Students and faculty reflect on Capitol attacks


Photo by Francis Chung

On Jan. 6, rioters gathered outside the Capitol to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election. Later, they stormed the building and broke into the offices of House Representatives and the Senate chamber, forcing a delay in Congress’s certification of electoral votes as the senators were evacuated out of the building. That day’s events marked the first breach of the U.S. Capitol since the War of 1812 against the British.

Video footage caught the rioters, many in pro-Trump attire, overturning tables in the Capitol and repeatedly hitting the locked doors to the Senate chamber with batons and poles as they shouted, “We will not take it anymore” and “Arrest Congress.” The nation’s events shocked and saddened Westminster students and faculty.

“The imagery of attacking your own Capitol is horrible,” said junior Andrew Thompson, student leader of Young Conservatives.

“It’s just really jarring seeing violence in the Capitol building itself,” said U.S. history teacher Brooks Batcheller.

“I’m enraged,” said senior Charlie Zacks.

“We are a country of law and order. Those who invaded the Capitol are criminals and need to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. They do not represent the 74 million people who voted for Trump,” said Manuela Kelly, advisor to the Young Conservatives group.

A few hours before the attacks, then-President Donald Trump addressed thousands of his supporters, who were there to show their support for him and to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

“We will stop the steal,” said Trump. “Today I will lay out just some of the evidence proving that we won this election, and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election.”

To Zacks and Thompson, President Trump’s words helped fuel the attacks.

“Trump’s rhetoric in refusing to accept the outcome of the election certainly contributed to the problem and to the riots themselves,” said Thompson.

But Kelly said that Trump is not to be blamed for the attacks, referring to when he addressed his supporters during the rally and said them to “peacefully and patriotically make your voice heard.”

“All you need to do is listen to his speech,” said Kelly. “It also appears that the insurrection on the Capitol started during Trump’s speech, not after it. The riots on the Capitol seem to have been orchestrated by groups of individuals who understood the ramifications of their actions.”

The attacks come after a year of increasingly polarized United States politics, according to Zacks and Batcheller. Trump’s approval rating was more sharply divided along partisan lines than that of any president before him, with an 87 percent approval rating from Republicans and a 6 percent approval rate from Democrats through August 2020, according to a Pew Research Center Poll.

“Tensions within America—between rural individuals and urban-living individuals, between red voters and blue voters, between Black individuals and white individuals—have not been this high since the civil rights movement,” said Zacks.

“Right now, we are in a hyperpolarized moment,” said Batcheller. “When you factor in the pandemic and all the anxiety—the anxiety over [economic] security, the anxiety over physical security, the anxiety over the perceived sense that the medical recommendations are changing over time—those things have sown elements of distrust. And when people don’t know where to turn, they start to take action into their own hands, just as a way to try and find answers or stability.”

To Zacks, the ability of rioters to access the Capitol raised concerns about security.

“The Capitol is supposed to be heavily protected. The fact that white nationalists were able to invade the Capitol with relative ease shows that resistance against white nationalism will not just come from the state—if they were Black people, they would all be dead. [Resistance against white nationalism] is going to have to come from our own communities and within ourselves as individuals.”

Following the attacks, Trump was banned from social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, Snapchat, YouTube, and Discord, with Reddit and Shopify taking moves to limit hashtags and communities dedicated to supporting Trump. Apple, Amazon AWS, and Okta also removed Parler, a social media platform primarily used by a conservative audience, from their services in an effort to “prevent the spread of dangerous and illegal content,” according to Apple.

Thompson doesn’t agree with the moves, pointing to other social media accounts that remain unbanned, such as the Chinese Communist Party, whose policies toward Uighur Muslims was recently classified by the U.S. as genocide.

Kelly sees these moves as an attack on free speech.

“It looks like the big puppeteers in the media world are the ones controlling who gets to speak and who doesn’t,” she said. “When did we, the people, erase the First Amendment from the Constitution? One begins to wonder, who will they suppress next?”

Batcheller, on the other hand, called on Americans to examine the definition of free speech and decide how the government should best interpret it within the current political context.

“The definition of First Amendment rights is something that is always recalibrated generation by generation—particularly, how you balance free speech with security and protection for people,” Batcheller said. “Every generation will have to find where that new line is. Right now, the government and voters are struggling to redefine it.”

Along with this redefinition of free speech, Batcheller fears that the attacks have other, more long-term consequences.

“The legacy and fallout is going to be with us for a long time. If distrust is at its core, it takes a long time to rebuild that trust,” he said. “That’s trust in governmental institutions and parties, in media institutions, in experts and expertise, and how we define those. And it’s going to take a long time and a concerted effort to rebuild it at all levels.”

But Thompson instead looked at the Jan. 6 riot with hope in United States democracy.

“It shows the strength of our democracy that, despite all of this, we then had Biden take office a week later, and the new Congress has been given the process of being sworn in, regardless of the actions of a few people.”

Reflecting on what students can take away from the process, Batcheller, Kelly, Thompson, and Zacks all expressed a similar sentiment: stay engaged and listen.

“We need to become more committed to actual conversations between different sides in Westminster rather than sitting in our individual group texts,” said Thompson.

“Listen,” said Zacks. “Listen to each other, to people of color, to members of minority groups. Truly listen.”