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Voices: Americans grapple with emotional, momentous hearing

September 27, 2018
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Dozens of college students at Arizona State University watch the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he testifies Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, in Phoenix. Kavanaugh testifies regarding the sexual assault allegations by Christine Blasey Ford. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

She was authentic. He was passionate. She wasn’t remembering correctly. He wasn’t truthful.

Across the nation, Americans grappled with the extraordinary drama unfolding in the Senate on Thursday and, though passions ran high, it was hard to find people whose minds had truly been changed.

Echoes of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill abounded, with many recalling that fraught 1991 hearing. And some addressed the momentous nature of the event. “This is history,” said Laura Williams, a law student from Mississippi.

AP journalists around the country talked to citizens to gauge their reactions. Here is some of what they heard:

JARRED BY EMOTION:

Jalon Alexander was expecting to hear soft-spoken, deferential testimony when Kavanaugh took the stand. Instead, he said, he heard a fiery, raised voice — and he didn’t find it convincing.

“The more and more I listened to him, there was nothing he said that made me doubt Dr. Ford’s accusation,” he said.

Alexander, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Pittsburgh, identifies as a Democrat but said he began watching Thursday’s proceedings as neither a supporter nor a detractor of the nominee.

That changed with Kavanaugh’s testimony. The student was rattled by the temperament he felt Kavanaugh exhibited and the anger he showed at Democrats while vying for a nonpartisan job.

He even questioned the judge’s displays of emotion. “I didn’t see tears of genuine concern,” Alexander said. “Those tears to me scream, ‘I’m losing something I’m entitled to.’”

Alexander found Ford’s account of Kavanaugh and a friend laughing after the alleged attack the hearing’s most moving moment, and he wondered if that detail might sway Republicans.

“At what cost are we willing to taint the court and to taint the image of what a Supreme Court justice is supposed to represent?” he asked

—Matt Sedensky

TEARS FOR KAVANAUGH FAMILY:

Republican strategist Jennifer Jacobs, watching the hearing from her home in San Diego, was struck both by Ford’s sincerity and Kavanaugh’s depth of emotion.

Both seemed believable, Jacobs said, but she felt convinced toward the end that Kavanaugh was not guilty. “I don’t want to discount that Dr. Ford had something happen to her, but I don’t think it was him,” she said.

As to Kavanaugh’s evident emotion — which some saw as unsettling — Jacobs said: “Clearly, this is a compassionate man. He’s not some crazed barbarian. You can’t help but have compassion for him.”

She was especially moved on behalf of Kavanaugh’s wife and children. “I literally was welled up with tears,” she said.

The whole spectacle left her upset for both Ford and Kavanaugh — and for the country. She called it “one of the worst days in American history.”

—Jocelyn Gecker

AT YALE, EMPATHY FOR ACCUSER:

The Kavanaugh hearing had students glued to televisions and their phones at Yale University, the Ivy League institution where the U.S. Supreme Court nominee attended college and law school.

As Ford testified, some students gasped aloud, said Alyssa Peterson, a third-year law student from Glen Ellyn, Illinois. “As a survivor of sexual assault myself, my heart aches for her,” Peterson said. “What she’s going through is just unimaginable.”

Samantha Peltz, a 26-year-old law student from Chicago, likened Thursday’s hearing to the proceedings years ago involving Thomas and Hill.

“Anita Hill went to this school,” Peltz said. “We felt she wasn’t given due consideration to her allegations. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

—Dave Collins

CONCERNED BY THE TONE:

Philadelphia attorney Shabrei Parker multitasked from her office during Ford’s testimony, jumping from her computer monitor to the television screen to her social media feeds.

Her initial impressions confirmed her worries going into the hearing: It had the feeling of a trial. “It’s supposed to be a space for open-mindedness ... to at least give the impression of being transparent,” said Parker, who pointed out that questions from GOP senators came through a prosecutor.

As the hearing progressed, Parker said she felt Ford was getting a fair hearing, but also saw bias, noting that “the tone is one where she’s being expected to prove something.”

Parker, 33, said she believes the biggest impact of the hearing could be far from Washington, on American society and the women’s movement.

“Every system might not crumble because of the first rock that is thrown at it,” she said. “This woman is getting a little bit more of a platform than Anita Hill did, because Anita Hill had to come before her.”

—Errin Haines Whack

REMEMBERING A RAPE:

For Mary Ann Almeida, the hearing brought back painful memories of her own rape as a 14-year-old.

Almeida, who watched from her home in southeastern Kentucky, said every detail of her attack is crisp in her mind — the ropes on her arms, the smell of Old Spice on the assailant, the threat that she should not scream.

“When you’re a true victim, you remember where it happened, you know who was in the room, you also remember every single detail,” she said.

