Capitol attack exposes divisions that will be hard to heal

Healing the nation’s deep political divisions isn’t impossible, but the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol and the falsehoods that sparked it illustrate how difficult the way forward is.

“It is a direct assault on our form of government,” U.S. District Court Senior Judge Walter H. Rice said. “I think we can come back from it, but it’s not going to be by 12:01 next Wednesday and it may not be in our lifetime. It’s a slow, slow process.”

Rice and others said what has gone awry in America requires constructive dialogue across the political spectrum, leaders who do not stoke divisions for political gain, a commitment to truth and improved civics education in school.

“At the end of the day we all play for the same team. What we’ve become is we seem to think we are in some sort of grudge match where Democrats and Republicans are two different teams,” said Joe Valenzano, professor and communications department chairman at the University of Dayton.

Supporters of President Donald Trump attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 after he urged them to stop Congress from affirming the Electoral College vote that gave Democrat Joe Biden the presidency. Trump made false claims for months that the election was stolen from him after Biden won by more than 7 million votes.

U.S. House members impeached Trump last week on a charge of inciting insurrection. The Senate is expected to hold his trial after Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Amid threats of more violence, up to 20,000 National Guard troops have deployed to Washington D.C., and additional guard troops are in Columbus and other state capitols.

While not everyone who protested in Washington attacked the Capitol, Valenzano said those who did must be held accountable.

“It’s a mistake to gloss over last week and forget about it,” Valenzano said. “If you want to get at this notion of healing, clearly the first step has to be contrition. There has to be this acknowledgement that you did something wrong, that you overstepped.”

Biden campaigned on a pledge to unify the country and on Thursday said, “Unity is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, it is a practical step to getting things done.”

Several of those interviewed for this story said that will become easier once Trump is out of office and the rhetorical temperature plunges.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“All I would hope is that with Trump no longer having the major platform of the presidency, there won’t be the constant barrage of lies that fuels all of these delusions that have separated us,” said Joy Schwab, founder of the Dayton Women’s Rights Alliance. “You can’t have alternate facts and have the vibrant democracy. Things have to be based on reality.”

Truth matters

There is widespread bipartisan condemnation of the attack on the Capitol and 62 percent of all Americans believe no solid evidence exists of widespread election fraud, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday.

But 66 percent of Republicans polled said they believe there is solid evidence of fraud. That is after those claims were rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice, all 50 states and in about 60 court cases.

Trump supporters who rioted at the Capitol shouted “stop the steal” and denounced Democrats and Vice President Mike Pence for not stopping Congress from affirming Biden’s election. Some also carried Confederate flags, wore clothing with anti-Semitic messages and had signs touting Q-Anon, a baseless conspiracy theory alleging Democrats and “deep state” bureaucrats are part of a satanic, cannibalistic pedophile cabal that Trump is battling.

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

Racism, classism and white supremacy are responsible for the divide in the country, Dayton activist Daj’za Demmings said.

“Until those systemic institutions are broken down in a way that is equitable for everyone, there’s nothing that people can really do,” said Demmings, who is a member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board.

Rev. Peter Matthews, pastor of McKinley United Methodist Church, said it’s dangerous to feed falsehoods about elections to people who have deep-rooted racial insecurities because that fans the nation’s divisions.

For the country to move forward, Matthews said, “both sides have to be willing to sit in some very unpleasant truths, and once this is achieved, the opportunity to develop trust presents itself.”

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Those interviewed said the willingness of large numbers of people to believe falsehoods despite strong evidence to the contrary makes the current situation particularly worrisome.

Cherise D. Hairston, mediation coordinator at the Dayton Mediation Center, said in her 25 years of working in conflict resolution, the most difficult and often impossible ones to resolve are those involving people’s deeply held values.

“Anytime you want to change another person’s belief, this is one of the hardest things to do,” said Omesh Johar, assistant professor of psychology and acting chairman of the social and behavioral sciences department at Central State University.

