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UMass reacts to insurrection in Washington, D.C.

Students talk police and polarization, the chancellor makes a statement, professors sign a petition

January 10, 2021

When insurrectionists broke into the Capitol Building on Wednesday, the University of Massachusetts community was watching.

“I’m not going to lie and say that this didn’t shake me a little, it did. But I’m refusing to let these cowards—these domestic terrorists—I’m refusing to let them see me in fear. I’m refusing to let them know that their words and their actions have an effect on me,” said Zach Steward, a junior African-American studies and legal studies major and co-founder of the Racial Justice Coalition.

The morning began with senatorial wins for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, securing Democrats a majority in the Senate, the House of Representatives and the presidency.

“Black women are the reason that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to be the new president and vice president of the United States of America. Black women are the reason that Democrats have control of the Senate from now until 2022. So, Democrats, this message is for y’all: treat black women the way you treat white men,” Steward said.

Later in the day, the House and Senate met to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump. Some UMass community members were watching on C-SPAN, others were working and receiving Twitter notifications. As the vote proceeded and objections were made about the state of Arizona’s electoral votes, President Trump addressed his supporters at a rally where he said they were going to “walk down to the Capitol.”

The nation turned its attention as people moved to the Capitol Building, starting a violent riot that stopped Congress from counting electoral votes and resulted in five deaths.

“This has been building up and I know that these people exist in the U.S. and this isn’t technically surprising, but I was shocked to see it. My gut instinct was disbelief, even though it’s so, so believable once you really think about it,” said Sonya Epstein, a junior social thought and political economy major and Student Government Association president.

All seven students interviewed for this article noted the difference between the police presence at this riot compared to Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C. this summer.

Carla Montilla interned in the Capitol Building in the summer of 2019. During her internship, she said security was so strict that she couldn’t bring pens and paper into the building. She also said that Capitol Police had a notably strong presence in the area and took pride in protecting those in the building.

Montilla remembered one time when numerous police officers and EMTs squeezed into the small office when there was a medical emergency to fulfill safety protocol.

“To see the difference between that and people walking into the Capitol like they own the place, and then going back home without getting arrested. That was insane.”

As a result of her experiences, Montilla said she was “shocked” that the insurrectionists were able to break in.

“They showed their faces, they weren’t even wearing masks, even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t know if it’s stupidity or just blatant disrespect for democracy, or just such an awareness of their privilege and their place in these systems of oppression that they don’t feel like they have to hide anything,” she said.

Montilla also said that Rep. Jim McGovern didn’t have his staffers come in on Tuesday.

Epstein said that images comparing Black Lives Matter protests to the riot, the video of police taking selfies with protestors and the amount of time it took to clear the building “proves that the police are a part of this system of white supremacy. And they’ll never shut down or completely push back in full force against the system and the people that are giving them the power…They know people in that crowd, they’re friends with people in the crowd, they are in that crowd.”

Steward agreed saying, “White supremacy is supported, is reinforced, is recognized, is loved, is treated with respect, is cared for, is nurtured like a child by the police because the police are white supremacists.”

Two students interviewed mentioned an article from Police Magazine which said that 82 percent of police officers voted for Trump in 2016.

Epstein expressed concern about the lack of control police had over the situation being used as an argument for police to get more funding: “Saying that they were just ill-prepared, that they didn’t have the resources to stop this, which, as we saw from the summer with the Black Lives Matter protests definitely isn’t true. They have way too many resources.”

Confusions remain and investigations are in process to understand why the police were not prepared.

Throughout the day, photos and videos of the riots surfaced online.

Steward said a photo of a noose on the Capitol steps resonated with him. “I’m not quite sure who they were going to kill but that seems to be the implied intent, that they were going to kill somebody with said noose, and that I think that is probably the most triggering thing.”

Epstein noted the many different flags on display including Confederate, Trump and Pence, Blue Lives Matter and Nazi flags. They said, “Seeing the Confederate flag be brought through the halls of Congress. Seeing people there wearing shirts that say ‘Camp Auschwitz,’ is horrifying. And you know, especially as a Jew, seeing that it’s like that gut instinct is just pure fear.”

Epstein was among four other students that discussed seeing the Confederate flag and symbols of racism and of anti-Semitism in the Capitol Building.

“It’s important to note that when these terrorists and insurrectionists entered the Capitol, they weren’t waving American flags. They’re waving Confederate flags, and Trump Pence 2020 flags. So, it shows you where their loyalties and their allegiance lie. It’s not to the Constitution, that’s not to the United States. But it’s to Donald Trump,” James Robinson, a first year master’s student in the School of Public Policy said. “And it’s to an ideology that’s equal to that of the Confederacy, which is not American. We went to war as a nation against the Confederacy and it’s unfortunate that we have to share citizenship with people that are so adamantly opposed to a multicultural society.”

