Capitol Siege: A Social Worker’s View

One person's response to terrorism at the Capitol and what to do now.

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As the world witnessed, armed marauders took over the United States Capitol earlier this week, forcing elected members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to evacuate for their own safety and resulting in the deaths of five people.

The mob plundered offices, endangered staff, and generally broke the rule and spirit of the law. It was a lot to take in.

As a social work educator, I help prepare new professionals to practice with any age, any group, any circumstance and everywhere.

I ask students to examine social problems by asking three, connected questions: How does it impact individuals or families, what does it mean for a community or group, and lastly, how should social institutions (including governments) best serve people?

Social workers must always understand the connections between the personal and the public. Through the lens of social work, this is what I saw.

The terror unfolding across screens and devices again and again was likely both frightening and alluring for individuals and families. We all saw the anger, weapons and  fear on the faces of everyone, including elected officials. The violent mob forced people to stop doing their public-serving jobs.

People may have experienced many reactions to the attacks, ranging from outrage, vulnerability, fear– and for some– excitement. I wondered about addiction because I saw many, many out of control people taking risks, seeking attention, and viewing it on screens over and over again.  

Social workers know that terror, fear, or addiction impact human development. The brutality of January 6th will likely have lasting impact on many individuals and their families.

Professionally, social workers help people and families build resilience in response to disruptions and need. Social workers help people overcome obstacles, regardless of their roots.

A social worker would be compelled to work with the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence because of the commitment to the inherent dignity of all people.

For communities, the siege served to highlight the differences in how members of certain communities are treated differently than others.The terror also provided insight into the importance of community for us all.

It took the Congress, a community of public servants, to get back to work to certify the electoral college votes for the certification of the election of Joe Biden. One member couldn’t help or hinder that process alone – it took collaboration.

Communities fuel and organize lives, and in the best of times, communities provide support for its members growth and standing in society. Communities facilitate cooperation.

In the worst of times, communities can also breed hatred.

As I watched the assaults, my attention to the other communities in Washington, D.C. including the residents who must now operate under a two-week long curfew and whose communities are being tested again, including by law enforcement.

In addition to building connections between communities, social workers help communities organize and provide for themselves; this includes calling for and working towards accountability for the members of communities who wish to commit harm and destruction.

Perhaps the most encompassing question that social workers must ask is what policies or laws or institutions or expectations contributed to a problem or failed to prevent a fray?

Many social workers likely recognized the damning forces that contributed to the violence – vicious castigation of marginalized communities, disinvestment in public social services, and most recently, the lack of a meaningful response to the needs of communities, families, and individuals brought on by the pandemic.

Governments and other institutions in society must serve all people with fairness and when that cannot be done, social workers advocate for changes.

There will always be divergent opinions about the seriousness of the attacks; social workers know that people have the capacity to convince themselves of alternate realities and everyone is shaped partly by their own experiences and those of their communities.

However, there can be no denying the connections between the personal and the political. No one can ignore the animus. Social workers are used to this paradox. In response, social workers will continue to work to ensure that the connections between individuals, families, communities and institutions are strengthened by hope rather than hate.

Tracey Mabrey is an Associate Professor of Social Work at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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