Senator David Perdue, a Republican from Georgia, was walking through the arrivals area of Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport on Monday, when he was approached by three women. They wanted to ask him about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who has continued to enjoy vociferous support from the GOP despite the facing numerous allegations of sexual assault.
“Senator, I am a sexual-assault survivor,” one said as he shoved past her on the escalator.
“There are millions of women who have come forward about their sexual assault, and you don’t feel you have to ask any questions?” asked another. Perdue ignored her.
“Senator, I’m State Representative Isela Blanc,” another woman said, running in front of him and extending her hand for a handshake, which he ignored. “I’m State Representative Isela Blanc,” she repeated.
Perdue then stopped suddenly, and raised a finger.
“If I am touched another time…” he warned, before promptly retreating to the peace and quiet of the airport men’s room.
The tense encounter is the latest in a series of heated confrontations between sheepish lawmakers and activists who demand that they take a stand on the allegations against Kavanaugh. The most viral of these meetings took place last Friday morning, when Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), and Maria Gallagher, a recent college graduate from Virginia, cornered Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona in an elevator about his decision to vote to approve Kavanaugh.
“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. 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’re going to ignore them,” Gallagher sobbed, while Flake, visibly uncomfortable, avoided her gaze.
Their ambush seemed to work. When he returned to the hearing room later that day, Flake, appearing shaken, asked the Judiciary Committee to delay the vote on Kavanaugh pending an FBI investigation into Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against him.
Since then, members of the CPD and other activists have confronted several lawmakers, including Republican senators Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, and Ted Cruz, and Democratic senators Angus King, Richard Blumenthal, Maggie Hassan, and Patrick Leahy. And although these meetings may seem spontaneous, they are in fact the result of a year of mobilization and training by the CPD and other organizations who have determined that this aggressive, in-your-face approach known as “bird-dogging,” is one of the most effective ways right now to get their message across.
“We wanted to make sure our senators couldn’t just ignore the calls of their constituents,” Jennifer Epps-Addison told the Cut. Epps-Addison is the co-executive director of CPD along with Achila, and is one of the women who approached Purdue at the airport on Monday. The traditional methods of contacting your representatives — calling them, arranging meetings — have not been working, she explained. When she was in Flake’s office on Friday, she said, “the phones were ringing off the hook, and nobody was answering them.”
“This tactic of bird-dogging is the only way that we actually have the ability to directly ask the people who make decisions that represent their lives, to directly ask them where they stand.”
Tracey Corder, CPD’s racial justice campaign director, confronted several senators on Monday, including McConnell and Corker. Each hour-long bird-dogging training, she told the Cut, is about learning how to be comfortable approaching a lawmaker, how to ask effective questions, and how to use your personal story in a way that will get you heard. They also role-play with participants to get them more comfortable with demanding answers from a politician who may not want to give them. But even for Corder, who has participated in these trainings all around the country, the experience of confronting someone and wielding your own trauma as a weapon can be “terrifying.”
“Yesterday, I was talking to Bob Corker, and he said, ‘I know this must be fun for you,’ in reference to us telling our survivor stories, and that was a really difficult moment. That was really hurtful, because it’s not fun to recount your story of sexual abuse,” she said. “If I hadn’t been going to trainings and doing trainings all over the country, I don’t know how I would have reacted in that moment.”
While publicly demanding answers from politicians is not a new practice, the effectiveness of bird-dogging has been hugely amplified by social media, where a video of a lawmaker stating their position or, in the case of Purdue, refusing to state their position and hiding in a bathroom, can instantly be broadcast across the world.
In this case, Republicans’ refusal to engage is particularly telling. Throughout the hearings, Republican lawmakers praised Dr. Blasey Ford for her credibility, likely aware of how bad it would look if they called her a liar. They tried to have it both ways, acknowledging that something terrible had happened to her while also insisting on Kavanaugh’s innocence. It was a cheap rhetorical move, especially given that Dr. Blasey Ford said she was “100 percent certain” Kavanaugh was her assailant, but turning sexual-assault survivors into an abstraction helped the senators keep some distance: They could claim that of course they care about survivors in general, but this one is just mixed up, and of course allegations of sexual assault should be taken seriously, but these ones are an exception. When faced with actual, non-abstract, flesh-and-blood survivors, though, the ruse falls apart.
Citing her own bird-dogging of a dismissive Mitch McConnell, Naina Khanna of the Positive Women’s Network told the Cut: “When elected officials like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to speak to us when we bring our legitimate concerns about issues that can be life or death, that also says a lot about what they think and who matters to them. Lots of people noticed that even as he refused to address the two women of color I was with and myself, he shook the hand of a white man. Even small actions like that shed light on their interests, their priorities, and who they feel they are accountable to.”
Ultimately, bird-dogging’s greatest strength is that is forces politicians to confront the humanity of the people their policies affect. These encounters are raw and emotional, because the issues being discussed are raw and emotional, and have a very real impact on people’s lives.
“Imagine standing there and publicly sharing one of the most awful experiences of your life with someone who is not sympathetic,” Jess Morales Rocketto, the political director of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance said in an email, after confronting senator Ted Cruz. “And I have not shared my story of sexual assault with many people. It was like, ‘Hey Ted Cruz, look at my humanity! I won’t let you ignore my story and every survivor’s.’ And in that moment, you hope that someone like Ted Cruz wakes up and realizes that you’re a human being, and how he votes will impact you and his daughters and all women out there.”
This has been updated to include Jess Morales Rocketto’s full job title.