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U.S. Rep Barbara Lee on Strikes, Senate Campaign and Dissent: “I Was Called a Traitor”

Of the thousands of members of Congress who have served throughout history, few will be remembered, with rare exceptions. Those who become presidents, or Speaker of the House, or have buildings named after them are less likely to be forgotten. Then there are those whose policy stands solidify their legacies. When California Representative Barbara Lee became the lone member of Congress to vote against the war in Iraq in 2001, she became a target of nonstop hate mail and death threats. Now, decades later, as she strives to become just the third Black woman in American history elected to the United States Senate, her willingness to take a stand in the face of such adversity years ago has emerged as a political asset, landing her high-profile endorsements from colleagues like Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). In the latest THR “Power Watch” column, Lee — who was the subject of the 2020 Starz documentary Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power — talks about what she likes to watch; her journey from poverty to Congress; the strikes roiling Hollywood; and how her harrowing abortion in the days before Roe reinforced her belief in supporting safe, legal reproductive health care for all.

Did you have a favorite show growing up?

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Yeah, growing up I liked The Mickey Mouse Club because Annette Funicello was my idol. I loved Annette. She developed multiple sclerosis later in life and my sister has MS too, and so I ended up connecting with Annette as an adult before she passed away.

Do you have a favorite movie?

Right now my favorite movie is [2019’s] Juanita with Alfre Woodard. It’s such a beautiful story but also it shows the deep struggles that Black women have constantly but how we overcome them. Also I loved the influence and input of the Native American community and her going to Butte, Montana. When I first started watching, I worried that these people are not going to like her, but immediately that sense of common humanity came across and the white community in Montana got a chance to know her and love her, and the Native American community did too, and that is so Alfre. I’ve known her a long time.  She’s a phenomenal actress but also a phenomenal activist. She’s brilliant. She’s beautiful and I’ve had a chance to work with her since the ’70s.

How’d you meet her?

Around the anti-apartheid movement. Working with activists who were trying to end apartheid in South Africa.

Can you talk about some of the repercussions you faced from voting against the war in Iraq?

Well, first there were death threats — constant — and harassment. Someone even called my landline in Washington, D.C., and shot gunshots into the voicemail. It was awful. I was called a traitor. My political opponent who filed to run against me walked in [a parade] — I think it was a Veterans Day Parade with Rudy Giuliani at the time — and they blew up a picture of me smiling and photoshopped it against the picture of the World Trade Center tower burning. And the tagline was, ‘Barbara Lee hates America,’ and that’s what was carried as they walked in the parade. It was disgusting and awful. And I was called a traitor and the penalty for treason is death, so a lot of people felt that’s what I deserved. You just have no idea how many death threats there were.

U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) addresses antiwar protesters during a rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza April 5, 2003 in Oakland, California. About 5,000 people rallied against the U.S.-led war on Iraq during the event that started in Mosswood Park and ended at Frank Ogawa Plaza.
U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) addresses antiwar protesters during a rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza on April 5, 2003, in Oakland, California. About 5,000 people rallied against the U.S.-led war in Iraq during the event that started in Mosswood Park and ended at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Are you surprised at how many people now say you were right?

Well … not surprised. But at least now people in our country have been pushing to end these forever wars, and so I have been working to repeal those [military] authorizations, both the 2001 and 2002, and I’ve got Republican support, especially on the 2002. Last year, 49 Republicans supported my repeal bill.

This year with Sen. [Tim] Kaine (D-Va.), who really led the effort, … it passed the floor of the Senate with Republican support. So now I’m working to get it passed in the House again, and the president has said he will sign it into law. I share that because … it takes time. I always think of Dr. King’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So you just have to be persistent and keep plugging along.

You disclosed in 2021 that you once had an abortion. Are you comfortable discussing that?

I will talk about it. I don’t like to, but I do it because I think it’s necessary. I had never talked about it and no one knew until the Texas restrictions were passed [in 2021].

I had lived in Texas and we had moved from El Paso to Southern California in the San Fernando Valley and I was the first Black cheerleader at San Fernando High School and I got pregnant, and I said, “Oh my God. What am I going to do?”

My mother and I talked about it — and this was way before Roe — and we decided I would have an abortion. She had a friend in El Paso who knew a doctor in Juarez, Mexico. I think that trip was my very first flight. I flew from Southern California to El Paso and her friend picked me up. I spent the night there. Then the next night she drove me over the border to a small back-alley clinic.

