She was the very definition of a rattled and shellshocked citizen, someone who had been through an acute trauma but one that had been brewing for a long time.
Ocasio-Cortez sounded like an average American, the vast majority of whom were horrified by the riot. And many of them directly blame the former president for inciting the violence. His second impeachment trial is expected to begin next week — and as with the first trial in 2020, there may be no witnesses called by the Senate. But Ocasio-Cortez has already given voice to the wrenching drama that unfolded. In a monologue that lasted nearly 90 minutes, she has already borne witness for the people.
In her testimonial Monday evening, Ocasio-Cortez sat in front of a plain gray wall wearing a plain gray sweater. Her hair was loose and she kept raking it back with her fingers. Her face was well lit, but she wasn’t wearing her usual red lipstick. Her phone kept falling over as she told her story.
In many ways, the setting was stark and sterile, but she filled all that emptiness with her clear-eyed recollections of fear and dismay. She might have been using 21st-century technology, but her storytelling style was one that goes back generations. This was our shared oral history — a full reenactment.
She began at the end and then she circled back to the beginning as a dramatist might. She recalled seeing the warning signs of what was to come — of encountering demonstrators earlier that week when she left the Capitol after a vote and headed for her car. Her heart was pounding when she saw their Trump signs attached to their sharp flagpoles, but she still engaged with them. “I like to think I’m disarming,” she said as she laughed.
Ocasio-Cortez’s story wended its way into her neighborhood grocery store, where she saw more people wearing bright-red Trump campaign hats, and she admitted to having a sense of uneasiness that’s hard to describe but impossible to forget. “Things just started to feel not right,” she said.
Her descriptions are East Coast-centric, with analogies to Queens, the Bronx and bodegas; but they’re also universal even if New Yorkers will protest that everything about their city is sui generis. In her narrative, millennial and liberal cliches collide with blue-collar frugality, like when she spirals on a tangent to describe making a pit stop in the grocery store, where she bought “a bottle of matcha tea because I needed a parking validation” for her electric car. She speaks like a pop culture aficionado. She describes Washington like someone fresh to the city and its daily civics lessons, avoiding all the elaborate names that few people actually know and all the jargon that old-timers love. She’s not talking Cannon and Rayburn. It’s just the scattered buildings and the one “with the dome.”
Her story was personal in part because she shared with those watching and listening that she is a victim of sexual assault. This fact is a point of explanation for the way in which she understands the effects of trauma — of how one terrible event builds upon the next and how they all have an impact on how you move through the world, informing your decisions and choices and needs. This personal history is one of the reasons she is so certain that the country cannot simply move along and unify until it addresses the injury that was caused.
But Ocasio-Cortez’s story was intimate for myriad other reasons, too. She put every single person in the room with her and, in doing so, allowed for the fact that the trauma is far-reaching — affecting people in a multitude of ways. She pantomimed how she hid behind a bathroom door in her office when the mob came looking for its prey. She mimicked the sound of the slow, terrifying pounding on her office door. And she spelled out her fear when she saw rage rather than kindness in a Capitol Police officer’s eyes.
In each of those moments, she was all of us. She was a young person on lockdown, barricaded behind desks and chairs and wondering whether she was about to be part of a mass-casualty event. She was a woman of Puerto Rican descent hearing the rage-fueled rantings of a mob loyal to a man who had made special sport of deriding and dehumanizing women of color. She was a Brown American unsure whether the police had come to offer help or harm. She was an American, a public servant whose country was in crisis.
As she and her lone staff member who had come in for the day ran through the halls seeking shelter, she described the scene as “like a zombie movie or something.” The monsters, she said, had grown fat on the lie of a stolen election. They’d grown brazen and entitled and violent on falsehoods. The mob had been fed disinformation by those “willing to endanger the lives of others if it will score them political points,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
And after the monsters ran wild through the seat of democracy, Ocasio-Cortez noted, no one who had nursed them and nurtured them even bothered to say “I’m sorry.”