Most journalists covering Monday’s Iowa caucuses will remember it as the day Donald Trump was humbled or the moment Marco Rubio emerged as a contender.
But for MSNBC pundit Melissa Harris-Perry, the event turned out to be much more personal — and sinister — than expected.
In a blog entry posted Tuesday, Harris-Perry described how a strange man approached her in a Des Moines hotel Monday night, mumbling about Nazis and threatening to “do” something to her.
“I freeze. He speaks. And moves closer,” she recounted. “Is there a knife under the coat? A gun? Worse?”
Harris-Perry was shaken but uninjured during the strange, scary encounter, she wrote.
Her account was posted to a website belonging to Wake Forest University, where Harris-Perry teaches. Neither Harris-Perry nor her students returned requests for comment about what happened. But the political science professor did tweet a link to the blog entry.
“I don’t know if he was there to kill me,” she tweeted in reference to the unidentified man.
I don't know if he was there to kill me. They were there to save me. https://t.co/Fzs8rgg0ns
— Melissa Harris-Perry (@MHarrisPerry) February 2, 2016
Those same words form the first sentence in Harris-Perry’s riveting blog entry.
Harris-Perry and roughly two dozen of her Wake Forest students were in Des Moines to cover the Iowa caucuses. A few days earlier, she had featured two of her pupils talking about the youth vote on her eponymous MSNBC television show.
On Monday night, however, Harris-Perry was watching results stream in on television in a downtown Des Moines hotel lobby when a stranger suddenly sidled up to her.
“I didn’t notice until he was standing right next to me, much closer than is ordinary or comfortable,” she wrote.
“So what is it that you teach?” the man asked her, as if resuming a prior conversation.
But Harris-Perry didn’t recognize him.
“I am a professor of political science,” she answered.
“My wife is a professor of communications,” the man said.
“Does she teach here in Iowa?” Harris-Perry asked.
Then things got weird.
“What I want to know is how you got credentialed to be on MSNBC,” the man said in an abrupt non sequitur.
It was at this point that Harris-Perry began to get worried. She wrote:
I am not sure if it is how he spat the word credentialed, or if it is how he took another half step toward me, or if it is how he didn’t respond to my question, but the hairs on my arm stood on end. I ignored it. Told myself everything was ok.
“Well. It is not exactly a credential…” I began.
“But why you? Why would they pick you?”
Now I know something is wrong. Now his voice is angry. Now a few other people have stopped talking and started staring. Now he is so close I can feel his breath. Before I can answer his unanswerable question of why they picked me, he begins to tell me why he has picked me.
“I just want you to know why I am doing this.”
Oh — there is a this. He is going to do a this. To me. And he is going to tell me why.
Harris-Perry has spoken and written publicly about being a rape survivor. In 2012, she wrote an open letter to Republican senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock criticizing his statement that a pregnancy resulting from rape should not be aborted because “it is something that God intended to happen.”
“When we survive and we go on to love and to work and to speak out and to have fun and to laugh and dance and to cry and to live, when we do that, we defeat our attackers,” Harris-Perry said. “We did not survive an attack on our consent just to turn around and give up our right to choose to you. Not without a fight.”
All of this, she wrote, was on her mind when the man in Des Moines pressed closer to her in the hotel lobby.
“I freeze,” she wrote. “Not even me — the girl in me. The one who was held down by an adult neighbor and as he raped her. The one who listened as he explained why he was doing this. She freezes.”
“I freeze. He speaks. And moves closer. Is there a knife under the coat? A gun? Worse? And I can’t hear all the words. But I catch ‘Nazi Germany’ and I catch ‘rise to power.’ But I can’t move. I am lulled by a familiar powerlessness, muteness, that comes powerfully and unexpectedly. It grips me. Everything is falling away.”
She was saved, she wrote, by a friend and by her students.
“Instead of sitting still as he tells me what he is going to do and why, I jump up,” she wrote. “I move. I put space — a table — between him and me. My friend jumps too. It is breathtaking how fearlessly — almost recklessly — she throws herself between he and I. Together we raise our voices and make a fuss. He turns. He runs out. He jumps in a car. He drives off.
“We try to explain to hotel security what has happened and how I receive hate mail and even death threats, how I have had people show up at my workplace, how this might be serious. They listen politely, but this is the Iowa caucus, and I am not a candidate, so they go back to their evening. And we go back to ours.”
In her blog post, Harris-Perry said that she wasn’t sure what the man’s intentions were but also that she couldn’t take any chances.
“I don’t know what kind of harm he was prepared to do,” she wrote. “Perhaps the only threat was a barrage of hateful words — or maybe he planned to do something worse. I have faced both. Both seemed plausible in this encounter.”
She also said that it was the thought of her students that shook her out of her momentary “trance.”
“As he’d invaded my space with angry, incoherent cruelty, I heard a voice in my head roar, ‘Not in front of my students!'” Harris-Perry wrote. “Ridiculous though it may be, my dominant fear was that if this man maimed or killed me my students would fail to achieve the learning outcome of the Wake the Vote program. … It was the fear of a ruined lesson plan that propelled me out of my seat and away from the potential attacker.
“It is not an exaggeration to say my students may have saved my life.”
Despite this, Harris-Perry wrote that few of her students learned of the scary episode, in which their professor was worried that she might be raped or killed by a stranger during the Iowa 2016 caucuses.
“Most don’t know any of this happened,” she wrote, “because as soon as they returned we got down to the business of watching returns, discussing results, predicting strategies, and learning together.”