Congresswoman Barbara Lee, our Oakland representative, has been many things; among them, she’s been an island.
Voting solo in opposition to the broad authorization of military force granted by Congress to then-President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Lee earned criticism from colleagues, death threats from total strangers and broad public scorn that had some people labeling her as unpatriotic, gutless and a traitor to American values.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as is made evident in a new documentary, Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power. Originally expected to premiere in the 2020 SF International Film Festival, the 83-minute film, directed by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and Bay Area resident Abby Ginzberg, opens to the public Aug. 20 at Roxie Theater in San Francisco, Berkeley’s Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas and On Demand.
The film features the prominent voices of key political and cultural figures—Sen. Cory Booker, the late Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, CNN commentator Van Jones, actor Danny Glover, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and more. Special insights arrive from Rep. Lee’s sons, Craig Lee and Tony Lee; and from former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, with whom Lee collaborates to produce, under the umbrella of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center and Peralta Community College District, the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series promoting principles of nonviolence and youth leadership. The series offers keynotes from America’s most significant past and current civil rights leaders.
Congressman Lewis sets the tone early in the film, saying about Lee, “She has the capacity to do what I call, ‘getting in the way, getting in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.’” Author and political commentator Van Jones follows in the same vein: “The way Barbara Lee approaches problems: she’s not a normal politician. In politics you’re supposed to help only people who can help you. I give you a vote, you give me a check. I give you a vote, your PAC comes in for me.” Sen. Cory Booker says, “What drives Barbara Lee is she’s not concerned about popularity, she’s concerned about her purpose.”
For anyone unfamiliar with her background, the film makes abundantly clear why Lee champions legislation aimed at overcoming social justice inequality, reducing systemic racism and countering homelessness and limited economic and educational opportunity that disproportionately impacts people of color, women, children and immigrant communities. She was once a single mother, raising two boys and reliant on food stamps to rise from poverty to the middle class. Born in El Paso, her Black mother was admitted to the hospital to give birth only because Lee’s grandmother was white and insisted. Later, attending a Catholic school and therefore not segregated, Lee and her sisters nevertheless suffered the vestiges of racism and witnessed firsthand the economic disparities between the very rich and the very poor, who today Lee says make up the population in her district.
Shown in the film driving past homeless camps and abandoned houses in Oakland, Lee says, “Homelessness is a moral disgrace for the country that should make everybody want to rise up.” Subsequent clips and sincere comments from supporters show Lee supporting bills that protect the climate, provide childcare and family leave benefits to more people, increase non-violence training and eliminate qualified immunity and extreme use of force practices for law enforcement officers, and continuing to be a voice in the Congress calling for greater social justice.
Despite the overall boosterish, hyperbolic tone, a surprising amount of history is included in the short film. Lee’s involvement in the Black Panther Party was formative, as was role model Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress. Lee’s advocacy for international peace largely explains why every year since 2001 she re-introduces legislation to repeal the authorization passed—with her lone “no” vote—allowing a president to send people to war without congressional action.
Despite the documentary’s cinematic power, nothing impacts like the real deal, a fact made instantly evident during a phone interview held with Lee on Aug. 10. During a 40-minute conversation, Lee focuses almost entirely on people other than herself. Perhaps she’s simply a pro at political “we-speak,” but her words lend credence to the “Barbara Lee Speaks for Me” slogan.
Asked about social justice and job training elements in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, she says, “They’re in both bills. We made sure a lot of the issues around climate and environmental justice are included, primarily in the budget reconciliation bill. Also there are provisions for small, minority-owned businesses, making sure there’s racial equity and justice for formerly incarcerated individuals, workforce retraining for the jobs of the future, the green economy.
“We know who’s always left out in terms of just infrastructure jobs. You don’t see very many women, African Americans or people of color. It’s critical to look at these bills with a racial-justice lens. Even with the Medicare expansion, we’re trying to get coverage down to [age] 60, some of the Medicaid gaps we’re trying to close, there’s a large investment in affordable housing. These bills are very important to my district, but also to people who’ve been shut out from the economic growth of this state and this country.”
Lee spotlights other legislation that includes the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. “The negotiators are working day and night to get the Senate to the point where they can bring it up. I’m not going to give up hope on that. We’ve gotta have this; too many Black and Brown young people especially have been killed at the hands of police. That does not mean all police officers are guilty, but we have quite a few who’ve been bad actors. We need accountability measures built into the system so the bad actors don’t continue to brutalize Black and Brown people. We want safe communities. Look at Brianna Taylor, Oscar Grant—in my own district the numbers of people who have been killed at the hands of police. This has got to stop. We’ve got to get this passed.”
And there are more: “Reparations: H.R. 40 and my bill, H.R. 19, calling for a truth commission, for racial healing and reformation. Repair the damage, because we’ll never get to a system of justice for African Americans unless we repair the damage of the past. Generational wealth is non-existent, so much of the criminal justice issues—the disproportionate rates of poverty, unemployment, housing, the injustices specifically to the African American community—have to have a movement. My truth commission—we never had that moment of reckoning on race in this country [when] over 40 countries have had truth commissions after genocide and slavery—we’ve never had in the Unites States where descendants of those who were enslaved come forward and present the 401-year system linking slavery and the Middle Passage to systemic racism and why we saw Mr. George Floyd killed on TV in real time. Until we address systemic racism at it’s core, by breaking those chains of slavery, I don’t think we’ll get to true racial justice in this country.”
And there is H.R. 1, which she says is vital, “given all the suppression of voting rights across the country and efforts to turn back the clock to the days of Jim Crow.”
Lee mentions bills related to housing; ending student debt; relieving people from eviction while protecting small-property landlords and legislation to address the authorization to use force; police accountability and police reform. “We’re talking about a national database, diversity training, a ban on no-knock warrants, no chokeholds. Reforms that should have been in place for the last 100 years,” she says.
Asked about hope and what gets her out of bed in the morning, Lee says, “The mornings aren’t really rough. I just get up, put on my fatigues and get ready to fight and do what I need to do for people. It really is a mindset. There are so many structural issues in this country that are marginalizing people and not giving people a pathway into the quality of life they so deserve. If I have an opportunity to help, I do it.”
Ultimately, young people are her inspiration. “I have hope in our young people,” she says. “All across the country, they’re on it. I’m talking about a multi-racial movement that’s taking place sometimes under the radar, sometimes not. These young people give me a lot of hope that the next generation is totally prepared to take over.” A certain East Bay presence in the White House adds energy: “I’ve known Vice President Harris for many years, and she’s doing a phenomenal job with the challenges this administration has. She understands the values of the East Bay and science and that we’ve got to crush this virus. She’s committed to immigration reform and understands the criminal justice system and why it needs to be reformed. She brings into the White House the spirit of East Bay, an activist community.”
The midterm elections in 2022 she says are all about “winning, winning, winning,” and reminding Republicans that Democrats are the people who created and passed the rescue plan that saved jobs, extended unemployment benefits, providing resources or the vaccine. In 2024, she says the rise of white supremacy and domestic terrorism threaten democracy. “Right now, it’s very fragile. We can’t give up hope because then they win; the people who are not looking out for every man, woman and child in this country. We have to find the wherewithal to keep fighting for what’s right.”
Twenty years after being an island, all alone, Lee is no longer vilified and has indeed been heralded as a hero of nonviolent activism. In 2021, her island is crowded as people across the nation call for racial reconciliation and a radical return to real democracy.