On Monday night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared details about her experience during the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 for the first time. She described hiding in a bathroom, barricading in the office of Rep. Katie Porter, and fearing for her life. In an Instagram Live, which amassed over 100,000 viewers, the congresswoman also shared that she was a survivor of sexual assault, saying that "when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other."
In the 90-minute Live, Ocasio-Cortez emphasized the importance of accountability. "The reason I'm getting emotional in this moment is because these folks who tell us to move on, that it's not a big deal, that we should forget what's happened, or even telling us to apologize — these are the same tactics of abusers," she said, referring to Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz who have been telling Americans to get past the attacks.
The days following AOC’s revelation of trauma have been dark to say the least. While thousands of trauma survivors have been galvanized to share their own stories, inspired by the New York congresswoman’s bravery and candor, several Republican talking heads, like Candace Owens, have already begun to discredit her. Michael Tracey, a freelance journalist, called Ocasio-Cortez's Live "a masterclass in emotional manipulation." Other online trolls are calling her a liar, an attention-seeker, and saying that she's centering herself in this story. There have also been claims that she was speaking about her past trauma for political gain. Some people are picking apart the timeline in which she came forward about her trauma, analyzing her tweets on the day of January 6 to say that she didn’t "seem" traumatized, and seeking to minimize a pain that is really only known to Ocasio-Cortez and the others who experienced life-threatening fear that day.
But Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for her trauma, and as she said in her video, tactics such as minimization, discounting, and belittling are all techniques that abusers and manipulators commonly use. Perpetrators may say things like, "This didn't happen" or "It's all in your head" in order to blame the victim and take the responsibility out of their own hands, says Karol Darsa, PsyD, psychologist, trauma specialist, and founder of Reconnect.
"As a survivor, I struggle with the idea of being believed. What's odd is that I am in a job where people are constantly calling me untruthful or that I'm exaggerating,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her Live. “But the reason why I think it’s important for us to hold this to account is because we know, if we do not hold people accountable, what they are asking for when they say, 'Can we just move on?' is that they are asking, 'Can we just forget this happened so I can do it again?'"
Those are the types of messages we’re hearing from many Trump supporters, including elected officials, who often appear to be using calls for unity to sweep the events of January 6 — and their own role in them — under the rug. Just one day after the insurrection, Cruz (who had continued to support Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, a key factor in the violence that occurred on January 6) tweeted, "We must come together and put this anger and division behind us." Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who led the efforts to block the certification of the election results, tweeted, saying: "What happened… at the U.S. Capitol is as wrong as wrong can be. But canceling conservative speech will not promote 'unity and healing.' It will only divide us further." North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Hitler-loving conspiracy theorist who voted to overturn the election results, spoke to Time about the incident, saying, "People are really hurting right now. This is the time when you come together." At the same time, people like Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley helped incite the attack by attempting to overturn the election, and it has even been reported that some members of Congress aided the rioters.
By sharing her experiences in the Live, Ocasio-Cortez wasn't looking for a personal apology — she was speaking on behalf of everybody who was affected. She noted in the beginning of the video that her story is just one of many stories of what happened at the Capitol that day — there were food service workers, custodians, children, and other people there who had traumatic experiences that day whom we may never get to hear from. She's calling for those in power to stop minimizing the seriousness of this attack and its repercussions of it.
The attack on the Capitol harmed not just the people who were in the complex that day, but also those of us who watched in horror at home. And we as a nation can't begin to heal until that harm is truly acknowledged. "The validation of what happened is the number one step in terms of healing trauma," Dr. Darsa says. "It's really crucial, for healing to occur, that there's a validation of the feeling, there's a validation of what happened, and an acknowledgement of how difficult that was for the person."
Holding people accountable can also keep them from repeating their actions in the future. "A perpetrator can heal and change, but they have to be willing, they have to be very honest about what they did, and see the impact of it on the other person," Dr. Darsa explains.
"Letting a person go without any accountability is a way that we reinforce the behavior and we allow the behavior to take root and create the circumstances where the behavior is likely to pop up again," adds Mariel Buquè, PhD, a trauma therapist, speaking about the behavior of abusers.
Many of the January 6 rioters have now been identified and charged with felonies. But there has not been a moment of national healing — a real recognition that damage has been done. And judging from the words of some Republican politicians, they want us to just sweep this terror attack under the rug. Their behavior is serving as a tacit green light for future attacks.
By shedding light on the terror and violence of that day, Ocasio-Cortez claimed her own story — and showed other survivors of trauma that they can, too. "A lot of healing can occur through us telling our own narrative," explains Dr. Buquè. "This is [Ocasio-Cortez’s] own individual experience. She utilized her platform to engage in a conversation that’s really hard, and showed us that we can have hard conversations about our experiences."