On Monday night, New York Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke on a live video on her Instagram page about her fears during the January 6 riot in Congress. In gripping detail, Ocasio-Cortez described how she hid in the bathroom as she heard banging on the door to her office. “I start to hear these yells of ‘Where is she, where is she?’ and I just thought to myself, they got inside,” Ocasio-Cortez recalled. “This was the moment where I thought everything was over.” She remembers thinking she was “going to die.”
During the talk, Ocasio-Cortez compared the trauma of the day with her earlier experience of sexual assault, which she has alluded to before but never in so much detail. “I’m a survivor of sexual assault,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”
Ocasio-Cortez spoke in such personal terms in order to reject calls to move on from the events of January 6. “We cannot move on without accountability,” she insisted. “We cannot heal without accountability.”
The January 6 riot was so shocking that one would think there should be no need to insist on its importance. But the very fact that the failed insurrection revealed the explosive violence of Trumpist Republicans makes political interests vested in bipartisan cooperation all the more eager to whitewash the events.
This tendency is true not just of Republicans but also the media—and even some factions on the left. The late novelist Gore Vidal liked to quip that America should be called the United States of Amnesia. This national preference for willful forgetfulness is already evident in varied attempts to push the January 6 violence down the memory hole.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is among the most vocal advocates for a quick turn of the page. Appearing on Fox News on Monday, Graham warned that calling witnesses for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump would “open up Pandora’s box.” Graham added, “I hope we don’t call any and we vote and get this trial over next week when it starts.”
Republicans like Graham have obvious reasons to want the public to forget about January 6 as soon as possible. But the same tendency can be seen in media reporting on Ocasio-Cortez’s comments, which zeroed in on her revelations about sexual assault at the expense of what she said about the January 6 riot. The New York Times article was headlined, “Ocasio-Cortez Says She Is a Sexual Assault Survivor.”
On Twitter, novelist Alexander Chee objected to The New York Times’ framing of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech. “This framing means the article points to the moment of her disclosure, and skims the many points she made using this detail as context for her larger point about systemic abuses that created the climate for the assault on the Capitol,” Chee argued. The effect, he added, “undermines instead of underlines her talk.”
Guardian columnist Moira Donegan made the compelling point that the linkage Ocasio-Cortez drew between her sexual assault and the trauma underscored the feminist argument the congresswoman was making about the imperative of listening to the voice of the vulnerable. “In admitting to fear, in admitting to vulnerability, in admitting to hiding for her life and to having been a survivor of assault, AOC demonstrated that she was unwilling to concede that female vulnerability is incompatible with the dignity of power,” Donegan notes. “Refusing to separate those two was a demonstration of her feminist vision, a gesture at what an authentic kind of power might look like.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to speak of her vulnerability during January 6, when she spent hours barricaded in the office of colleague Katie Porter, was a powerful reminder of why the Capitol riot still demands redress. But it wasn’t met with universal applause. Aside from the expected right-wing jeers, Ocasio-Cortez also provoked the scorn of maverick leftist Glenn Greenwald.
Speaking on the Jimmy Dore show on YouTube, Greenwald argued that by taking so strong a stance against Republicans, Ocasio-Cortez ruined an opportunity to forge a bipartisan opposition to Wall Street based on the current conflict between small investors organized on Reddit and large hedge funds.
“This week has been the most amazing week of having the left and the right unite against Wall Street,” Greenwald claimed. “Almost everybody across the spectrum supports what those Redditers are doing and is thrilled to see these hedge fund leeches suffering. It has created a major opportunity to regulate, to legislate, to reform. And Ted Cruz, whatever you think of him, reached out by saying, ‘I agree with AOC about this.’ So that was an opportunity for right and left to join together to do something that is supposedly her main reason for existing as a political figure, which is fighting income inequality, and instead she turns around and says, ‘Fuck you, I don’t want to work with you. You guys got me murdered. You’re a white supremacist.’ And suddenly the two camps divide again and over here you have the red team and over here you have the blue team cheering like morons at a fucking high school football game again because she ruined that movement. Because all she wants to do is attack Republicans and fortify the Democratic Party.”
Greenwald went on to add, “I do believe AOC was genuinely rattled by what happened at the Capitol.” But he insisted, “She made it through completely unscathed. Not even a tiny little bruise on her body. Every other member of Congress in the Democratic caucus, including Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and others are equally demonized and they are fucking over it. They got over it. If you want to be a member of Congress, you can’t constantly center your own lived experiences, you’re not there to center yourself in every drama.”
Greenwald’s analysis has many problems. It rests on the assumption that Cruz’s statement of agreement with Ocasio-Cortez was the beginning of a serious, good-faith effort to tame Wall Street. But Cruz is a notoriously slippery character, as distrusted by his Republican colleagues as by Democrats. Given his long-standing connections to Goldman Sachs, it’s hard to believe he would suddenly turn into a populist champion. Further, far from being alone in speaking of the trauma of January 6, Ocasio-Cortez has had her testimony affirmed and praised by colleagues like Porter and Tlaib.
On Monday, Omar tweeted, “Y’all stop invalidating @AOC’s experiences because you aren’t hearing about the experiences of other members. Everyone deals with trauma differently, her stories are validating for so many of us with similar experiences and she is showing people that vulnerability is strength.”
Omar didn’t aim her tweet directly at Greenwald, but it still serves as an effective rebuke to his arguments.
The force of Ocasio-Cortez’s words rest not just on her personal testimony but also on some undeniable facts: Donald Trump, while still president, stirred up a mob to attack Congress in order to thwart certification of the election of his successor. That’s a shocking deed that undermines all calls for comity. It’s understandable why various political factions are more comfortable in forgetting and moving on. But there can be no true reconciliation until the reality of what happened is acknowledged, which includes punishment for those who instigated the riot—and for those who were complicit in it.
Public figures like Ocasio-Cortez have a moral obligation to keep the memory of January 6 alive until there is accountability. To do less would mean joining the circle of complicity.