How Did We Get Here? Four Wellesley Faculty Members Discuss the Capitol Insurrection

Michael Jeffries, Takis Metaxes, Kellie Carter Jackson, Maneesh Arora
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“What we observed on January 6 may not have been a coup, but it could have easily ended up being a coup,” said Takis Metaxas, professor of computer science at Wellesley, at a January 14 virtual teach-in to discuss the insurrection in Washington, D.C. “What made the difference? Just a few minutes of time.”

Metaxas joined panelists Maneesh Arora, assistant professor of political science, and Kellie Carter Jackson, Knafel Assistant Professor of Humanities and assistant professor of Africana studies, and moderator Michael Jeffries, Class of 1949 Professor in Ethics, professor of American studies, and dean of academic affairs, to talk about the causes and significance of the violent attack on the Capitol building.

He noted that Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern said there was about a minute between when the last of the representatives left the House chamber and when the mob broke in. It was crucial the mob didn’t reach the representatives, Metaxas said, because “if they had, they would have trapped them, and could have held them hostage. That would have been a successful coup. It was a matter of minutes between a failed insurrection and a successful coup.”

Carter Jackson took the audience back through U.S. history, explaining that Reconstruction—the period right after the Civil War—is known as a political revolution for Black people. During this time, three significant amendments passed: the 13th that abolished slavery; the 14th granting citizenship to freed slaves; and the 15th allowing Black men the right to vote. It was the first time Black people could influence the government. “As a result of this political influence, the Klan is born,” Carter Jackson said, “so the Klan really finds its genesis in opposition to Black freedom, in opposition to Black enfranchisement.”

She noted that in the early 20th century, the Klan included clergy, elected officials, judges, businessmen—prominent citizens. “When you look at the Capitol and you look at the people who are storming…I hear a lot of people saying ‘This is not America, who are these people?’ and the unfortunate truth is that these are not really a group of fringe radicals. This group is made up of veterans, of off-duty cops, of elected officials, of an Olympic athlete, of college students, soccer moms, members of the PTA,” she said. “I want to be careful not to dismiss those rioting at the Capitol as crazy, fanatical, radical people.”

Arora said the right-wing political violence stemmed from Trump amplifying distrust in democratic institutions, taking advantage of and encouraging a sense of victimhood in his followers, and using divisive political rhetoric. “In 2016, Trump was already saying, ‘If I lose, it’s because the election was stolen from me,’” Arora said. “We shouldn’t be surprised that in 2020, that was the very first thing [he said]. ‘They’re stealing the election.’ That normalized this idea that violence is necessary to protect…this group that perceives themselves as victims, and [they’re saying], ‘Look at this election being stolen from us. They’re disenfranchising our votes.’”

Jeffries asked a question from the audience about how to break out of these patterns of distrust and polarization. “I can say this, and this has been encouraging to me, that while I may not always have the answers, I know what’s not a solution,” Carter Jackson said. “I can look at something and say, well, that’s not the answer.” Sometimes knowing what won’t work can get you closer to what will, she said.

Arora noted that it’s difficult to change hearts and minds; most new information we get, we generally align with what we already believe. He discussed the idea of relational organizing— appealing to people on an emotional level, particularly people you have built trust with. “The more that we can try to appeal to those who disagree with us at an emotional level and leverage that trust that we have, it’s possible to change some of that pain and hurt in disagreement,” he said.

“Education is still the one tool that we have. We cannot ignore that,” Metaxas said. “I am a bit more optimistic because I know that this kind of failed insurrection was so badly performed, that it has burned in the minds of young people. It is very difficult to change the minds of older people, but to young people these things are not going to be forgotten.” He concluded by saying that people need to make an effort to connect to others who come from different backgrounds, races, and economic strata: “The closer we become, we will have a better understanding of and more empathy about what others are going through, and we can overcome together.”