The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A viral confrontation with Sen. Flake made her ‘the woman in the elevator.’ She’s trying to make that matter.

Ana Maria Archila was one of two women who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in an elevator last week. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Ana Maria Archila hovered with a small group of activists in the labyrinthine underbelly of the nation’s Capitol on Thursday morning, clutching a cup of coffee, scanning the quiet corridors and waiting for someone — anyone — important to appear.

Then someone did, and she knew what to do.

“Senator Corker!” she called, trailing close behind as Tennessee Republican Bob Corker strode briskly past without a glance in her direction. “Hi! Can you talk to the woman in the elevator?”

The woman in the elevator: That’s who Archila is now, since the moment last week when the 39-year-old activist and 23-year-old Maria Gallagher blocked the closing doors of an elevator carrying Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), commanding his attention for five minutes and condemning his support for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, who faces allegations of sexual assault and misconduct.

Archila hadn’t expected more than a passing glimpse of Flake that day. But with a CNN camera broadcasting live behind them, she and Gallagher demanded that the senator look at them as they identified themselves as sexual assault survivors and implored him to reconsider his support of Kavanaugh.

“On Monday, I stood in your office. I told you of my story of my sexual assault,” Archila said, her voice shaking.

“I was sexually assaulted, and nobody believed me,” Gallagher said. “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter.”

The video immediately went viral, captured in headlines and ­cable-news chyrons across the country.

Flake had made a stunning pivot after their confrontation, calling for an additional FBI investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh — a change of heart that may have been at least partly inspired by Archila and Gallagher’s forceful words.

But almost a week later, Kavanaugh’s confirmation moved steadily closer to the finish line, with the White House and Senate Republicans reaffirming their staunch support of Kavanaugh. (On Friday, it was reported that Flake and other key Senators would vote yes on Kavanaugh “unless something big changes.”)

With time running out, Archila was still figuring out how to make the most of her fleeting celebrity. She had spent 20 years as a community organizer, first as the leader of an immigrant rights organization and now as co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive political advocacy group in New York, but she had never experienced a rush of attention like this. She was overwhelmed by the onslaught of television cameras, the strangers who hugged her and called her a hero, the fellow activists wearing T-shirts emblazoned with her face.

Did two women in an elevator just change everything?

One veteran protester grabbed Archila’s arms, shouting victoriously “You did it! You did it!” and Archila half-smiled, half-winced. “Well — ” she said, and trailed off.

She didn’t know yet what, exactly, had been done. She knew only that their efforts had demanded sacrifice: “I worry tremendously that a lot of us will have shared our very painful experiences in this collective effort to help the country stare at itself in the mirror and make a different decision about who we want to be,” she said.

What she wanted was to focus on the work — confronting politicians in the subterranean Senate hallways, or talking to fellow survivors about how to tell their stories in a way that might make lawmakers stop to listen.

But a television crew was waiting, and Archila’s communications director ushered her upstairs for yet another interview.

“We need to be bird-dogging senators,” Archila said, visibly frustrated. “This is the moment.”

It was never a story that Archila planned to share publicly. When the #MeToo movement took off across social media a year ago, she briefly considered revealing her childhood sexual abuse but decided against it.

“I wrote ‘me too,’ and then deleted it, and wrote it and deleted it,” she said. “It was very hard for me to do even that much.”

She had spent her life and career telling a different story about herself, focused on her experience as an immigrant. Archila came to the United States from Colombia when she was 17, joining her father and aunt as a permanent legal resident in New York City. After graduating from Montclair State University, she worked at a community organization founded by her aunt to serve immigrants in Queens.

Over the next two decades, Archila emerged as a prominent voice in the immigrant rights community.

“Being part of the immigrant rights movement allowed me to plant the first roots here, to feel like this country is my home, and because it is I will fight for it to be better,” she said. She became a citizen in time to vote in the 2008 election, she said, and she assumed her role with the Center for Popular Democracy in 2014.

Over the past several months, Archila, who lives in Queens with her two young children, has made numerous trips to Washington to urge senators to vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. But she never mentioned her own experience as a survivor, even after Christine Blasey Ford emerged as the first woman to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

“I had tried for so hard for so long to not have it define me,” Archila said of her assault. “I’d thrown it in the farthest corner of my closet and left it there.”

But then she watched Ford’s sworn testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I understood what she was doing, that she was saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to go through this painful experience as a way to protect my country, as a way to protect the people I love,’ ” Archila said. “And it was such a powerful and different stance from how I had dealt with my own experience of sexual abuse. She demonstrated how the sharing of my story could be actually a source of power, and a very generous act.”

During a group visit to Flake’s office on Sept. 24, a fellow activist turned to Archila and asked her what she would like to say, and in a spontaneous moment she shared a few details of her account: She told Flake’s staff members that she was 5 years old and the boy was 15. She said she had told a couple of adults, but they did not believe her.

After she spoke, she wept. She still didn’t know how to tell her parents; she had never wanted them to feel they had failed to protect her. But several days later, after her confrontation with Flake in the elevator was televised across the country, she knew she no longer had a choice.

“I texted my father immediately and I said, ‘You’re going to hear something that we haven’t talked about, but I want you to know that I’m okay,’ ” she said. “I was able to say to him, ‘It’s not your fault, and it’s not my fault, and I feel very supported by you.’ But I didn’t have those words when I was 5. I didn’t have them for decades.”

Dear dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you.

Archila said she believes the interaction with Flake resonated widely because it was raw and personal. Flake later called the moment “uncomfortable” in an interview with the Atlantic, and though he said he was moved by the two women’s accounts, he also questioned their underlying agenda.

On the heels of a summer marked by widely publicized, in-your-face confrontations between protesters and members of the Trump administration, other lawmakers offered a more abrasive response to the activists staking out the Senate office hallways.

On Thursday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) waved his hand dismissively at a gathering of women who were shouting for his attention in one of the Senate buildings. When one woman asked why he wasn’t “brave enough” to speak to them, he fired back, “When you grow up, I’ll be glad to.”

A spokesman for Hatch later noted that the senator had been “screamed at and harassed” by protesters over the past two weeks.

In a tweet Friday, Trump echoed that characterization: “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad,” Trump wrote. “Don’t fall for it!”

To Archila, impact is more important than decorum. She has been arrested twice since August during peaceful protests, watching as police ticked off warnings and reached for their handcuffs when she and her fellow demonstrators refused to move away or quiet down.

“There comes a point where we just say, this is what we are going to do,” she said. “We will not obey injustice.”

After another round of interviews, back in the underground tunnels of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Archila spotted a young girl wearing a gray "Smash the Patriarchy" T-shirt.

Archila recognized her from an earlier rally outside the Supreme Court protesting Kavanaugh’s nomination. Pulling her phone from her pocket, Archila scrolled to a photograph of three young girls with rain-streaked faces huddled in the crowd.

Archila crouched down and told the child that she remembered her.

“I saw you,” Archila said, and the girl smiled shyly. “I saw you, and you moved me.”

Then Archila rose, retreated to a corner for a moment and dabbed her eyes with her T-shirt.

In a few minutes, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) would appear in the hallway and embrace Archila, thanking her for speaking out. Later in the afternoon, Archila would be arrested again, alongside hundreds of other protesters gathered in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Soon, this particular battle would be over. But for now, Archila was thinking about the little girl.

“She’s watching women be powerful, forcing men to look them in the eye,” she said. “That little girl, she is why we’re here. Whatever happens, she is going to be transformed by this moment.”