‘If You’re Going to Hurt Me, At Least Know My Name’
A year ago, Ana Maria Archila confronted Jeff Flake in an elevator just when it seemed like everything was lost. It wasn’t.
The day after Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeff Flake released a statement in support of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. As Flake tried to leave his office, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher cornered him in an elevator. The moment was caught live on camera by CNN and went viral. Archila is the co-executive director of The Center for Popular Democracy, and she recently spoke to me about this, her activism, and her hopes for America one year after the Kavanaugh hearings.
I was in Washington, D.C., that whole week to protest. It was the first time I’d been away from my kids for that long. On Monday, a friend and colleague of mine, Ady Barkan, an activist who’s dying of ALS, organized a day of men showing up in solidarity with women. The form of protest we were doing involved disrupting with stories. We would show up to a senator’s office, and people would tell story after story after story. Then the police would come and arrest us; those who weren’t arrested would move to another senator’s office. We did this day after day.
When we started the stories, they were all about health care and abortion, but when Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony on Thursday, people — mostly women — began to share their own stories of sexual assault. It was very much like lifting the veil.
We went to Sen. Jeff Flake’s office on Monday. I thought Barkan was going to talk, but he was too tired, so in a moment of total improvisation, I decided to share the story of my own assault. What I said was, “I was five and he was 15. What I learned when I was five was that we are not believed, and what this boy learned was that boys will be boys. Those are two lessons that I don’t want my children to learn. I’m here asking the country not to teach that lesson again.”
It was the first time I had ever said those words in public. I turned to Barkan, and he was just like, “I didn’t know.” He and I have been friends for eight years and were really close comrades. He was having the experience that men were having around the country: “Oh my God. You? I didn’t know. You?”
On Friday morning, we learned the committee was going to vote anyway. I thought, “Okay, the fight is over. I’m going to go home.” I booked my train and went back to the Hart Senate building one last time to say goodbye to people. I had my big suitcase with a week of clothes.
There had been a public call for protesters to show up at 7:30 a.m., but no one was there — everyone was too tired. But a friend of mine was there and so was another young woman, Maria Gallagher.
Melissa Byrne, an activist working for the group Ultraviolet, had told Gallagher to find two people and go to Flake’s office. I decided to guide them there. On the way, Gallagher was asking me, “How do you talk to a politician?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to see him. But if we see him, just tell him why you’re here. Speak from your heart. That’s all you have to do.”
I had been doing this form of protest for a long time, and I hadn’t come in contact with a senator yet. It’s really hard to find them in the hallways. It’s hard to find senators anywhere.
The hallway was empty except for two reporters. They showed us a press release from Flake saying he was going to vote for Kavanaugh. I thought, “This is the end. That’s it. It’s over.” I said goodbye to Gallagher, and I started to walk away. Then I heard my friend shout, “He’s here. Come back!” Flake had come out, not from his main door but from a side door. He was running to the elevator like a coward.
The reporters were running behind him, and I was running behind them with my suitcase. I had been doing this form of protest for a long time, and I hadn’t come in contact with a senator yet. It’s really hard to find them in the hallways. It’s hard to find senators anywhere. We cornered him in the elevator, and I instinctually got under the camera and interrupted a reporter’s interview.
I wasn’t prepared to tell my story; I didn’t even say very much. I just said, “On Monday, I stood in front of your office with Ady Barkan. I told the story of my sexual assault. I told it because I recognize in Dr. Ford’s story that she is telling the truth. What are you doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit in the Supreme Court.”
I texted my father afterward: “You’re going to hear something that we haven’t talked about. I want you to know that I am okay.” The reason I had never told him was that I felt like he would feel pain and guilt and feel responsible. He texted back, and he confirmed my fears: “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to protect you.” That brief exchange was a relief. He knew, and I knew, and he knew that I was okay.
This encounter with Flake happened at 9:25 a.m. and lasted however many minutes; then a woman from CNN interviewed me, and it’s all kind of a blur. I was supposed to go and do an interview with Univision at 10 o’clock. So I ran to the studio of Univision with my suitcase to try to make it on time. When I got there, the Univision reporter asked, “How did you get here so fast? I just saw you on the screen.” I thought, “Oh, crap.”
The virality of the video didn’t sink in until many hours later. I’m not much of a social media person; before this happened I had maybe 400 followers on Twitter. Within 24 hours, I had 40,000. A lot of the tweets were people saying, “Me too.” One woman wrote, “I’m in my 80s, and I told my story for the first time, and you’re giving me life.” The response was positive for a few days before the really ugly, horrible, nasty attacks began. But the display of gratitude and solidarity was overwhelming and beautiful.
