UPDATE: Must Barbara Lee Always Speak for Me?

Becky O'Malley
Friday August 01, 2014 - 09:45:00 AM

On Saturday I went to the party for Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s birthday, held for the first time in Alameda, which is now part of her district. Last week I reported on the demonstration which was planned for the event, and as advertised there were indeed picketers outside the event, which was held in a dome-like tent outside a winery in a hot, wind-swept warehouse in the vicinity of the former naval base which is now slated for intensive development.

On the way in I talked with friends among the demonstrators, who carried signs with an adaptation of Barbara’s signature slogan, Barbara Lee Speaks for Me: “Barbara Lee, Speak for Me.” Their major complaint: Lee has voted for, or failed to vote against, funding for military aid to Israel, though she has also spoken out against various aspects of U.S. policy regarding Israel/Palestine. Jim Harris, a protester that I don’t know personally, has sent a commentary which appears in this issue with a report and a video about their discussion with her outside the party and links to his organization’s tally of her statements on the matter.

How much more should Barbara Lee’s constituents demand of her? I made my discounted senior rate contribution at the door and went inside so I could talk to her in person. Inside I saw several women I recognized, older generation peace ladies like me who cut their political teeth on opposition to the war on Vietnam and went on to serious electoral politics, who also buttonholed her about the Gaza situation. 

A man wearing a polo shirt with a Teamsters’ Union Alameda Local logo had a different message. He told Barbara that he really wanted to—I’m not good at capturing the language of violence—rough up the protesters outside. She demurred, saying something about the First Amendment, so he reluctantly backed down. 

She circulated freely in the diverse and enthusiastic crowd, fielding questions on all kinds of topics, including health care, education, student loans and more. It was an impressive impromptu performance. 

I spoke with her about my concern about the Gaza atrocities, the huge disproportionate loss of life (which has only gotten worse since then). She clearly did not disagree with anything I said, but her response was a rhetorical question: what else can I do? 

The obvious answer, the one espoused by the demonstrators, is to vote to cut off military aid to Israel. What we both know, however, is that this would make no difference in the U.S. House of Representatives at the moment. As I know only too well, any criticism of Israel in this country unleases the hounds of hell at your heels, and doesn’t change many minds. 

And Congresswoman Barbara Lee consistently accomplishes a lot on many other fronts. She spoke with justifiable pride of her crusade to shift the Democrats’ discourse from coming to the aid of “the middle class” to “the middle class and those aspiring to be middle class”—a subtle but effective way of pointing up the growing gulf between the haves and the have nots which threatens to obliterate what used to be called the middle class. 

There are some who mutter sotto voce that Lee’s votes for military aid to Israel are motivated by campaign contributions from local Jewish donors, but there’s absolutely no reason to think that should be true. She does, however, rely heavily on the cooperation of fellow Congresspersons who come from otherwise liberal districts where the Israel lobby, the AIPAC crowd, dominates electoral politics. She can’t change that by herself, so if she wants to achieve anything with regard to her other goals she must choose her battles carefully and preserve her ties with such colleagues. 

The only birthday present she received at this party was presented by Oakland Vice-Mayor Sandre Swanson. It was a framed group photo of Sandre, Barbara and all the other participants in the 1972 Shirley Chisholm for President campaign where she got her start in politics. 

I had to explain to the young man next to me that Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress, as well as the first to run for President, and the first woman to run for the nomination of the Democratic party. 

While the young Barbara Lee was promoting Chisholm’s campaign in California (they got 4.4% of the primary vote) I was one of the instigators of her Michigan campaign (we got a big 5% in our primary). It was, in retrospect, a children’s crusade. 

Innocents that we were, we believed that if your motives were pure and your candidate was the best in the race, you might win. Barbara went on to reality-based politics, and she’s done a lot of things that we might not have believed possible in those days, though not everything she supports has succeeded. 

Is it important now to put our organizing energy into trying to persuade Barbara Lee to vote against paying Israel to buy weapons? From an ideological perspective, maybe. From a practical perspective, probably not. At the moment there’s a world groundswell of disgust about the disproportionate number of innocent Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli weapons, and Barbara Lee’s vote won’t add much to the opposition. 

Of course, there are also those who think what’s happening in Gaza is okay. Those who agree will be gathering in San Francisco on Sunday for a rally in the Civic Center. Among speakers listed in a story in J-Weekly is Berkeley Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom

If you disagree, speak out for yourself. Check out the website of Jewish Voice for Peace to see what people like you are doing around the world to protest. 

But I’ve reluctantly concluded that focusing a lot of attention on Congresswoman Barbara Lee is not a good use of time and energy. After all, she has only one vote, and she’s not really the problem. Sadly, it’s a lot bigger than she is.