Staff Editorial: Capitol insurrection requires greater response by University administration
The University must balance dealing with immediate consequences and looking to the future
While the events experienced at the Capitol on Jan. 6 touched the lives of people around the country, some members of the American University community were just a few miles away from the violence that threatened foundational processes of the United States government. The weight of that knowledge is undeniable. How do we, as students, faculty and staff, reconcile what the events of that day mean for our collective safety, responsibility to each other and mental health, both as a community and as individuals?
The sense of anger felt by those in D.C., those within the area of the violence that occurred, is different from the anger felt by the rest of the nation. While the anger toward the threat to democracy is real and difficult, the threat to physical safety felt by the AU community in reaction to what happened turns that anger into something more personal. As residents of D.C., we are used to protests and similar events. Many of us make every effort to attend and participate. That spirit of political action and participation; however, was not mirrored in the violence we saw as far-right extremists, neo-Nazis and white supremacists invaded the legislative chamber of our government in response to what they viewed as unfavorable results of a fair election.
The Capitol insurrection brought with it a cloud that remains over our heads and further disrupts our states of mind, which were already forced to contend with a deadly pandemic and its consequences. However, the mental impacts of the Jan. 6 attack do not affect everyone equally. Faculty and staff live in and around the city, some with children. They now live with a reminder of the violence that can result from lies repeated by politicians; one that took flight after President Donald Trump touted conspiracies about voter fraud in the presidential election. This is a continuous trauma on the members of our community.
In addition, vulnerable members of the University community viewed the attack with a distinct set of eyes from the majority. Many students of color reiterated that the violence and disparate Capitol Police response to it was not a surprise, given the history of hatred and brutality in this country. Some international students and first-generation Americans were disillusioned by the events at the Capitol, as they shattered the image of a safe and stable democracy where residents accept a peaceful transfer of power. AU needs to offer more support for these members of the community by reaching out to them directly.
With the hate crime that happened on AU’s campus in our recent memory, the University has a renewed responsibility to consider the safety of students with marginalized identities. The complexities of this situation cannot be ignored; students face a scenario where the response to this violence is increased military and police presence, while police presence is likely the exact thing that instills fear. The actions and decisions of the federal and District governments are not in AU’s control, but the way it prioritizes its students and the resources it offers to them should be the University’s most significant responsibility at this moment.
Since the start of the pandemic, everyone has asked for compassion, and in some cases, they got it. In the wake of a violent attack on our city and country, however, now is the time that understanding and leniency must be demanded. Professors should not only acknowledge the realities we are all living in, but also be lenient during a time of mental and emotional stress. The acknowledgement of a mutual struggle is necessary to make students feel seen and heard in a time that has isolated us in our rooms.
As a higher education institution, the University can respond to these events by examining educational rhetoric and responsibilities. The School of Public Affairs and School of International Service pride themselves on the use of experts and the setting of D.C. as a rich resource for students. There is a sense of American exceptionalism that is present in classroom conversations. That sense is even present in the reaction to the riots as “shocking” and “un-American.” As the University hopefully seizes this time to expand safety and mental health resources, it should also look to the future. How do we understand how our nation arrived at this point? What level of complicity does that require? What rhetoric does this institution perpetuate that might contribute to that complicity? This is yet another opportunity to look inward. AU’s single most important purpose is to educate. While we deal with the immediate consequences of the events of Jan. 6, the University must look forward and determine how that purpose is best fulfilled to serve students as they are sent out with hopes of creating change.