The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When women feel hunted, America tells them to get over it

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s fear on Jan. 6 felt familiar to me — and so does the response

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 4. She spoke this week about how she feared for her life during the Jan. 6 invasion of the building. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)

Do you know what it feels like to be hunted?

She’s only 31, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) does. In an astonishing Instagram Live broadcast on Monday night, she described in detail the scene on Jan. 6 — the feeling of being hunted by the mob from the Trump rally that began at the Ellipse before descending by the thousands on the U.S. Capitol. She frantically opened cabinets and closets looking for places to hide. She regretted wearing high heels, because how could she run? She acted out how she hid behind a door, peeking through the sliver of the door jamb, seeing and hearing a White man screaming angrily, “Where is she?! Where is she?!” as she tried not to move, not to make a sound, assuming he was there to kill her.

It turned out the man was a Capitol Police officer, there to direct Ocasio-Cortez and her staff to safety. But in her fear, she could not decide whether the voice she heard belonged to someone there to hurt her or help her. “I thought I was going to die,” she said Monday.

So many women know exactly the feelings she was describing. I do. In the summer of 1985, I moved from rural Missouri to St. Louis. I was 20. My roommate and I both worked downtown, but being small-town girls, we signed a year lease on an apartment in a western suburb where we felt safer. Come fall, a man began calling us, breathing hard into the phone while we said things like, “Who is this?” and “Stop calling us, creep!” Then one night he called and said he knew where we lived. We called 911. Police came. They told us the man was probably just trying to scare us. He kept calling. We called 911 a few more times, realizing not only that the officers weren’t taking us seriously but that they seemed bored by the whole thing.

And then one evening, I got home late from work. I was wearing a new red sweater-dress with a wide khaki belt. It was dark. I parked my car. I took my heels off and walked barefoot up the two flights of outside stairs to the apartment. My roommate was asleep on the couch with the TV blaring. As soon as I was inside, the phone rang. When I picked it up, the now-familiar voice said, “Red is your color, but you really shouldn’t walk barefoot in the dark.”

We broke our lease, paying a penalty we could not afford, and moved.

Five years later, one of my best friends was brushing snow off her windshield in the parking lot of her apartment complex. It was dark, but her car was running, warming up, and her headlights were on. A man in a ski mask grabbed her from behind. She tried to run but slipped on the snow. He knelt on top of her and tried over and over to stab her, but she kept grabbing the blade of his knife as she screamed. Neighbors started turning on their outside lights. He ran.

Right out of surgery, both hands in bandages, she had no choice but to move back home with her parents. Her attacker was never found. The solution? Relocate 2,000 miles away and start over.

I recalled these memories as I watched Ocasio-Cortez’s video — “when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other,” she said. And it occurred to me that in America, when we feel afraid, terrorized, hunted, the solution is rarely to find or punish the hunter. The solution is for the victims, the rest of us, to get over it and change the way we live.

In the case of the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, not even a month in the past, the solution so far has been to build an unscalable fence topped with razor wire, to bring in the National Guard and to advise lawmakers who fear for their lives to change routines, to invest in reimbursable body armor and to be more vigilant in monitoring their surroundings.

Meanwhile, the powerful people who incited the violence over months and even years — people like former president Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.), Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), former New York mayor turned Trump errand boy Rudolph W. Giuliani — not only remain free to do as they please but continue to espouse the very falsehoods, hateful rhetoric and conspiracy theories that caused the terrorization in the first place, and with zero consequence from party leadership. (Yes, Trump has been impeached, but Republicans in the Senate have already made clear he won’t be convicted.)

Do they know what it feels like to be hunted, to be a visible target of all that hate?

Clearly not. And their actions, or lack thereof, reverberate around the country. My home state of Kentucky, for example, allows the open carry of guns on the state Capitol grounds, as well as inside the Capitol. It is not uncommon to see armed men and women dressed in camouflage around as lawmakers work.

