Interview with Ana Maria Archila

On September 28, 2018, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher waited outside Senator Jeff Flake’s office to speak with him about his support Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Instead of engaging with the women Senator Flake rushed from his office to the elevator without stopping, so Archila blocked the elevator doors to confront him about his announcement. After having shared her own deeply personal account of childhood sexual assault a few days earlier among a crowd of activists in a Senate office building, Archila questioned Flake’s decision to allow a man accused of multiple counts of sexual assault to sit on the Supreme Court. Evidently, Archila and Gallagher caused Flake to call for an FBI investigation into Kavanaugh prior to the Senate confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh was confirmed as an Associate Supreme Court Justice on October 6 2018. Earthquake spoke to Archila about her work as Co-Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy, her vision of the #metoo movement, and her future activism.

What originally propelled you to work in social activism?

I moved to the U.S. when I was seventeen from Colombia, and that experience of migration was one of the most challenging and powerful experiences in my life, because I felt uprooted, sad and unwelcomed. At the same time, I felt a sense a freedom in being in a new place. When I finished college, I decided I wanted to work with young immigrants. That’s what I wanted to do at that time, so I started working in the storefront of a very small community organization that had just opened an office in a part of New York City that’s quite isolated in Staten Island. The reason why I started there was because my aunt, who was the director of the organization at the time, said “there’s lots of young immigrants there, if you want to work with immigrants, you should go there.” In my mind, I imagined 15 or 16 year-olds who were in school, but the reality was very different. There weren’t that many young immigrants, but they were working as day laborers and in the backs of restaurant kitchens, and they just did not have a life of a young person.

I met two young people through that organization who just really moved me, when they had crossed through Mexico they were 14 or 15 and they had crossed the border by themselves in order to work and to send money back home. They were working at the deli across the street from my office, cutting meats and stocking the shelves. They worked 12 hours days and at the end of those days they would come to my office to take English classes. They were making $3.00 an hour and working really exploitative jobs. When they came to classes, they came because they had dreams, even though they were living a very soul-crushing life. Their souls were not crushed, quite the opposite, they were filled with strength. One of them was fifteen and my brother at the time was fifteen and I remember thinking, ‘We share so much, so much cultural experiences, and the experience of migration and at the same time we’re very different.’

How does your work in the Center for Popular Democracy intersect with your #metoo activism and work toward gender equality?

I started protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court after a year and a half of fighting the Trump regime. We were fighting to save our healthcare, fighting against the tax bills, fighting to protect immigrant families, fighting to denounce the separation of children at the border. There were many fights, and those those fights evolved as people in the movement began to collaborate more deeply. By the time we started protesting Kavanaugh, which was in the middle of the summer, my organizations was working with women’s rights organizations and social justices organizations and democracy organizations and healthcare warriors. We understood that Kavanaugh represented a threat to everything because with him on the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court would stop protecting the Bill of Rights and women’s equality. I have spent most of my life fighting for immigrant families’ right live without fear, and I understood that he represented a threat to immigrants because many of his positions were very anti-immigrant. The protest attracted people who were losing their healthcare– immigrant families, and workers. When Dr. Blasey Ford’s story came to light, people wondered why it took her 30 years to share this. They think it doesn’t sound credible, it seems so opportunistic. Now when women, but not only women, began to reveal their stories in an effort to educate the country about why people don’t report and why sexual violence is so widespread in Washington, the healthcare warriors and the immigrants who were already protesting began to share their stories for the first time in an effort to stand in solidarity with Dr. Ford, and to really allow the country to look at itself and to see the culture that enables sexual violence.

It was in that context that I also shared my story for the first time, I never ever considered myself a #metoo activist, in fact I had a really hard time when the #metoo hashtag broke out last year. I wrote the facebook post and erased it and wrote it and erased it – I just couldn’t bring myself to say it, and it was just in the context of these very powerful displays of courage that I was seeing around me that I too felt invited to walk past my fear and share my story.

How do you think the #metoo movement itself, which involved validating and hearing women’s truths about what happened to them in the past, evolved with Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation?

