AOC and Compounded Trauma
This week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out about the Capitol insurrection compounding her trauma as a survivor of sexual assault. Three years ago, AOC published her stories alongside other Justice Democrats confronting the #MeToo wave sweeping Congress. In a just world, we would not need to keep re-opening our most painful wounds... but here they are, out in the open. I am sharing these stories below because I believe in order to transform the cycles of violation, we need to understand their impact.
In truth, my nightmares have made a resurgence in the last month, too. I can't imagine what it is like in Congress, but I can share what I do know. January 6th, 2021: the panic buttons are ripped out of Rep Ayanna Pressley's office and my friend — the Congresswoman — Alex was retraumatized. The Cosplay Shaman-led attempted coup fell one month after an LAPD officer struck me multiple times with a police baton in front of LA Mayor Garcetti's mansion estate for standing between a Black man on the ground and a blow to the back of the head.
What angers me is the audacity; how blatantly people are willing to trash human dignity. The flippancy of bullies makes me deeply sad for them, but before I could feel compassion for their hurts, I had to acknowledge my own.
Our Stories, Our Voices
Justice Democrats Candidates and Staff speak out about their own experiences with sexual violence and harassment.
Candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, New York 14th
Like many women, I have never discussed these experiences before — because like many young girls, I was implicitly taught that the silence of convenience is preferable to calls for justice. I will not teach my daughters the same.
Five variations on a theme.
One. I was around six years old. My family had just moved into a small, safe neighborhood when the attempted kidnapping took place. I sat on the white fence at the front of our home, waiting for my parents to get ready for a family outing.
Slowly, an old grey (or was it blue?) sedan pulled up in front of me. The driver had a thick mustache like my father. As children do, I waved. The man looked at me and brought his car to a stop. He climbed out and moved towards me — hands reaching out to grasp my torso.
My mother ripped out of the house, nearly tearing off the screen door. She screamed and screamed, face in anguish, blow dryer still in hand, cord dangling. No! Stop!
I fell from the fence. The man ran back into the car and hit the gas. Later, the police officers in my living room told me the man was dangerous. I didn’t really understand. That weekend, my father tore down the white fence. We never talked about it again.
Two. I was fourteen years old, sitting in a packed subway car headed to the local hospital where I was working on a science project. An older man around the age of forty looked at me and said hello. I waved back, my mouth packed full with metal braces. He said he liked my smile; that I didn’t look fourteen, and where did I live? I left as politely as possible.
Three. My first week in college I went with some friends to a frat party at MIT. I didn’t drink. It was a wild scene: heavy, loud, sweaty, confusing. I saw a young man, not older than 20, sling a semi-conscious girl over his shoulder and walk her up the stairs to the bedroom, her head dangling and blonde hair swaying with each step. There were so many people. Everyone saw. I didn’t know what to do. It could have been something or nothing. It felt dangerous and banal at the same time. I wish I could go back in time and tell that younger version of myself to act, to watch her, to make sure she was safe. At the time, virtually all campuses in Boston were silencing reports of sexual assault.
Four. I had graduated college and was seeing a young man two or three years older than me. He had all the traditional markers of trust: elite education, well-groomed, hard-working, mentored young men. He was introduced to me by friends and family.
Despite his education, the words ‘no’ and ‘stop’ weren’t in his vocabulary.
Five. I am now a candidate for United States Congress. One day, I mentioned the topic of feminism in an Instagram story.
The replies flooded in:
“Please don’t talk about this in your campaign.”
“I support you, but stick to the real issues.”
“Talking about this is Identity Politics and it’s how you lose.”
This time, I know better. I know that truth outshines power. Telling the truth is the first step in fighting for a just world, one that ends the practice of cloaking sexual predation and abuse of power in a shroud of silence. It is time to hold each other accountable, to positively establish safe and just environments — even when it’s inconvenient in the short term. It is time for both victims and the accused to have a fair due process deserving of a just society.
Lastly, I am thankful for the courageous women before me whose testimonies have given me the strength to say, #MeToo.
Shannon Thomas JD Staffer
“We don’t believe you. And even if we did, we aren’t going to do anything about it.”
That’s what I heard when my country elected a serial predator to the White House. The Billy Bush tapes pressed play on my worst nightmare, and on January 20th, a rapist took the Oath of Office. It was the worst time in my young adult life and, sadly for me, that’s actually saying a lot. You see, I’m no stranger to institutional betrayal.
I was 20 years old when I was first sexually assaulted. A scared junior in college at home on summer break, I did what I was supposed to when everything goes wrong: I got a rape kit, I told the LA Police Department my story, and I spent the scariest 15 minutes of my life in the lobby of a Planned Parenthood, waiting to find out if I was HIV positive. In many ways, I’m still waiting. The police never followed up with me or came to collect the rest of the evidence. To this day, my bra and underwear from that night are still tucked away in a brown paper bag, carefully folded on the top shelf of my childhood bedroom.
That was the first time, when I told the police, and nothing happened. The second time, I told my university, and nothing still.
My senior year, I returned to Berkeley with just enough time before graduation for a boy in my class to start harassing me online — first political threats, then rape threats. When I showed his messages to the administration, I was told “he’s just joking. You shouldn’t take things so seriously. Try to be friends.” It was around that time I had my first panic attack and my first seizure. I developed constant nightmares, sleep paralysis, and a scarlet rash that covered my neck. Finally, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I spent the last months of undergrad trying to write my thesis while I sat next to that guy for 3 hours a week. It wasn’t until 31 other survivors and I filed a very public Title IX complaint that the university took any action (apparently no one likes bad press). But even after all that, they never removed him from my class, and to this day, I still have nightmares.
It was the most invisible feeling to share my truth and not be believed. So the third time something happened, I said nothing at all… until now.
At the ripe-old-age of 25, the years since my first assault have been a battle to reclaim my life and make some meaning of what’s happened to me. I moved to India to combat gender violence, and I took self-defense classes; I filled the pages of news articles on sexual violence, and I published my own; I spent free hours counseling survivors, and I upended my career plans to help elect progressives (and progressive women) to Congress. I thought if I just worked hard enough to change things fast enough, I could outrun the trauma I’ve experienced. But clearly there’s more work to be done, because I was raped just two months ago.
This time, after having been failed by every institution of power I’ve encountered, it was tempting to stay silent. But as usual, Audre Lorde already spoke the words I needed to hear: “And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.”
At Audre’s urging, here is what I have to say. If we only support survivors when it’s politically convenient, we are not allies, we are complicit. If we say “we believe women” and then defend abusers, we empower rape culture. And if we build a progressive movement without half of the population, we are not populists.
Thankfully, we have more chances to do it right because life goes on beyond our twenties, and beyond January 20th. I know because on January 21st, the day after the inauguration, I stepped into the streets with millions of women marching on Washington. Those same women are running for office in droves, and even more are coming forward with their stories. I won’t let them speak alone, because for each one, there are a thousand more — the high school girls I met at the Women’s Convention in Detroit, the waitress at the Baton Rouge truckstop, the journalist in her boardroom, Cyntoia Brown in the courtroom, maybe some of you out there too. If we can lend our voices to each other when we can’t speak for ourselves, maybe we will finally be heard. And maybe, next election, the American people will answer us differently.
“We believe you, and we are going to do something about it.”