Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg Reflects on Her Film & Barbara Lee’s Career of Speaking Truth to Power

Photo courtesy of Speaking Truth to Power

When the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan in 2001 with the stated goal of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, people who opposed a military reaction to the September 11th attacks found it difficult to voice their opinions. Corporate media outlets were beating the drum for war. They didn’t widely report that the Taliban were willing to give up Osama bin Laden to the U.S. if given proof of his guilt, or that neoconservatives were pushing George Bush, Jr. to implement their plan for regime change throughout the region. And so the invasions and occupations went forward.

After 20 years and $21 trillion spent on the “War on Terror”, a reckoning is revealing what many opponents warned from the beginning: waging war around the world does not make Americans any safer, waging peace does. Representative Barbara Lee of California was one of those opponents. She was the lone voice in Congress who voted against authorizing the President to wage war without Congressional approval. Peabody award winning filmmaker Abby Ginzberg has released her film “Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” about Representative Lee just in time to amplify this leading voice for global peace and security.

In her film, Abby features many aspects of Barbara Lee and how she came to be who she is today. We learn of her experience with racism as a girl growing up in El Paso, Texas, seeing that from the beginning, she was a fighter. Barbara wanted to be a cheerleader but was denied the opportunity because she was black. So she worked with the local NAACP chapter to integrate her high school cheerleading squad. We also learn about how Barbara got into politics and dedicated herself to her local constituents on a variety of issues.

I interviewed Abby in the flurry of the film’s release and spoke with her about why she chose to direct the film.

Abby Ginzberg

ABBY GINZBERG: Today is September 10th, and we are one day away from the 20th anniversary of the events that led to Barbara’s vote. I would say that the media has kind of woken up to her notoriety around that no vote. It wasn’t planned quite this way, but the film could not have asked to be released at a better time. I’m happy about it.

One of the reasons I made the film is because there were a lot of people around the country who had never heard of Barbara Lee. They may have known that there was one person who voted no on the AUMF (authorization for the use of military force), but they don’t know that she’s an African American woman who represents Oakland, California. So that was one of the reasons I made the film.

STEPHANIE WELCH, BIONEERS RADIO SENIOR PRODUCER: So tell us more about who Representative Barbara Lee is, and about the significance of her vote.

ABBY: Barbara Lee is my congresswoman. She represents Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro in the East Bay in California, across the way from San Francisco. She’s been in Congress since 1998 and has been one of its most progressive members.

Rep. Barbara Lee

Obviously, I knew about her “no” vote, and I knew that it was a vote of courage and morality. She was able to kind of take a breath when the rest of the country was in a kind of ridiculously feverish retaliatory mood. I thought her ability to find that peace and calm inside herself, to know what she felt she should do, was remarkable. So that provided some of the initial inspiration for me, but there is a lot more to her that justified doing a profile of her.

Let me say she was not a willing subject. Every time she saw me, I felt like she was greeting her dentist who was there with a drill to do a root canal. I mean, it was ridiculous. She really didn’t want to be followed by a camera. She didn’t want to have a mic on her, etc. So it took her a long time to warm up to the fact that I was going to make this movie come hell or high water, so she might as well cooperate.

What she says about it in retrospect is, “I think it took Abby twice as long to make the film as it would have had I cooperated more fully in the beginning,” which is true. But the timing is right, you know, all things happen for a reason.

There’s a piece in today’s Politico where they interviewed 17 people who were all involved in creating national security policy, etc., in the post 9-11 world, and among the things that they say in retrospect is ‘we wish we had taken a breath’. That was really what Barbara was asking for, if you listen to her speech on the floor of Congress when she is about to vote no. What she is saying is, let us take a moment; this is not the time for Congress to be giving up its war-making authority or its ability to approve war that the president’s trying to get us into. This is a time to take stock of where we are and proceed more deliberately moving into the future. Well, that is not what happened.

What happened is everybody but Barbara voted in favor of giving unlimited military authority to President Bush and to every president since. It’s still on the books. Barbara’s been fighting what started out as a very lone battle to get people to see the error of their ways. She’s finally been able to pass the repeal of the 2002 AUMF through the Democratic House, which is what the Bush administration used to take us into Iraq.