Well, I think Kavanaugh’s nomination showed the extent to which the patriarchy reasserts itself, men will rally around each other, conservative men will just dismiss the voices of women, it is consistent with their politics and consistent with their behavior, and I think the nomination really put that in display, like how much women’s voices and experiences are just ignored in our culture in service of keeping men in power. Kavanaugh is in the Supreme Court, he has been accused of attempted rape, and he I don’t think we’ll ever be able to shake that association, this will be who he is to the country for as long as he is there. I think the reckoning, that like make it you know abuse of power in some ways and the courage of women and that is also very much displayed and it really clarified… sometimes we don’t see patriarchy, sometimes we’re so used it that we don’t actually see it and we don’t see it being reinforced, because it’s invisible but all of us swim in it and all of us socialize to accept it, so I think it was eye-opening and very politically powerful, especially for young people and young women and girls, who watched it happening, and I think it really changed the level of consciousness and clarity that people have about how much the patriarchy will resist change and how much we have to push.

I understand that it was a coincidence that you encountered Senator Flake in the elevator. How has that experience impacted the activism you want to pursue? Do you think it could be an effective tactic going forward?

So the way that the tactics that we were using for the protests was the tactic of disruption and it’s basically three things: disrupt through interrupting the hearings when the hearings were happening, or disrupt through civil disobedience in the hallways of congress, like people blocking the hallways, and disrupting the regular flow of the congressional staff basically. And then, what we were doing was trying to find members of the Senate in the building, look for them in the hallways, look for them as they were walking into their offices out of their offices, and look for them and try to tell them our stories– that was a tactic, we would sometimes go like hundreds of people would go to one Senator’s office, and stand in front of the office and begin to tell stories, stories of healthcare and stories of abortion and stories of whatever, many different types of stories. And then, the police would eventually come and they would arrest people, so that was where the civil disobedience would happen, and it was a way to kind of insert our voices in to the debate. The week that Dr. Ford testified, on the Monday of that week, I joined a protest, I went to Senator Flake’s office actually with hundreds of people, and that was the first time that I told my story, in that Senate protest. It was very difficult very scary for me, and Dr. Ford testified on Thursday of that week in excruciating detail about what happened. And at the end of Thursday right after her testimony, many thousands of people went to march, and blocked the street in front of the Supreme Court, and so I was among them, and I spent the afternoon in jail, after Dr. Ford’s testimony. And then, when I came out of jail, that’s when we heard the news that the Republicans were basically ready to vote for Kavanaugh, they had heard enough and they didn’t think there was a need for any further investigation, they were fine. And so the next day was the day that they scheduled the vote, and I went back to the Senate building, where everyone was gathered every morning, basically because a friend of mine was visiting and joining the protest for the first time, I only had one hour and I was supposed to take the train back to New York City, I went with my suitcase to the building to say hi to him [my friend] and he had met that same day Maria Gallagher the other woman from the elevator, they had just met. So I went, I met her, everyone was tired and disorganized, like one organizer told her You should go to Sen. Flake’s office and try to find him and talk to him, basically , so the three of us went to Senator Flake’s office, and I was like “We’re not going to find him we never find them you know I never expect to really see them, and when you see them they are always in a hurry and can’t stop. So I kept telling her “oh we won’t see him” if you do see him just speak from your heart that’s all you have to do, and we stood outside his office for half and hour, it was just us and reporters, which made us think that maybe he was in fact in his office, and then a few minutes before 9:30 which was when the meeting was about to start, the reporters huddled around a phone and that’s how we found out that he had just released a statement saying that he was ready to vote for Brett Kavanaugh, that’s how found out. If we hadn’t been standing close to the reporters we wouldn’t have known. And then I said to my friend “well bye, it was nice to meet you Maria, bye” and I started to walk away, and that’s when Flake came out of his office, and that’s when the reporters basically ran behind him, and my friends ran behind them, and my friend called me, and so I came running back.

Because everyone was running behind him, I think that created a lot of adrenaline, and the fact that we had just found out that he was going to support Kavanaugh, our emotions were very high. And I just did not think that we would see him but once we saw him, because I had told my story in front of his office for the first time, I felt (at the expense of) the experience of outrage and pain, and it wasn’t like I was being like “oh we’re going to trap him in the elevator,” I never thought that we would be able to get him for that long, and that it would be televised, none of these things could have been planned. But I was ready, Maria was there for the first time, that was day 1 of the protest for her, she had never talked to an elected official, had never said “i was sexually assaulted” ever, and she had never out loud herself said those words. She just went and she did it, and the lesson for me, I was inspired by the courage around me to share my story, and she was inspired by the moment of bravery in the elevator, to tell her story, so courage is contagious, protest is necessary in order to allow people to find their power.

