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On September 14, 2001, Representative Barbara Lee, whose congressional district includes Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., drew national attention when she cast a lone vote against the bill which gave the U.S. President considerable latitude in pursuing the "War on Terrorism." This is not the first time that Lee has taken an unpopular progressive stand. Earl Neil, who worked with Lee on civil rights struggles during his tenure as rector of St. Augustines Episcopal Church in West Oakland in the late 1960s, spoke with Lee on the night before her historic congressional vote. In this interview, Neil asks Lee to reflect on the values which have driven her peace-and-justice activism.
Earl Neil: I think I first met you in California, when you were an aide for Ron Dellums. That was back in the 1970s, about 32 years ago. When and how did you become interested and involved in politics?
Barbara Lee: Like many young people of my generation, I was not convinced that change could be made from within the system. I was the president of the Black Student Union at Mills College in the 1970s and was involved in a number of community-development activities and social-justice causes, but I was not registered to vote. At that time, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm came to visit and gave a speech about the importance in being involved in the political process. This led me to become involved in her presidential campaign, and I have been involved in politics ever since, first as an intern and staff member for Congressman Ron Dellums, and later becoming elected to office. We always approached our work on Capitol Hill as activists, fighting for social and civil justice, and working to make sure that legislation addressed injustices. I continue to approach my work in that manner.
Earl Neil: Where do you find your nourishment spiritually and psychologically to meet all the demands on you?
Barbara Lee: I say my prayers.
Earl Neil: Alright! So your faith plays a pretty strong role as you approach your work?
Barbara Lee: Yes, its the source of my strength. Faith is a very personal matter, but our convictions religious or otherwise play a large role in our views on public policy matters, in deciding what is right and what is wrong. Over the past 15 years religion has taken a much more visible role in Washington, DC. a good example is the rise of the Christian Coalition in the 1980s. And then there is the legislative support for funding "faith-based" social service work that started under President Clinton and expanded during President Bushs first year in office.
Earl Neil: What are your views about the debate over faith-based initiatives?
Barbara Lee: Many religious organizations in America have long carried out partnerships with the federal government. These groups separate their social-service functions from their religious activities. What is different about President Bushs "charitable choice" proposal is that it would provide federal money to religious charities that do not make separate their social and religious activities. Even among people and organizations of faith, this new initiative has caused serious concern, and I myself have real reservations about it. Under Charitable Choice, religious bigotry in a federally funded organization could unfortunately become a reality. An institution could claim that their "faith" does not include acceptance of those things or groups that they disagree with, and therefore could discriminate in those areas based on "faith."
In addition, under Charitable Choice, there are no regulatory mechanisms for institutions and surely the churches, mosques, synagogues, would want an adherence to the separation of Church and State as it relates to federal oversight into their books. Given the Administration's belief in deregulation, it is clear that abuses and discrimination could become a problem. It is imperative that all civil-rights statutes apply to any federal funds going to faith-based organizations as current policy dictates.
[Editors Note: For an in-depth look at this issue, see also the October 2001 issue of The Witness, Charitable Choices.]
Earl Neil: You were recently given an award from the Congress of California Seniors for your efforts on behalf of senior citizens congratulations on that! What do you see as some of the paramount issues affecting seniors?
Barbara Lee: Thanks. Well, there should be a strong commitment to NOT privatize Social Security. Look at what happened with Enron, and Wall Street! We musnt put seniors money at risk like that I mean, baby boomers or seniors, whomever. The future is at stake. I dont think we should erode the budget safety-net that people have worked for all their lives. So thats a big issue.
Earl Neil: The Bay Area is one of my loves, so I continue to keep in touch. The people there are a very diverse mix. How does that affect your work?
Barbara Lee: The beauty and strength of our nation lies in our diversity. And, as you say, my own district is very diverse in regards to religion, race, and ethnicity. So I was pleased, in the wake of the September 11th attacks, that Congress passed legislation that expresses its commitment to diversity. On September 14th, Congress passed H. Con. Res. 227, by Rep. Bonior (D-MI), "A resolution condemning bigotry, racism and violence against Arab Americans, American Muslims, and Americans from South Asia." I was also co-sponsor of H. Res.255, "A Resolution Condemning bigotry and violence against Sikh Americans in the wake of terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001" by Reps. Honda (D-CA) and Shays (R-CT).
