On Thursday afternoon, Laura Forbes, a soft-spoken 36-year-old from Indianapolis, sat down in front of the office of Senator Charles Grassley, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and refused to move. It was not a decision she had come to easily. Forbes, who works in marketing, hadn’t been politically active before Trump’s victory, and the idea of being arrested was something “way outside my comfort zone,” she told me. But the prospect of having Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court had brought her nearly 600 miles to Grassley’s office, where, alongside 29 other people, she blocked the door and ignored warnings from Capitol Police to disburse. As she was led away in plastic handcuffs, the halls of the Hart Senate building echoed with the chant of “I believe Anita Hill/ I believe Christine Ford.” Forbes surveyed the scene and flashed a quick smile.
The arrests capped another chaotic and fast-moving news day in the fight over Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh. (And the chaos has only intensified since then as another woman has come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.) As occurred during the hearings themselves, ordinary people opposed to Kavanaugh’s agenda—which would almost certainly include an attack on voting rights and reproductive rights, along with an extreme deference to executive power—forcibly inserted themselves into a process that had been designed to shut them out. While senators argued via press statements about how and when Ford might testify, some 200 activists, the vast majority of them women, got busy storming the Hart Senate Office Building, leading to more than 50 arrests. Republicans assumed the confirmation process would be smooth and drama free. It has turned, instead, into an uprising.
The action had begun early that morning, when dozens of protesters entered Grassley’s office and refused to leave. Once inside, they created a Twitter account, @GrassleyOccupy; their first post was a short video of Grassley’s staff hastily departing. Activists took their seats behind the reception desk.
“This is our office for the day,” said Jennifer Flynn, an organizer with the Center for Popular Democracy, which, alongside the Women’s March and the New York City–based activist group Housing Works, coordinated the day of protest. “If you don’t know where to go, just come back here to our new headquarters.”
For the next several hours, women who had flown and bused in from across the country—from Alaska to South Dakota, California to Vermont—turned Grassley’s office into a national platform to share their experiences as survivors of sexual violence. One woman told of being assaulted by her boss’s son; another said she was molested by a family member. A Navy veteran described how she had reported a sexual assault but was told to “suck it up and be a good sailor.” And still another woman, middle-aged and wearing a black sweater and thick-framed glasses, remembered an episode when, at the age of 22, she was pushed into a bedroom during a party and sexually assaulted for hours by a coworker. “I went back into work and pretended it never happened,” she said, fighting back tears. “This is the first time I’ve ever spoke of it.” The stories continued like this for an hour, then two, then three.
Not long after, and seven floors up, a group of former students from Holton-Arms, the private all-girls school attended by Ford, held a press conference to announce that 1,000 alumni had signed a letter calling for an independent investigation into her allegations against Kavanaugh. The alumnae were flanked by Senators Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who has been especially blunt in her criticism of Kavanaugh and what she views as the GOP’s intent to protect him. (Later that evening, in an interview with ABC News, Hirono characterized Grassley’s claim that he was doing everything he could to accommodate Ford as “such bullshit that I can hardly stand it.”)
One of the alumnae, Alexis Goldstein, Holton-Arms class of 1999, pulled a T-shirt from her field-hockey days at the school that featured the team’s unofficial motto: DON’T MESS. “So I am here to say: Don’t mess with Dr. Christine Ford,” said Goldstein. “Don’t mess with the alumni. But most important, don’t mess with survivors, because this is not 1991 and America has their back.”
That year, of course, was when Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she had endured under her former boss Clarence Thomas, then a nominee to the Supreme Court. It was the year the country watched, riveted, as a woman detailed years of humiliation, innuendo, and unwanted advances by her employer—and a panel of all-male, all-white senators chose to look the other way. It was 25 years before Trump was elected and 26 years before #MeToo—ancient history, in so many ways. And yet, it was also inescapable—a ghost hovering over the protests, part reminder of what had been, part challenge to what should no longer be.
Many activists I spoke with invoked the name of Anita Hill. Again and again, they emphasized that, unlike then, there is today an army of women (and many men) for whom the allegations made by Ford are entirely believable, if not painfully ordinary, and who will no longer allow survivors of sexual assault to be shamed or silenced. “Anita Hill is still alive to tell her story,” Bob Bland, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, told activists the night before, who had gathered at a nearby church. “She laid it out for everybody. But they want to put another woman on trial just for telling the truth, and we can’t have that.”
Still, even amid the defiance and determination, it was also clear how high the hurdles are—and how much has yet to change: A man who famously bragged about grabbing women by the pussy now sits in the White House—and nominated the judge who now stands accused of sexual assault. That nominee continues to enjoy the full-throated support of his party, while his accuser endures death threats. Even some of the players are the same: The very senator whose office the protesters had occupied, Charles Grassley, was among the gang of Judiciary Committee members in 1991 who supported Clarence Thomas and mocked, demeaned, and dismissed Anita Hill—not that he wants anyone to dwell on that.
“You’re talking about history. We’re not looking back. We’re looking forwarded,” Grassley told The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim when she questioned him about why his committee wasn’t calling more witnesses to testify, as had been done when Hill testified.
The activists who marched on Grassley’s office, however, are determined not to let anyone, least of all the senator, forget. By late Thursday afternoon, many of the office occupiers were seated in police trucks, their hands bound behind their backs. The occupation of Grassley’s office and the press conference of Holton-Armsalumni had received widespread media coverage, and reporters were scrambling to figure out the current state of affairs. Protesters were, too. A group gathered in the Hart Building’s atrium, suddenly gone quiet. Bland, the founder of the Women’s March, pulled out her phone and began to real aloud the latest news. Brett Kavanaugh could testify on Monday. Christine Blasey Ford may be testifying on Thursday. Negotiations were ongoing—or not.
It was hard to know what was going on behind the scenes. Either way, next week was right around the corner and there was a lot of work to do.
“We have to put the fear of everything feminine into them,” Bland told the group with a laugh. “We had 200 people here today. I can’t imagine what Monday will look like.”