On January 6th, what began as a pro-Trump protest in Washington DC by those who believed that the Presidential Election was fraudulent became a riot which led to the US Capitol building being stormed, Congress being forced to temporarily evacuate and adjourn their certification of the Presidential Election, and five people being killed.
Yesterday, I, like many of my peers, took a break from my homework to watch the news, where I watched, dumbfounded, these events. Though I had by now become used to political division and the increasingly surreal state of American democracy, this still managed to surprise and deeply disturb me as a violent attack on American political processes and a glimpse into a potential future for the nation that I, and I hope many other students, hope to avoid, in which political power is governed by intimidation and misinformation.
Several weeks ago, I co-authored a piece that included the line, “for those who want to be as actively involved [in politics] as possible, finding and joining local protests (in a safe way, of course) may be a good way to share their opinions and work to sway policy.” It is an idea that I stand by: citizens, particularly those who cannot easily make their voices heard in elections, should be free to express their values through public assembly. Yesterday’s events do not fall within that. The citizens who broke their way into the Capitol were not expressing a genuine grievance, they were attempting to overturn a free and fair election. They were not attempting to sway policy in the interest of equality, they were trying to use their power to disrupt American policy and maintain the status quo against the wishes of American voters and against the democratic principles of the nation.
For months, Black Lives Matter protests swept across the nation in opposition to police brutality. Across the nation, protesters were met with force—tear gas, rubber bullets, and physical violence. On June 1st in Washington DC, BLM protesters in Lafayette Square were tear gassed in order to allow President Trump to go to St. John’s Episcopal Church. The police response to those who attempted to storm the Capitol building looked very different. Although the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the nation were not without violence, the police response seen was much more forceful, with riot gear and tear gas becoming commonplace, even in San Luis Obispo. With the exception of several tragic deaths that are still being investigated, people were able to break into the Capitol with relatively little resistance, with the DC National Guard only being fully deployed hours after the violence began. Without delving too far into speculation, it seems likely that, should Black Lives Matter protests have attempted to break into federal government buildings with the force seen yesterday, police response would have been much more intense and potentially more deadly. This inequality is simply unacceptable.
Today, Morro Bay students have returned to school, resuming a semblance of a normal life. As we begin to distance ourselves from the chaos of yesterday, it bears reminding that yesterday was not normal, was not acceptable, and was not a spontaneous event. The violence we saw in the Capitol was the culmination of years of lies and fear mongering. It was the result of conscious decisions made by those in power. We cannot allow ourselves to lose focus of that if we want to prevent this from happening again.
Also important to recognize is the key role misinformation has played in both the creation and aftermath of the storming of the Capitol. The rioters who broke into this government building were called to do so in response to consistent, unsubstantiated cries by President Trump and some of his supporters that the Presidential Election was fraudulent despite these claims being both a dangerous undermining of the electoral process and repeatedly debunked. Further, some of the response to yesterday’s riots has been focused on using misinformation to redirect attention and blame. In both these cases, misinformation has been directly harmful, helping to cause and downplay yesterday’s riots. Misinformation, though undoubtedly the fault of leaders who perpetuate and create it, is an issue which applies to each citizen. Everyone, including Morro Bay High School students, are responsible for fact-checking information before sharing it. As we come face-to-face with these events that have causes and effects so far beyond ourselves, now is the time to look at ourselves and understand how we are involved in it. If you share false information, you cannot consider yourself blameless in yesterday’s riots.
If you find yourself feeling confused, upset, or angry in the wake of yesterday’s violence, that’s okay. I’m feeling that way too. However, if we want to move forward and make sure that our future is not governed by fear and anger, we have to use those feelings to productively proceed. Educate yourself. Fact-check information. Do not allow yourself to forget yesterday or treat it as normal. As Morro Bay students prepare to become citizens who can vote and play a role in politics, we have the power to determine what the future of American democracy holds. Soon, it will be up to us to decide that yesterday was not the beginning of a dark future.