Students and teachers in classrooms across the country on Thursday grappled with the latest historic moment – in a year of many – as they started to process the events that unfolded in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.
Schenectady High School social studies teacher Chris Ognibene put together a new lesson plan Wednesday night, asking students Thursday morning to assess blame for the Capitol riots and brainstorm how the country can move past them.
The conversation quickly turned to a major theme of the reaction to the seeming ease with which a mob of Trump supporters overtook the Capitol: the law enforcement reaction was a lot different to Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer and fall.
“In one America you get shot and killed in your backyard, shot in your car, arrested for selling cigarettes,” student Chaz Ramlal said as Ognibene’s virtual class of about 10 students discussed the riots on Thursday morning. “And in another America, you can storm the nation’s capitol without tear gas, pellet guns, nothing.”
While the students raised the comparison, Ognibene also introduced the subject by showing students a short video about the racial justice protests and the response to them. The students also highlighted Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” comments in juxtaposition to his weak condemnation of the rioters – and actual embrace of them – in comments Wednesday.
“He was against all the Black Lives Matter protests, but when white nationalists broke in to the Capitol, he said, ‘Go home. I love you,’” said student Sieera Boodhoo. “He only cares about himself and his reputation.”
The students dissected a timeline of the day’s events and largely pinned blame for the riots on President Trump and his most ardent supporters.
“They didn’t straight out say they supported them, but they kept referring to them as ‘American patriots,’ and he said he loved them,” Selina Singh said.
Ramlal came to the class prepared to back up his position with history and famous quotes – including his own riff on a Martin Luther King Jr. quote about “two Americas” – and connected Wednesday’s chaos to George Washington’s farewell address, a famous warning against the risk of political parties. Ramlal cited Washington’s warning that political parties could “become potent things, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
“He showed he was never fit to become a leader of the American people,” Ramlal said of Trump after reading the Washington quote.
Ognibene – who on Wednesday night said he planned to approach Thursday’s class discussion “very truthfully and honestly” – didn’t shy away from describing Wednesday’s events as an unprecedented moment in American history or blatant criminal activity. He referred to the riots as a terrorist attack.
“Let’s be honest, it’s criminal,” Ognibene said of the rioters.
He used a BBC report of the riots to provide the students an international perspective on how their own country was being covered from abroad. While the class has spent most of its time on the economics portion of the course, Ognibene leveraged the discussion to raise questions about the means of removing a president, explaining the difference between impeachment and the 25th amendment. He highlighted the history of transitions of power in the United States and cited the consequences of moving on from historic events without full accountability.
“John Adams was bitter and angry and still left peacefully,” Ognibene said of the first losing incumbent president in American history.
As they watched the BBC footage of Trump supporters rampaging in the Capitol, the students seemed to slowly grapple with the history unfolding before them.
“This reminds me of the movie Olympus Has Fallen,” one of the students posted in a chat box as the class watched the video, referring to a movie where assailants overtake the White House. “And hopefully it doesn’t get that far.”
Educators across the region and state Wednesday night and Thursday voiced the grief and sadness of many, with some calling out “domestic terrorism” against the Capitol and condemning Trump in the strongest terms from education leaders to date.
Shenendehowa Superintendent Oliver Robinson in a social media post highlighted the importance of education in building a healthy society.
“If the domestic terrorism witnessed today at the U.S. Capital [sic] doesn’t speak to our conscience, our sense of morality, our sense of decency… then we are in trouble,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night. “Educators and education institutions have a lot of work to do. We have the power to teach to preserve humanity.”
Duanesburg Superintendent James Niedermeier in a similar message posted online said he was saddened by what happened at the Capitol and urged parents to discuss the news with their kids.
“In an already chaotic time, kids (and grown-ups) don’t need any more trauma” he wrote. “I urge parents to talk to their kids and tell them that this is not what it means to be an American.”
State Education Department officials on Thursday released a statement marking Wednesday as “a dark day in American history” and condemning Trump for “inciting an angry mob to violence.”
“We all witnessed a violent, lawless mob breach our nation’s Capital [sic] in an attempt to thwart the democratic will of the people,” according to a joint statement from state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa and T. Andrew Brown, vice chancellor of the Board of Regents. “It was an assault on our democracy from within.”
The education officials said teachers can help students understand “that we are so much better than this as a nation” and raised some of the questions educators should be asking themselves.
“But what did yesterday’s assault on our democracy mean to our children?” the statement continued. “How will they come to understand what happened? How will they process the images of a Confederate flag – that hateful reminder of another failed insurrection – being paraded through the halls of the Capitol? How will they be able to handle the emotional toll of yesterday’s violence and treachery on top of everything else they are trying to cope with in a year like no other?”