News & Update

Staff Reflections on the Attack on the Capitol

This attack on our democracy was an important historical moment, but it was also a deeply personal one.

I am sure that you, like me, have been engrossed in the news about the events of last Wednesday and the tragedy that happened in our nation’s capital. I am shocked, angry and incensed, but as many have said, it is not surprising.

Many organizations have put out statements condemning the violence and highlighting how white supremacy led to this insurrection and the minimal response from law enforcement. These statements are welcomed and important. Living Cities attempts to center our humanity in all that we do, so instead of putting out an organizational statement, we decided to open a call to all staff to offer their personal reflections. We are sharing these now, below.

While this attack on our democracy was an important historical moment, as these personal reflections show, it was also a deeply personal one. I hope that by offering these up, they can offer up a moment of reflection and help you make sense of this painful time.

Ben Hecht, President and CEO

When I watched the insurrection last Wednesday and saw the windows break at the Capitol, something broke in me as well. Even now, I’m struggling to come to terms with what I experienced, and what to do about it.

I didn’t realize how special a place the Capitol held in my heart. I came to University of Maryland as a naïve 18-year-old, convinced that I wanted to work in Washington and become President of the United States. I worked in the Capitol for almost three years, paying my way through college on the staff of an Ohio Congressman. I came of age, so to speak, in that role, observing how Congress operates (and how it doesn’t) and the slow pace but monumental impact of decisions made there. That experience informed the course of my life for the next 40+ years; I affirmatively decided to pass up a small chance for big change at the national level for the high probability of faster, community-sized change at the local level.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The horrific sight of those white rioters desecrating my Capitol, waving the Confederate flag in the Rotunda, meandering the hallways like students on a class trip, and then simply leaving with impunity made me nauseous. Their entitlement was one thing, but the total lack of readiness and appropriate reaction by the police was quite another. Many have called out what was so impossible to ignore in that moment: the police response to a “protest” organized by and for white people is starkly different than a protest involving and advocating for Black people.

This was the embodiment of what is meant when people say that racism is institutionalized and in our groundwater. This wasn’t about the actions of a few bad people; this was the result of the reactions of many people in decision-making roles who judged that these soon-to-be-insurrectionists were not a threat, even after seeing evidence for months to the contrary. Until structural racism is acknowledged and people in positions of responsibility have the racial equity competencies to make very different day to day decisions, justice will remain far from a reality.

Until structural racism is acknowledged and people in positions of responsibility have the racial equity competencies to make very different day to day decisions, justice will remain far from a reality.

As someone often described as ‘frustratingly optimistic,’ I felt extreme despair. Although irrational, I took it personally—as a rebuke somehow for having spent my professional lifetime trying, to the best of my abilities, to do as President Obama elegantly said years ago: contribute to “building a more perfect union.” Wednesday’s events made me question the fundamental value of the choices I’ve made throughout my career. It felt like my conception of what it means to be an American Patriot—someone actually working for the common good and something I’ve always considered myself—was being denigrated by so many in our society who held and celebrated a diametrically different definition.

Maybe this insurrection will finally be the one American crisis that isn’t wasted—that it will be the spark that lights a broad reckoning not just about who we really are, but also for what it will take to get us to live up to our 240-year-old promises.

Deadly Display of Whiteness Elevates White Supremacy- Carmen Smith, Digital Strategist

I woke up the morning of January 7 anticipating a productive, normal day. Yet, I woke up feeling drained. A feeling to be expected after watching, digesting and emerging in the reflection of the prior day’s events.

I live in Washington, D.C. My home is located about a 10-minute drive from Capitol Hill, an area I visit regularly as a few local businesses I patronize are there. The morning of January 6, my sister in South Carolina, where I am from, sent me a message telling me and my 19-year-old nephew who lives with me to be careful, as Trump supporters were planning an event that day in D.C. I noted her caution, and continued my day being intentional about how much news coverage I would engage in that could cause any anticipated anxiety.

Image credit: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

After lunch, my nephew called to tell me that the doctor whose office he is interning at near the White House told him to leave early, because she was unsure how the day would escalate. I thought it was a safe call on the doctor’s part, but had no idea that an hour later, the United States Capitol would be breached by hundreds of domestic white supremacist terrorists, only patriotic to their whiteness and campaigning dictator Donald Trump.

