On Feb. 1, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) took to Instagram Live to share her personal account of the insurrection in January and the importance for her and others to share their stories.
“These people are just trying to tell us it’s not a big deal,” she said. “They’re trying to say ‘You’re making too big a deal over it,’ or, my favorite, this past week … some of the other representatives who actually encouraged people to threaten members of Congress … are now telling me to apologize for saying and speaking truth to what happened. These are the tactics of abusers.”
Ocasio-Cortez compared the tactics many conservative legislators are using to avoid accountability to tactics used by abusers, including telling people to move on or blaming those targeted, including Ocasio-Cortez herself. With her voice shaking, she revealed that she is a survivor of sexual assault, and that as a survivor, she “struggle[s] with the idea of being believed.” However, she also recognized the importance of condemning those responsible for the insurrection.
“What they are asking for is, ‘Can we just forget this happened so we can do it again?’” –Rep. Ocasio-Cortez
Ocasio-Cortez’s story begins the Monday before the riots, Jan. 4, when she got texts from other congresspeople on Monday that she needed to be careful in the coming week, especially on Wednesday. She made it clear that the insurrection had been expected.
On Wednesday, Jan. 6, Ocasio-Cortez heard loud banging on her office door and hid in her bathroom as the intruder broke in. “Where is she? Where is she?” is all Ocasio-Cortez heard as she hid behind the bathroom door. As it slowly began to open, she “thought [she] was going to die.”
Suddenly, she heard her staffer come into her office and tell her it was safe to come out, and that the man in her office was Capitol police. Ocasio-Cortez says she reluctantly left her bathroom to see an extremely hostile-looking man, who ordered her and her staffer to go to a different building. He did not escort her, nor did he tell her a specific safe location; he only told her the name of the building.
She then outlined a hectic series of events which culminated in her hiding in Rep. Katie Porter’s (D-CA) office before changing into athletic clothes in case she had to run from rioters.
In the Instagram Live, Ocasio-Cortez reflected on her confusing and horrifying experience with the police officer in her office. Why hadn’t he announced himself? Why hadn’t he given her a specific location to go to? Had he been flustered and overwhelmed in the moment, or was he there to harm her?
Ocasio-Cortez concluded her story by restating that the violence that day was predictable. It was also completely contingent on Trump’s Big Lie that he won the election, which many conservative legislators upheld to help them politically. This prioritization of political gain over safety, she said, is extremely dangerous and must be condemned.
“The accountability is not about revenge,” she said. “It’s not about getting back at people, it’s not about any of that. It’s about creating safety. 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.”
After sharing her personal experience from Jan. 6, a combination of misrepresentation in the media and beratement from conservatives led to the viral and false notion that Ocasio-Cortez lied about her story in attempts to politicize her trauma.
This falsehood is thought to have originated from the conservative website Red State, which incorrectly asserted that Ocasio-Cortez claimed to be in the Capitol building itself. In fact, she has reiterated that she was in a different building on the Capitol Complex. Other news outlets perpetuated this misinformation, including Newsweek, which falsely claimed Ocasio-Cortez said rioters stormed her office,forcing her to hide in her bathroom.
However, conservatives held onto these lies and began the viral Twitter hashtags #AOCLied and #AlexandriaOcasioSmollet, referencing Jussie Smollet, an actor who lied about being the victim of a hate crime in 2019. Three days after Ocasio-Cortez posted her Live, #AOCLied had over 51,000 tweets.
The distortion of Ocasio-Cortez’s account was then amplified by the misuse of Rep. Nancy Mace’s (R-SC) tweets. Fox News misquoted one of Mace’s tweets by only including the statement, “I’m two doors down from aoc [sic] and no insurrectionists stormed our hallway.” Mace’s full tweet was actually a critique of the previously mentioned Newsweek article.
Ocasio-Cortez responded to Mace’s retweet of the Fox News article, calling Mace’s response a “deeply cynical and disgusting attack,” which sparked a long Twitter exchange between the congresswomen. A spokeswoman for Mace later came forward to clarify that Mace’s initial tweet was a criticism of the media, not of Ocasio-Cortez, but the misinformation had already spread.
While conservatives accused her of politicizing her story and her experience at the Capitol, trauma experts say it is reasonable that Ocasio-Cortez brought up her previous traumas when discussing the insurrection. As she explained, “trauma compounds on each other,” which is why her experience at the Capitol evoked similar feelings to her experience with sexual assault.
Ocasio-Cortez predicted that she would receive this kind of backlash on her Instagram Live. She attributed her hesitation to share her story to what she and others have said is an all-too-common disbelief of others’ trauma. Many took to Twitter to defend and praise her courage and connect her story to society’s mistreatment of survivors.
“My story isn’t the only story,” Ocasio-Cortez said of her experience on Jan. 6. “It’s far from a central story, but together we have 435 stories. We need to tell them because every time a Republican gets on television and tries to say we need to move on and forget about it, they need to be reminded about what they’re trying to absolve and excuse. And our stories can do that.”