Anger, pain, and courage.
That was what the moment was about.
Two women and their pain.
A U.S. Senator in an elevator, literally trapped and torn.
Frozen by their escalating anger and anguish over what he had just announced.
A yes vote for Brett Kavanaugh to join the Supreme Court.
I met these two young women earlier that morning waiting outside Sen. Jeff Flake’s office. Our CNN crew (photographer Dave Burgess and producer Jasmine Wright) and I were positioned there at 7:30 a.m., hoping to catch him to get a heads-up on his vote.
Ana Maria Archila, a self-described activist from New York City, told me she was sexually assaulted when she was five years old. She had been to Flake’s office on Monday hoping to see him, but could not, so she revealed the story of her attack to Flake’s staffers instead.
And Maria Gallagher, 23, a recent graduate from Virginia, who said she had never spoken publicly about her own sexual assault until that face-to-face moment with Flake in the elevator.
The two were strangers just hours ago who discovered they had a similar pain and decided to go to Flake’s office because they thought he could be their critical ally.
About five minutes before the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote, we all got the message at the same time, an email on our cell phones, announcing Flake was supporting Kavanaugh.
Immediately, Archila and Gallagher gasped, becoming very emotional. Then we spotted Flake darting from his office with a few staffers and heading down the hall.
We took off after him, as did the women. We caught up with him just as he was getting into the elevator. The doors were closing, and Archila literally and figuratively put her foot down — causing the doors to open.
Flake was stuck. Having to explain his position. In this small, hot, enclosed space which quickly filled with raw unbridled, unscripted emotion.
“You have children in your family. Think about them. I have two children. I cannot imagine that for the next 50 years they will have to have someone in the Supreme Court who has been accused of violating a young girl,” Archila shouted. “What are you doing, sir?”
And then Gallagher.
“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 are going to ignore them,’” she shouted. “That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you are telling all women in America, that they don’t matter.”
The two took turns confronting Flake, as the elevator buzzed, and his aides tried to push any button that would close the doors.
Initially, I had started to ask Flake a question but I quickly realized this was a moment to be quiet. That what was unfolding before our eyes was much more impactful than anything I could ask or say.
“Don’t look away from me. Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me, that you will let people like that go into the highest court of the land,” Gallagher insisted when Flake lowered his head.
What I heard, and what the world would see live on CNN, was rage and pain. Pain on Flake’s face, and pain in the voices of the women who needed him to hear their stories. It was roughly 24 hours after professor Christine Blasey Ford raised her hand before this same senator, to tell of her 36 years of pain. She was polite, cooperative, sometimes scientific. If she was angry, she didn’t show it. But the anger came anyway. On Twitter, on C-SPAN, in furious texts sent by women all over the country, who felt unheard and unseen.
And there, in the elevator, Flake, with nowhere to go, was forced to hear their rage.
“Do you think that Brett is telling the truth? Do you think that he’s able to hold the pain of this country and repair it? That is the work of justice,” Archila yelled.
The exchange was close to five minutes but felt much longer. As the doors began to close, I asked Flake if he would consider delaying the vote for an FBI investigation as the American Bar Association had just requested. At that moment he had no response.
After the senator was gone, I talked with Archila, and later found Gallagher, overcome with emotion, crying with a friend on the floor. Gallagher later told me she initially had merely planned to hold up a little sign and position herself in the back of a larger group of demonstrators. She felt nauseous and powerless upon hearing about Flake’s supportive Kavanaugh position, and grew angry, she said.
Gallagher said her mother called her shortly after the elevator confrontation to tell her she had seen her on live TV, and how proud she was of her daughter and her courage. Gallagher felt empowered.
At the time of the confrontation, I had no idea it was playing out live on television. As journalists, we often focus on the big, obvious moments; speeches, foreign trips, and policy announcements.
But from this rare, personal and intimate elevator moment,we would soon learn afterward the power those two women, survivors of sexual assault, wielded in having it play out.
Their voices were heard and change was about to come.