New documentary film on Congresswoman Barbara Lee: She speaks for me!
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. | Al Drago / CQ Roll Call via AP

On September 14, 2001, three days after New York City’s Twin Towers were leveled by two hijacked airliners, with the building ruins still smoldering, 3000 dead, over 6000 injured, Congress met to consider President George W. Bush’s request to wage war against the perpetrators.

On the floor of Congress, speaker after speaker echoed the hurt, outrage, anger, and shock of a wounded nation. A flood of countrywide sentiment demanded action. Every single member of Congress—the House and the Senate—concurred. Almost. The vote in the House on the expanded wars act was 420 to 1.

At this time of crisis, when there was much pain alongside many acts of heroism, one stood alone. Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California’s 13th District, representing Oakland and Berkeley, voted against Joint Resolution 23, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, 2001. She voted against war.

As Lee addressed Congress that fateful day, she spoke from her conscience, from her heart. She warned, as Rev. Nathan Baxter had at the 9/11 memorial service earlier: “Let us not act so that we become the evil that we deplore.”

But people didn’t want to hear that the war powers act was overbroad. That it gave the president vast powers which had been constitutionally lodged with Congress. That it could be used, and later was abused, for various illegal pretexts over 40 times after it was passed.

For her calm, measured act of reason, which proved prescient, Lee received a torrent of harsh criticism, cruel words, and death threats. For the following weeks, she had to be blanketed by Secret Service agents for protection. Where she traveled, even to visit relatives, streets were blocked, houses put under surveillance.

This singular, lonely act of courage helped define Congresswoman Barbara Lee. But it should not overshadow a remarkable life and exemplary career both before and after her stand alone.

Writer/producer/director Abby Ginzberg’s new film Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me well tells her story. Of course, Ginzberg has a little help from Barbara’s friends! What seems like half of Congress, including the Honorables Lynn Woolsey, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Gwen Moore, John Lewis, and even a sampling of Republican legislators in addition to family members, allies and constituents. They are supplemented by a gallery of film and pictures,  itself a primer for social activism of the last five decades.

But the story has a rough start. Lee almost wasn’t born in El Paso, Texas, in 1946. The hospital she was born in wasn’t keen on admitting African Americans. So it kept her mother, who almost died in childbirth, on a gurney in a hallway. She moved with her military family to Southern California, where she followed the footsteps of her Lt. Colonel father and activist mother, respecting their principles and challenging injustices.

She was an eager learner. But she had to fight the “blond hair and blue-eyed hierarchy” to become a high school cheerleader. She was one of the first twelve students to integrate the University of Texas at El Paso.

After escaping an abusive marriage and relationship, Lee experienced homelessness, floating through fleabag hotels just to keep off the streets. When she sought further education at Mills College, this single mother without childcare had to bring her two young sons to class with her. An avid student, determined to help others as government programs had helped her, Lee went on to an M.A. in social work from the University of California, Berkeley.

The Shirley Chisholm campaign changed Lee’s life. Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, set up a campaign to run for President. “When the powers that be don’t give you a seat 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 looked at voting as too bourgeois,” she laughed. “Little Girl,” Chisholm liked to call her, “you’ve got 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 electoral solution may not be the entire solution,” said Dellums, “but it is a platform and you cannot allow that platform to be occupied anymore by maintenance men for the status quo and expedient liberals.”

Lee worked for Dellums for 11 years, became his chief of staff, and then went on to the California Legislature and ultimately the House of Representatives, where she has served over 20 years and is now the fourth-ranking Democrat.

Ginzberg’s film outlines that career. We see her fighting for the poor and disenfranchised, the working class, people of color, women, and immigrants. “The U.S. budget is Un-American as it punishes them,” Lee declares. “You are forcing families to choose between a roof over their heads and putting food on their tables. That is wrong!” Lee sets up the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, demands the U.N. investigate the war crime of caging children at the border, is among the first to prioritize AIDS education and direct treatment. Lee’s Racial Healing and Transformation Commission seeks to deconstruct systemic racism.

Finally, 18 years after the 9/11 rush to war, Lee’s unabating work forged a bipartisan 2019 Congressional amendment repealing the 2001 authorization to use military force which had led to the Afghan and Iraq Wars. Finally, she was not alone anymore!

As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez observes, “Barbara Lee has paved the way for us to change. When I’m under attack, I think of her lonely vote against war. The strength of her conviction emboldens and gives the rest of us permission to do the same thing.”

Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me is streaming now.

Barbara Lee speaks for me!

Full disclosure: The author has been a friend, co-author, and co-conspirator for 40 years with Congresswoman Lee, who served as an official at his wedding.


CONTRIBUTOR

Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has worked on Wisconsin recalls, Occupy and other local movements that give promise of social change. He has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for the last 18 years. After studying at Yale and Stanford, he taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!

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