Shortly after my nephew arrived home, an Instagram post he was viewing encouraged me to turn on the news. So I did.

I remember watching this coup on television in utter shock and continuously saying “they are not supposed to be right there.” The place of the riots is so familiar to me because I used to drive past it several times a week before the pandemic. I once lived in a Capitol Hill neighborhood, and it’s one of the places I enjoy taking walks. It felt so close. I sat in my living room unsure of how bad it would get. Absolute chaos was raging right down the street.

A standard for protecting whiteness, no matter how violent, has a new level as of January 6, 2021.

After realizing that a riot was currently taking place, I began to process how much blood would be on the Capitol stairs had Black people been protesting. You see, this is an example of white supremacy at its purest form. White people believe that they are supreme – better than, able to do whatever, where ever, how ever they so choose without repercussion. This inherent truth is accepted by all white people – no matter how nice or mean, progressive or conservative, rich or poor, whiteness grants them the safety of privilege. That’s whether it means:

  • an insurrection because your candidate did not win an election
  • an attack on someone they believe is inferior to them in public spaces
  • murdering someone in the privacy of their own home
  • falsely accusing someone of a crime
  • having a fit in a grocery store line, threatening someone’s reputation and -livelihood because they heard the word ‘no’ from a worker
  • inconsiderately refusing to wear a mask properly or at all during a global health crisis
  • shutting down or dismissing any dialogue prompted by a colleague in a work environment that they feel undermines their whiteness
  • comfortably doing a TV news interview stating that they ‘stormed the Capitol’ rightfully and will do it again if they do not get what they want
  • or taking selfies as an officer with unrestrained rioters when they are supposed to be arresting them.

A standard for protecting whiteness, no matter how violent, has a new level as of January 6, 2021. The longer white people continue to uphold the nonsense, the more normal, accepted and rewarded it becomes.

I will avoid prescribing the solutions in this reflection. I am Black so my prescription is invalid for the white supremacist. Yet I will offer these statements to help white people see how their privilege led to the attack on our nation’s capital.

Joan Springs, Senior Associate for Grants, Contracts and Event Management

In the wake of last Wednesday’s travesty, I’m even more disillusioned with the state of the country that up till now I have always been proud to call my own. I have known for many years that life is not fair for people of color, particularly those of us who are the descendants of slaves.

We’ve always known that we had to work harder and be better to receive less than our non-Black counterparts. But we were seeing small moves forward, that the way of life since the Civil Rights movement started was improving and that Black people were moving up in the world. There were positive strides made over many years of strife and persistence. We’d elected a Black man as President and he was in office for eight years. This country was moving forward – and then came the 2016 Presidential election.

Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

To me, the election of Donald Trump was a sad day, but I never believed that it could signify the end of our democracy. That couldn’t be fathomable. One man could not be so self-centered and destructive to the country that provided his family (and thereby himself) all the prosperity that America has given the Trumps. But I was wrong.

These past four years have shown us all that there is no limit to the amount of hatred in the hearts of people around this country. I never would have believed that the mindset that fueled the Confederacy back in the early 1800’s, which led to the eruption of a civil war back in 1861, still would exist in the 21st century – but it does. In fact, I am afraid to admit, the sentiments are just as strong today as they were over a century and a half ago.

One man could not be so self-centered and destructive to the country that provided his family (and thereby himself) all the prosperity that America has given the Trumps. But I was wrong.

I am having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around what took place last week at the Capitol because in my heart, I know that if the crowd that stormed the building had been made up of Black, Latino and BIPOC individuals there would have been many more deaths because the police on site would have used excessive force to stop the insurrectionists from entering the building.

What that says to me is that white people rioting, spewing hatred and untruths are more revered than people of color who are standing up against unjust acts that have happened multiple times. To date, I am not aware of any Black Lives Matter events that were planned as violent gatherings. Chatter surrounding this event promoted it to be anything but a peaceful gathering and yet, no measures were taken to protect the Capitol and, in short, no measure was taken to protect the democracy of this nation.

The events that took place put a stain on our country. We have spent the past four years being the laughing stock of the rest of the world as they have watched our great nation being dismantled from the inside and we are now in a very precarious space due to what should never have even happened.

I pray that the next week goes swiftly and without any more upheaval and that when Joe Biden takes the oath of office, this country can begin the road to rebuilding and healing.

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