Then he watched the shocking video footage of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol to disrupt the congressional proceedings.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around what took place,” Brookins, the student association president at GWU, said Thursday in a telephone interview from his home in Chicago. “The words I’ve used: crazy, insane, wild.”
As an African American, Brookins said, he was also dumbfounded that the mostly White rioters were so easily able to break into the Capitol. “Where was the police in this situation?” he said. “Where were the armed guards that were there over the summer throughout the Black Lives Matter protests? The stark difference in police enforcement, it was staggering.”
On Wednesday and Thursday, students, faculty and higher education leaders across the country denounced the assault on the nation’s democratic institutions.
“I never thought in my wildest imagination that I would ever see an attempted legislative and riotous coup in my country,” said David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore. “I have traveled to every corner of the world. And I have understood all too well what coups look like.” The events Wednesday, he said, “reminded me of some country in some kind of remote place in the world that defines maintaining power in its leadership in a way that’s violent and in some instances can lead to destruction of property and losing lives.”
Washington is not only the seat of national government. It is also very much a college town, with Capitol Hill at the hub of networks of internships, classwork and research. That is true even though the coronavirus pandemic has forced many campuses this school year to curtail in-person teaching. And so the riot struck a deep nerve at local universities.
“We use the Capitol and the government as a learning laboratory,” said Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Northeast Washington. Generations of students have gone to Capitol Hill to stuff envelopes, answer telephones and witness the legislative machinery in action. To see “marauders” and “modern Visigoths” desecrating the Capitol, McGuire said, was heartbreaking and disorienting.
She hopes security crackdowns in the aftermath won’t impede students and faculty who want to see Congress and other parts of the government at work.
“Having access is important,” McGuire said. “The ability to be spontaneous, to move about relatively freely in the halls of government, is really a learning experience.”
John Garvey, president of neighboring Catholic University, said dozens of his students are interns every year on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in D.C. He, too, condemned the riot. “This is the nation’s capital,” he said. “It’s the secular equivalent of invading a church and trashing the place. While Congress was in session. It’s inexcusable.”
John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, pointed out that the Jesuit school in Northwest Washington was founded in 1789. “We’ve kind of grown up alongside the government,” he said. More than two dozen Georgetown alumni are members of Congress, and the law school is a few blocks away from the Capitol. “It’s inextricably linked to who we are as a university.”
DeGioia said Wednesday’s riot and the security lapses at the Capitol left him stunned. “This was just a desecration.”
Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University, watched with his 14-year-old daughter as rioters broke into the Capitol. The scene left them both “in a state of confusion,” he said.
“She is trying to grapple already with an America that doesn’t always love her as it should,” Frederick said. The same can be said for most students at the historically Black university.
Under normal circumstances, Frederick would have wanted his students to be able to celebrate on Capitol Hill as Harris, a Howard graduate, took another step toward becoming the nation’s first Black, Asian American and female vice president. But that kind of gathering could have posed a problem Wednesday.
“They then would have been victimized by the riotous mob,” Frederick realized. “They also could have been victimized by law enforcement.”
Teaching about Wednesday’s riot could be a challenge, said Ravi Perry, chair of Howard’s political science department. “A lot of students at Howard University now are quite frustrated by the clear difference of treatment that they see between Blacks and other groups in this country at the hands of law enforcement. They’re growing up in this era where they see so much volatility, they see so much partisan wrangling.”
Perry said he watched in surprise as rioters swarmed the Capitol. “It was White privilege run amok on international television,” he said.
Michael Franklin, a senior at Howard, had similar thoughts while watching news from his home in Kansas City, Kan.
“I was worried that Howard would have been a target, given that we’re a historically Black college and given that the vice president-elect is from our university,” Franklin said. The campus is largely empty, and there was no sign that it was vandalized.
Franklin said the rioters had inflicted harm on the citizens of Washington. “It hurts my heart,” he said.
GWU President Thomas LeBlanc called it “a terrible day” for the country, the government and democracy. But he also spent Wednesday monitoring the situation on his Foggy Bottom campus, a few blocks from the White House, to ensure there was no violence there. “A deeply concerning day for the safety of our community,” he said.
Gregory Washington, president of George Mason University in Fairfax County, Va., watched what happened across the Potomac River in shock. “I really spent a lot of time going through, trying to understand this,” he said. “This kind of thing is not really understandable.”
But he sees Wednesday’s events as a teachable moment.
“We are part of an academic institution with really exceptional people who will analyze this and will study this and look at it from all directions,” Washington said. “This is an issue for our students to debate and talk about, and for our faculty to use to engage our students.”