During the 2020 presidential election, when millions of Americans were being bombarded with appeals to back Joe Biden or Donald Trump, Brittany Ramos DeBarros sent out a fundraising pitch that expressed displeasure with both candidates.
Writing on behalf of About Face, a network of post-9/11 veterans and active duty service members, the 31-year-old former Army captain lamented the fact that neither major party had fielded an “anti-war candidate.” According to DeBarros, who served in Afghanistan, there was no forgiving Biden for the enormous harm resulting from his initial support for open-ended warfare in the Middle East. “Many of us,” she wrote, “deployed under the Obama-Biden administration—where despite all their promises to end occupations—we witnessed their devastating expansion of militarism instead.”
On the other hand, President Trump was “doubling down on those wars, by dropping record-breaking numbers of bombs on Afghanistan and beyond,” negotiating the largest arms deal in US history, and expanding “terrifying state violence” at home, directed at police brutality protesters. Even if Biden beat Trump, DeBarros predicted, “the realities of war and militarism” would remain pretty much the same. Anti-war veterans and the larger peace movement would still need to organize against ever-increasing Pentagon budgets and new opportunities to project U.S. military force around the globe, to the detriment of social programs and the fight against climate change.
Two years later, DeBarros, a committed grassroots campaigner, has made the difficult transition from peace and social justice activism to electoral politics. In the Democratic primary for New York’s 11th Congressional District, she is challenging a former Biden Administration official and fellow veteran, Max Rose, who served in Congress between 2019 and 2021.
Despite his National Guard service during the pandemic and support for ending the US occupation of Afghanistan, Rose was defeated for re-election in the Big Apple’s most conservative House district. whose contours have been changed for the better since then, by re-districting. (It now includes parts of Brooklyn.)
Rose’s right-wing Republican opponent, State Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, claimed that his 2020 appearance at a Staten Island protest over George Floyd’s death made him a supporter of defunding the police—which he was not. A failed city-wide candidate against Mayor Bill DeBlasio in 2017, Malliotakis got 53% of the vote running for the House on her home turf three years later. Her congressional campaign was strongly backed by Trump. He derided Rose as a “puppet” of Nancy Pelosi “too weak” to represent such a solid outer-borough outpost of Trump country (which favored him over Hillary Clinton and Biden by the same large margin).
Flag Waving Terrain
Why did a left-wing Afro-Latina enlist to take on Rose, and, if she beats him on August 23, a Trump-loving incumbent in a district with many streets named after cops and firefighters killed in lower Manhattan on 9/11/2001 or residents who died in the Middle East later on, trying to settle that score? One reason is that DeBarros grew up in a military family among similar “flag-waving Americans,” although elsewhere in the country. She was raised in a “very Republican, libertarian-leaning” part of Texas, which initially made her an “evangelical neo-con crazy person.” She won a ROTC scholarship, which enabled her to attend the University of Miami and graduate as a commissioned first lieutenant in the Army.
When deployed to Afghanistan as a platoon leader and strategic communications officer in 2012-13, she believed that America was trying to make the country more secure and help Afghan women. But, she recalls, “it soon became apparent that the U.S. military was the wrong vehicle for achieving that mission.” After returning to the US, and while still serving as a captain in the Army Reserves, DeBarros attended a meeting of Veterans for Peace (VFP) in New York City. She was introduced to the organization by former Navy nurse Susan Schnall, a leading activist in the GI antiwar movement of the 1960s, who is now national president of the VFP. Two years later, DeBarros addressed a VFP convention in Spokane, raising questions that its older members have long grappled with: “How do we move from fighting each war, one by one, and begin dismantling the system that allows these wars to keep popping up? How do we get at the roots of the system?”
In the meantime, as USC Professor Michael Messner reports in his book, Unconventional Combat: Intersectional Action in the Veterans Peace Movement (Oxford University Press, 2021) her involvement with the Poor People’s Campaign and a related June 2018 speech in Washington, DC “launched DeBarros into national visibility as a leader among the next generation of anti-war veterans.” While still subject to military discipline as a reservist, she told a huge crowd that “there can be no true economic, racial or gender liberation without addressing the militarism that is strangling the morality and empathy of our society.”
After dodging a court-martial threat and being discharged from the military, she became a full-time organizer for About Face. That work focused on exposing the political influence of big military contractors and repealing congressional authorization for open-ended warfare in the Middle East. In 2020, she helped enlist hundreds of other veterans to sign an open letter urging members of the National Guard and other military units to refuse riot duty in the wake of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd. As she told Truthout, “I can say from experience that the moral cost, the cost to your soul, of following an order that you wish that you hadn’t, is far greater and far more sustained than whatever the military can do to you in the short run.”
