US Politics

Rape survivor Ana Maria Archila reflects on confronting Senator Jeff Flake in lift about Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination

Two tearful women corner senator as he got on an lift, pleading for him to reconsider his support for Brett Kavanaugh who’s been accused of sexual assault when he was a teenager

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 10:51pm

Ana Maria Archila had never told her father that she was sexually abused as a child.

But after she confronted a US senator about President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and the video started going viral, she thought it was time to share her story.

“I always carried the fear that my parents would feel that they had failed in taking care of me if I told them,” Archila said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

“Today I texted my father and I said, ‘You’re going to hear something that we haven’t talked about, and I want you to know that I’m OK,’” she said.

The encounter on Friday morning between Archila, a second woman and Republican Senator Jeff Flake, has already become an iconic moment in the debate over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

With a CNN camera behind them broadcasting live, Archila and Maria Gallagher blocked the doors of an lift for about five minutes in an effort to confront Flake about his just-announced support for Kavanaugh, who is facing several allegations of sexual misconduct.

Both Archila and Gallagher described themselves as survivors of sexual assault, making tearful and impassioned pleas for Flake to reconsider his position.

“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone, and 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,” Gallagher said.

“What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court,” Archila said.

Flake struggled to remain impassive and kept murmuring “Thank you” in a strained attempt to show a modicum of respect.

But he looked frightened, horrified and awkward and must have been praying that the lift had a trap door. But there was no escape as cameras captured the live encounter.

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Flake said he had to get to a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was expected to vote at 9:30am on Kavanaugh’s nomination.

That vote was later delayed as Flake and Senator Christopher Coons, a Democrat, worked on a deal to allow one week for the FBI to investigate the claims against Kavanaugh, which he has vehemently denied.

Only then would the Senate be able to move forward with final votes on the nomination.

Mid-afternoon, the deal was announced and praised as a victory for Democrats, who had spent much of the previous day calling for an FBI investigation.

And within hours, Archila and Gallagher were flooded with requests for interviews about their role in the day’s events.

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Archila, a 39-year-old Colombia native, is co-executive director of the Centre for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy organisation, in New York.

But she stressed that experience as an activist does not matter in situations like her confrontation with Flake.

“The people who have been coming to Washington, DC, are not people who have been activists for 20 years. Maria was there for the first time. She told her story for the first time. She spoke with an elected official for the first time,” Archila said.

“People need to know that when they take action, when we take action together, when we force our electeds to listen to our stories, that’s how we actually change this country … That struggle looks like this: regular people doing really scary things, things that make them cry, that sometimes scare their families,” Archila said.

Speaking by phone after the confrontation, Gallagher said she didn’t intend to tell Flake about her assault - she also had never told anyone before.

“But I saw him, and I got really angry,” she said.

Later in the day, Trump ordered the FBI to reopen its investigation into Kavanaugh’s background and the Senate, by voice vote, took an initial step to move ahead with the nomination.

If there are no major revelations from the FBI, the Senate could hold final votes on Kavanaugh next weekend. And at that time, Flake could vote “yes”.

Archila said she believes the confrontation affected him.

“We really had decided that [Flake] had to listen to us . . . I was demanding a connection, demanding that he look at us, demanding that he give us real answers,” she said.

“I feel like in that forceful demand, he was called to examine his position again . . . He heard something that provoked turmoil in him,” she said.

Additional reporting by The Guardian and Associated Press