Melissa Harris-Perry has a rather harrowing tale to tell about a terrible experience at the Iowa caucuses. Rather than paraphrasing it, I'll let her words speak for themselves.
Monday night I was sitting in a hotel lobby in downtown Des Moines with my back to a wall of windows, my eyes fixed on the TV, my attention wholly focused on early caucus results. I didn’t notice until he was standing right next to me, much closer than is ordinary or comfortable. When he started he speaking it was like he was picking up in the middle of sentence, finishing a conversation we had begun earlier, but I couldn’t remember ever meeting him.
“…So what is it that you teach?”
“I am a professor of political science.”
“My wife is a professor of communications.”
“Does she teach here in Iowa?”
“What I want to know is how you got credentialed to be on MSNBC.”
I am not sure if it is how he spat the word credentialed, or if it is how he took another half step toward me, or if it is how he didn’t respond to my question, but the hairs on my arm stood on end. I ignored it. Told myself everything was ok.
“Well. It is not exactly a credential…” I began.
“But why you? Why would they pick you?”
Now I know something is wrong. Now his voice is angry. Now a few other people have stopped talking and started staring. Now he is so close I can feel his breath. Before I can answer his unanswerable question of why they picked me, he begins to tell me why he has picked me.
“I just want you to know why I am doing this.”
Oh – there is a this. He is going to do a this. To me. And he is going to tell me why.
I freeze. Not even me – the girl in me. The one who was held down by an adult neighbor and as he raped her. The one who listened as he explained why he was doing this. She freezes.
I freeze. He speaks. And moves closer. Is there a knife under the coat? A gun? Worse?
And I can’t hear all the words. But I catch “Nazi Germany” and I catch “rise to power.” But I can’t move. I am lulled by a familiar powerlessness, muteness, that comes powerfully and unexpectedly. It grips me. Everything is falling away. Until in my peripheral vision I catch sight of a ponytail, the movement of an arm, the sound of familiar young voices and I remember… my students.
My students are sitting just a few feet from me. I am not alone in this Iowa hotel lobby. I have traveled here with 22 of my undergraduate students from Wake Forest University. We are here on the first stop in a journey to understand the democratic process. I am in this lobby because I am waiting for them to come back from seeing their very first Democratic caucuses. Remembering them rouses me.
Instead of sitting still as he tells me what he is going to do and why, I jump up. I move. I put space – a table – between him and me. My friend jumps too. It is breathtaking how fearlessly – almost recklessly – she throws herself between he and I. Together we raise our voices and make a fuss. He turns. He runs out. He jumps in a car. He drives off. We try to explain to hotel security what has happened and how I receive hate mail and even death threats, how I have had people show up at my workplace, how this might be serious. They listen politely, but this is the Iowa caucus, and I am not a candidate, so they go back to their evening. And we go back to ours.
This is terrifying, and whether he was there to kill her, maim her, or simply terrify her is beside the point. The fact that someone felt free enough to bring himself that close to her is the direct product of the white nationalism which pervades this 2016 primary race in the GOP.