At home, one of the things Im working on is to equalize public schools so that the black and Latino kids in low-income areas get better schools. Im totally opposed to vouchers. These kids deserve more. We need class-size reduction and better school facilities. This is a horrible problem. You know, theyre required now to teach to the test and Im worried that the kids are learning how to pass a test and the focus isnt really on teaching children what they should learn.
And weve also been looking at housing. Affordable housing in the Bay Area is a big need. In Congress, Ive introduced a housing-production bill with Bernie Sanders to establish a housing trust fund.
Finally, Ive worked especially hard, first to stop, and now to repeal, the "three strikes" legislation that is responsible for unfairly locking up so many African-American and Latino males. These men are being locked up for non-violent offenses. When I first opposed this legislation when I was in the state assembly I had a big fight even with liberal Democrats and there ultimately were only two of us who were against it. For several months there was a barrage of hate mail, death threats all kinds of horrible stuff.
Earl Neil: Was that directed at you?
Barbara Lee: Yes, because I voted against it. It was very similar to the reaction I got after 9/11, when I didnt vote for the War on Terrorism. Later, people realized that three strikes was supposed to apply only to violent offenders, but by then it was too late, because it was in the constitution.
Earl Neil: Speaking of September 11th, what led you to cast the lone vote in Congress against H.J. Res. 64?
Barbara Lee: The resolution reads, "That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
This resolution is a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11th events anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation's long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. The resolution states that the president can pursue anyone whom "he determines" were complicit in the September 11th attacks to stop future terrorist attacks it doesnt direct the President to seek the approval of Congress should he decide to use military force against other nations once the conflict in Afghanistan is resolved. This is overly broad and undermines our system of checks and balances by reducing the role of Congress in deciding to wage war.
Earl Neil: What was it like to be the only voter against that bill? And what was the response in your district?
Barbara Lee: In the first four months or so, we received in excess of 50,000 pieces of correspondence, including letters, phones calls, faxes and emails. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. In my district over 80 percent of the correspondence has been favorable. Even those who may have disagreed with my vote agreed with my right as an elected official to voice my opinion on such an important issue. Overall, responses from inside and outside of my district were more than 65 percent favorable. In October 2001, there was a rally in Oakland in support of my vote that over 3,000 people attended. At a number of other local events, people have been very encouraging and supportive of my vote.
Earl Neil: You were also in the minority in Congress to oppose the "Patriot Act".
Barbara Lee: We all want the terrorists brought to justice, but we must also preserve our standards of justice. For example, the roving wiretaps allowed in this bill would permit federal agents to eavesdrop on every computer in use in a public or university library if a suspect were using a single library computer. The bill also allows secret searches by the government. Our existing laws regarding search warrants were created to protect the fundamental right to privacy. That right must still exist, even in a state of emergency.
Earl Neil: Ive been concerned about the "super patriotism" Ive seen since September 11th. You were attacked as being unpatriotic, but you have said that we are all "True Patriots." What do you mean by this?
Barbara Lee: Being patriotic means participating in decisions about the future of our world and engaging in our democratic process. Patriotism means preserving the balance of power determined by our constitution. The right to dissent, that is, the right to provide a different point of view in the full view of the American people is also central to our democracy. I think the beauty of democracy, and one of its fundamental principles, is the right to free speech and the right to disagree.
Earl Neil: During the 1960s and 1970s in the Bay Area there was a heightened social and political consciousness on campuses. I think it started with the San Francisco State Free Speech Movement and the Black Panther Party. There was a passion for justice and liberation and peace especially on the part of young people. Do you see this same passion today?
On Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr. Day 2002, Barbara Lee accepts an award from Matthew
Fox, director of the Institute for Creation Spirituality, for her
courageous leadership in the U.S. Congress.
On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2002, Barbara Lee accepts an award from Matthew Fox, director of the Institute for Creation Spirituality, for her courageous leadership in the U.S. Congress.
Earl Neil: What advice would you give those progressive voices in the community that want to promote justice and peace efforts?
Barbara Lee: To organize and begin to get politically active. Progressives must continue the fight to redirect our priorities from bloated military budgets and tax cuts for the wealthy to initiatives that seek to narrow inequality and foster peace and justice. Last year, many good social programs were cut in order to pay for Republican tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, special interests and corporations. We must continue to fight this misguided corporate welfare effort. We must also be sure that the President and Congress hear our call for adequate funding for those programs and people who need it the most. Progressives need to raise their voices for quality health care for all, affordable housing, quality and equality in education, a clean environment. We must not let these vital interests be ignored or brushed aside because of the war and recession.
If we dont stand for peace and justice, what else is there? Thats the power of the people.