It’s been slow and steady, and as she would say, drip, drip, drip, drip. You just have to keep fighting, and eventually if you’re right, people are going to see the error of their ways and eventually join you. That has been, I would say, the lesson from her position vis-à-vis 9-11. She is not an I-told-you-so person. If you were interviewing her how she feels 20 years later, she would say, “As sad as I did on the day I voted no.” Because we’ve lost so many thousands of American and Afghani and Iraqi lives, and the women that are still left there that we weren’t able to get out, and translators, etc. She’s still mourning for both the lives lost 20 years ago and the mess on the ground that we have walked away from today.

STEPHANIE: In your film, you feature interviews with some of her fellow Congresspeople who didn’t vote with her. They voiced regret looking back now.

ABBY: Yes, and I was surprised. There are two points in the film that I think are worth highlighting there. One is when John Lewis said, I was really worried about her future, but in retrospect, I wish I’d voted with her. I should have been with her. And he voted the right way against the invasion of Iraq. And Lynn Woolsey said, if only one or two of us would have voted with her, it would have defused all this hatred and negative energy that landed in Barbara’s inbox and mailbox and kind of on her head.

It was very scary for her and her family right after 9/11 because people were writing to her and saying things like “You’re a terrible traitor”, “You don’t understand what’s going on in this country”, “How can we trust you”, and so on. She literally had to have 24-hour security services provided for her. She couldn’t travel. She was in Washington for weeks on end before she could come home.

None of it made her feel like she wished she had voted differently. But it took a while before the support letters came in. She received a heavy dose of hate mail and death threats. And her sisters were getting death threats.

Then it got better when people had a little more distance and were able to see that maybe Barbara was actually the one who understood what was going on in this country better than some other people.

STEPHANIE: You show a beautiful scene where everyone comes out in support of her in Oakland. Everybody’s there cheering her on. You’ve been in the Bay Area since 1972, which has been such a nexus for the peace movement. I remember the massive turnout against the invasion of Iraq War, which was unprecedented as it took place before the invasion occurred. We don’t see that level of mobilization against U.S. military action, even though they are engaged in many countries with drone strikes and forcing crippling sanctions on them. What is your reflection on where the peace movement is now?

ABBY: That’s a good question. It’s like, okay, which of the current disasters that we’re living through are we going to be on the streets about next? I just got a thing from the Women’s March saying they’re on the streets October 2nd, you better be with us around reproductive rights. I thought that fight was over back in 1973-74.

I would say that Barbara’s point of view is that we should always try to find a non-military solution to situations in which we claim we have enemies, a lot of people believe that, and after 20 years of not having been able to “eliminate the Taliban,” we need to figure out some other non-violent, non-military answers to the questions of how there’s going to be coexistence in this world without us blowing each other up.

I’m not really in some ways the right person to ask because I’m such a peacenik. Barbara says she’s not a pacifist. I think largely I am. Barbara grew up in a military family, I didn’t. I think I have kind of a little bit less regard for the military than Barbara does. I cut my teeth because I went to college when I was 17 as an anti-war demonstrator against the Vietnam War, and I’ve been in the streets ever since on anti-war issues. We’re in a complicated position when you’ve got a democratic president who’s really trying to kind of do the right thing in term of ending military presence in Afghanistan. Barbara’s very supportive of the idea that we had to get out of there, even though she too would critique how many people we left behind unnecessarily.

I think the peace movement is probably alive and well, and a little bit dormant at this point, but I think scratch the surface of the Bay Area and we’ll be out on the streets next time we have to oppose a military intervention.

STEPHANIE: Being in the Bay Area, you watched Representative Lee’s career, and portrayed beautifully how she evolved over the years, especially her mentorship with Ron Dellums.

ABBY: Yes, I’ve been a constituent of Barbara’s since I moved to the East Bay in 1992, so the entire time she’s been in elected office, she’s had my vote, both in the California Assembly and California state Senate, and in Congress. But you forget who somebody is when they start out, so some of those images of her early in her career, she seems so young and inexperienced. It’s less like a constituent and more as a filmmaker that I was like wow, she was young, and just kind of green about how do you get elected, and how am I going to do this. And I don’t drink, so my mother has to go to the bars with my sister and try to get me a few votes over a couple of beers, or whatever. So I appreciated being able to piece that together without having an active memory of what those days were like.

One thing that I was unhappy about, and there was nothing to do about it, was that once I was ready to interview Ron Dellums, which was sometime in 2018, he was already sick. I didn’t know it at the time. For nine months to a year, I would tell him every time I was coming to DC, and he would write back and say, I really don’t feel up to it. And I would just have to respect that. I feel like I missed my opportunity to get him on camera.

