Column: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commands the floor and teaches a Republican colleague the meaning of respect
They just can’t stand her.
From the moment Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress in 2018, Republicans — especially Republican men — have been unable to hide their contempt for this rising star of Democratic politics.
What makes them so crazy?
Well, she is young — a mere 30.
She leans far to the left.
She has brown skin.
Oh, and of course, she is a woman.
Earlier this month, she had the temerity to suggest that poverty and unemployment might be responsible for a spike in violent crime in New York City during the pandemic.
“Maybe,” she said, “this has to do with the fact that people aren’t paying their rent and are scared to pay their rent and so they go out and they need to feed their child and they don’t have money so … they feel like they either need to shoplift some bread or go hungry.”
This linkage, apparently, was offensive to one of her Republican colleagues, Ted Yoho, who accosted her in public, on the Capitol steps Monday. According to Mike Lillis, a reporter for the Hill, Yoho told Ocasio-Cortez that she was “disgusting.” He said, “You are out of your freaking mind.”
She told him he was being rude.
Then, reported Lillis, as Yoho walked away, he called her a vile epithet often leveled at women. This newspaper doesn’t print one of the words he used, but it starts with an “f” and preceded the word “bitch.”
With a reporter witnessing the exchange, Yoho could not deny it had occurred, though he did deny using the foul language Lillis reported.
Still, he took to the House floor on Wednesday for what was supposed to be an apology. It was, instead, a virtuosic performance of a particularly male pathology: self-pity wrapped up in self-aggrandizement.
Yoho teared up and his voice caught a little as he explained that when he and his wife were young, they received food stamps. He seemed to be suggesting that even though he was poor, he did not turn to a life of crime, so how dare Ocasio-Cortez suggest a link between poverty and crime.
“I cannot apologize,” he concluded, “for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.”
On Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez responded to Yoho’s non-apology by taking to the floor of the House herself.
Her performance was the essence of leadership and grace.
Calmly, and without the teary histrionics displayed by Yoho (men can be so emotional), she put his verbal assault in its proper context.
“What Mr. Yoho did,” said Ocasio-Cortez, “was give permission to other men to do that to his daughters. In using that language in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community, and I am here to stand up to say that is not acceptable.”
Her coup de grace was as unexpected as it was lethal; she thanked Yoho.
“I want to thank him for showing the world that you can be a powerful man and accost women,” she said. “You can have daughters and accost women without remorse. You can be married and accost women. You can take photos and project an image to the world of being a family man and accost women without remorse and with a sense of impunity. It happens every day in this country.”
Over the course of the next hour, Democratic colleagues of Ocasio-Cortez, mostly women, stood to school their Republican colleagues.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington offered a history lesson about the use of the word “bitch,” noting that it gained popularity after women won the right to vote a century ago.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, whose great-grandmother was an emancipated slave, said her constituents expect leadership, not schoolyard bullying. “I’m not scared of you,” she said. “I will call you out.”
“The days of bullying women you disagree with — whether it’s in a boardroom, a newsroom or on a military base — are over,” said Rep. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts.
“It’s a new day, gentlemen,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “And I use that term loosely with some cases.”
If any Republicans have condemned — or even addressed — their colleague’s verbal assault on Ocasio-Cortez, I have not seen it.
Despite this dreadful moment of suffering and protest, American women have had a good week.
In Portland, Ore., a “Wall of Moms,” which sprang from the imagination of a woman who describes herself as a suburban mother, has been inserting itself nightly between Black Lives Matter protesters and police. Like a lullaby, they chant “Moms are here, Feds stay clear.”
Last week in that restive city, a woman who was naked but for a face mask and hat calmly strolled in front of armed troops and executed a series of balletic moves as officers shot rubber bullets at her feet. Dubbed “Naked Athena,” her vulnerability and lack of fear were achingly beautiful comments on the overwrought federal response to protesters.
Whether in the halls of Congress or the tear-gas-soaked streets of an American city, women have shown they have the ability to disrupt the status quo. They have shown how to change the conversation, defuse tension and inspire us to be better.
Some people will always find that intolerable.
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