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In Defense Of Representative Barbara Lee

The more unlikely an event, the more information it yields, the maxim goes. That is our reaction to Rep. Barbara Lee's (D-Ca.) decision to vote against the resolution authorizing President Bush's use of "all necessary and appropriate force" – military action plus – in response to last week's terrorist attack against the U.S.

Unfortunately, Rep. Lee's vote has not been viewed in a similar light by many political observers, media professionals and American citizens across the country.

But Rep. Lee's position was not only reasonable, it was appropriate and logical considering the political context out of which Rep. Lee operates.

The Congresswoman sits in the seat of former Black Caucus member Ron Dellums. Dellums, who served California's 9th district for almost 3 decades, was a pacifist and an outspoken critic of U.S. military action, as were many of his constituents who live in both Oakland and Berkeley. Rep. Lee was Congressman Dellums' chief of staff and succeeded him.

True to that tradition, Rep. Lee has made a political statement regarding not just her own personal beliefs but the political tradition of her constituency which was both reflected and shaped by Rep. Dellums. The Dellums legacy alone justifies and explains the Congresswoman's vote, not to mention the fact that Rep. Lee was reelected last year with 85% of the vote.

A source within the Black Caucus told yesterday, "Rep. Lee does have a mandate by sitting in her seat - Congressman Dellums' old seat. She represents her district well, whose sentiments have traditionally leaned toward diplomacy. Her constituents definitely support her"

But nationally the story has been different. The Congresswoman has received fierce opposition from many across the country. In addition, Rep. Lee has received death threats as a result of her vote and is currently carrying out her legislative duties in Washington D.C. under the watchful eye of a personal bodyguard and police protection.

Those who oppose her action in our estimation are not weighing the context and rationale for her decision but even more importantly, are not considering the enormous value of this Black Congresswoman. At a time when the country is grieving over the tremendous loss of life and angry over the effects of the terrorist attack on this country, Rep. Lee, fully aware of the consequences of her position, decided to vote her conscience and use whatever influence she has in a manner that promotes clear thinking and reasoning at a time when it would be just as easy to jump on a bandwagon without knowing why the majority was correct.

This is not to say that the 420 who voted in the opposite direction of Rep. Lee are necessarily wrong. And that is our point, which also reveals the inestimable value of Rep. Lee's position. No one in Congress really knows the details of what happened on September 11th or what led up to it. Even the supposed link to Ussama Bin laden, though suspected, has not been proven yet. This is not a mere inconvenience but a critical aspect to the search for justice and peace and the effort to win international support against the perpetrators of the WTC and Pentagon attacks. As the Wall St. Journal wrote yesterday in a front-page article:

By the standards of the Old West, President Bush has good reason to declare Osama bin Laden wanted in last week's terrorist attacks, "dead or alive."

But by 21st-century Western standards of law and international relations, how much actual evidence do investigators have of Mr. bin Laden's involvement? The answer so far -- based on what can be gleaned from public statements and U.S. officials willing to discuss the matter -- is not enough.

The Congresswoman's vote represents the most visible symbol of patience, caution, critical thinking, and we dare say, investigation and diplomacy in the U.S. Congress. Her action speaks louder than words; and the statistic of a 420 - 1 vote is more articulate than any speech that Rep. Lee could have made because it causes one to wonder why 1 person out of 421 has decided to lean against the wind.

She is actually a majority of 1 - a tangible factor of power - who really represents a broad but not yet visible coalition of Americans: Liberals, Conservatives, Progressives, Libertarians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Confucianists, Buddhists, and Atheists who privately hold serious reservations about the rapid movement toward war in this country led by the American political, military, economic and cultural establishmentarians.

That Rep. Lee is not alone in the U.S. Congress is no big secret. Privately, we have learned of several members of Congress, including other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who agree with Rep. Lee but were not willing to publicly demonstrate that fact. For various reasons other members of Congress could not muster the courage to rally to Rep. Lee's side and vote their beliefs.

Had the vote been 421-0 as it easily could have been, the story would have been written that this was another great display of national unity at a time of crisis. The media which has been a patriotic cheerleader as much as it has provided news, would have comfortably tucked the unanimous vote, had it occurred, in its newly-created "unprecedented unity" file and everyone would have gone about their business. But because Rep. Lee placed a comma where a period would have went, we all have had to pause as a result of the fact that someone disagreed with the popular view.

We have been told by those within the Congressional Black Caucus that no one should expect to see Rep. Lee on Meet The Press, 20/20 or 60 Minutes. Her personality and principles do not encourage her to seek lights, camera and action in order to promote her dissidence. We have been told that she realizes that any mainstream media appearance in the current political atmosphere would lend itself to polarization and her own political "demonization" (she is already being referred to as a communist by many). Some may think that Rep. Lee's low profile is unfortunate but the more we consider it, we realize the wisdom and benefit from such a disposition.

Rep. Lee's vote speaks louder than words that could only be diminished by those who would either unintentionally or maliciously misinterpret her vote as a sign of treason or even more ridiculously, as a statement of support for terrorism. By voting and quietly explaining her vote Rep. Lee has ensured that the political establishment of this country did not shut the door on an open, frank and reflective discussion of the who, what, where, when and why of September 11.

We all owe her a debt of gratitude for that, although some may realize it later than others...

Cedric Muhammad
September 20, 2001

Please read Hip-Hop opinion leader Davey D's exclusive and insightful interview with Rep. Lee at

Here is Rep. Lee's statement regarding her vote:


I rise today with a heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and loved ones who were killed and injured this week. Only the most foolish or the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped our people and millions across the world.

This unspeakable attack on the United States has forced me to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction.

September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States.

This resolution will pass although we all know that the President can wage a war even without it. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let's step back for a moment and think through the implications of our action today so that it does not spiral out of control.

I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful memorial service today. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore."

Thursday, September 20, 2001

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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