But I had to find a way to put him in the film and to let people know who he was, because for people who don’t know Barbara, they might not know who Ron Dellums is either. She never speaks about him without calling him Our Beloved Ron Dellums, and her mentor, and he really was. Barbara was a young, barely-out-of-college intern in his office where she first cut her teeth, and one of the very few black women on Capitol Hill at that point, and the fact that Ron had total faith in her and would take her anywhere or send her anywhere by herself really enabled her to kind of learn how the game works and to learn how to play it. I had to tell that part of the story, that she learned from one of the best.

One of the things that’s not in the film but I’ve heard her say many times since, is one of the lessons I learned from Ron was not to hit below the belt. Don’t turn people into enemies. If you can oppose somebody or create a point of difference, that’s fine, but don’t go out of your way to “one-up” them or put them down because it will come back to bite you. This is something I knew as a constituent of Ron’s.

He was a statesman. It helped that he was 6’4 and good-looking and had a commanding voice. Barbara is shorter than I am. She’s maybe five feet. She doesn’t have his stature in terms of height or presence or whatever, but she is channeling so many important lessons she learned from him, and that’s made her so much more effective than she might otherwise have been. Because he was somebody who was also said try to find common ground wherever you can with whoever you can. And Barbara’s strategy is, If you can join me in creating an international AIDS program and putting $15 billion into Africa, I’m going to stand with you even if you don’t agree with me on anything else. If you want to stand with me on the AUMF, I will stand with you even though we don’t agree on anything else.

Ron really paved the way for that type of legislative strategy; find your allies where you can and don’t worry about all the other issues that you disagree on.

STEPHANIE: Sadly, those below-the-belt tactics are everywhere in politics today.

ABBY: Yes, but not Barbara. She does not get down and dirty. As a result, she has a level of respect in Congress from others that is very deep. I think the reason so many members of the black Congressional Caucus and well-known members of Congress were willing to be in this film is because they respect her, and wanted to go on record saying that, and they learned from her and admired her, etc. Everybody from John Lewis to Ayanna Pressley to AOC and Gregory Meeks and so on talked to me.

STEPHANIE: You included the wonderful history about her and Oakland politics, just as she was getting started. Tell us about that part of her life and how dedicated she is to her local constituents?

ABBY: Barbara may not be as unique today as she was back then, but there are a couple of things that make her a little different. She went to graduate school as a social worker, and she went to Mills College a little bit later in life, so she probably didn’t start until she was in her early 20s. Barbara was a single mother on welfare with two kids trying to go to college where she did not have enough money for daycare and had to take her kids with her to class. That’s part of the story.

The other part of the story is that she was a local community activist working with the Black Panther party as part of their food program, which she bagged chickens and made sure people had enough to eat, and oversaw the distribution of shoes, bags of food, etc. It was part of what the Black Panther party was doing to take care of people’s needs in Oakland where the government was absolutely not responding at all. That’s how we got the George Jackson Free Clinic and sickle-cell testing and so on. Barbara was there on the ground. She wasn’t a member of the Black Panther Party but she was a community worker with them.

Barbara Lee protesting against nuclear weapons. Photo courtesy of “Speaking Truth to Power.”

That taught her a lot about community organizing, and later it became a really important base for her work on the Shirley Chisholm presidential campaign. It came to her as a bit of a surprise, but Shirley asked her if she was registered to vote, and she says, “Nah, I don’t believe in the system. I don’t believe in the Republicans. I don’t believe in the Democrats. No, I’m not registered to vote.” And Shirley says to her, “Little girl, you can’t even talk to me about working on my campaign unless you’re registered to vote, because unless you’re registered to vote, you’re not playing a real role in all of this.” So Barbara bit the bullet, registered to vote, went on and worked in the Shirley Chisholm campaign, and then became aware of the importance of voting, running for office, having somebody who reflects your values be the person you get to vote for. Because that was not typical back in those days, and I think just by stomping for Shirley and getting people registered to vote so they could vote in the primary where Shirley ran, etc., all that had a profound effect on Barbara and enabled her to see how she could have an inside and outside game at the same time; that she could be organizing and still protesting the things she thought weren’t going in the right direction, or if the Democrats sort of took a wrong position, she didn’t have to go along to get along.

