 2008.

On both sides of the Bernie/Hillary divide, one question posed was whether we have to choose between electing a woman to higher office or getting transformative economic justice. Barbara Lee exposes the falseness of that choice. A former co-chair and current whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (of which Sanders is the lone Senate member), Lee stood with Keith Ellison in May to announce a progressive budget proposal that includes higher taxes on the wealthy, debt-free college, universal child care, equal pay for equal work and full employment. A stalwart advocate of abortion rights, Lee related her own abortion experience in extremely personal detail in her 2008 book, Renegade for Peace and Justice. Her progressive record on issues from peace to gun control, women’s rights and police violence is unimpeachable.

To be sure, Lee is not popularly identified with Sanders or the anti-establishment Left. She often appears with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and she bucked fellow Progressive Caucus leaders Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva by staying neutral in the 2016 primaries.

But the relationship between Lee and party leaders has not always been smooth. Pelosi tried to talk her out of her 2001 AUMF vote, and her friendship with Pelosi was not enough to win her the Democratic Caucus’ vice chair position when she ran in 2016. Sanders Democrats appear to see Lee as a potential ally; when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced her run for re-election in 2018, “Berniecrat” freshman Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) called on Lee to throw her hat into the ring, calling her “a voice for reasserting Congress’ role on matters of war and peace.” Lee, to put it simply, has cred.

Lee was born in segregated El Paso, Texas, in 1946. Her mother needed a caesarean section and had to beg for medical care in the hospital. Her father convinced the admitting personnel that, because she had white ancestry, she deserved to be born there. Lee was scarred by the forceps used in the C-section and says she reaches to the scar to remind herself that bigotry can be overcome.

The hospital created a makeshift segregated area, where her mother languished in pain due to subpar medical attention while in labor. As Lee writes in her book, her birth experience was emblematic of the multitude of indignities that white supremacy inflicted on Black people in the pre-civil rights South. “I came out fighting,” Lee has said.

Lee’s politicization began when she became involved with the Black Panther Party in 1968, working on the party’s welfare programs in Oakland. The Panthers gave her the framework to analyze the problems facing Black people, and Black American women specifically, and helped her connect racism and exploitation here in America to wars abroad.

“Being a part of the Black Panther movement,” writes Lee, “toughened me up, it made me realize that racism, sexism, economic exploitation, poverty, inequality—all issues we are still dealing with—are a by-product or result of a system of capitalism that relies on cheap labor and keeping people fighting each other rather than uniting and working together for the common good.”

Lee’s entrance into electoral politics began with Shirley Chisholm, whose 1972 campaign for president Lee ran in Northern California—a campaign that was supported by the Panthers, who distributed flyers saying “A vote for Chisholm is a vote for survival.” It was Chisholm who said, “When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” Lee’s efforts helped win Chisholm 12 of California’s 271 delegate slots—one of which went to Lee—and earned her the attention of Rep. Ron Dellums, the Oakland socialist, who invited her to join his staff. In 1990, she was elected to the California State Assembly; in 1996, the state Senate; and in 1998, she won Dellums’ U.S. House seat upon his retirement.

As a member of the California legislature, Lee led the effort to pass California’s Violence Against Women Act. In her book, she recounts her own harrowing experience with domestic violence as the partner of a man who was mentally ill and physically and emotionally abusive. Women trapped in abusive relationships, she argues, are on the receiving end of both male and economic violence, since they often cannot afford to leave their partner. In Congress, Lee successfully rolled back a provision of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 “one strike and you’re out” public housing policy that, outrageously, allowed the victims of domestic abuse to be evicted for involvement in a crime.

When Congressional Republicans advocate sunsetting the Violence Against Women Act or cutting off funds to Planned Parenthood, Lee, as a left Congresswoman from a working-class background, is one of a few who can speak with authority to the actual effects of that policy. Her peace activism, as well, is inseparable from her outrage at how America’s obsession with war abroad sucks resources for priorities here at home.

The military budget accounts for 53 percent of the federal discretionary budget. In fiscal year 2017, the Pentagon will spend $574 billion. Not only does the Pentagon budget destroy lives abroad, it completely undermines our ability to support basic human needs at home. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

“We spend more on our military activities than every other nation in the world combined,” Lee says. “Instead of redeploying troops, we need to redeploy where our money goes.”

Peace activists interviewed for this story spoke glowingly of Lee. The word they used, again and again, was “brave.”

“When you deal with Congress, you get disgusted with how easy it is for both Democrats and Republicans to cheerlead for war, to take money from the military-industrial complex and create a military-industrial- congressional complex that really crushes dissent,” says Medea Benjamin of Code Pink. “It’s hard to find people to stand up.”

Lee has been a consistent anti-war voice under four administrations. She was the sole House vote against Bill Clinton’s misadventure in Kosovo, which killed some 500 civilians. Under George W. Bush, Lee voted against the war in Iraq and led the effort for withdrawal. So, too, did Lee oppose Barack Obama’s wars in Libya and Syria.

“There was no authorization there, and it opened the floodgates for weapons, and it created an opening for groups like ISIS and Boko Haram,” Lee tells In These Times. “We’ve created more threats to our national security than is warranted by our actions since in the War on Terror.” She also condemned Obama’s use of drone strikes and proposed legislation to curb them.

Lee has spoken out against President Trump’s threats against North Korea, his arbitrary bombing of Syria, and the concentration of military officers in the White House. Lee’s criticism of John Kelly’s military background earned her a great deal of abuse from the Trumpian Right.

Asked about a 2020 presidential run, Lee demurs. “When we get total public finance, call me back.”

John Nichols of The Nation thinks that Lee would be a credible candidate. “Of the members of the House, Barbara Lee arguably stands out. People know her record,” he told In These Times. “She is also a very appealing political figure. She’s good at working with people, reaching out, getting conversations going.”

“Bernie Sanders made it OK to talk about the deep-seated issues of the capitalist system,” says Code Pink’s Benjamin. “We need a candidate that can talk about the deep-seated problems of a nation based on empire and how we need to move to the next system—a system based on people, not profits.”

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies sees potential for Lee to emulate U.K. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, who “won this incredible new level of support by focusing on economic justice, but never refusing to talk about the anti-war component.” Indeed, in a certain sense, Lee is America’s Corbyn—no member of the British Parliament has been more closely identified with the U.K. anti-war movement, just as no member of Congress has been closer to the U.S. anti-war movement than Lee.

Lee will likely be more visible on the national stage in the coming year as Democrats, who see Trump as the GOP’s Achilles’ heel, send their stars to stump for congressional candidates. A House Democratic majority would give Lee a platform, as a senior member of the appropriations committee, to take on the military-industrial complex. Lee has been swimming against that tide. It’s finally starting to turn.

“She’s as brave and tough as it takes,” says Bennis. “Imagine if there was a real movement behind her.”

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Matthew Cunningham-Cook is a labor researcher and writer living in Prince George’s County, Maryland. You can contact him at m.cunninghamcook [at] gmail​.com.
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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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