Moment that mattered: Christine Blasey Ford testifies against Brett Kavanaugh before the senate judiciary committee
On 27th September 2018, Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Justice Brett Kavanaugh both testified to the senate judiciary committee in Washington DC, over the former’s allegations of sexual assault by the supreme court nominee. But the following day there was drama too, when a Republican senator who had announced he intended to support Kavanaugh’s nomination was confronted in a lift by two survivors of sexual assault, who demanded he re-evaluate his decision – with the whole encounter caught on camera. In DG #32 we spoke to one of those women, Ana Maria Archila, who is co-executive director of The Center for Popular Democracy, about her experience in the spotlight at a crucial moment for US politics
27th September 2018 (Taken from: #32)
On 27th September, Ana Maria Archila was moved to tears while watching Christine Blasey Ford tell her story of an alleged historic sexual assault by supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the senate judiciary committee. “I had a very visceral reaction seeing Dr Ford describe in excruciating detail what happened to her,” says the activist at progressive advocacy organisation The Center for Popular Democracy. Twenty-four hours later Archila unexpectedly found herself at the centre of the story when footage of her and fellow activist Maria Gallagher confronting Senator Jeff Flake in a lift became an iconic moment in a confirmation battle that exposed the country’s political and cultural divisions.
By the day of Ford’s testimony Archila and her colleagues had already been in Washington DC for a week. They had come to protest against the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, who earlier in the month had been accused of sexual assault by Ford, a charge he denied. The activists’ tactic was personally to confront senators – who were due to vote the day after Ford’s testimony on whether to confirm the conservative judge – with their own stories of experiencing sexual violence.
While watching Ford’s testimony, in which the 51-year-old psychology professor detailed an alleged incident from the early 1980s when both she and Kavanaugh were teenagers, Archila reflected on her own experience of sexual assault as a five-year-old. “I felt a lot of pain and anger listening to Dr Ford,” she recalls. “I felt extremely emotionally charged and it made me cry and think about my own experience.”
Having told the senate hearing that she was “terrified” and had “agonised daily” over her decision to speak out – which she said she considered a “civic duty” – Ford read out a prepared statement before answering questions from Democratic senators and Arizona sex-crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, who had been asked by Republican senators to ask questions on their behalf. “I was so angry that Republicans were hiding themselves behind the female prosecutor,” says Archila. “Dr Ford’s testimony was so powerful,” she continues. “It was both incredibly composed and very emotional. Her answers were so scientific and technical it felt in some ways like she was both telling her story and analysing her experience as an outside expert.”
After Ford’s testimony Archila joined a group of activists in front of the supreme court. “Everyone was exhausted and it started raining really hard,” she remembers. “We decided in that moment that we would block the street in front of the supreme court and express our frustration.”
Later that day Judge Kavanaugh answered senators’ questions. He strongly denied that he had ever sexually assaulted anyone and appeared frustrated by questions about his drinking habits in his younger days. He said that stories told by former classmates that he was frequently drunk and sometimes blacked out were false.
Archila missed the entire thing. “I was in jail!” she says with a laugh. “They arrested us [for blocking the road] at around 2pm. But I saw snippets of his testimony later after we were released. There was such a contrast with Dr Ford, who described an excruciating and humiliating experience [which she said she had suffered]. He came to defend his honour and his masculinity. His were tears of ‘How dare you question me?’ and ‘How dare you threaten my privilege and power?’ He could have chosen to handle it sensitively, but what I saw was his sense of incredible entitlement and an unwillingness to engage with any kind of humility.”
Kavanaugh’s testimony was criticised by detractors for what they considered an inappropriately partisan display – he called Democratic leaders “evil” and said Ford’s accusations were “a calculated and orchestrated political hit”. Yet his supporters applauded the defiant anger of a man whose reputation they believed had been unfairly dragged through the mud. His confirmation still seemed assured. The protesters’ slim hopes of derailing it hinged on Republican senator Jeff Flake, a swing voter who had shown hints of concern about the character of his party’s nominee. On the morning of the vote Archila decided to try to reach Flake one last time. She was joined by Maria Gallagher, a 23-year-old activist she’d never met before.
“On the way Maria was asking me if it’s OK to call Flake a jerk to his face,” Archila says. “I told her we probably wouldn’t meet him, but if we did she should just speak from the heart. When we got to Flake’s office we found out from reporters that he had just put out a statement saying he would support Kavanaugh, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s over, I’m leaving.’”
Then the senator appeared. “He was running to get to the elevator and we were all running behind him,” Archila says. “And by the time we caught up with him the adrenaline of running – and the emotional energy of the previous 24 hours – fuelled what happened next. I just felt such indignation that he was acting so cowardly – putting out the statement and then running away from everyone.”
With her back pressed against the open lift door and CNN cameras broadcasting the encounter live, Archila confronted the senator, who largely stared at the ground throughout the four-minute exchange, saying almost nothing. She explained that Ford’s experience had moved her to tell her own story of assault for the first time. Then Gallagher addressed the visibly uncomfortable senator, demanding he look at her while she spoke: “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me… You’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them.”
She had never uttered the words ‘I was sexually assaulted’ until that moment”
“Maria Gallagher had never uttered the words ‘I was sexually assaulted’ until that moment,” says Archila. “She had never talked to an elected official before. And it was she who said to Flake, ‘Look at me. Don’t look away.’”
With the nation’s focus on the key swing voter, the raw exchange became headline news. The pair were hailed as heroes by liberal commentators and attacked by conservatives. The media attention, however, created a intensely difficult situation neither woman had prepared for. “I realised my parents [who didn’t know about her historic sexual assault] would see the footage so I furiously texted my dad,” Archila says. “I wrote, ‘You’re going to hear something in the news that we’ve never spoken about before and I want you to know that I’m OK.’ Maria’s mom found out [about her assault] on the TV and called her in tears. It was brutal for both of us.”
Later that day Jeff Flake made a dramatic 11th-hour proposal at the senate committee. He used his power to secure a one-week delay on Kavanaugh’s confirmation so the FBI could investigate Ford’s allegations, prompting speculation that Archila and Gallagher’s intervention had spurred a change of heart. However Flake would later tell This American Life reporter Zoe Chace that the principal reason he changed course was Democratic senator Chris Coons urging him to force an investigation.
This is about forcing politicians to look us in the eyes, listen to our stories and stop hiding behind closed doors”
A week later after an investigation Democrats decried as a “cover-up”, Kavanaugh was confirmed 50 to 48, with Flake voting in his favour. The senator said the FBI report offered no evidence to corroborate Ford’s claims and that since the justice system affords a presumption of innocence to the accused he could not vote against Kavanaugh. “Senator Flake and others had a tremendous opportunity to signal to the country that they wouldn’t reaffirm a culture that elevates the voices of men over those of women, and they failed,” says Archila.
On 9th October, Kavanaugh took his supreme court seat after President Trump apologised on behalf of the nation for the “terrible pain and suffering” he and his family had endured. Ford hasn’t been able to return to her job at Palo Alto University due to safety concerns. In early October she launched a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for her security detail and wrote that she was still unable to live at home. In November 2018 her lawyers said that she continued to receive death threats.
Archila hopes that the form of protest she deployed will be used by others in future. “We have to humanise politics,” she says. “This is about forcing politicians to look us in the eyes, listen to our stories and stop hiding behind closed doors. This is the essence of how we can recover our democracy.”
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