I think the Shirley campaign made a difference in Barbara’s political life, and gave her a vision of what it would mean to run as a black woman. One of the themes that is embedded in the film from the beginning but has now emerged as something people talk about – this is a quote from Ayanna Pressley in the film. “The people closest to the pain should be the people closest to the power.” What that means is if you’re a black woman there are things in your life experience that are going to help you be a better legislator than somebody else who has not suffered being unhoused, who has not suffered ever being on welfare, who did not need a government loan to buy a house, etc. All of the things that Barbara went through helped coalesce around the kind of legislative agenda she first went for and then enacted in the California legislature and then took with her to Washington.

Every time the Republicans try to cut SNAP benefits from food stamp recipients, Barbara is there to say it was incredible help to me; it was a bridge over troubled water. Do not do this. This is not about people looking to be on food stamps, these are people who need help at a certain time in their lives, and if we help them, then what happened to me is I finally get on my own two feet and I’m able not to have to be on food stamps again. She had the food stamp experience. She had a federal loan. She went to college on various loans, etc. She’s a recipient of some government largess that she is fighting like hell to kind of keep in the budgets.

One of the things she is absolutely fierce about is the notion in the new infrastructure bill there should be money for childcare because she knows just how incredibly complicated it was to try to raise her children with no help.

I think it’s critical. But I think you listen differently. I would be fighting for that if I was in Congress as well, but I wouldn’t be able to say, “And when I was a young mother, I couldn’t afford daycare.” I had daycare or I wouldn’t have been able to work. It was as big of an issue in my life as it was in Barbara’s but I had saved enough money that I could actually pay for it.

I just feel like that point about lived experience, having faced challenges, and what that enables you to both say and the moral center that you then bring with you in a legislative body is really important.

STEPHANIE: And working with Bush on AIDS relief, you included that in the film.

ABBY: This goes to Barbara’s willingness to work across the aisle and find common cause around whatever the issue is. One of the things that Van Jones says in the film is, “Her relationship with President George Bush should be one for the history books because she was the only person who stood up against him on the 9-11 AUMF and she is the person who essentially got him to agree to look into and ask for in the State of the Union a $15 billion president’s emergency plan for AIDS relief in Africa.” Van’s point is that it doesn’t matter to her if you’re a Republican or a Democrat if she can get you to do the right policy thing. It was a heavy lift, and it turns out that when Bush decided he was really going to look into this and see if he could really support the creation of this new program, he did it on the low down. People were sworn to secrecy. So the people on his staff and around him in the cabinet who were working on this were not allowed to talk about it.

You meet Walter Jones in my film. He was a die hard NRA supporter, basically a really tried and true Republican, but once he got sick of writing condolence letters to members of his district that were being killed in foreign wars all around the world, he said, “I’ve got to do something about this,” and he essentially joined with Barbara early on, not in the last three years. He said, “I have now seen the errors of my ways,” and as he says in the film, “I don’t blame President Bush, I blame myself.” That’s profound.

She just sent me a picture of Walter Jones that she found where they’re both listening to testimony that related to not supporting this anymore. Kudos to Walter Jones. He’s passed now, but he could not wait to talk to me because he had so much admiration and respect for Barbara, and for their ability to work together even though they were literally coming from the most progressive and most conservative ends of Congress, and they had to meet in the middle.

STEPHANIE: You have the clip of Lynn Woolsey who encourages her to speak up about those experiences.

ABBY: Yes, Barbara had to be pushed. What she would say is this was part of her personal life; she’s not used to sharing parts of her personal life, therefore, she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. And Lynn Woolsey said, “Well, if you and I don’t talk about it, since we’re the two welfare mothers here, who’s going to?” And that motivated Barbara to just let it go and start talking about it.

STEPHANIE: Also her experience with domestic violence?

ABBY: She was a victim of domestic violence. That led her to want to put the bill in on the Violence Against Women Act in California, and she got Pete Wilson, who was a Republican governor, to sign it. That was important.

Many of the issues that she has been most forceful on have come directly from her own experiences, and the difference between then and now is that she is happy to talk about how those experiences affect how we should be looking at these issues from a social perspective. So kudos to her for feeling comfortable enough to speak out about it.

STEPHANIE: You talk about her work with the Black Panthers, who were opposing police violence and the criminalization of black people, and in the course making your film, the George Floyd murder happened. You were able to include that.

ABBY: Barbara is seen in Milwaukee at a barber shop that employs formerly incarcerated men who’ve been taught barber skills in prison. She and her colleague, Gwen Moore, who represents Milwaukee, are looking for programs that work to lift people out of poverty.

