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AOC's Powerful Plea for Republican Accountability Cannot Be Ignored

The congresswoman knows impunity for those who incited the Capitol attack just allows them to do the same, or worse, again. Impunity for the people who told the lie would amount to complicity in their conduct...

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14), Women's March NYC, January 2019,Dimitri Rodriguez, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses social media with a fluency that is still uncommon in politicians. She is at ease online; neither thoughtless nor noticeably self-conscious. She regularly answers questions from voters on Instagram Live while cooking dinner; she peppers her language with millennial slang. AOC is a savvy media figure, but the effects of the live broadcasts are to make her seem less like a polished public persona and more like a plausible person, someone you could imagine speaking to in real life. She is in proximity to power but does not appear to have decided that her power comes at the cost of her personality. This part of her – her humanity and frankness, her familiarity and sympathy – make her seem to achieve, on the broadcasts, something that is impossible for politicians, and especially impossible for female ones: she is in power, but she also reminds you of people you know.

On Monday night, after making several public allusions to the gravity of her experience, AOC used Instagram Live to describe her experience of the Capitol attack on 6 January. She spoke of hiding in her office as the mob breached the Capitol; she hid behind the door in a bathroom as she heard people ransacking the rooms outside. Someone came into the bathroom where she was hiding, their face on the other side of the door that she hid behind. At one point, a voice yelled, “Where is she? Where is she?” That turned out to be a Capitol police officer, but he did not identify himself; Ocasio-Cortez describes feeling ambivalent and uncertain about who he was and why he was really there.

Eventually, she escaped, and wound up barricaded in the office of Representative Katie Porter, of California, and later she moved to the office of Representative Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts. She spoke several times of how she feared the marauders could attack, with the intelligence she was receiving from security personnel mixing with her own anxious imagination. If she turned that corner down the hall, would an insurrectionist mob appear with guns? If bombs were found a block away, did that mean the building she was sitting in could explode? It’s clear from her account that at several points throughout the day, she thought she was going to die.

The description of these events on the broadcast – the terror and trauma AOC recounted, the frankness with which she detailed her mounting fears of bombs and guns – would already have been remarkable. But early in the broadcast, as she described her frustration over Republican calls to move on from the insurrection, she revealed something else: “I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” she said, the first time she has made that disclosure publicly. “The reason I say this and the reason I’m getting emotional in this moment is because these folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize,” she said. “These are the tactics that abusers use.”

In recognizing the common rhetorical strategies used by both Republicans eager to minimize the attack and perpetrators of gender violence eager to avoid accountability for their treatment of women, AOC was echoing feminists who compared Donald Trump’s increasingly hostile and reckless behavior in the last two months of his term to a pattern common to domestic abusers, who are known to escalate their violence in the weeks immediately following their victim’s severing of the relationship.

The comparisons have come under fire for creating what is seen as a false equivalence, or for supposedly trivializing political instability and constitutional crises with the language of domestic strife. But to recognize a pattern is not the same thing as drawing an equivalence, and AOC is correct in her observation that the rhetorical strategies used by Republicans – to deny their own wrongdoing, attack the victims seeking accountability, and to pretend that the true wrongdoing has been committed against them – are the same strategies deployed by other tyrants, be they political or domestic, seeking to uphold other unjust and dangerous systems of power. She went on to explain that she knew she would be ridiculed and disbelieved for her revelations, and that this, too, was part of the harm that the Republicans were doing to her – denying, and minimizing her experience. The disbelief and dismissal of those who have experienced trauma, she says, is its own, additional injustice.

The revelation that she had experienced sexual assault, and that she feared for her life at the Capitol, were the most powerful and personally dangerous way that AOC has brought a female perspective to her position as one of the most visible and controversial members of Congress. And this, too, is remarkable: AOC’s willingness to describe moments in which she felt vulnerable and afraid – like when she was assaulted, or when she hid from the insurrectionary mob – even from her place of power as a politician. Perhaps the most striking thing about AOC’s broadcast was her willingness to admit that she had been frightened, that she had been hurt, without allowing the idea that this somehow undermined her claim to power. 

Vulnerability and power do not often go together, and certainly not in female politicians. Sure, “Vulnerability is strength” has become the kind of kitschy post-feminist catch phrase, the kind of thing one is likely to see embroidered on a throw pillow or printed on the tag for a bag of herbal tea. But it’s not something many people actually act like they believe. Traditionally, the picture of power, and particularly of female power, has been of the forced and strictly disciplined erasure of any evidence of vulnerability; the steely stare, the emotionless resolve, the stiff chin. In admitting to fear, in admitting to vulnerability, in admitting to hiding for her life and to having been a survivor of assault, AOC demonstrated that she was unwilling to concede that female vulnerability is incompatible with the dignity of power. Refusing to separate those two was a demonstration of her feminist vision, a gesture at what an authentic kind of power might look like.

While her disclosure of sexual assault with doubtless garner much of the media attention, the real purpose of AOC’s broadcast was to call for accountability for the Republican members of Congress who incited and may have aided the Capitol attack. “Accountability is about creating safety,” she said. It was their actions that caused the trauma inflicted on her and others; their actions that had incited the violence and ultimately, indirectly, led to several deaths. “The violence needed someone to tell the lie,” AOC said, referring to the false claims, made by Trump and stoked by Republicans. “They knew that these violent people needed the lie. Because it would be advantageous to them, they chose to tell the lie.”

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That lie – the malicious, opportunistic, spiteful lie that hurt her and so many others directly, and hurt the nation irreparably, could not, she argued, go unpunished. Because impunity for the people who told the lie would amount to complicity in their conduct, to a grant of permission for them to do the same thing, or worse, again.

[Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist.]

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