Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez held an Instagram Live event on Monday during which she described her experience in the days leading up to and on January 6, when the Capitol building was attacked. It’s about an hour and a half long and includes some very moving parts: Ocasio-Cortez explains that she’s a survivor of sexual assault and details what was running through her head when she believed that her office had been breached by rioters and that she was going to die. These harrowing, traumatic ordeals are deserving of the utmost sympathy and understanding. The congresswoman has mine, as well as my prayers.
Her use of her experience on January 6 to smear law enforcement more generally, however, still must be pointed out for what it is: baseless and inappropriate.
A little after 1:00 P.M. on the day of the attack — this is as things were heating up outside the Capitol, but before it had been broken into — Ocasio-Cortez was apparently trying to decide what to order for lunch in her House office when she heard what she describes as “violent” banging on her door: “Boom, boom, boom!” At that point, she ran over to her legislative director who told her, “Hide, hide, run and hide.” She took the advice and hid in her private bathroom, where she continued to hear banging. A few moments later she heard a voice, coming from within her office, repeatedly yelling, “Where is she?” Then the bathroom door opened up, with the congresswoman hiding behind it. It is at this point that Ocasio-Cortez believed her life was coming to an end.
Thankfully, the man in her office was not a rioter, but a member of the Capitol Police who had, as the congresswoman put it, “just open[ed] the door of my personal office and come inside.” Her legislative director yelled from the other room that she should come out and Ocasio-Cortez obliged. She tells the story like this:
I come out and this man is a Capitol police officer. But the story doesn’t end. It’s a Capitol police officer, there was no partner, [he] was not yelling, you know ‘Capitol Police, etc., etc.’ But then it didn’t feel right, because he was looking at me with a tremendous amount of anger and hostility. And things weren’t adding up. Like there was no partner there and no one was yelling, he wasn’t yelling ‘this is Capitol Police, this is Capitol Police!’ And he was looking at me in all of this anger and hostility and at first, in my brain, and in my mind, I’m thinking ‘OK I just came from this super intense experience just now, maybe I’m reading into this. Maybe I’m projecting something onto him, maybe I’m just seeing anger but he’s not trying to be angry.’ But I talked to G, my legislative director, after the fact and he said ‘No, I didn’t know if he was there to help us or hurt us either’ and G was actually like this man came with so much hostility that G was sizing him up and didn’t know if he was going to have to fight him. Like that is how aggressive the situation was in that moment and we couldn’t even tell, we couldn’t read if this was a good situation or a bad situation. Like so many other communities in this country, just that presence doesn’t necessarily give you a clear signal if you’re safe or not. And so the situation did not feel okay.
The officer then gave her instructions on where to shelter.
It’s more than understandable that Ocasio-Cortez and her staffer were frightened by the situation, especially with the crowd amassing outside. Moreover, it’s possible and even probable that the officer could have handled the situation better. And yet, her frustration at the officer and description of his “anger and hostility” seem shoehorned in to fit a political narrative rather than appreciative of the actual situation he and she found themselves in. It was the officer’s duty to protect the congresswoman and her colleagues that day, and the situation outside was quickly devolving. He was presumably given orders to go to members’ offices and provide instructions. With who knows how much time until the building was breached, he used a tone that was probably urgent and perhaps even agitated. As for the question of why he didn’t have a partner, it seems likely that most of the Capitol Police were needed for crowd control at that moment.
Ocasio-Cortez’s description of the incident and her legislative director’s rather disturbing developing plan to confront him physically are more reflective of their own biases than they are of systemic failure on the part of law enforcement. Her fear and confusion can be excused, but her castigation of a man whose life was at risk that day (one officer died during the riot, two more have committed suicide since) cannot be so easily brushed aside.
Using tragedies as a political hammer is never a good look; it’s a particularly ugly one when the nails are its heroes.