The first time Kristi was ever arrested was a week ago, she told me.
It happened outside of Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) office. She and a group of other protesters had gone there to demand that Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination be withdrawn. After they refused to move, Capitol Hill police officers placed them in plastic handcuffs and did the moving for them.
Kristi, who refuses to give her last name lest she become targeted by Kavanaugh’s supporters, was held for three hours. Before she was taken away, she had the foresight to tell a fellow activist to call her daughter, who’d need to pick up her brother from school since mom would be, well, indisposed.
Such acts of civil disobedience are not part of Kristi’s normal routine. She’s 55 years old and can only recall ever attending two rallies in her life: one in the 1980s to support the pro-choice movement, and the women’s march last year in protest at Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Kavanaugh changed her, she says. His nomination didn’t compel her to come to D.C. so much as it overwhelmed her into doing so. She is a survivor who remains, to this day, incapable of telling her story. She would only tell me how old she was when it happened and on condition that I didn’t print even that detail. She begs off organizers who ask if she will confront lawmakers by recounting that horror for them. But she knew, in a single moment, that she had to come to Washington to lobby lawmakers.
“It wasn’t even a decision,” she said. “I couldn’t not come. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I came and found the activists leaders and I said to them: What do you want me to do, I’ll do it?’”
By mid-afternoon Tuesday, Kristi had found her way to the basement of the Russell Senate office building, waiting to confront senators going through the tunnels to the Capitol building for caucus lunches. It’s the location she’d been assigned by the UltraViolet—the progressive women’s group organizing the bird-dogging of lawmakers. She was wearing New Balance shoes and a small satchel travel bag with pins on it that say “I believe Christine,” in reference to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser. Her short-cropped hair and black-rimmed glasses belie the notion that she’s some sort of hardened liberal activist. She doesn’t bother to play the part either. As lawmakers pass through, she yells from a distance.
“Why do you refuse to believe Dr. Ford?”
When they’re not there, she nervously looks around the corner to see who might be coming down the hall. The anxiety oozes from her.
“I was so scared when my daughter was growing up,” Kristi tells me. “People told me it was because of my own history. But it wasn’t. I was scared because of this culture. Women are collateral damage. We are not believed. I’m here because this woman, Christine Ford, did not want to come forward... She did not want this. She did it because she had to. And I wasn’t going to let her do it alone.”
There is a remarkable paradox to the Kavanaugh confirmation battle. Women across the country have been moved to come forward with their own stories of sexual assault. They’ve called into CSPAN, confronted lawmakers in elevators, and shared moments with each other on the floors of Senate office atriums.
And yet, for these same women, the fight over Kavanaugh is a frightening case study of the perils of stepping forward in the first place. Dr. Ford, to them, is at once a hero and a cautionary tale. And how the Senate ultimately chooses to vote in the coming days will be seen not just as a referendum on Kavanaugh but on the notion that women will ever truly be believed in the first place; that their own stories actually matter.
So they’ve mobilized.
They’ve given money. Act Blue, the online portal for campaign donations reported its biggest day ever for giving on Sunday, Sept. 30th, and its second biggest day on Friday, September 28th. They’ve volunteered. Run for Something, the progressive organization that encourages first time candidates, so massive uptick in interest as the confirmation battle heated up.
They’ve overrun local offices. And they’ve come to D.C. to lobby. Melissa Byrne, action adviser for UltraViolet, said that at least 60 people had volunteered to birddog senators so far. On the day that the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Kavanaugh’s nomination, they had someone shadowing every member on the panel. They’ve come so regularly that the security guards now know them. They’ve come because lawmakers no longer hold town halls, where constituents usually can plead their case. “We bring the town hall to them,” is how Byrne puts it.
Kristi said she’s been roaming through Senate offices for 12 days now. She’s fortunate since she can go home at night. Others were staying at local churches because they had nowhere else to go. Naina Khanna, 41 and a survivor too, flew in from Oakland on Sunday and pledged to stay “as long as I am needed.”
“I think a confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh for survivors would indicate for us that at the highest levels of justice in this land, our stories don’t matter, the truth doesn’t matter, and what happened to us doesn’t matter,” said Khanna, executive director of the Positive Women’s Network, a national membership group of women living with HIV.
Some of the demonstrators are savvy politically. But much of what they’re doing is slapdash and improvised.
No one, for example, seems to have a full grasp on the members of the United States Senate. At one point, a crew chased a middle-aged man to the elevator, to demand he oppose Kavanaugh. His fleshy white face, neatly parted hair, and circular pin on his lapel gave off a senatorial vibe. But, alas. “I appreciate what you’re doing,” he said at one point. “But you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m not a senator.”
Byrne compared the process to fishing. The vast majority of the time, nothing happens. And then, suddenly, you reel one in. It’s what happened with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), when two survivors caught him in the elevator and demanded that he listen to their stories. On Tuesday, the closest they came is with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) who recognized the crew from an earlier interaction and angrily pointed his finger at Byrne before scampering off towards the Capitol.
At the end of the day, it didn’t appear that many people, let alone senators, were reconsidering where they will come down on the nominee. All of which has created a near-paralyzing sense of urgency for those who have gathered. They’ve revealed the most horrifying moments of their lives for lawmakers and the public, and it all might be for naught.
“It would mean that they don’t have the ears to hear the truth from survivors, from a credible survivor who had absolutely nothing to gain by coming here and putting herself on the line like this,” Kristi explains. “I will be devastated and ashamed. I will be working very hard to not let their shame add to what I already deal with.”