When testifying works: confronting Judge Kavanaugh

Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila celebrated when Senator Jeff Flake (Arizona) forced his Republican colleagues to delay final consideration of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, pending completion of a very brief FBI investigation. Their elation is understandable and contagious: protesters rarely get such a quick and visible reaction to their efforts.

Ms. Gallagher and Ms. Archila were among many protesters filling the halls of the Senate, hoping to be heard. They followed Sen. Flake after he announced his intent to vote for the confirmation, and demanded that he listen–and look.

“Don’t look away from me,” Ms. Gallagher inveighed, “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me, that you will let people like that go into the highest court of the land and tell everyone what they can do to their bodies.”

Flake looked up before the elevator doors closed.

Not long afterward, he announced that he would be uncomfortable supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination on the Senate floor until charges of sexual assault lodged by Christine Blasey Ford and others had been investigated.

The Republican leadership wanted to avoid the one week delay between the committee vote and consideration on the Senate floor, but realized that without some investigation the nomination would be doomed. It may still be: one week is plenty of time for new revelations, for other to tell their stories, and for senators to consult public opinion polls. The moment is open for a little longer.

Yelling at elected officials is hardly a surefire tactic. It makes people uncomfortable or angry. Successful politicians are adept at seeming to ignore protesters (People yell at Ted Cruz all the time–with no discernible effect!), and experienced activists are accustomed to neglect. The dramatic confrontation or brave individual act “works” only when it’s part of a much larger movement, in the context of many other events that are too easy to neglect.

Somehow, Flake broke from his colleagues, who were determined to make sure Blasey Ford had the opportunity to be heard and ignored. Flake listened. Explaining his decision later, he said that he had heard from many people, in personal testimony, on email, and on the phone, even walking around the Capitol. He also heard from friends, he said, who told their own stories of assault–stories they had never before shared.

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, in the context of a much broader #MeToo movement, inspired many people to tell others their stories of surviving assault.  Gallagher and Archila themselves, committed to political action on other causes, first told their assault stories in response to this moment.

They are not alone. Social media are filled with people, mostly women, coming forward with their survivor stories, and at least some people are listening. In my gym locker room (off-campus, Orange County), where political conversation is infrequent and divided and, unlike Donald Trump, I’ve never heard stories about sex. But last week men were talking about the experiences they’ve heard from women they know. “Every woman our age has a story like this,” one man told me as he packed his bag. This is how the world changes.

In this context, Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila, are brave and effective, but it’s not just them. They knew they were testifying in front of a choir of many others. As Archila tweets “So much love to all the 1000s of people who are changing the course of history with their protests, stories, & courage.”

Jeff Flake has been emphatic that he supports Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy, and that he expects to vote to confirm his appointment. He has, however, said he’s open to learning more. It’s impossible to credit just one event as the critical moment that influenced him.

And it is clear that Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher and Archila held open more than an elevator door.

 

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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