Activist who confronted Jeff Flake offers rebuke to ‘witch hunt’ claim
Many got their first introduction to activist Ana Maria Archila in October, when her plaintive lesson on the impact of sexual assault reverberated from US Senator Jeff Flake’s elevator all across America.
But “Voices Against Injustice” was already well aware of Archila’s work. Archila had been nominated for the group’s annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice — an honor recognizing those who confront fear and injustice with courage, in memory of the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials.
Post-elevator incident, the vote was unanimous.
“By recognizing Ana Maria Archila we are publicly acknowledging the powerful significance of her work, and we are joining with her in raising voices to foster tolerance, understanding, and reconciliation in the communities we serve,” said board member Don White.
Archila was in Salem Sunday to accept the award, previously given to the late Leonard P. Zakim of the Anti-Defamation League and to journalist Anne Driscoll for her work on wrongful convictions.
Archila is cochair of the Center for Popular Democracy, a New York nonprofit community organizing group that works on issues of racial and economic justice. Before her high-profile opposition to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, she’d been mobilizing activists in Washington, D.C., in support of the Affordable Care Act and in opposition to the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border.
Archila, 40, is also an immigrant, having come from Colombia at 17. She can’t quite believe the America she faces now.
“Never in my entire organizing life did I think we were going to be here,” she said.
“I didn’t imagine in my worst dreams that we would be building detention camps along the border or that we would be tearing families apart and that the government would be so neglectful as to disappear children from their parents.”
She praised “the choice that people in Salem have made to remember the history of a moment in our country when people were vilified — and how resonant and how similar that feels to this moment.”
It’s important to reflect, she added, on “how we as people can get things so wrong and can cause so much harm and how we as people have to actually remember our history to be able to not repeat it.”
Of course, there are a lot of “witch hunts” these days. President Trump and the Republican National Committee likened the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings to a witch hunt, and the language has been used to condemn a rush to judgment against men accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era.
Archila pushed back at that notion, describing the movement instead as “an effort to help us understand how it is that both men and women are trapped in a culture that enables sexual violence.”
“People are telling stories not to vilify, but to help people understand what has happened to us — to really see and really change,” she said. “If we don’t see it, we can’t change it.”
She hadn’t often told her own story before the confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, who was accused of assaulting a teenager when he was in high school. (He vehemently denied it.) Archila, who was abused when she was 5, joined Maria Gallagher, a brand new activist and Northeastern University graduate who had just shown up at the Kavanaugh protests in D.C., in October. She, too, was a survivor of sexual assault. The two teamed up to find Flake — whose vote was pivotal on the Judiciary Committee — and buttonholed him in an elevator, in an uncomfortable, lengthy exchange caught on CNN.
“Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me!” Gallagher exploded to a shamefaced Flake.
The desperation of the moment spilled out into the protests that followed. On the steps of the Supreme Court, in the Senate chamber, women howled in protest and fought to be heard. Republican standardbearers characterized them as an “angry mob.” Trump criticized the “very rude elevator screamers,” and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell painted the activists as bullies for harassing his members, saying, “We will not be intimidated by these people.”
This was not unfamiliar for Archila.
“Of course, they don’t like it,” she said. People in power — regardless of party — will always try to paint people in protest as unruly and unreasonable, she said.
“Mitch McConnell was very, very focused on sending a message that protest doesn’t work,” Archila said. “They were focusing on the ruckus and the tactics and them feeling under siege. But the thing that was powerful about the protests and the form of protest that was happening is that it was forcing emotional and human interaction with people in power, with men in power, forcing them to stare and listen to the stories.”
Yes, they lost. Though Flake pressed for an investigation, he still voted for Kavanaugh, who now sits on the Supreme Court. And yes, Archila was briefly very demoralized.
“It felt really, intensely depressing, honestly to see how the nomination went down anyway,” she said.
But she also was “amazed at the level of courage that people displayed” as they told their stories, she said. And she was thrilled afterward to hear young people polled saying the Kavanaugh nomination was their top motivator to vote.
“When I read that, I was like, OK. We did not win but we did our job,” she said.