TikTok users to Congress after Capitol riot: Welcome to high school in America

·5 min read

For some former combat vets in Congress, Wednesday’s violent riot at the Capitol made them think back to their military training.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a former Army Ranger, told CNN the experience was like being in Afghanistan. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., told the Washington Post he recalled what it was like when he entered a Marine Corps gas chamber for the first time. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, told NBC News he considered using the ceremonial sword in his office to defend himself.

But for many members of Gen Z — those Americans born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s — the footage of lawmakers sheltering in place and hiding behind walls made them think of their own survival training.

Police intervenes in US President Donald Trumps supporters who breached security and entered the Capitol building in Washington D.C., United States on January 06, 2021. (Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Police face off against Trump supporters who breached security and entered the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. (Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Students in more than 95 percent of American K-12 schools have been participating in school shooting drills for years. And some of them say the “run, hide, fight” strategy, taught to many students across the U.S., could have easily been applied to the Capitol riot.

This is how some Gen Z-ers who spoke to Yahoo News saw the attempted insurrection in Washington: with anger but also a lack of surprise. On Jan. 6, they watched hours of the riot unfold through first-person live streams and video posts. And they turned to social media, especially TikTok, to process the news.

“Dear Senate, these are some tips in case you ever find yourself with an active shooter on the premises,” 19-year-old Kennie Tatis began one TikTok. He then rattled off a list of school shooting safety tips: Barricade the doors, turn off the lights, stay very quiet. If a shooter breaks in, run in a zigzag. Hide under your desk. Play dead.

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“OK, now you just survived an active shooter, congrats!” he finished. “I really, really hope this helped. Sincerely, every member of the American student body.”

“I hope it rattles them. It puts them in our shoes,” said Tatis, who said he has participated in shooting drills since fourth grade. “They didn’t grow up in a time when they had school shooting drills.”

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Since the deadly 1999 Columbine High School shooting, 40 states have required active school shooter drills. For some, these drills have continued even as school has gone virtual during the pandemic, with students instructed to hide under their own bedroom desks.

Sometimes the drills are announced ahead of time. But other times they are not. Students and teachers barricade doors, unaware whether the threat is real.

“Someone just tell U.S. Congress to just ‘hide under their desks’ during the lockdown like they made high schoolers do during school shootings,” said one TikTok by Shannon Kennedy, a 23-year-old from Connecticut who goes by Nonnah.

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A September report from Everytown Research & Policy, a nonprofit group that advocates for stricter gun laws, found that the drills create deep unease for students. In the days following such drills, the report found, there tends to be a dramatic increase in the use of terms associated with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues in students’ social media posts.

“Congress is now seeing just a small amount of what American school children have gone through for decades with active shooter drills and shootings enabled by their inaction,” tweeted David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland massacre who is now a prominent gun control activist.

“Our entire lives have had this overarching theme of terrorism and constant weird loom of death,” Kennedy said. “Someone could drop a bomb or shoot up your school.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gen Z was more likely to report mental health concerns than other generations, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). About 70 percent of Gen Z adults reported symptoms of depression during the pandemic alone, according to a 2020 APA survey.

Most members of Gen Z were born in the wake of 9/11 and grew up amid the hardship of the 2008 financial crisis. They started to engage with politics in a highly polarized America, and many are either finishing up coursework online or have already graduated into a pandemic-induced recession. And now these young people have watched rioters storm the U.S. Capitol in real time during an insurrection attempt that left at least five people dead.

“The distressing experience people are having [while] watching — this is something that can be overwhelming,” said E. Alison Holman, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies collective trauma. She advises young adults to take care of their mental health by staying connected to people they love and to verify claims before sharing them on social media.

These sorts of major political events can hugely affect how young people interact with the world going forward, said Abby Kiesa, deputy director at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

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“Cynicism and disappointment can take away from whether young people believe in ... institutions’ abilities to bring change,” Kiesa said. “It can also motivate young people and let them know that they’re not alone in caring about change happening.”

Several young TikTok users told Yahoo News that they’re optimistic about the future, especially as they watch each other’s hopeful posts on social media. Still, they’re worried about the present, and the possibility of succumbing to cynicism as they get older.

“If [members of Congress are] not listening to you now, why would they listen to you when you’re older?” said Kennedy, who wants to see gun law reform and more accessible health care. “You’re scared you’re going to become the problem. That you’ll become that when you’re older [and stop] carrying the same beliefs.”


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