Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she was told that trauma victims should “tell their stories” as a part of their healing. And that is what she did Monday night in the most compelling, heartbreaking and infuriating 60 minutes available on any screen, at any time this week. The New York congresswoman initiated a live stream on Instagram and, against a plain white wall and with little fanfare, recounted what had happened to her during the violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
She talked about flattening herself behind her bathroom door as someone entered her office, screaming, “Where is she? Where is she?” It turned out to be a police officer, but until she learned that, “I thought I was going to die.”
She talked about eventually escaping to the office of Rep. Katie Porter (Calif.), where the two Democratic congresswomen rifled through staffers’ gym bags, searching for sneakers they could change into in case they needed to jump out a window or run. About how they debated what to do if they had to flee again, wondering: “Are some offices safer than others, because they have white-sounding names or male-sounding names?”
She talked about how, later, she found herself questioning the motives of a law-enforcement officer who had given her hazy instructions on how to reach an evacuation point. Was that because he was confused and under duress? Or was that because he didn’t care whether she was caught by the rioters?
Ocasio-Cortez, her voice wavering, revealed during the live stream that she was a survivor of sexual assault, something she said many people did not know, because there were only so many times she’d wanted to tell that story. But she was mentioning it now, she said, because of its relevance to the attack at the Capitol.
Almost immediately after Jan. 6, she said, people began implying the insurrection “wasn’t a big deal,” or that reconciliation depended on “moving on.”
Those words, she said, were the tactics of “an abuser.”
She compared it to a sexual harasser telling his victim that the quickest path to normalcy would be her forgiving him. Or to parents telling the child they once abused that the mistreatment had happened in the past.
Ocasio-Cortez’s whole live stream was brave, but that was bravest part: when she cried foul on a warped view of reconciliation in which those who stoked the fires of anger and false belief that fueled the attack demand that the victims simply forgive and forget.
Forgiveness is not that cheap, and forgetting is not that easy.
“The folks who are saying we should move on, we shouldn’t have accountability, etc., are saying: ‘Can you just forget about this so that we can do it again?’ ” she said.
She could have also been talking about America in general, as the country takes its first unsteady steps post-Donald Trump. Does reconciliation look like pretending the previous four years never happened? Or does it look more like restorative justice, where the goal isn’t to move on but to repair the broken thing that caused the damage that can’t be forgotten?
Does it look like acknowledging that putting a new man in the White House isn’t a permanent solution? Especially when that man is optimistic peacemaker Joe Biden, who framed the presidential contest as “a battle for the soul of America” but risks making the mistake of seeing his election as a decisive victory rather than a scary-close win in Round 1?
Does it look like a long, painful process that begins with some people saying, “I’m sorry”?
Ocasio-Cortez name-checked her Capitol Hill colleagues, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) for what she saw as their role in inciting the riot — perpetuating the false narrative that Trump won the election and that Democrats stole it by cheating. “They knew it was the lie,” she said. “They chose to tell the lie.” And they still, she said, had not apologized for that.
There needs to be accountability, she said, because forgiveness does not happen when a perpetrator wants to move on. It happens when a victim is ready. And because ultimately, accountability isn’t about “revenge,” but rather about “safety,” she said, about nobody having to cower behind a door.
“I’m not going to let it happen to me again,” the congresswoman said. “And I’m not going to let it happen to our country.”
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.