#Metoo came largely out of social media. How does sharing your story online compare to confronting someone in person? What does it say about technology’s role in activism?

I think that in order to make democracy work for us we have to force direct human contact with our elected officials. They live in bubbles that are fortified by their staff and their donors and their closed doors and their busy schedules but they don’t make time, they do not govern by listening, and they’re used to being able to walk away from people, and I think that we have to demand connection and forcibly get in their faces and ask very pointed questions, and really center the debate around lived experiences they have, because otherwise they don’t actually debate the merit, they just do dealmaking, so in their minds, their politics are reduced to the party, and whoever is powerful inside their party or whatever short-term political consummation they make, and they’re not making decisions that are informed by the experiences of the people they impact. And so, I think social media is super important, it has been essential for organizing the resistance, but we can’t just be clicking and expect that democracy is going to work for us. We have to show up, and we have to take space.

You’ve talked about the impact being a mother of two has had on your work, and how you yourself embody many identities that need to be fought for. How do we unify the struggle of many oppressed groups instead of fracturing into different identities like sexual orientation, national origin, and race?

For me it was very clear that the fight about the Supreme Court was a fight about everything and everyone. About employment, about workers rights, about women’s rights, about immigrants’ rights, about criminal justice, everything. But, that’s too abstract. We are in a moment where there’s a real conflict for what kind of country we’ll become or what kind of country we are. There is on the one hand, Trump’s vision for the country which is a vision that excludes many people, when he says make America great again he means America without immigrants, he means without black people there to act powerful, he means a vision of America that is exclusive, and I think we have to fight for a vision that includes all of us, and that doesn’t mean erasing our identity, it actually means accepting that we each carry experiences that are different from each other, and that that’s does not then equal having then the hierarchy of whose life is more important and actually trying to understand that our differences are essential. That they cannot be made invisible, like I don’t think that it serves us well for us for example not to invite men to try to look at the world through the eyes of women, it’s actually helpful for them to try to do that, it’s important for white people to try to imagine well not really imagine but really learn by listening what the lives of black people are like in this country, or the lives of immigrants, so we need to tell each other’s stories, to be able to really see each others’ humanity clearly and build a practice of appreciating difference and engaging ina and recognizing each others’ humanity. But the way that I understood the question between immigrant rights and the fight for women’s rights, it really clicked for me recently, as I was listening to Trump talk about the caravan of migrants at the border, you know saying like, I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, there are like thousands of people who are facing this long journey through central america to the border, people who are basically in the most desperate moments of their life and doing something incredibly courageous, to just find safety and maybe a job. The way that he [Trump] talks about the caravan, is he says, “these are groups, this is a mob of men, dangerous, violent men, who are rapists and criminals” and what he’s doing by using that language is evoking the reasons that were used to justify lynchings in America, lynchings of black men, which is ‘men of color are dangerous to our women,’ and when he says our women he means white women, and embedded in that is the idea that women are ____ impassible?  , women need protection, because women are weak. So it’s the connection between patriarchal thinking and racist ideology, he uses it as two mutually supportive ideas, and so I think a lot of people talk about Trump’s racism, it’s very overt, it’s very obvious, not enough of us talk about Trump and his political program, this white nationalist program, we don’t talk enough about the patriarchy, and the discourse that essentially says “women are inferior, they need our protection, they are ours, first of all, they belong to us, they need our protection because they are inferior humans, we men white men must be in power, because the other men are really dangerous, they’re rapists and criminals.” And it’s a very powerful thing because anyone that believes themselves to be white might be attracted to it, any man might who’s feeling purposeless or threatened might feel attracted to that, and so people are like yeah I want to feel like I am a protector, it’s a powerful way of being in the world, instead of like ‘i want to walk alongside you and respect you’ and assume your power your powerful review and self-determination, and so that’s where the two strands of work connect, and more recently I’m really fighting back against the patriarchy, that’s where they connect, and we have to see that. And so, I think that in order to not end up in the country that Trump is building, we have to insist on more clarifying conversations that allow ourselves to understand each other, and we have to say that no one can be equal unless we fight back against racism AND against patriarchy, they are mutually supportive systems and we have to fight back against them at the same time. We can’t be doing women’s rights work and turn a blind eye to racism because if you know the ideology that women are inferior, that people of color are inferior, it builds on each other.