The Monday after, I got a text from a friend: “Thank you. I am the father of two girls, and unless we change the world, these two will be part of that experience.” And that’s the thing that fucking broke me. I couldn’t stop crying. I cried through basically every interview that day.
I was sinking in my own emotional turbulence. It was very hard. That whole week of the investigation, I had never felt like what I said really mattered. I know that what people say matters, but I had never experienced the extent of the consequences.
In the days after, I joined a video call of rabbis. They told me about how there were revelations happening inside their congregations and families were in pain. At the end of the call, one rabbi said, “I’ve been on this planet for almost 90 years, and I have been fighting for justice for a long time, and I never understood the pain that patriarchy inflicts on the bodies of my sisters. But after this moment, I will never forget it, and I am committed to always talking about it.” All of these people were strangers to me, but I could not stop crying.
I think that the Republicans in the Senate were trying really hard to communicate to us that protest doesn’t matter — that power belongs where it is right now. Even though they confirmed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, they were not able to suppress the demand from women to be seen, to be listened to, and to be part of a democracy.
Even though we have called the people on the streets the resistance, I really do think the resistance is in the White House and in the Senate — they’re the resistance to the power of the people. They can be defeated, but only if we make democracy live inside our bodies and make democracy be real in our lives. I want to fucking devote my efforts to try to fix the system that’s broken.
I grew up in Colombia, which was for many decades a country at war. It’s not possible to be Colombian and escape politics: My dad had been a student activist, a student organizer, and my mom was a nurse. I lived with my mom while my dad did a lot of political work on the left. In the early 1990s, when the violence of the cartels intensified, a lot of the people on the left were killed, including my dad’s friends.
During the 1990 election, six presidential candidates were killed, all people from the left. One day, my dad came to visit and said, “I’m leaving tomorrow,” and he left for Spain; he came to the U.S. in 1991. I came to the United States just to be with him for six months right after I had finished high school to learn English. At the end of those six months, I didn’t speak English well enough, so I stayed.
My aunt also left Colombia in the ’90s. She moved to the U.S. and created an organization of Latino immigrants called the Latin American Integration Center. I started teaching English for my aunt’s organization. The young people I was meeting were 15- and 16-year-olds who weren’t living the lives of young people. They were working in construction, in restaurants, in delis. They were adults in the bodies of children.
Even though they confirmed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, they were not able to suppress the demand from women to be seen, to be listened to, and to be part of a democracy.
I met two boys that year, Christopher and Gustavo; one was 15, and the other one was 14. They were cousins who worked in the deli across the street from my office, cutting meat and stocking. They worked 12 hours a day and would come to my office and take English classes.
Christopher told me one night after class that he was very upset because he knew he was getting paid less than he was supposed to. He was getting paid $3 an hour, working six days a week in the deli. He said, “But the thing that makes me really mad is that my boss calls me and my cousin ‘Pancho.’”
Their boss couldn’t even bother to learn their names. I was just like, “Fuck no. He’s going to fucking learn your name and remember your fucking name forever.” We sued the boss and made him pay thousands and thousands of dollars. Now he knows his name.
That’s the message: You’re going to abuse me and hurt me in so many ways, but at least know my name while you do. At least see me as a human.
I think that about that interaction in the elevator, when Gallagher said to Flake, “Look at me and tell me that what happened to me doesn’t matter.” That is the essence of every movement: urgent demand.
Around the time of Kavanaugh’s nomination, President Donald Trump was giving speeches about an immigrant caravan, saying it was made up thousands of men — brown men — who were dangerous, who were rapists and criminals. What he was saying at that moment was the same message that has been used for a long time to justify lynching and racist violence and policy in our country, which is that the black men and brown men are coming for our women.
Embedded in the message of the Kavanaugh hearings — and Trump’s rhetoric about the borders — is the same message: “No, your stories do not matter. You do not have a voice in this democracy.”
What Trump represents is the resistance to the idea that humans are equal. He can resist if he wants, but we know that we are full human beings, forcefully affirming and generating our own power with our stories.
This year, I attended the State of the Union as a guest of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I was in the audience, looking down on Congress. There was a sea of women dressed in white on the Democratic side, and it was beautiful. It was such a contrast to the Republican side, which was mostly dark suits and white men.
But what the cameras didn’t see was that in the audience, there were immigrant mothers who had lost their children at the border, there were transgender members of the military, there were workers and women who were telling their stories of surviving sexual assault. It was like the country that is arriving was there, and it was beautiful. I felt a tremendous sense of hope about who we can be.