Students also noted the images of elected officials wearing gas masks and running from the room.

Montilla added that it was shocking to see how people treated the building. “Usually, the respect that the Capitol has, as a building, if you haven’t been inside it’s a very beautiful and impressive building. I was in awe every day that I got to work there because it’s where our democracy lies, basically. And to see them disrespected like that, it was just such a slap in the face for everything that that building represents.”

Many students were also critical of Trump’s rhetoric about the riot, especially noting the video that he posted to Twitter on Wednesday during the riots where he said: “Go home. We love you.”

“I think that was very terrible, very wicked,” Mark Doherty, a sophomore political science and Chinese double major, said.

But Trump wasn’t the only Republican students were critical of. Montilla and other students noted their frustration that GOP members supported and legitimized the false claim of voter fraud and objected to the election results after the riots.

“I don’t even think my biggest concern is Trump again, or like any of the members of the Trump families, just these other more obscure Republicans [who] voted last night to still undermine our election, tried and voted for not certifying the results of certain states. So, these are people that are going to, in two years, or whenever they’re up for re-election, they’re going to go to their constituents, and they’re gonna say that they proudly stood up for democracy when they try to commit a coup,” Montilla said.

Many GOP members changed their stance about the fairness of the election. In response, students said it was important for them to do this, but it was too little too late.

Epstein was critical of the Democratic party, calling on them to encourage enacting not only the 25th Amendment but also impeachment.

They continued, saying that Democrats that were wrong when they said the attacks on Wednesday are not what America is. “We’re a nation that’s founded on genocide, on slavery. This is exactly what America is…recognizing that the normal that we know is so extremely harmful to so many people, and that our foundation is based off of all of these truly horrific things…This is exactly who we are. And that’s why we need to keep fighting.”

For many students, this is the first or second presidential election they have voted in, meaning that there could be potential long-term effects of this time of political instability.

Doherty described a conversation with a friend where he asked if this event would be his generation’s 9/11 or Watergate. “My friend said to me, ‘Dude, it feels like we’ve been living through a 9/11 every day for the past year.’ So ever since March, and even before that, I just feel like we just grown up under tons of volatility.”

Doherty said that the long-term effects of this time last week and more extensively this last year, is a “mistrust of the Republican party.”

Quinn McCarron, a sophomore political science major, said the biggest change in his political philosophy is his feelings of the police, something he said is a direct result of the past year.

“I thought it was a few bad apples before this year, and I thought it did need to be addressed, but I thought that for the most part, cops are trying their best. And now I realize it’s probably just a few good apples. Departmentwide, countrywide, we need to change our police departments,” he said.

Another common point made by students was a struggle to communicate with those who disagree with them about the fairness of the election.

Robinson discussed how both sides of the political spectrum are impacted by confirmation bias, meaning they access news and information which agrees with what they believe. He said that newsmakers need to be held accountable and at the same time, people need to question where they are getting information.

Robinson said when someone is in a media bubble, constantly consuming skewed information, at a certain point, “it becomes impossible to convince someone of a fact. I think it’s been called truth decay. So, I’m not quite sure if there’s anything I could say to a Trump supporter to get them to believe in what we know to be the objective truth.”

Luke Mastrangeli, a third-year student in the dual degree Master’s in education, higher education administration and the Master’s in public policy and administration program, added: “I also think as young people, we need to realize that if we don’t consider every single perspective, or as many perspectives as possible, then we aren’t necessarily doing our due diligence, to be informed as possible.”

Both Mastrangeli and Steward stressed the importance of accurately documenting time.

“The history books, they better not lie. I will literally write one myself if I need to, in order to make sure that everything that we’ve seen over the last four years, especially 2020, going into 2021, has to be documented accurately and future generations have to know what happened,” Steward said. “Because if they don’t, history is doomed to repeat itself. And we can’t have that. Not again. Because it’s already repeating itself currently. History has to stop repeating itself and move forward.”

Mastrangeli agreed saying that, “We need to talk about what happened with George Floyd. We need to talk about what happened with the United Nations. We need to talk about what happened with the Paris Climate Agreement. We need to talk about the domino effect that resulted from what was happening from the White House, that was ultimately going to impact everyone.”

A message from the chancellor

On Thursday, Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy wrote a letter to the UMass community which touched upon many of the issues the students expressed.

“What we witnessed yesterday in Washington, D.C. was shocking and deeply disturbing. The storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob incited by lies and anti-democratic propaganda is something that most of us could never have imagined,” the chancellor wrote.

