Weatherford College history and government students won’t get a pass on classroom discussions of the Jan. 6 Capitol violence when they come for their spring semester 11 days into the new year.
“We will definitely talk about Jan. 6,” history and government instructor Nick Pugh said, adding that those dialogues in his class will start with students’ general thoughts of the event, when hundreds of then-President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters stormed the Capitol steps and into the building in an attempt to halt Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s electoral college win over Trump.
“And, two, what can we take from these events?” Pugh continued. “What are we supposed to learn from this?”
Pugh’s colleague, history and government instructor Darrell Castillo, appeared eager to get his students talking.
“As long as you’re talking, there’s going to be a resolution somewhere,” Castillo said. “For the history classes, of course, I’ll relate it to other times there have been spontaneous demonstrations. And for the government class, I’ll relate it to constitutional free speech — or not.”
The “or not,” he said, “depends on if you think that was a constitutional exercise of free speech. I personally think it was. I do not classify any of those events as ‘insurrection.’ I classify those events as the exercise of free speech, whether it comes from the left or it comes from the right.”
The disruption left four dead on Jan. 6, and a Capitol Police officer died the following day of injuries sustained in the violence. More than 700 participants have been arrested in connection with the event, many of whom now have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and/or felonies with which they were charged.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on TV,” Pugh said. “We have to address these topics respectfully and with the knowledge they inflame passions on both sides. … We are being invited to dig deeper, and (delve) what leads to the circumstances that this could happen in the U.S.A.”
Castillo didn’t say a word when asked if he thinks the country is headed for civil war. He just nodded.
“If history is any indication, yes,” he replied after a moment.
Sitting in his office at Weatherford College, Castillo indicated the events of Jan. 6, 2021, could be the preface for more far-right violence in America.
“That’s why I find Jan. 6 interesting from a historical and political science perspective,” he said. “Because, that type of overt public extreme action, if you even want to call it extreme violence, is coming from the right. I will add it’s a precursor of more extreme violence coming from the right.”
Castillo can speak of the right political flank both because politics is his bag and because he is a right-leaning conservative with the bonafides to prove it — he has worked in Congress and served in the Reagan White House.
As for his students, he said a year ago they largely seemed OK with the scenes the nation watched on TV.
“There was a lot of agreement and some disagreement,” Castillo said of student reactions then. “But the disagreement was in the minority, and I mean that in the sense of numeric minority.”
He added he’s detected no shifts in that student mindset as the anniversary has approached.
“My students are usually politically conservative and socially conservative,” said Castillo, who is faculty sponsor for the Weatherford College Republicans.
Pugh acknowledged the conservative community in which he teaches, adding that his students more often than not take their political cues from their parents.
“I think their biggest question was, is this going to become normal?” he recalled. “I think that was the biggest fear.”
The separate discussions that will take place in the instructors’ classrooms could get lively.
Castillo said some members of the crowd who ascended the Capitol steps that day, at worst, committed disorderly conduct. He said those who committed assaults, and several have pleaded guilty to that and other felonies, were engaging in “unconventional political participation.”
“I don’t think any examples one can put forth rise to the level of criminal activity,” he said. “Civil disobedience and disorderly conduct have been known to be effective. It certainly was proven to be effective in the Civil Rights movement.”
And members of Congress, who were spirited from their chambers to undisclosed locations during the melee, were never “remotely” in any real danger, he said.
“One has to remember that the Capitol is a public venue,” he said, adding it is far less secure than the White House. “In this free and open democracy we should be able to walk in the Capitol building or the White House.”
Castillo said Antifa, the loosely knit coalition of anti-fascist protesters, and participants in the youth-fueled, 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstration, have had their own violent episodes while exercising their free speech rights.
“You see those same instances of police being assaulted by individuals involved in such extra-political actions,” he said.
According to Fox News, one officer was pushed off a scooter during the Occupy Wall Street demonstration and 28 occupiers were arrested on disorderly conduct charges.
Pugh, who said he and Castillo enjoy a friendship despite sometimes politically opposed stances, said he did see criminal activity occurring at the Capitol a year ago Thursday.
“It’s pretty clear the federal courts don’t agree with [Castillo],” he said.
He also said he believes members of Congress did feel fear as the protestors filled the Capitol halls and breached the House of Representatives.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot of wind around here to get a backyard fire into a wildfire,” he said. “And, with passions being what they are, yeah, I think they had a genuine reason to be afraid.”
He also criticized the critical thinking of people who now support those who participated in the event.
“I’ve heard Jan. 6 talked about with echoes of the Declaration of Independence,” he said, drawing a distinction between the very specific complaints of the colonists and the false claims of a stolen election. “What I have not heard is a cogent list of grievances. If there’s a list of cogent grievances, I want to hear them. … I anticipate, in the discussions this spring, the students will be respectful. They’ll be insightful, curious, intelligent — often characteristics they are accused of not having.”
Castillo likewise will encourage frank student discussion and discourage trivializing the day.
“My approach is, I feel that students should feel free to question the answers, not just ask the questions but to question the answers,” he said. “I’m not going to change anybody’s thinking — they are 18 or 19. They already know what they are thinking.”