The Slatest

The #MeToo Activists Who Confronted Jeff Flake Brought Victims Back to the Center of the Kavanaugh Debate

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake speaks to the press on September 28, 2018 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake speaks to the press on September 28, 2018 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

By the end of Thursday’s Senate hearings over Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, Senate Republicans had engineered a shrewd narrative. Ford wasn’t lying, GOP senators insisted, but she must have confused Kavanaugh for someone else. The Supreme Court nominee was just too convinced of his own innocence, too swell a guy to commit such a heinous crime. In fact, Republicans insisted that Kavanaugh himself was the real victim—a reframing that the nominee all but demanded in his defiant and seething opening statement. If you vote against me, Kavanaugh declared, you are smearing me with a false claim, assassinating my character at the bidding of Democrats, “the Clintons,” and “left-wing opposition groups.”

When Sen. Jeff Flake, the Republican swing vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced on Friday morning that he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh, this stratagem seemed to have succeeded. And then, as Flake walked to the committee room to cast his vote, something extraordinary happened: Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher confronted him in an elevator and condemned his decision. Both women spoke of their own history of sexual assault and explained what Flake’s vote meant to them. “I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Gallagher said, holding open the elevator door so Flake would hear her. “I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter.”

A few hours later, after conferring with a handful of centrist senators, Flake announced a surprise: While he would vote Kavanaugh out of committee, he would not support a final vote on the Senate floor unless the FBI could have one week to look into Ford’s accusations. It’s difficult to know if Archila and Gallagher’s dramatic confrontation changed Flake’s mind, though the senator did note the impact of “interactions” he had with people “walking around the Capitol.” But it’s entirely plausible that their fervent pleas—which swept through social media Friday—helped to undo the damage of Kavanaugh’s self-pitying testimony, moving victims back to the center of the debate where they belong.

In a sense, Archila and Gallagher picked up where Ford left off on Friday. The Kavanaugh confirmation has become a pivotal moment in the #MeToo movement, pitting the allegations of a few women against the flat denial of an incredibly powerful man. It poses the question of whether America’s lawmakers are willing to believe these women—and, in particular, Ford’s highly credible testimony—or defer to the furious entitlement of the man they’ve accused. Ford’s appeal on Thursday was not political but moral: The Senate must know how Kavanaugh “damaged my life,” she said, and “take that into serious consideration as you make your decision about how to proceed.”

Archila and Gallagher took this statement a step further. Ford expressly declined to oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation, telling the committee: “It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court.” Archila and Gallagher told Flake what it would mean for sexual assault survivors if he voted to confirm the nominee. “What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court,” Archila, executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, told Flake. “This is not tolerable.” She continued:

You have children in your family. Think about them. I have two children. I cannot imagine that for the next 50 years they will have to have someone in the Supreme Court who has been accused of violating a young girl. What are you doing, sir?

Gallagher was equally forceful. “You’re telling me my assault doesn’t matter,” she said.

You’re letting people who do these things into power. That’s what you’re telling me when you vote for him. Don’t look away from me. 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.

Finally, the subtext of the Ford hearing burst into the open in the halls of the Senate, where Flake could not ignore it. He could no longer walk into the committee room and insist that, in light of all the “doubt,” he couldn’t bear to sully Kavanaugh’s good name by voting against him. The real stakes of the vote had been laid bare—the stakes for survivors across the country, and for Ford herself. As Archila told Flake, this isn’t just about the Supreme Court. “This is,” she said, “about the future of our country.”