A year ago, as Second Amendment rights groups (including members of local Three Percenters, etc.) pushed Kentucky’s 120 counties to enact resolutions to make each county a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” we saw an increase in rallies and protests in Frankfort. Veteran Louisville Courier-Journal journalist Joe Gerth described the scene in his Jan. 31 column: “The couple of hundred people there were, without a doubt, a well-armed crowd. Probably a third had assault weapons slung over their shoulders, and the other two thirds were packing pistols either strapped to their hips or stuffed in concealed holsters somewhere on them.”

I live in Anderson County, adjacent to Frankfort’s Franklin County, with a mostly rural population of 20,000. In November, Trump received 74 percent of our county’s votes. I am, or rather was, an outspoken Democrat. Early last year, I spoke at our local fiscal court in opposition to our becoming a Second Amendment sanctuary. Before the judge and panel of magistrates, and before a good two dozen men arguing for sanctuary for their guns, I stood before all of them and said: “You know the big flag with the picture of a gun that says ‘Come and Take It?’ What does that mean? Does it mean, if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot you with it? Because what else could it mean?” I could feel the resentment in the room. And I knew, in that moment, I’d put a bull’s eye on my own back.

What happens when we get tired of letting Trump divide us?

For three years, I’d had a regular political column, so that same week I also casually wrote an op-ed opposing the resolution. I thought nothing of it until the resolution failed, and I immediately felt some of my neighbors were giving me some direct credit for that result. My column opposing sanctuary for guns was my last, excepting a short piece to tell my readers I was finished. My fear, I was embarrassed to admit, had finally overtaken my desire to be heard.

I met with our mayor, the city attorney and local law enforcement, all wonderful and extremely helpful. At one point, I shared that a man in the grocery store had once grabbed my cart and refused to let me pass. “That’s not acceptable,” the sheriff said. “You should call me when that happens.” And I answered with a thank you, that yes, he was right, but that I wasn’t scared, did not feel the rush of adrenaline, until it was over. And the sheriff understood. Fear, he knew, came after.

In the year since — as the tension of the 2020 election grew more vitriolic, and after the president of the Kentucky Three Percenters was pictured hanging an effigy of our governor on the grounds of the governor’s mansion — I disappeared myself locally.

One day I drove into town (I live 10 miles out on a country road) to walk my dogs. There were two women on the corner across from our courthouse carrying assault rifles, allegedly guarding the statue of a generic Confederate soldier. Next to the door of the judge executive’s office, where a town meeting was about to take place, stood the same president of the Three Percenters who’d hung an effigy of our governor, smiling and chatting with another man. I did not bother walking my dogs. I turned around and drove right back home. And that was that.

In my part of red America, no one sees guns as part of the problem

I stopped openly participating in my local Democratic Party and its adjacent Women’s Club. I stopped attending and speaking at school board meetings. I stopped shopping, eating and getting takeout on Main Street. I stayed home not only because of the pandemic but also because I was afraid for myself and my family — and I was exhausted.

Like the lawmakers who have been told to buy body armor and to change their daily routines — or like 20-year-old me who moved out of my apartment, and my 25-year-old friend who left the state — I felt I had no choice but to quit the life I had so I could keep on living.

The men with the guns won. Don’t they always? This, I see now, is the legacy of the modern Republican Party.

So when I watched Ocasio-Cortez recall Jan. 6, all I could think was, I am the lucky one. Ocasio-Cortez still has to work alongside the people who spurred on the violence. Alongside people like conspiracy theorist Greene. She is expected to set her fears and feelings aside and work for unity. She is expected to be quiet, unlike those who told, and continue to tell, the Big Lie that the election was stolen.

And as we approach Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, as the FBI arrests and charges more of the insurrectionists and we hear their voices on audio recordings and read their social media posts, two facts are becoming clearer and clearer. One: It seems to be nothing but dumb luck that Ocasio-Cortez, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and even former vice president Mike Pence were not kidnapped or executed on an Internet live stream. And two: There is no one in the Republican Party, not even Kentucky’s own Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has both the power and the courage to hold the hunters — the despicable and un-American liars endangering the lives of lawmakers and regular Americans alike — accountable.

God help us all.