Two folding tables stand side-by-side in the Georgetown University student union. At both, students sit staring at their laptops, transfixed by what's happening on their screens. They're watching Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, effusively defend himself against sexual assault allegations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who testified earlier on Thursday. He is angry and aggressive, spitting out his answers and breaking down in tears.
The two groups of students represent two dueling factions of the elite Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., that don't see eye-to-eye on women's reproductive rights. At one table is Georgetown Right to Life, a student organization "dedicated to protecting human life from conception to natural death." At the other is H*yas for Choice, the only group that provides condoms and Plan B on campus. (The asterisk is because they're not allowed to use the Hoya school nickname or receive funding from the university due to the school's Catholic identity.) There's a bowl of condoms on their table and students in the busy thoroughfare are walking by and taking them. The two groups don't know each other and are not interacting, but the mood in the air is cordial rather than tense.
Today, H*yas for Choice is encouraging students who are passing by to take a photo with an "I Believe Survivors" sign, and posting it on social media. This echoes the protest signs lining the halls of the Senate in the hundreds on Thursday during the pivotal hearing.
"Any kind of visibility is crucial for showing survivors that they are not alone and they are supported," Angela Maske, a 22-year-old senior and president of H*yas for Choice, explained the social media campaign. "Being a survivor can feel very lonely, especially in times like this high-profile case, with narratives around doubt swirling around that can be harmful and invalidating."
Maske, who is from Lexington, KY, spent her summer canvassing the offices of Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski (a Georgetown alumna), the two Republicans who are considered possible swing votes on Kavanaugh. Every morning that the Senate was in session since Kavanaugh was nominated in July, she would wake up an hour early before her internship and meet with staffers from the senators' offices. Maske showed up at the Senate during the hearing on Thursday morning to stand in solidarity with survivors, wearing an "I Believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford" pin.
It’s just very concerning that this is being painted as his life being ruined when he’s just not getting onto a lifetime appointment onto the Supreme Court.
Like many women, Maske personally knows a lot of sexual assault survivors, and she says the atmosphere on campus has been heavy and tense as the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh poured in. According to a 2016 survey, 31% of undergraduate women at Georgetown have experienced "non-consensual sexual contact as a result of physical force or incapacitation," a statistic that Maske says is higher than at similar schools, largely due to "the culture of toxic masculinity, which pervades many campuses," but also the "large amount of privilege that many of our students have where they feel they are entitled to anyone and anything."
A few of Maske's friends are helping her manage the H*yas for Choice table, where students take turns doing hourly shifts. As they watch Kavanaugh get more forceful and belligerent, some of them are perplexed. "He's so visibly angry and it is mind-boggling to me," says Emma Vahey, a 20-year-old junior. "It’s just very concerning that this is being painted as his life being ruined when he’s just not getting onto a lifetime appointment onto the Supreme Court."
Everyone at the table agrees. "I think it’s really concerning to see how this parallels the Anita Hill hearings" in 1991, says Avery Moje, a 20-year-old senior. She's taking a class called Gender in the Law, in which she just watched a documentary on Anita Hill, and she can't help but notice that, "Clarence Thomas was also very angry when he was asked to respond, and he made comments about how unreasonable this all was." All of the students are concerned that if Kavanaugh gets confirmed, it could potentially lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. They also think his confirmation would have a negative effect on sexual assault survivors' abilities to report their stories, a process that can be demeaning and convoluted on college campuses as it is.
Ben Amadi, an 18-year-old freshman who plays football for Georgetown, walks by and takes a photo with the "I Believe Survivors" sign, telling the students he appreciates what they're doing. "From what I read, I fully believe the women," he tells Refinery29. "I have respect for the women and the fact that they’ve been through a traumatic experience. The likelihood that they’re actually lying, the statistics toward false reporting, is very slim." He adds that especially in sports, there is often a "culture of conquest" and he doesn't shy away from talking about that with his male friends.
"We talk about how the norms of society have made it easy for things like this to happen, how the culture around guys and their friends is, they put a lot of value towards getting with a female, and so that kind of affects how we look at females and objectify them and that leads to sexual assault and rape," says Amadi.
A couple of feet away, Hunter Estes (no relation to Ashley Estes Kavanaugh that he knows of), a 21-year-old senior, joins his friend Caroline Willcox at the Right to Life table.
We talk about how the norms of society have made it easy for things like this to happen.
As a 2015 alum of Georgetown Prep, the private Jesuit boys' school from which Kavanaugh graduated in 1983, Estes sees Kavanaugh as a role model and says he was "ecstatic" when the judge was nominated to the Supreme Court, as he respects his lifetime of public service and literal approach to the law. Estes says that while we must listen to and empathize with sexual assault survivors — "This is something that hits me deeply. I have three younger sisters." — he doesn't think Dr. Ford's allegations are credible enough to bring Kavanaugh down.
"I don’t think everyone has a right to immediately be believed. I think those decisions can only be made once evidence is provided," he says, adding that he believes there is a lack of evidence and corroboration in Dr. Ford's case. "That’s the problem I face in this situation. I don’t believe or disbelieve an accusation immediately. I think the basis of Western legal tradition is everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and I think that doctrine is what provides us with the capability to function in a legitimate democracy." Even though this is a job interview and not a trial? "Even in a job interview, due process should apply and we should walk in with the assumption of innocence."
In a sworn statement shared by lawyer Michael Avenatti on Wednesday, Julie Swetnick alleged that during their high school days Kavanaugh and his friends would spike drinks at house parties, which would lead girls "to become inebriated and disoriented so they could then be 'gang raped' in a side room or bedroom by a 'train' of numerous boys."
Estes says that while he has no idea what happened in the '80s, he's never witnessed anything similar. He says he believes that Georgetown Prep — which is affiliated with Georgetown University — has been portrayed in a negative light by the media as a hard-partying playground for privileged kids, and as someone from a military family who got financial aid to go there, he disputes that.
"I’ve never been shown a case of any other school that has taken more seriously the sense of discipline and honor...an overarching sense of service and deep devotion to our community," he says. "There was this intense calling of what it means to be a gentleman, and that was not taken lightly. And so everything that has been said, and the attacks against the school, is exactly the opposite experience that I’ve had." Large parties held by private schools in the area including Georgetown Prep have gotten media attention in the past.
Sitting next to Estes watching the hearing, Caroline Willcox, who is from South Carolina, is more conflicted about the allegations against Kavanaugh. Willcox, also a 21-year-old senior, is the president of Right to Life, although she says her opinions on Kavanaugh are her own and do not necessarily represent the organization.
They both seem really sincere, and that’s the hard part.
"Her testimony is very compelling and it’s hard to watch that and not feel something and believe her and have your heart go out to her," Willcox says of Dr. Ford. Like Estes, she says she believes that although Dr. Ford may not have political motivations, Senate Democrats' conduct during the process, such as waiting to make the allegations public until September, "kind of detracted from the situation at hand."
She says, however, that before making a decision the Senate needs more evidence — not ruling out FBI involvement, which Democrats have been pressing for. "If these allegations are true, then I don’t think he deserves a spot on the bench," Willcox says. Republicans are pushing forward with Kavanaugh, with the Senate Judiciary Committee slated to hold a committee vote on Friday despite Democrats calling for a delay — and activists calling for Kavanaugh's resignation.
Pausing for a bit, Willcox shifts her gaze back to Kavanaugh defending his honor on the screen. "They both seem really sincere, and that’s the hard part."