I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a light overhead and there was a doctor. I remember he was short and had a white coat on and he performed the abortion. And I was really terrified because, like now, it was illegal. I worried I would get caught and get put in jail and criminalized for it there or in Texas or California. I constantly lived with that fear, and I was actually one who survived. So many Black women died of septic abortions. That was a primary cause of death for Black women back then. So I didn’t know if I would survive or not, but that was a decision I made, and I did survive. But so many didn’t.

It was a hard decision. I grew up Catholic. But that was our personal decision. I still believe that now. No elected official or judge should intervene with personal choices on health care.

Do you think your life would have been different had you not had one?

I don’t know. I don’t really think about that. I maybe would have had to drop out of high school … I have no idea. But I know that was the right decision for me to make and we made it.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) (L) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) speak during a demonstration in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, a case about a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, on December 01, 2021 in Washington, DC. With the addition of conservative justices to the court by former President Donald Trump, experts believe this could be the most important abortion case in decades and could undermine or overturn Roe v. Wade.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) (left) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) speak during a demonstration in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

You also faced homelessness after your divorce in the 1960s from your first husband.

Well, I want to clarify: I didn’t have anywhere to live. But I was going from hotel to hotel, but not sleeping on the streets. I was going from pillar to post, sometimes just staying in lobbies. But it was really terrible. I know what that does to someone — and in such a rich country — the insecurity and the damage it does to your health, including mental health, and the damage that it does to your social network. I didn’t want anyone to know. I had friends, but I was too embarrassed to let anyone know … even my sister. I didn’t tell her or my mother. A lot of this has to do with shame and stigma. When I was on public assistance, going down to the welfare office, I didn’t want anyone to see me.

That’s why I fight so hard for people who are marginalized and who do not have access to the resources of this country and have been stigmatized: because I know those experiences.

You are running to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein. You have landed some big endorsements, from Rep. Ro Khanna and, recently, the powerful Congressman James Clyburn (D-S.C.). Why did you decide to run?

I think it’s time. It’s time to have a perspective which I bring on issues as someone that has had these life experiences and also someone who is progressive, a woman and a Black woman and has been able to get the job done and deliver for people. It’s time to have someone fighting on reproductive issues and reproductive justice and poverty who knows these experiences. And I’m a good negotiator, including with Republicans and other Democrats, to bring forward policies and get things done.

I’m a member of the WGA. I know you recently joined the picket line in support of striking writers and actors. Why was that important to you?

People deserve to have fair wages. They deserve to have health care. They deserve to be able to take care of their families. The unions are fighting for what’s right and to ensure that they are treated justly and fairly. It is important to me to stand in solidarity with the actors and writers because corporations are making billions off their brilliance. And it is essential that the people who make our entertainment possible have a say in how technology like AI is used when it affects them so dramatically.

Do you think labor unrest is going to play a significant role in the presidential election, and if so, how?

I do, and think it is for the better of our nation if the issues facing working men and women are what decide this next election. If people go out and vote for representatives who will fight for their right to organize and collectively bargain, then the undue and toxic influence corporations have on our political system will weaken. I think the strikes we are seeing — not only at film and TV studios but also at hotels, schools, airlines, and delivery companies — are showing people how important it is that they get out and vote for the people willing to stand with them and not their corporate bosses.

Representative Barbara Lee in BARBARA LEE: SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER, aka TRUTH TO POWER, 2021.
Representative Barbara Lee in the documentary Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power.

Could you weigh in on Florida’s proposed changes to how they will teach Black history in their curriculum? 

Harmful rhetoric turns into even more harmful policy, and we’re seeing that in Florida. But one thing is certain — if we don’t learn from our past, we’re bound to repeat it. If we can’t agree that there is a problem, then we’ll never agree on a solution. That’s why my legislation to establish a commission on truth, racial healing and transformation is so important. We need to educate the public on the ways that hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow still manifest in inequality today. The far right wants to turn debate into division, and we cannot let them.

Final question: Who would you want to play you in The Barbara Lee Story?

Christina Jackson is playing me in the Shirley Chisholm biopic. I went on set and it was actually like meeting me!

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Keli Goff is the Emmy-nominated producer of the doc Reversing Roe. In addition to a career covering politics, she’s been a writer on And Just Like That, Mayor of Kingstown and Black Lightning.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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