North Hennepin Community College Constitutional law professor Micheal Gold-Biss was busy working Jan. 6 when he received a call from a colleague, unaware of the violent mob bashing windows at the nation’s Capitol.
“I was working, I didn’t know it was happening. I get a call from a colleague who sounds as if he’s in shock,” Gold-Biss recounted. “He says, Michael, do you have the TV on? I said no, I’m working. (He says) turn the TV on, they’ve taken the Capitol.”
Gold-Biss pulled up the news on his computer, “and I felt that I was watching old footage of a developing country, a banana republic — and that’s a horrible expression but there really used to be smaller countries where these things happen very frequently, so it’s not a pejorative expression, it’s a historical expression,” he said. “I thought I was seeing historical film of a mob taking over something, and then I realized, oh no, this is Washington. This is the city I lived in.”
“I tried to keep on working, and I had a very, very hard time doing that,” he said.
Three words first came to his mind as he witnessed the events of the day: insurrection, sedition, and treason. “I hesitate to use the word, but it’s treasonous. I’m a political scientist, so I use the words of my profession,” he said.
The incident represented a call to arms, an effort to take over the seat of power where democratic practices take place, and suspension of the rule of law, Gold-Biss said.
“That’s what I associate with an insurrection,” he said. “Those are calls to violence, and they are calls that associate specifically with seditious acts.”
Teaching history as it happens
When teaching a class, Gold-Biss doesn’t necessarily look to directly address current events in a lesson plan, but rather looks to engage in a dialogue with students and allow those events to make their way into the class. “I let the world come into my classroom,” he said.
“Someone will take the initiative. I don’t have any doubts that within the first few comments of the class,” someone will ask a question about the insurrection, he said.
“In Constitutional law, we deal with violence. We deal with difficult issues. So when all of this comes together, what we will have is a dialogue where people can express their emotions but they can also start to talk about how to understand them," Gold-Biss said. "And then what I ask people to do is you express your emotions, and then we look for ways we can explain them in terms of the laws that we live by, and how we can use the laws to protect ourselves and to protect others."
The diverse student body at the Brooklyn Park-based community college often bring their own life experiences into the classroom, he observed.
Gold-Biss expects many students to have strong feelings about the insurrection when classes begin Jan. 11. Many students have been to the capitol and will want to reflect on their experiences, he said.
“There are a lot of emotions when you turn on the television and you see armed people having to point guns out of the House, the Chamber of Representatives trying to keep insurrectionists out who are trying to hurt people who represent us. I never thought I would see that,” he said. “I wonder when students ask me about that how I will respond. I will be honest about what I feel, and I’m going to ask them, ‘What do you feel?’”
Adding to those emotions, the insurrection comes on the heels of the relatively recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the unrest that followed. “In the context of the kind of violence we just recently experienced ourselves, with the violence that came as a result of the death, murder of George Floyd, there’s a continuum,” Gold-Biss said.
“Our community is really raw, and that rawness is something that at North Hennepin we are very much aware of, we are exploring, and we are trying to do the best we can to deal with (it).”
As a former Washington D.C. resident who has visited the congressional building, Gold-Biss said he had a hard time understanding how the mob was able to overwhelm a security force that he remembered as strong.
“There were some photographs in there of some pretty extraordinary actions that really were I guess out of movies. I don’t know, Apocalypse Now just seems to be coming to mind,” he said. “It’s nightmarish.”