Mob Violence, Human Behavior, and the Capitol Insurrection

Last Updated: January 4, 2022

For additional resources on our response to the events of January 6, 2021, read Resources for Teaching After the Insurrection at the US Capitol.


On January 6, 2021, more than 2,000 people illegally broke into the US Capitol building in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. The attack on the Capitol took place following a rally in which former president Trump and several other politicians spread false claims that the election was fraudulent. Five people died during or immediately after the attack.

Current research suggests that only around 10% of the participants in the insurrection had connections to extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers. According to a Washington Post analysis, “the vast majority of the roughly 650 people federally charged in the riot were not part of far-right groups or premeditated conspiracies to attack the Capitol. Rather, many were an array of everyday Americans that included community leaders, small-business owners, teachers and yoga instructors.”1

This Teaching Idea asks students to consider why so many people, including those who apparently had no plans to commit violence, participated in the Capitol insurrection, and it invites students to reflect on how even seemingly small choices that individuals make can contribute to larger acts of injustice and violence.

Note: Depending on your students’ background knowledge on the insurrection, you may wish to begin with our Teaching Idea What Happened During the Insurrection at the US Capitol and Why? For more ideas on how to teach about the events of January 6, 2021, read our blog post Teaching about the January 6 Insurrection and its Impact on US Democracy and visit our featured collection Resources for Teaching After the Insurrection at the US Capitol.

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. Who Participated in the Capitol Insurrection?

    Begin by writing the quote below on the board. Government prosecutors have written this statement in multiple sentencing memoranda for those convicted of crimes during the January 6 insurrection. 

    [A] riot cannot occur without rioters, and each rioter’s actions — from the most mundane to the most violent — contributed, directly and indirectly, to the violence and destruction of that day.2

    Read the quote out loud to your students and ask them to read it again to themselves. Tell your students that they will return to this quote in the final activity of the Teaching Idea. (Note: Facing History uses the term insurrection to refer to the attack on the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, because a violent revolt against an institution of the government took place. Some news sources and government documents also use the term riot. For more information about these terms, read the AP article Riot? Insurrection? Words matter in describing Capitol siege.)

    Then, share the following information from the overview of this Teaching Idea with your students:

    On January 6, 2021, more than 2,000 people illegally broke into the US Capitol building in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. The attack on the Capitol took place following a rally in which former president Trump and several other politicians spread false claims that the election was fraudulent. Five people died during or immediately after the attack. 

    Around 10% of the participants in the insurrection had connections to extremist groups, such as the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers. According to a Washington Post analysis, “the vast majority of the roughly 650 people federally charged in the riot were not part of far-right groups or premeditated conspiracies to attack the Capitol. Rather, many were an array of everyday Americans that included community leaders, small-business owners, teachers and yoga instructors.”3

    Ask your students to reflect on this passage using the Surprising, Interesting, Troubling (S-I-T) teaching strategy:

    • What, if anything, is surprising to you about this information about who participated in the January 6 attack?
    • What, if anything, is interesting to you about this information?
    • What, if anything, is troubling to you about this information?
  2. Why Do People Choose to Participate in Mob Violence?

    Share the following quote from The Washington Post article Desperate, angry, destructive: How Americans morphed into a mob with your students:

    Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, said that in the right circumstances, even those with weak attachment to extremist views can turn violent.

    “Responsibility gets diffused across the group, and you have the immediate lure of peer validation, plus a cloak of anonymity,” he said. “It’s almost like a sport.”4

    Then, discuss the following questions together:

    • What do you think Brian Levin means when he says that responsibility can get “diffused across the group”? How can this make people more likely to participate in violence?
    • How do people feel a “lure of peer validation” in a large group? How can this make people more likely to participate in violence?
    • How do large groups give participants “a cloak of anonymity”? How can this make people more likely to participate in violence?

    Ask students to reflect on the following prompt individually or in small groups:

    What is another example—from a movie, the news, or your personal experience—of people acting violently in a group? What factors do you think caused the people to act violently?

  3. What Choices Did Two People Make During the Insurrection?

    Give each student a copy of the reading  Profiles of Two Perpetrators of the Capitol Insurrection. Then, place students in pairs. Assign half the pairs to read the section on Robert Reeder and the other half the section on Ethan Nordean. 

    When students have finished reading, they should answer the questions located below their passage in their pairs: 

    • Who is this person? 
    • What choices did they make before or during the insurrection? 
    • Why do you think they participated in the insurrection?

    Ask students to write a brief answer to each question.

    Place students in new pairs with someone who read the other passage. Ask students to share their answers to the questions with each other. Once they finish, they should discuss the following questions together:

    • What actions or choices did both Robert Reeder and Ethan Nordean make?
    • How did Robert Reeder and Ethan Nordean act differently?
    • How do these two stories help you better understand the choices that make events like the attack on the Capitol possible?
  4. What Can We Learn from These Choices?

    Ask students to return to the quotation they read at the beginning of the Teaching Idea:

    [A] riot cannot occur without rioters, and each rioter’s actions — from the most mundane to the most violent — contributed, directly and indirectly, to the violence and destruction of that day.5 

     

    Then, ask them to reflect on the following prompts in their journals:

    • How do you think Robert Reeder’s actions contributed to the insurrection? How did Ethan Nordean’s actions contribute to it?
    • How do you think even seemingly small actions can contribute to violence?
    • What kinds of choices, small and large, can you make in order to ensure that you do not contribute to violence, cruelty, or injustice?

    Once students have finished journaling, ask them to choose one aspect of what they wrote to share with the whole class or in small groups.

Remote Learning Note: If you are teaching remotely, we recommend that you use our Teaching Strategies for Remote Learning and the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

Download the Student-Facing Slides

Student Activities: Mob Violence, Human Behavior, and the Capitol Insurrection

PDF
Student Activities: Mob Violence, Human Behavior, and the Capitol Insurrection

These student-facing slides invite students to reflect on the Capitol insurrection and how seemingly small choices made by individuals can contribute to larger acts of injustice and violence.

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