Horror and Hope in the Face of Insurrection

The Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol viewed from Virginia on Jan. 16. Photo by Kaiden J. Yu. 

A month after thousands of insurrectionists inflamed by former President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building with the intention of stopping the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election on Wednesday, Jan. 6, the GDS community is still reeling as Trump now stands on trial in the Senate on the impeachment charge of “incitement of insurrection.” 

High School Principal Katie Gibson said she felt “a sense of shock and horror” at what she was witnessing on TV that day. Sitting with her two children watching the riot unfold, she was faced with the difficult task of “trying to explain to an eight-year-old and an eleven-year-old what’s happening in that moment, and how it’s tied to racism and white supremacy.”

Senior Benji Wiener said he was “extremely shocked” by the extremity of the riot, yet he expressed no surprise that Trump refused to “go out peacefully.” He also described his sadness at the “lackluster effort to stop this from happening in the first place.”

Junior Maddie Feldman, a head of the political discussion club Student Voices, agreed. She said it was “surreal to watch these events unfolding” even though she had “expected some sort of act to go on in the weeks before the inauguration.” Horror without surprise, in her opinion, can be explained by “most people in my generation being so desensitized to what we hear [being called] unprecedented acts.” 

A numbed response to insurrection, then, reflects the context of current high schoolers’ dawning political awareness. In the four years of the Trump presidency, history teacher Ricardo Carmona explained, students “have seen two impeachments, you’ve seen possible foreign wars, you’ve seen terrorist attacks.” Yet this attack by domestic terrorists that sent lawmakers into hiding, resulted in the vandalization of the Capitol and left five people dead could not fail to horrify the community. 

The school’s response to the riot consisted of smaller discussions in classes and advisories, as well as a brief assembly at the beginning of school the day after the incident, the first day back from winter break. So what is GDS’ role in guiding the community through national traumas, especially one on our immediate doorstep? Carmona said he thinks that the school should “help students get context” so they can “come to [their] own conclusion” about what happened. 

Gibson expressed a similar view, explaining the importance of “multiple entry points for people to engage in this conversation in a way that feels safe, welcoming and inviting for them and also of interest to them.” As principal, she understood the importance of “giving teachers permission to feel like they can engage in conversations about what’s happening in the real world” in their classes.

Feldman stated she “liked having a space to reflect on the incident in smaller groups, so advisories were really helpful.” 

In the all-school assembly the morning of Jan. 7, Gibson gave a short speech, at one point saying that “political pushback is the norm” in some foreign countries. After a faculty member approached her about the harm such a statement caused by promoting the idea that America is somehow better and more civilized than other countries, she later sent an apology email to the school, explaining that she was “deeply sorry for the pain that I caused, especially in the midst of such an emotionally charged moment,” and that she had “lapsed into the rhetoric of American exceptionalism.”

Some community members felt that Gibson’s apology was unnecessary, while others appreciated the retraction of what they deemed an inappropriate statement. Wiener said that while Gibson’s original speech “was kind of underwhelming,” the apology email was initially confusing because he “didn’t understand what was going on.” 

Sophomore Edie Carey had a much stronger view. She found Gibson’s original statement “pretty insulting to people who live in countries that people would call unstable,” adding that nearly “all of that violence is instigated by U.S. forces.”

Gibson explained in an interview with the Bit that her primary goal in the speech was to emphasize that “our country is founded on racism and white supremacy, and this was white supremacy feeling like it was losing its hold.” Normally she has more time to write such speeches and be “challenged in my own thinking” by running it by others in advance, she said. 

In addition, Gibson said both she and the community at large could learn from this moment. “I need to learn to model when I mess up,” she admitted. 

Carmona said the high school principal showed “a lot of courage and leadership by owning up to a mistake.”

The fear and horror of the community reflect how close to home the Capitol riot hit for residents of the D.C. area. Carey said that “it was pretty scary, especially as a Jewish person, seeing people who opposed my very existence allowed into the Capitol building.”

That fear also extends to the future. “I will never fully rule out the possibility of violence in the near future,” Feldman remarked, adding that even though Trump and many of his allies have been deprived of their social media platforms, “conspiracy theories can really start and grow anywhere.”

Carmona concurred, noting that even with a new administration, “white supremacist terror is very much a possibility going forward.” However, he hoped that “white supremacy is no longer a blind spot” when it comes to securing the country’s safety. 

Besides fear for their safety, many community members expressed a growing realization that the country’s challenges will long outlast Trump’s departure from office. For Wiener, the insurrection “certainly changed how I think about America and how divided we are,” especially concerning how there are “extremists” that “Trump and his party are unwilling to denounce.”

Feldman bemoaned the fact that many Republican politicians refuse to acknowledge “misinformation” spread by Trump and “the fact that our president has incited this violence.” Only ten Republicans in the House of Representatives joined Democrats in passing the article of impeachment last month.

As a new presidential administration comes to power and the country moves forward deeply divided, questions about how to approach this new political era remain. Gibson explained that one of the best things students can do in order to help bridge the divide in the country is “learning the art of dialogue versus debate.” She said that GDS students are “good at debate,” but that the practice of dialogue, which “requires more listening, more give and take, and more understanding and empathy, is harder.”

Feldman expressed hope that her generation could make its mark. After witnessing the political tumult and controversy of the Trump era, she said that “social justice runs deep in our blood, more than I think any other generation.” 

In today’s uncertain times, Carmona said, students “should feel worried, because this is our reality, but they shouldn’t feel powerless.”

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