It’s important to try to understand and address the fears or underlying problems that lead people to hold those racist views or believe baseless conspiracy theories, Johar said.

“As for white supremacists, I think it is tempting to label them as fringe elements to shun or ignore. But real change comes through engaging people,” Johar said. “Unless you address the underlying problem, you will only be dealing with the symptoms.”

Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said people draw what they know from education and life experiences.

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

“When people feel threatened, they will rely on prior experiences where they felt that way, which is going to be very limited,” said Biehl, who is a member of the Dayton Daily News Community Advisory Board. “As people mature, a lot of the times they hopefully accumulate more experience that tempers some views that are limited by the few incidents that they have in (their) direct experience and there’s a broader understanding.”

Those interviewed emphasized the importance of gathering accurate information from reputable sources and making the effort to interact with many different people.

“Find people who eat, pray and look different than you,” said Adriane Miller, executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice of Greater Dayton.

Credit: Contribute

Credit: Contribute

Political reforms, including an end to partisan gerrymandering of Congressional and Statehouse districts, will go a long way to cool tensions, Rice said. This year Ohio will use a reformed redistricting processes.

“You’ve got to have every state have a nonpartisan redistricting commission so our congressional and General Assembly elections are more competitive,” Rice said. “If you did that, you would have both sides, I firmly believe, gravitating toward the middle. And this country has to be run from the middle of the political spectrum, not one extreme or the other.”

Common ground

Policy differences are inevitable, state Rep. Phil Plummer, R-Butler Twp., said. But he believes people can agree on certain issues.

“Moving forward we must be intellectually honest about where we are as a nation and as a community,” said Plummer, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party. “We need to unite and find common ground to improve this great nation.”

That common ground includes revitalizing the pandemic-battered economy, helping businesses recover and getting people back to work, said Chris Kershner, president and chief executive of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

Those are critical goals for the region and country that will take collaborative leadership in Washington D.C., he said.

“Understanding and respecting perspectives is key to compromise,” Kershner said. “Compromise is where the works gets done and where real change can occur.”

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

It’s possible to ease political divisions using conflict management tools such as facilitator-guided discussions, Hairston said, which allow people’s voices to be heard without devolving into yelling matches.

“The quality of how they interact changes,” Hairston said. “It’s from that more productive, humanizing interaction that all things are possible.”

Those kinds of discussions are already happening. Since March Sinclair Community College has held more than 75 online discussions with more than 1,000 participants talking about diversity, equity and inclusion issues, said Michael Carter, chief diversity officer for Sinclair.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

“The ‘othering’ in this country is a problem. We put people in buckets and (say,) ‘Because they disagree with me they are a bad person.’” Carter said. “I think one of the big reasons for that is there is a fear in this country the demographics are changing and for many whites in the country there is the question of how is that going to change my place.”

Laura Roesch, chief executive of Catholic Social Services for the Miami Valley, said people should “strive for mutual respect and understanding, listen more, have civil discussion, recognizing that we are all part of the common human family.”

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Melissa Rodriquez, a Dayton activist and retired Air Force veteran, said her experience in the military showed her that people with different backgrounds can work together to solve problems.

“I don’t think people are totally lost,” Rodriquez said. “Our history is rich with stories about people who were led back on the right path.”

Don’t ignore racism

While those interviewed said it’s important to understand opposing perspectives, that does not mean accepting abhorrent beliefs or ignoring real issues like racial injustice.

“I am not compromising with the Nazis,” Schwab said. “My father fought the Nazis in Germany, and I’m not going to compromise with them.”

“Racist hate is not acceptable,” Hairston said. “We can’t tolerate that.”

Miller and Rodriquez both said an example of the way forward for the country is how the Dayton community came together over the past 18 months after the tornadoes, the mass shooting and when the KKK came to town for a rally.

“I saw people come shoulder to shoulder helping each other,” Rodriquez said. “Neighbors talking to neighbors, people working together, people seeing the humanity of each other.”

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