One of the reasons we have mass incarceration in this country today is because of the long sentences that came along with marijuana arrests. And so now, even as we’re going state by state and marijuana is no longer illegal, etc., there are huge numbers of black and brown people who are in prison based on old marijuana laws. Barbara’s been trying to change the rules around cannabis and cannabis legislation and punishment.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee speaks in front of Oakland City Hall, Friday, June 5, 2020, during a solidarity George Floyd protest event. (Photo by Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

And, yes, there’s a direct line between the Panthers calling out all-white racist police people in the city of Oakland whose entire training had been to essentially hate and gun down black people who were all over the city of Oakland, so it felt like an occupied town. And what’s happened with Sandra Bland and George Floyd and the number of other people. I would just say Barbara’s been on the right side of that debate from the beginning. I don’t know if she’s had any position on defunding the police, but she would certainly support alternative methods of intervention when you’ve got someone having a psychiatric break. Don’t call people with loaded guns to try to quell that situation. That’s not who’s needed. And as a social worker, she’d be the first to say you need someone with mental health experience to try to intervene.

So, yes, she’s been on the issue of mass incarceration. She’s certainly been on the issue to try to end police brutality and trying to find better means for dialogue between communities and those who are members of the police force. Oakland’s police force itself has been under a federal order for probably 20 years, and they’re just about maybe to get released from it, but God help us, because I don’t think they’ve totally learned their lesson yet.

And just a shout out to Thelton Henderson who had the Oakland Riders case for so many years. I’ve also made a film about Thelton. One of the things that he did was really forced a level of accountability, whether it was the Oakland Police Department or the California prison medical care system, to show up every month in his office and tell them whether or not they had accomplished the next set of goals, and often they had not. So having a federal judge who’s up to his own neck in trying to monitor the changes that had been part of whatever the judicial decree has been, he’s now retired and I don’t know exactly how the next round of oversight has been happening. But I would say that he, like Barbara, was a true role model in how to affect change. Part of that change is to force accountability, and she was really trying to do that with the Oakland Police Department.

STEPHANIE: I know you weren’t able to include this in your film, but Barbara Lee is also very passionate about environmental issues as well.

ABBY: Yes. What you can’t do in a film is everyone’s issue list. It has to all somehow relate back to the big picture you’re painting. But I would say Barbara is a total environmentalist. She’s championing the Green New Deal, and working hard to support those who are leading the fight.

One of the things that is interesting about Barbara is her ability—and it’s one of the things about what it means to represent Oakland—there is a way in which sometimes what we see in Oakland is essentially the canary in the coal mine. For example, on the AIDS crisis, when everybody thought it was just a white gay male disease, and Barbara was hearing from all members of the black community that it had infiltrated the black community, both men and women, gay and straight, her reaction was, okay, we need to understand there is a race-specific effect here that we need to call out. I tell that story in the film. But it would be true whether it’s about changes that need to happen in the tech industry, she is sensitive to the lack of diversity that is going on in all those big players, between Facebook and Twitter and whoever else. It’s not like she’s looking for the angle, the angle finds her, because it’s going to derive, to some extent, from her community in Oakland.

So the negative effects of climate change, what does it mean that there is more asthma among the African American and Latino community in Oakland? It means there are less protections in terms of air pollution, etc., and we are seeing the effects in the health of young kids. We see this with lead poisoning. The things Barbara is going to call out first are going to be the disparate impacts on communities of color in her district, and from that we often end up with progressive views and legislation and whatever about how to deal with these issues around the country.

For example, in the reproductive rights fight that we’re in the middle of, Barbara is really concerned about how poor women of color are being denied. Correctly, she could assume that wealthy white women are going figure out how to get an abortion even if they have to drive for a day or fly for a few hours or whatever, but what’s going to happen to African American and Latino women in Texas? It’s going to be terrible. That is going to be her focus, because they are the most heavily impacted. So much of her experience is reflected in their experience, and therefore this is kind of the platform that she speaks from.

So, people may know who Barbara Lee is, they may not. Someone just wrote a piece about a Civil Rights icon. Whatever. This is her moment because of 9-11. She was right and so many others were wrong. But she is not in an I-told-you-so moment. She’s in a moment of sad reflection. We should thank her for her vision. She had vision and understood that this would not have a good outcome, and she was right.

“Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power” is available on Amazon Prime.

More films by Abby Ginzberg:

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