The State Of California: A Time For Truth & Reconciliation

As the nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and the fight for racial justice and police reform after the killing of George Floyd, a veteran Bay Area member of Congress is coming to the fore

Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland is not only leading the way on civil rights, now she will also have the high profile position of co-chair of California’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention, supplanting the traditional leader of that delegation, the governor. Lee has  been representing the East Bay in Congress for 22 years now. 

Q: Let’s begin with something you’ve been proposing for a while and now it seems to be gaining traction, and that is the idea of a national Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Commission, similar to what took place in South Africa after the end of apartheid. How would that work, and what do you envision that commission would do?

This commission, the “Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commision” has been something I’ve worked on for several years with activists, academics, elected officials, to really get ready to put forth this commission for the United States. Over 40 countries have had Truth and/or Reconciliation Commissions, such as South Africa or Rawanada, they put them together after horrific acts of brutality, genocide, or crimes agaainst humanity to really make sure that those victims of the atrocities have a chance to really talk about what took place. Then they can come to some form of healing and resolve, then move forward with the country in terms of the polices, programs, and funding priorities to really begin to deconstruct all of the old ways. In terms of this country it would be systematic racism, then we’d build new policies and laws based on justice and equity.

We weren’t sure when we were going to introduce this, but I think the country is ready now for this truth-telling, this is a truth-telling moment. In my district, when they saw the disproportionate rate of African Americans dying from COVID-19, when we talk about the disproportionate number of African Americans being homeless, they don’t quite connect systemic racism to 401 years ago when the horrible government institution of slavery was intistued. So we have to make the connections and show how the chains of slavery have not been brokekn yet and it’s manifested each and every day. Police murders and all of the social inequities and racial injustices, these historical traumatic moments in this country have never been put in a public space as a commission to really begin to tell the truth so the public can put a historical context to systemic racism. 

People have argued for years about the idea of the US government paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. It sounds like this commission would go way beyond that to try to achieve systemic change, but could reparations be part of what comes out of it?

We have a bill that would set up a commission to look at reparations, H.R. 40, which I fully support. When Congressman Conyers introduced it in the late ‘90s, I took that to the California Democratic Delegation, and the party actually endorsed it then. These commissions set the stage for a variety of ‘repair the damage’ types  of initiatives, reparations certainly could be one of them and should be one of the recommendations. We’re coordinating our efforts with those who are supporting a commission on reparations, but you have to have that historical context and foundation of truth-telling so that we can move forward with a variety of ways to make sure that we repair the damage, of which reparations is one.

What kind of clout do you think the commission would have? What are your expectations?

I’m not doing this, nor would I do it, if I didn't think we’d put together laws and policies to deconstruct and demolish many of the old systems in place. Policing is one of them, housing is another, we have to have a commission that’s serious about promoting systemic change through policies and programs at the federal level. That’s something we have to put on the legislative agenda, so we’d have to have a House, Senate, and White House who would support these efforts So it’s something we’ll have to build public support for in terms of the recommendations so we can move forward in terms of transformation. Also, I’m encouraging local communities to use my resolution as a road map to do some of this work at a local level now. We don’t have to wait until we have Biden in or a new Senate. I think the roadmap is there, it’s been well put together. What we have to do is look at transformation because the manifestation and systemic racism has put a system in place that won’t allow for reconciliation.

You were famously the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing military force after 9/11 and invading Afghanistan. Now you are calling for Congress to “defund the Pentagon budget.” What do you mean by that? What does that entail?

For years and years my former boss, my predecessor Ron Dellums, the day he went into Congress we started trying to re-prioritize the Pentagon budget so that we could have resources for our domestic priorities. Now, especially with COVID-19 when so many people are suffering, we need economic strategies to lift people out of poverty and make sure the domestic needs are met. When you look at the Pentagon budget, we have what they call “OCO,” we have an overseas contingency fund of $68 billion - that’s a slush fund that’s used by the Pentagon for who knows what, we don’t know. We need to get rid of that slush fund, everything the Pentagon does they should be above board and put it on budget. We don’t know where that slush fund is going, it’s probably funding these unauthorized wars. There are wars around the world that are being engaged in without authorization from Congress. We’re spending money on wars that have never been authorized, so we need to come back to the drawing board on that. $57 billion in unnecessary weapons systems that are obsolete, expensive, and being developed for a Cold War that does not exist. The Pentagon is the only agency that has never been audited, we’ve been pushing for them to adhere to an audit request for years, and they still haven’t done that. There’s a Space Force we need to cut!