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Brown students, alumni in D.C. reflect on attack on the Capitol

For Brown community members in Washington D.C., violent protests hit close to home

Margaret Thoren ’21 was out for a walk when she received an Emergency Alert that Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had issued a city-wide curfew beginning Wednesday at 6 p.m. Approximately three miles from downtown — where violent attacks incited by the president were starting to break out at the Capitol — Thoren didn’t necessarily feel in danger herself, but being “so close to events like that” left her shaken.

“When the movement into the Capitol started, it was a bit scary,” she said. “It ended up being very contained in that area, but it was definitely not certain that it would be.”

A mob of President Trump’s supporters invaded and vandalized the U.S. Capitol building Wednesday after the president emboldened them in an earlier rally to contest the results of the election as Congress certified the Electoral College vote. As the rioters — many of them armed and most of them unmasked — bypassed law enforcement and stormed the building, Vice President Mike Pence and Congress members were forced to evacuate or hide under their seats. 

Five people died, more than 50 arrests were made and more than 50 Capitol Police and municipal police were injured. 

Max Niles ’22, who lives about four miles from downtown D.C. and was at home during the assault on the Capitol, said that there were moments throughout the day when the mob’s progression was “terrifying.” Like Thoren, he had never been in close proximity to such violent attacks before, he said.

While community members across the country united in condemnation of the insurrection, being within just a few miles of the riots was particularly saddening for Washington, D.C. residents. “It does hit a little bit closer to home (when) you’ve been around all those places,” said Niles, who frequents the downtown area.

Sean Siperstein ’05, vice communications chair and president emeritus of the Brown Club of D.C., said that there was an overwhelming sense of D.C. “being under siege.” Siperstein lives in a residential neighborhood a few miles from the Capitol, but the events still felt “extraordinarily surreal,” especially in his own city.

For Emily Dietsch ’06, vice president of the BCDC, the day began with a “sense of chagrin” as she watched news coverage earlier that morning. But then, after receiving the Emergency Alert, she quickly realized that “what we thought was a silly provocation turned out to be something very real, and quite scary,” she said.

It was a “very strange feeling to be in a city where (such violence was) happening, have it not directly outside your door, but feel alarmed and also helpless,” Dietsch added.

Alex Jacoby ’22, another D.C. resident, said that he had “gotten used to some degree of unrest in the last year,” but that Wednesday’s insurrection made him nervous. 

“There is some concern, because there’s a mob of angry, violent people downtown,” he said. “There’s a little bit of concern that people will filter up (further north, where Jacoby was) or that they’ll start being violent towards random people on the street.”

Jacoby, who lives near the National Cathedral, was insulated from the events occurring at the Capitol. But since returning home to D.C., Jacoby said he has not gone downtown, anticipating potentially violent demonstrations spurred on by Trump’s false claims attempting to delegitimize the election results.

Niles’ family also insisted that he not go downtown on Wednesday, and they were sure to plan their schedules around avoiding the area. “Until a lot of these people leave,” Niles said he plans to avoid downtown D.C.

Siperstein was disheartened at how little the violence surprised him, as he felt that the rhetoric of the domestic terrorists and the White House forewarned of such an attack. The Trump supporters came with “very clear, aggressive intent,” he said.

Dietsch agreed, stating that she was not surprised that such violent rhetoric manifested in an attack. But she added that the anticipation of potential violence is different from “watching it happen in very visceral terms, watching Capitol Police members back away, in fear, from something that looks like a nightmare.”

Despite being in such close proximity to the “unsettling” events, Thoren said that “once everything was quelled within the Capitol, I felt pretty safe again.”

Brown community members also contrasted Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol, and law enforcement’s response, to the protests for racial justice that took place throughout the summer, the majority of which were peaceful. 

“Those protestors that we saw (Wednesday) were here to be violent, and that’s a very different kind of thing than people who are here to make a point,” Jacoby said.

Thoren added that many previous protests and demonstrations, such as the recent Black Lives Matter protests, “were a lot more peaceful (and) did not have that same violent overtone” that D.C. saw in Wednesday’s riots.

Jacoby also noted that the police “seemed a lot more aggressive over the summer” when people were protesting systemic racism and police brutality than they did in response to Wednesday’s pro-Trump — and mostly white — mob. “The fact that police officers perhaps were more permissive (Wednesday) is obviously concerning to me,” he said.

Niles agreed, calling the insurrection a use and abuse of “white power.” This “is exactly what America is, and this is what it has been since it (was) founded.”

When recalling previous protests in D.C. during President Barack Obama’s administration, Dietsch remembered “just peaceful protests” and “no sense of alarm.” Over the summer as well, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, she “felt a sense of gravitas, importance, momentousness, but no fear,” unlike on Wednesday.

The assault aimed “for something which is so clearly a perversion of democratic norms,” and “devalue(d) protests that are for much more righteous causes,” Jacoby said, in addition to threatening the nation’s democracy. “These protests normalize violence within the nation’s capitol as an act of political theater, and that’s clearly not a feature of a healthy democracy,” he said.

The riots were a “humbling reminder of the power that is nested in D.C., and then the risks that are associated with that as well,” Thoren said, and a reminder of the tumult that highly charged elections can bring to a city like her own, where people “look to the monuments and the government happenings in D.C. as a place to express their political opinions.”


Image: Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


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