The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I was demanding a connection’: Ana Maria Archila reflects on confronting Jeff Flake over Kavanaugh nomination

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy in New York, confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) in an elevator in Washington after he announced his support for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Ana Maria Archila had never told her father that she was sexually abused as a child.

But after she confronted a U.S. senator about President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and the video started going viral, she thought it was time to share her story.

“I always carried the fear that my parents would feel that they had failed in taking care of me if I told them,” Archila said Friday night in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

“Today I texted my father and I said, ‘You’re going to hear something that we haven’t talked about, and I want you to know that I’m okay,’ ” she said.

The encounter on Friday morning between Archila, a second woman and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has already become an iconic moment in the debate over Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Protesters blocked Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) inside an elevator on his way to a committee vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh on Sept. 28. (Video: Reuters)

With a CNN camera behind them broadcasting live, Archila and Maria Gallagher blocked the doors of an elevator for about five minutes in an effort to confront Flake about his just-announced support for Kavanaugh, who is facing several allegations of sexual misconduct.

Both Archila and Gallagher described themselves as survivors of sexual assault, making tearful and impassioned pleas for Flake to reconsider his position.

“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Gallagher said. “I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet, because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them.”

Over the span of five hours on Sept. 28, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) dramatically altered the trajectory of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

“What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court,” Archila said.

Flake looked on quietly, thanked the women and said he had to get to a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was scheduled to vote at 9:30 a.m. on Kavanaugh’s nomination.

That vote was later delayed as Flake and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) worked on a deal to allow one week for the FBI to investigate the claims against Kavanaugh, which he has vehemently denied. Only then would the Senate be able to move forward with final votes on the nomination.

Jeff Flake takes center stage in Kavanaugh drama — with no clear final act in sight

The deal was announced in the midafternoon and was praised as a victory for Democrats, who had spent much of the previous day calling for an FBI investigation.

And within hours, Archila and Gallagher were flooded with requests for interviews about their role in the day’s events.

Archila, a 39-year-old native of Colombia, is co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy organization in New York.

But she stressed that experience as an activist does not matter in situations like her confrontation with Flake.

“The people who have been coming to Washington, D.C., are not people who have been activists for 20 years,” Archila said. “Maria was there for the first time. She told her story for the first time. She spoke with an elected official for the first time.”

Gallagher could not be reached for comment Friday.

“People need to know that when they take action, when we take action together, when we force our electeds to listen to our stories, that’s how we actually change this country. . . . That struggle looks like this: regular people doing really scary things, things that make them cry, that sometimes scare their families,” Archila said.

Later in the day, Trump ordered the FBI to reopen its investigation into Kavanaugh’s background and the Senate, by voice vote, took an initial step to move ahead with the nomination.

If there are no major revelations from the FBI, the Senate could hold final votes on Kavanaugh next weekend. And at that time, Flake could vote “yes.”

Archila said she believes the confrontation affected him.

“We really had decided that [Flake] had to listen to us. . . . I was demanding a connection, demanding that he look at us, demanding that he give us real answers,” she said.

“I feel like in that forceful demand, he was called to examine his position again. . . . He heard something that provoked turmoil in him,” she said.