A year ago, a day after Christine Blasey Ford testified before Congress about her accusation of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I stood in front of Sen. Jeff Flake’s office with a young woman I had just met. Her name was Maria Gallagher.
She had decided to take the morning off work to join the thousands of women protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination. I had been in and out of the protests for weeks, and I knew it was extremely unlikely that we would be able to see Flake, let alone talk to the Republican senator.
What never happens happened that morning: We spotted Flake running to the elevator just a few minutes after he released a statement announcing his intention to vote for Kavanaugh.
We ran behind him, blocked the elevator doors from closing, and for five gut-wrenching minutes, we poured our hearts out and urged Flake to listen to our stories, to look us in the eyes, and to examine the message he was about to send to women by supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination.
”I was sexually assaulted, and nobody believed me,” Maria spoke through tears. “You’re telling all women in America that they don’t matter, they should just keep it to themselves, because if they have told the truth, they’re just going to help that man to power anyway.”
Women confront Sen. Jeff Flake after he says he'll vote yes to Kavanuagh: “That’s what you’re telling all women in America, that they don’t matter. They should just keep it to themselves because if they have told the truth you’re just going to help that man to power anyway.” pic.twitter.com/T7fSpyT69E— CNN (@CNN) September 28, 2018
The interaction was broadcast live on CNN and immediately went viral. A few hours later, Flake changed course, and demanded that the FBI carry out a week-long investigation into the allegations of sexual assault, before the vote would come to the floor of the Senate. For those seven days, millions of people had hope that our government would listen to our voices and take seriously the experiences of women in our country.
In the end, the FBI carried out an extremely limited investigation. They interviewed a second woman who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, Deborah Ramirez, but not a third. Kavanaugh, who has denied the allegations, became a Supreme Court justice anyway.
In recent weeks, new evidence has come to light bolstering the allegations against Kavanaugh and the failures of the FBI investigation. Two reporters from the New York Times found seven people who could corroborate Ramirez’s account that Kavanaugh had thrust his penis in her face when they were students at Yale. They also reported that Ramirez had provided the FBI with a list of people who could back up her claim at the time of the hearing, but the agency didn’t interview anyone.
So now, one year later, many people have asked me: Was trying to fight the confirmation worth it? Are you still hopeful that things can change? My answer is a resounding yes, and I’ll tell you why.
Immediately after Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, I struggled to understand how the courage of thousands of survivors who joined Ford with our own stories, and the solidarity of thousands who showed up to protest, could be met with such profound disdain by the politicians who ultimately voted to confirm him. How could Flake — who seemed genuinely moved by Maria Gallagher, who urgently pled not to look away from her pain — ultimately vote yes to installing a man accused of sexual assault to the highest court in our land? How could all the senators who joined him choose, through their actions, to tell millions of women that our voices and our experiences do not matter?
The only way I could make sense of their decision was to understand it as an intentional effort by Trump and the GOP to send us all a message. They wanted people in this country to believe that protest does not work; that the power structure on which they stand is immune to the demands of ordinary people; and that, ultimately, democracy cannot be used to correct historical injustice. They wanted to punish us for the audacity of questioning one of their own and for trying to force them to hold him accountable.
They wanted to reaffirm the culture of impunity that not only enables sexual violence, but also preserves a power structure that keeps women and people of color watching from the margins as mostly rich, white men make decisions for the rest of us.
They wanted us to give up on the idea that we can become a country where politicians govern by listening. They wanted us to forget that democracy is how we take care of each other and the great-grandchildren we may never meet but whom we already love.
What they failed to realize is that courage and solidarity are the seeds of social change, and those seeds were firmly planted in the hearts of millions of people during the fight against Kavanaugh. When people protest, they are surrounded by acts of courage and solidarity — and that courage is contagious.
When you see someone move past their fear and their shame to do something difficult, you feel invited to tap into your own strength. That solidarity connects you to an abundance of your own spirit. That is why Tarana Burke’s rallying cry of “Me Too” has become such a powerful movement.
By the time I was standing in that elevator with Flake, I had already been transformed. I had witnessed women push through their tears and pain to share their stories of sexual assault, many for the first time, in the hallways and offices of the Senate buildings.
Although I have been an activist for many years, I had kept my own experience of sexual assault hidden for more than three decades. But witnessing the courage of others allowed me, and thousands of other survivors, to release it and to transform the sadness into righteous indignation and urgent political action.
Several weeks after Kavanaugh was confirmed, I was still struggling to hold my own sadness after losing the fight. I worried a lot that people’s energy and outrage would dissipate, and that they would draw the wrong lesson: that it is impossible to win, so better not to fight at all.
That is, until I came across a poll by MTV asking millennials, who would become the largest voting bloc for the first time, what was motivating them to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. The top three answers were: climate change, the Kavanaugh hearings, and watching people protest.
That poll, and the thousands of letters and messages I received from people expressing their gratitude for the elevator moment, helped me reinterpret the fight, and give new meaning to the courage I witnessed: Yes, we lost; Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court.
However, the fight against his nomination helped shape the political consciousness of an entire generation. And young voters, in turn, helped usher in the most female and most diverse Congress in history. Our stories, our sit-ins, our protests breathed life into our democracy and transformed the balance of power in Washington by putting more of it in the hands of women, especially women of color.
The women sworn into office this year who defied all expectations — Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Deb Haaland, and Sharice Davids, among others — embody the country that is arriving: a country where women and people of color are no longer occupying the margins, but sharing the center together. A more just, more welcoming, more humane country. It is through struggle that the promise of freedom and democracy will be realized.
Today, Trump and his people — including Kavanaugh and those who confirmed him — continue to use their power to steadily erode the rights of women, of LGBTQIA+ people, of workers, of immigrants, of communities of color. I will confess I’m not optimistic that those who use their power to extinguish people’s voices will ever change their ways. But the power of transforming our society doesn’t reside with them. True power — the kind generated through protest, through the telling of our own stories, through community and solidarity — is power generated by the people, for the people. It is ours for the taking.
So, yes, a year later, it was all worth it. And yes, I am hopeful. I really am.
Ana Maria Archila is the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.