In his statement, the chancellor stated clearly that the presidential election was free, fair and devoid of any significant voter fraud and called Wednesday “one of our country’s darkest days.”

Subbawamy also discussed the response to Black Lives Matter protests compared to the riots which took place this week, writing, “This juxtaposition is suggestive of the deep-seated institutional racism that our country must acknowledge and strive to overcome, as we have rededicated ourselves to do on our campus.”

“The embrace of reason and the advancement of knowledge, key elements of our mission as a research university, are central to ensuring that an educated populace can employ critical thinking skills to participate in and strengthen our republic,” he wrote.

The chancellor then called on the UMass community to come together and keep their optimism and faith. “Despite the efforts of those who tried and failed to overrun our democracy yesterday, there is ample reason for hope: last night, democracy prevailed, and Congress affirmed the results of our presidential election; with the development of new vaccines, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight; and through all the turmoil of the past year, our UMass Amherst community remains strong,” he wrote.

Subbawamy finished the email by providing links to campus resources such as the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, the Dean of Students Office, University Health Services (UHS) and the International Programs Office.

The entire message can be read on the University website.

Epstein was critical of the administration’s reaction.

“Admin will say, you know, time and time again, that they’re committed to this, that they’re working with us, and they’ve created a lot of working groups and a lot of steps have been taken. But with those working groups, what we see so often is that they just keep going until students are too burnt out and too tired to keep fighting for what they need. Or they take years and years to implement. And we’re seeing, especially with instances like this, that we don’t have that time,” they said. “White supremacists are getting extremely bold. We can’t continue to risk our students’ safety.”

Epstein also made a thread on Twitter to address how they thought UMass should respond to the riots. The thread read in part: “We’ve had white supremacists on campus before, both students who threaten faculty and peers and groups who have put up posters trying to recruit students… and yet the majority of racial justice demands for decades have not been met.”

In regard to how they plan to respond in their capacity as SGA president, Epstein said, “I need to be more assertive.”

“Both myself and SGA need to continuously be recommitting ourselves to racial justice, and really analyzing these structures of white supremacy that exist, that we can’t keep saying the police are here to protect us. We see time and time again that they’re not. And we can’t keep letting these things take so long. Because every time every year that goes by, that’s more and more students’ lives and well-being at risk,” they said.

Professors take action

“The tragic events of January 6 are much bigger than the misguided fools who attacked the Capitol, though they must be punished to the full extent of the law. This is mostly about the deranged, cynical, seditious ‘leader’ (and other Republican enablers) who incited this with years of misinformation mongering and elevating and amplifying conspiracy theories and white supremacist hate,” said Associate Professor Alexander Theodoridis of Political Science via email.

In addition to the reactions from students and the chancellor, eight political science professors from the University signed an open letter calling the U.S. Congress, Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet “to immediately remove President Donald J. Trump from office through the impeachment process or by invoking the 25th Amendment.”

In the letter, the political scientists wrote that the president’s actions threaten American democracy. “He has rejected the peaceful transfer of power, encouraged state legislators to overturn election results in their states, pressured a state official to change election results, and now incited a violent mob that shut down the counting of electoral votes and stormed the U.S. Capitol.”

“Our profession seeks to understand politics, not engage in it, but we share a commitment to democratic values,” the letter read. “The President’s actions show he is unwilling or unable to fulfill his oath to protect and defend the Constitution. He should be removed from office immediately before further violence takes place or further damage is done to our democracy.”

According to Theodoridis, one of the professors who signed the letter, two Dartmouth professors drafted it and “word of it spread over social media.”

“This was an act of domestic terrorism. There’s no question about that.” Professor Paul Collins said. The professor of legal studies and political science was one of the UMass professors who signed this letter. He was motivated by “professional and moral obligation to do what small part I could to try to improve the health of American democracy.”

“I believe the behavior of Donald Trump and the vast majority of Republican elites, particularly since the election, are dangerous and a grave threat to the democratic norms of our nation,” Theodoridis said via email. “I believe there has to be accountability so that future politicians understand they cannot act this way with impunity.”

Both professors agreed recent events will affect their teaching.

“I have hope that one of the things that will come out of this is a recognition by a much larger segment of the American people that there really are two systems of justice in this country with regard to race relations. And I think that, for those folks who had doubts about that, it’s almost impossible to dismiss the evidence that we saw at the Capitol and still be taken, taken seriously,” Collins said. “My hope is that this will motivate a larger segment of the American public to recognize the racial disparities we have and to take steps to try to alleviate.”

Collins said his message to students is, “We’ll get through this. It’s a tough time but we’ll get through it.”


Cassie McGrath can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @cassiemcgrath_.

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