Ford came across as untruthful to Almeida, who said she was a lifelong Democrat but began supporting Republicans with Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Almeida said she doesn’t doubt Ford was victimized, but believes Democrats convinced her to wrongly blame Kavanaugh for what happened. “It hurts true victims everywhere,” she said.

—Matt Sedensky

THIS IS HISTORY:

At Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law in New York, a hush settled over the school’s student lounge as the proceedings started.

“Everybody wants to watch this. I mean, this is history,” said Laura Williams, a second-year law student from Senatobia, Mississippi.

Watching Ford testify, student Jordana Balsam said, reminded her of the time she spent volunteering in college to give “safe rides” to female classmates scared to walk alone at night, and of friends who confided about being sexually assaulted.

“I think this is a tremendous step forward for women,” Balsam said. “I think this is....going to be what I’m telling my children about, that I know exactly where I was when Dr. Ford gave her testimony.”

But Sam Erlanger, 25, said the proceedings dashed his hopes for a confirmation process that would appraise Kavanaugh’s background and qualifications in an orderly, timely pursuit of truth. Instead, he said, it devolved into partisan politics, with senators responding to Ford’s testimony with their own agendas in mind.

“Essentially, they’re using her as a pawn,” Erlanger said.

—Adam Geller

THOUGHTS OF ANITA HILL:

Helen Anderson had Hill and Thomas on her mind as she watched the hearings from her Sioux City, Iowa, home.

“I’m thinking I don’t want to see that again — a rush to confirmation,” said Anderson, 72, a retired elementary school teacher and registered Democrat. Thomas’s nomination was confirmed in 1991 despite Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment, which he contested.

Anderson said she found Ford’s testimony convincing, adding, “I think she’s given a very strong statement, and I think she’s doing a very good job.”

Anderson noted that certain things had progressed since 1991.

“I remember one of the questions asked of Anita Hill was something like ‘Are you a woman scorned?’” she recalled. “You aren’t going to hear that in this hearing. I think some lessons have been learned since Ms. Hill was treated the way she was.”

—Margery Beck

EVALUATING MEMORIES:

Daniela Romero, a registered Republican, watched Ford’s appearance at a student lounge at Florida International University in Miami. “I believe her testimony is true,” she said.

Romero, 22, recounted how one man had sexually assaulted several of her female friends. She described the legal process that followed as “miserable” for the women involved, saying, “It something that affects you for the rest of your life.”

“She will never forget that,” Romero said of Ford.

Romero said she hesitates to believe eyewitness testimonies, citing her background as a psychology major. She described memories as flawed and unreliable, and yet — after hearing Ford speak — said she felt that all signs point to sexual assault.

—Ellis Rua

A ‘WITCH HUNT’:

Connie Cook Saunders, a fitness director for a San Diego athletic club who considers herself a moderate Republican, was able to catch about 15 minutes of the hearing before heading to work. She recorded the rest to watch later.

“I personally feel like it’s a witch hunt,” she said. “It’s political. If it happened to her I am sorry, but it doesn’t make sense to bring it up now. We all did things in high school we don’t want to be judged for now.”

Cook Saunders, 52, said she hoped Kavanaugh would muster more emotion in his Senate appearance than he showed in his Fox interview, where she felt he was too poker-faced.

And she, too, evoked the Thomas-Hill hearing.

“I believed Anita,” she said. “I think she was a more credible witness so far from what I’ve seen than Ford is.”

—Jocelyn Gecker

AGONIZING TO WATCH:

For Elizabeth Jacobson, listening to Ford’s testimony was emotionally exhausting. “To watch someone have to recount something that traumatic, I feel very on edge for her,” said Jacobson, 24, of Minneapolis.

Jacobson, a first-year law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law who identifies as a Democrat, watched the hearing with colleagues in a classroom. She said she found the opening by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley frustrating, adding, “He didn’t uphold his duty to make sure that it was a very fair and neutral introduction.”

Jacobson said she was nervous about the hearing.

“It could be a really important step forward — or it could be a very large wall in some ways, another hurdle, another obstacle,” she said.

One of Jacobson’s close friends was sexually assaulted in high school, an experience the friend said would scar her for life. In that context, Jacobson said, “something that you do in high school can stick with someone else for the rest of their lives, and in some ways you should be held accountable for the decisions you made.”

—Amy Forliti

PROTESTS IN NORTH CAROLINA

Across North Carolina, protesters gathered outside the offices of the state’s Republican U.S. Senators in three different cities to demonstrate against Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

In Raleigh, a crowd of about 30 gathered outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ regional office, blocks from the state capitol.

Penney De Pas, an artist and retired state employee, called the protests part of a larger movement on the part of Americans fed up with men in positions of power abusing their status to get away with sexual assault.

“You have a group of baby boomers and Gen Xers and millennials ... who are like ‘We’re not going to put up with this anymore,’” De Pas said.

She said the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing particularly hit close to home because she was sexually assaulted as a child.

—Alex Derosier

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