power

The Clarifying Power of AOC’s Storytelling

Photo: aoc/Instagram

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez went live on Instagram last night to describe in vivid, harrowing detail her experience during the Capitol insurrection. Facing the camera, speaking passionately and clearly, she spent several minutes recounting, step by step, what it felt like to wait in her office, terrified, as someone banged violently on her door — “like someone was trying to break the door down.” She recalled making eye contact with an aide, “and [he] just looks at me back, and goes: ‘Hide. Hide. Run and hide.’”

She says she sprinted into the bathroom, and soon after could hear that a man had broken in. “Then I start to hear these yells of: Where is she? Where is she? … I just thought to myself, They got inside,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This was the moment where I thought everything was over. I mean, I thought I was going to die.”

She realized afterward that the man was a member of the Capitol Police, but says she was “so rattled,” and the situation felt so volatile, that she wasn’t sure she was safe. It would later come out that one of the rioters had previously tweeted about assassinating her, and that Republican lawmakers may have given large tours to Trump supporters the day before the insurrection. She was right to be terrified — ever since she’s been in office, the Republican Establishment has made her a target, and the far right has threatened her with violence in horrifyingly explicit terms. Her own colleagues have accosted and menaced her, spewing misogynistic vitriol.

The entire stream was AOC at the height of her rhetorical powers. It showcased her unique ability to not just communicate to the public compellingly to get a political message across, but also authentically, giving the most in-depth, extremely personal account we have yet heard from a lawmaker about what it was like to be inside the Capitol that day. It was also a move of defiance against her Republican colleagues, who have been trying to deflect from their own culpability in the January 6 events by minimizing her (and others’) experiences, insisting that everyone should just move on.

Despite overwhelming evidence that many of the insurrectionists planned to do serious harm — such as photos of armed men storming the House floor bearing zip ties, footage of crowds roaring for Mike Pence to be executed, and public assassination threats — Republicans have still not faced consequences for their role in inciting a violent upheaval in their own place of work. None of the main instigators, primarily Ted Cruz, who attended the Stop the Steal rally, and Josh Hawley, who even raised a fist in solidarity with rioters on the morning of the 6th, have apologized — not even to the Capitol Police, which saw two officers lose their lives. Stunningly, though, they have called for Ocasio-Cortez to apologize for being so vocal about their culpability.

Last night, she said she had given these legislators a monthlong “window of opportunity” to take responsibility for what they did, but that they only “doubled down.” She was referring in part to an interaction she had with Cruz last week, in which he indicated that he was open to collaborating with her on legislation. “You almost had me murdered three months ago so you can sit this one out,” she replied. In response, Cruz called her tweet “partisan anger and rage,” saying it wasn’t “conducive of healing or unity.” A colleague of AOC’s in the House, Representative Chip Roy, then wrote a threatening letter to Nancy Pelosi demanding she “apologize immediately,” or “we will be forced to find alternative means to condemn this regrettable statement.”

But what would “healing or unity” look like in this situation, when Cruz and his party haven’t taken any accountability? Instead of reacting with any kind of remorse, they’ve done everything they can to try to evade punishment or even acknowledge that they had a role in what happened. And they expect Ocasio-Cortez, one of the primary targets of the rioters’ vitriol, to still go to work with them every day, to play nice. How could she continue to interact with someone who raised a fist in solidarity with people who threatened to end her life?

It’s an outrageous demand, and a damaging one. Ocasio-Cortez put it in blisteringly personal terms: “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. These are the same tactics of abusers.” There are people who endured the Capitol riots, like AOC, who are still processing the trauma, still imagining what might have happened if any of the participants actually got into members’ offices while they were still there. There are lawmakers, like Pramila Jayapal and Bonnie Watson Coleman, who caught COVID-19, as their unmasked Republican colleagues scoffed at them. By putting it in such stark personal terms, AOC makes it impossible to overlook the lasting harm — and points out the cowardice, cruelty, and abject absurdity in the GOP’s demand that everyone just move on. How could they? The wounds haven’t healed, and won’t without actual accountability.

By personalizing the violence in great detail, and refusing to censor herself or downplay her emotions, she made it all the more difficult for Cruz, or anyone else, to silence her by saying she was exaggerating what she felt or that she is at fault for sowing divisiveness. There is no denying, after hearing her harrowing account, that Cruz, Hawley, and other instigators must face a reckoning. “The accountability is not about revenge,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It’s about creating safety. And we are not safe with people who hold positions of power who are willing to endanger the lives of others if they think it will score them a political point.”