As a Staten Island resident, DeBarros canvassed for Rose when he ran against a conservative Republican in 2018 to became the first post-9/11 combat veteran elected to the House from New York City. Jon Soltz, leader of VoteVets, hailed the former infantry officer and winner of a Purple Heart and Bronze star in Afghanistan, as “one of the most energetic and exciting candidates in the country.” But DeBarros says she was soon “turned off by his gross nationalism” and aggressive House floor criticism of a newly elected colleague, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota.
During his single term, Rose did agree to cosponsor a measure introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) that would have rescinded Congressional authorization for US military activity in Iraq. In July, 2020, he became one of the few veterans in the House to support an accelerated timetable for withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, a measure defeated by members like former Army Ranger Jason Crow (D-CO), who is backing Rose’s current bid to regain his old seat. Rose also became one of the first people on Capitol Hill from a military background to support removing the names of Confederate Army generals from US military bases.
In his primary campaign against DeBarros, Rose is once again stressing his core identity as a centrist, moderate Democrat. As such, he is much more typical of the “service candidates” we describe in our new book—politicians with backgrounds in the military or national security agencies who are recruited and funded by the party establishment, whether Democrat or Republican. Rose told the New York Times recently that “there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Democratic Party has a problem as a toxic brand. There’s a perception that the party is not on the side of working people, that it’s not on the side of the middle class.”
Rose’s claim to be a champion of working people—and more viable general election candidate—is backed up by endorsements from unions like AFGE, AFT, RWDSU, the Carpenters, and IBEW Local 3, a building trades giant in NYC. He also has the support of House Progressive Caucus luminaries like Jamie Raskin (D-MD.), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Ro Khanna (D-CA), who was a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ last presidential campaign.
De Barros is endorsed by Our Revolution (an offshoot of Sanders’ presidential campaigning), the Working Families Party, Brand New Congress, Citizen Action, NY Progressive Action Network, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Jewish Voices for Peace. Their NYC supporters are aiding her “Brittany for the People” campaign with phone-banking, door-to-door canvassing, and outreach to workers involved in Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizing on Staten Island and other local struggles. DeBarros has proven to be an adept small dollar fund-raiser, with more than $600,000 raised for her campaign so far. (As of March, Rose had a campaign war chest three times as large.) The Nation has likened her “political insurgency to that of other young leftist women of color” from working class backgrounds—like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib.
As a candidate seeking to join their Capitol Hill “Squad,” De Barros has had to trim her anti-war sails lately, in the wake of Russia’s military assault on Ukraine. In February, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) issued a statement condemning the invasion but urging the U.S. “to withdraw from NATO and to end the imperialist expansionism that set the stage for this conflict.” In a New York Times article headlined, “Socialists’ Response to War in Ukraine Alienates Some Democrats,” DeBarros, a DSA member, and other candidates associated with the group came under fire from their electoral opponents. Rose condemned the DSA statement and called for building “an even stronger NATO alliance.” According to the former Congressman, “America’s unilateral withdrawal from NATO is perhaps the most harmful, stupidest thing, foreign policy decision, that we could be considering right now,” he declared. “America has to double down on its alliances, particularly its trans-Atlantic ones.”
In a February 27 Twitter post, DeBarros argued that “Ukrainian armed defense against fascist invasion” was “justified” and that the US “should work with international partners to supply and support civil-military defense tactics.” At the same time, she cautioned against “any unilateral actions that could cost more lives in the region and escalate this to a WWIII. But that didn’t stop her from being baited by a Times reporter about her 2019 participation in an anti-NATO panel discussion sponsored by World BEYOND War.
When contacted in February, DeBarros informed the Times that she did not support US withdrawal from NATO “at this time.” As she explained further, “Now is the time to save lives, and to de-escalate the situation. If people would like to have a broader conversation about understanding how we got here and diagnosing what we need to do in order to, you know, shape a different future, then that can come once we have removed ourselves from the brink.”
Five months later, DeBarros is still fielding questions about her position, including on a recent Zoom meeting with supporters. In that discussion, she described Russia’s actions as “an imperialist invasion” and observed that some “anti-imperialist organizations act as if the U.S. is the only imperialist power.” She noted that past U.S. foreign policy decisions set the stage for the current conflict and “the only national security approach that the U.S. has invested in for decades is military force projection,” either directly or through alliances like NATO.
In Congress, of course, it hasn’t been easy for existing Squad members to challenge Pentagon spending increases, amid a bi-partisan stampede to approve an additional $54 billion for Ukrainian military aid and other forms of assistance. Only 39 Democrats, joined by 62 Republicans, voted against the latest National Defense Authorization Act when it came to a vote in the House this month; it gives the Pentagon $840 billion to spend in fiscal year 2023. One key reason for electing a proven anti-war campaigner like DeBarros is to reinforce the ranks of House members willing to stand up to a military-industrial complex now even more emboldened—and better funded—than before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.