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On Day One, Trump Opponent Goes Underground

Rep. Barbara Lee, who boycotted Trump's Inauguration, spent inauguration day preparing to battle the Trump administration.
Rep. Barbara Lee and a staffer ride the Metro to anti-Trump event on Inauguration Day
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and a staffer ride the Metro to an anti-Trump event on Inauguration Day.Alex Seitz-Wald / NBC News

What do you do on Trump’s inauguration day if you’re one of the most liberal members of Congress? You can’t burn things in the streets with the anarchists or day-drink like many despondent Democratic staffers.

If you’re California Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley and distinguished herself early in the last great era of liberal opposition by being the only member of Congress to vote against George W. Bush’s post-9/11 military authorization, you hang out with Michael Moore and prepare to go once more into the breach.

Lee is one of the 67 Democratic lawmakers who decided to boycott Trump’s swearing in. And on her very first day in #TheResistance, as Trump’s opponents have started branding themselves, she was forced to go underground. With city streets turned into a virtual police-state for the swearing in, Lee had to take the metro downtown.

“I don’t think there’s much to celebrate,” she said of the Inauguration as she rode from her D.C. condo to a counter-programming event sponsored by The Huffington Post and Bustle at the National Press Club.

Lee had flown back to D.C. the night before from California, where she had held a meeting with DREAMers who, with tears in their eyes, expressed their fears about a Trump presidency. “For me to sit there on the platform and clap and pretend like everything's normal -- I don’t think so,” she said.

Rep. Barbara Lee and a staffer ride the Metro to anti-Trump event on Inauguration Day
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and a staffer ride the Metro to an anti-Trump event on Inauguration Day.Alex Seitz-Wald / NBC News

Lee’s district includes both Oakland, the birthplace of the Blank Panthers, and Berkeley, the Mecca of left-wing activism since at least 1960s “We set the standard for the rest of the state of California, which sets the standard for the rest of the country,” she said.

It’s something Lee’s been doing for some time.

In college, she worked for Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale's Oakland mayoral campaign, and was president of the Black Student Union. She didn't vote because "I thought voting was bourgeois and I was a revolutionary," she recalled with a laugh. That changed after she met Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and worked on her 1972 presidential campaign.

Given her constituency Lee cannot be too aggressive in opposing Trump.

In November, Lee was re-elected to her 18th year in Congress with 91 percent of the vote -- a modest improvement over her 88.5 percent finish in 2014, giving her the biggest victory of any of California’s 52 members of Congress. She has been chairwoman of both the Congressional Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus.

But this administration will be very different from fighting Bush, she says. There was one issue with Bush -- the war -- while she believes opposing Trump requires a multi-front effort that will have to unite various progressive factions. "It gives us an opportunity that we did not have under Bush,” she said, hoping it will help liberals see the intersections of their various causes.

Many of Lee’s colleagues who did attend the Inauguration wore blue buttons defending Obamacare, which is just one of at least a dozen progressive accomplishments on the chopping block. But Trump just the latest fight, Lee says, from slavery to Jim Crow to Civil Rights, and she sees part of her job as bucking up liberals for battle and telling as many as possible they can’t give into discouragement.

Back above ground, protesters were attempting to block the street near the Press Club. But one recognized Lee, reached out his arm and pulled her through.

Outside, protesters were burning trash, breaking store windows, and heaving bricks at police. Inside, “Hamilton” was playing.

Ellen Page, the Canadian actress and activist, politely declined an interview request. “I’m a little emotional right now, sorry,” she said, misty eyed.

Lee joined Ashley Judd, the actress who considered a run for Kentucky Senate, for a “Fireside chat” about how to cope with have a president who has bragged about groping women. And she had a private lunch with Moore, her old friend and comrade from the Bush years, who recommended the book “Friendly Fascism” by Bertram Gross. “People think Nazis, but that's not what's going to look like here. There won't be concentration camps, everything will come with a smiley face,” he said Lee.

“A lot of people don't really understand fascism,” she agreed.

With only a few minutes left in the Obama presidency, Moore took the stage to give a speech that was part pep talk and part grief counseling. His main message: Stop whining and start doing something. “Don’t sound like a liberal!” he said. “This is how we sound,” he added, affecting a nasal whine. “They [conservatives] don’t sound like that. They’re up at 5:00 in the morning. I don’t know if they eat nails for breakfast or what... We look weak. We are weak. They beat us.” His biggest fear of Trump’s victory was that “the takeaway for young people will be, ‘why bother?’”

A few blocks away, next to a garbage fire, Ty from Florida, a young protester who declined to give his last name, said he was glad to see people “getting their hands dirty.”

“We’ve tried doing peaceful protests and resistances in the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, pretty much everything in memory since the Civil Rights Era, and it mostly just allows people to kind of mock you and deride from you afar while they go ahead and do whatever they were going to do anyway,” he said. “I just think there needs to be more people saying, f*** it, we’ve got to stand up for something and do something about it, regardless of the consequences... Whatever hasn’t been tried before.”

Lee is sympathetic to the frustration, but not the tactics. “As hard as it is to stay peaceful, violence does nothing but beget more violence,” she said.