Staff Columnist

America lost it

Remembering the Kavanaugh hearings, one year later

Ana Maria Archila poses for a portrait last October at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Archila was one of the activists seen in a viral video confronting then-Sen. Jeff Flake over his support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after the Kavanaugh hearings a year ago. (Matt McClain/Washington Post)
Ana Maria Archila poses for a portrait last October at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. Archila was one of the activists seen in a viral video confronting then-Sen. Jeff Flake over his support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after the Kavanaugh hearings a year ago. (Matt McClain/Washington Post)

The world has changed this year. It may not feel like it, but it has. The imperceptible shift is in our voices, in the anger and rage of our stories. It’s getting louder and louder and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. This week alone, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg stood in front of the U.N. and told the world that we’ve ruined the earth because we care more about money than climate. The news about President Donald Trump’s possible collusion with Ukraine on an investigation of Joe Biden’s son came to a tipping point. And Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday the Democrats are moving forward with impeachment, saying before the nation, “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of integrity of our elections.”

It’s hard to know exactly when we broke. When we decided enough was enough. When someone had to stand up, someone had to say something, someone had to put their lives on the line. But I think I know what day it was.

Sept. 27, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from both Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her at a high school party when they were teenagers. Ford recalled the events calmly, even as she looked pale and tired. She didn’t want to be there, but she felt she had to be. Kavanaugh was furious, calling himself the victim.

We might lose the fight, but at least we are trying. At least we are pushing back, making our voices heard, at least we are sharing. At least we are doing something, anything. And in the doing, we will create space for change, even if we don’t create the change itself.

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In the end, Kavanaugh was confirmed. And Ford has been the target of vicious attacks and still remains in hiding, even a year later.

But I know we broke that day, because of what happened on Sept. 28, 2018. That was the day activists Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher stopped Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator and asked him to look at them, to tell them that what had happened to them didn’t matter, that the stories of people who have been victimized don’t matter.

Archila wasn’t supposed to be outside Flake’s office that day. Archila told me in an interview Tuesday that she spent the whole week protesting outside the Kavanaugh hearings and the night before had been in jail for protesting outside the White House. She was tired and missed her children.

She went to Flake’s office just to show Gallagher how to get there through the tunnels. She had her suitcase with her and she was ready to leave for her train. As she stood talking to Gallagher, two reporters stood nearby. They huddled around their phones looking at some breaking news. Flake had issued a statement supporting Kavanaugh. Archila felt defeated. She turned to leave. But then, she saw Flake coming out of the side door of his office, running for the elevator. She ran toward him, Gallagher following behind.

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“I wasn’t prepared to tell my story, but I just had to,” she said of the confrontation. “I had to.” Archila has spent her whole life as an activist, helping immigrants and sexual assault survivors. But she hadn’t shared her own story of assault, her own story of survival.

She ducked under the reporters’ cameras and looked Flake in the face.

What happened next was captured on a video that went viral. Everyone saw her and Gallagher stand in that elevator doorway and demand that he answer for his support of Kavanaugh.

I watched that video on Twitter. And that’s the moment I knew we had been broken open. I sat down on my bed and cried. I remembered my own assault. One that until that day, I had never spoken about. Never told anyone, but was still there with me.

Archila says she didn’t even know that the reporters were filming her and Gallagher live until she left the building and went to do a television interview with Univision.

“The people that first came to my mind were my parents. I texted my father afterward and I said to him, ‘You’re going to hear something that we haven’t talked about. I want you to know that I am OK.’ The reason why I had never told him was because I felt like he would feel pain and guilt and feel responsible. He said, precisely, ‘I’m sorry I was not able to protect you.’ It was confirming every fear.

The interviewer showed her the video, but it didn’t hit Archila until later that this moment was big. In response to her video, women began contacting her. She had close to 400 followers on Twitter before the video, and within 24 hours, she had 40,000. A lot of them were people saying, “Me too.”

“I especially saw this woman, some woman who said, ‘I’m in my 80s, and I told my story for the first time, and you’re giving me life,’” said Archila. She said she kept it together until a friend of hers texted to thank her, on behalf of his daughters.

“That was when I lost it,” said Archila.

It was when we all lost it. And I’m glad we’ve lost it. I’m happy we’ve let go of trying to keep it together. Glad we’ve decided enough was enough, time to act. It might be too late and we might not go far enough. We might lose the fight, but at least we are trying. At least we are pushing back, making our voices heard, at least we are sharing. At least we are doing something, anything. And in the doing, we will create space for change, even if we don’t create the change itself.

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Archila notes of that moment in the elevator that it wasn’t just about her or about Gallagher, it was about everyone: “The act of storytelling is an effort to get people to understand a collective experience through the eyes of one, through the experience of one person. I saw that happening very much in the halls of Congress during the Kavanaugh fight. It was like every time someone told their story, it was like it was new, and it was old, and we all understood who we are so much more. That again and again and again, an endless this is me, this is us, this is me, this is us.”

Comments: 319-398-8513; lyz.lenz@thegazette.com

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