TU leaders, experts reflect on Capitol riots

By Kyle Hobstetter, Rebecca Kirkman and Matt Palmer on January 7, 2021

Read historic, political and social perspectives on the events at the Capitol building.


For many Towson University administrators and faculty, the scenes of destruction and the threat to American democracy Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol were viewed through the same lens as millions — as concerned citizens.

But by Thursday, the sentiments of all turned to how to convey this inflection point in our nation’s history to its future leaders — TU students.

“Like so many, I watched in disbelief and horror yesterday the acts of a terrorist mob to attack our Capitol, our Congress and our democracy,” President Kim Schatzel said in a message shared with the university community Thursday morning. “Like so many, I witnessed their unimaginable and despicable efforts to vandalize our Capitol, menace our elected leaders and desecrate our nation’s democratic process. I wept. I was enraged.”

Four people were killed as thousands charged the U.S. Capitol as elected officials were beginning the process of certifying the Electoral College votes from November’s presidential election.

Jennifer Ballengee, chair of TU’s Academic Senate, advised her colleagues of the opportunity to make a difference for students in the days following Wednesday’s violence.

“As faculty, it is our job to give our students the knowledge they need—career and critical thinking skills, an appreciation for professional success along with an appreciation for the insight and creative possibility that seem to make us uniquely human. Towson University students especially, in my opinion, deserve all of that. And our nation needs it.”

We talked to some subject matter experts among TU’s faculty and staff Thursday morning to share their insight.

Political and cultural insight

TU political science associate professor John McTague, who lives 4 miles from the U.S. Capitol, felt “sickened, disturbed, sad and angry” as he watched the violence unfold during Congress’ certification of the electoral votes.
“[Wednesday’s] events were a grievous blow to our democracy,” says McTague.

Political scientists use sliding scales to measure the levels of democracy in a country, ranging from autocratic to democratic. Those measures have shown that the U.S. has become a less-stable democracy in recent years, McTague says.

“[Wednesday] was a new low on that negative trajectory. Just as our colleagues in virology and related fields were sounding alarms about COVID-19 a year ago, American citizens really must heed the call from scholars who study democracy. This is alarming, to put it mildly,” he continues.
For McTague, the current political crisis highlights the value of higher education.

“Now more than ever, we need an educated citizenry that is capable of critical thinking, skepticism about unreliable sources of information and, most of all, empathy and social responsibility,” he says. “While it is far too much to ask, I have a deep and sincere hope that the generation in TU’s student body today is up to the task of repairing our democracy and charting a brighter future. My students are extremely bright, empathetic and eager to work for a cause greater than their own self-interest. Personally, I think it’s time to redouble our efforts to invest in their future so that they can make a better tomorrow for us all.”

Civic involvement

For Luis Sierra, assistant director of civic engagement in the Division of Student Affairs, the past few months have been a rollercoaster ride. After spending much of 2020 registering TU students to vote, he was thrilled to see the 2020 election have a record-high voter turnout for voters aged 18-24.  
He points to the action at the U.S. Capitol as an example of how much work there is still left to do.
“This is America,” Sierra says. “For all the progress we’ve made, there is still so much to be done, and it’s not going to get done overnight. I think we’re in a position, from a civic engagement standpoint, that we can help our students, whenever they are ready, to turn that outrage into continued action.”
He plans on reaching out to student leaders to get their thoughts about what’s happening in America.
Sierra says, “Whether they are feeling numb, tired, angry, disappointed, nervous, scared—whatever it is they are feeling, it’s valid. If anything, it’s healthy to be in tune with those feelings before trying to do anything else.”
For Sierra, that’s what democracy looks like, and he has faith that students will continue to use their voices for change.
“A lot of people who spearheaded the Civil Rights movement were of college age,” Sierra says. “The Black Lives Matter movement is led by young people. The environmental justice movement is led by young people. I continue to believe and hold on to hope because of that. Students need to harness their voices and not let what happened yesterday undermine the power of these voices.

Social impact

Looking at the events at the Capitol through the lens of anthropology can help to deconstruct the cultural movements that ultimately led to the acts of violence.

“From an anthropological standpoint, we see what happens when the warping of culture, heritage and other notions of belonging drive an extremist viewpoint of who belongs and who supposedly does not,” says Matthew Durington, professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminal Justice and director of community engagement and partnerships for the Division of Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research.

He adds that Wednesday’s events confirm how social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter share in the responsibility.

“Social media has many benefits, but we are also seeing how networks can be appropriated and create social vacuums that get filled with conspiracy theories, lies and manipulation,” he says, noting Wednesday’s violence “demonstrates how quickly ideology can usurp objectivity without the checks or balances of traditional journalism.”

And while that was an example of America’s democracy at work, Durington points to the action at the U.S. Capitol as an example of how much work there is still left to be done.

Media interested in speaking with TU faculty experts can contact Matt Palmer at mpalmer@towson.edu.

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland, BTU-Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore and Diverse and Inclusive Campus.