Across the United States, cities from coast to coast are anticipating and preparing for potential protests, civil unrest, and violence on election day and the days following it.
Windows are being boarded up, private guards are patrolling the streets, shops are being shuttered, and employees are being given de-escalation training. The White House, usually visible through its iron fence, has disappeared being a “non-scalable” wall; freshly erected. An air of unease and tension permeates the air on the eve of elections, something that has never been felt before.
How did we come to this?
Has the political divide gotten so vast that violence is a real possibility? How did the world’s foremost democracy – whose transfers of power have been smooth and cordial despite bitter rival campaigning – come to a point where refusal to relinquish power is being seriously considered? More importantly, will the storm pass without lasting damage?
The Trump effect
Since the 2016 election, there has been a rise in protests nationwide. Trump has emboldened far-right groups by refusing to condemn them on various occasions, and actively extolling the virtues of their beliefs and actions.
In 2017, Trump made his now famous remarks when he said, “you also had some very fine people on both sides,” regarding the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is the same rally where, James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately drove his car into a crowd of people who had been peacefully protesting the rally, killing one and injuring 19.
A police affidavit claimed that said that between 250 to 500 Klansmen and more than 150 Alt-Knights (the military division of the Proud Boys) were present at the rally. The Unite the Right Rally was overtly promoting white supremacist and white nationalist ideologies, in addition to protesting the decision of Charlottesville City Council to remove Confederate monuments and memorials from public places.
Although the President later defended his stance by telling reporters, “I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee. People there were protesting the taking down of the monument to Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that,” his initial comments on fine people being on both sides makes it clear he wasn’t looking to condemn the rally.
That incident set the trend for the rest of the term. When armed individuals protesting against the COVID-19 lockdown in Michigan tried to enter the floor of legislative chamber, Trump stood by their actions.
These protestors were yelling anti-government statements, and at one point compared the Democratic governor of the state, Gretchen Whitmer to Hitler. This came shortly after the “Operation Gridlock” rally, which was organized by the Michigan Conservative Committee, where they demanded that Gov. Whitmer lift restrictions in place to stop the spread.
People at this rally were holding up MAGA signs and chanting “lock her up”, a slogan Trump used against Hillary during the 2016 election campaign – increasingly demonstrating that they were willing to take violent and disruptive actions to defend themselves from what they perceived were Democratic plots
During the first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he was “willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and we’ve seen in Portland?”
Trump responded, “what do you want me to call them? Give me a name. Who would you like me to condemn?” When Biden said Proud Boys and Wallace said white supremacists, Trump said, “The Proud Boys.” He added, “stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem.”
It is during his term that ‘militia groups’, armed to the teeth with military grade weapons, started patrolling protest sites and other political installations. While they claim they are simply exercising their 2nd amendment rights to bear arms, they don’t shy away from claiming that they are “patriots”, who are ready to assist the police should violence break out.
The mobilization of the far-right wing coupled with Trump’s refusal to a peaceful transition of power have given rise to justifiable fears that given a disputed election result, violence might be in the offing.
Willing to fight
The left is not free of blame for the increasing tension. Albeit they don’t have armed protests, they are still all too willing to fight, and have organized themselves for conflict. Far-left groups such as Antifa have upped the ante on what they consider justified protests.
Protests against Trump started after the announcement of his candidacy in June 2015, and spiked when he accused Mexicans of “bringing drugs, bringing crime, [and being] rapists.” These protests followed into 2016, with huge protests breaking out nationally and internationally after he was declared the winner of the election. Most of these protests were peaceful, though at some, fires were lit and flags were burned. Protests against Trump have continued since then until now, and some have even had far-right militia members show up.
Riots during the protests over the killing of George Floyd, which led to a nationwide outpouring for the Black Lives Matter movement, has also raised tensions. Protests and civil disobedience are increasingly being seen as the only method of getting points across to the White House.
These protests are where some of the most dangerous stand-offs with far-right militias have happened. With the left expressing what it feels is justified anger in the only way it can, and the right viewing such protest as anti-thesis of their beliefs, a confrontation is all too likely.
Preparing for the worst
Many business owners are taking precautions this time around having learned their lesson during the riots earlier in the summer, which resulted in great damage to their property.
Mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfood, said her city has been preparing for election protests for months now, saying, “We all know that emotions will be high because they already are and I urge you to channel those emotions into peaceful and productive expressions.”
Many metropolitan cities have prepared for the chaos by cancelling days off for police officers and are using big vehicles such as trucks to block streets and highways in an attempt to keep rioters away.
Tensions could be greatly escalated in the days to come since it is unlikely the winner will be announced on election night, and may take up to weeks for votes to be counted in some states.
Heavy steel fencing went around the White House on Monday, the same kind that was put up during the BLM protests. Lafayette Park, which is across the street from the White House, has also been largely fenced up since the protests this summer.
Washington, DC Police Chief, Peter Newsham, warned the public last month that they should brace for some sort of civil unrest post-election. Many businesses in Washington, DC have boarded their doors and windows over the past week.
On Friday, “Trump Train” swarmed a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway. It is reported that these Trump cars and trucks were trying to run the Biden bus off the highway.
Responding to the event, Trump said his supporters “did nothing wrong.”
“Trump Train” incidents have been taking place across the country during the days leading up to the election. On Sunday, in Louisville, Kentucky, around 100 “Trump Train” vehicles clashed with protestors at a high school before going to a rally.
Another “Trump Train” incident took place in Lakewood, New Jersey when MAGA supporters shut down parts of the Garden State Parkway for some time. Other incidents have been reported in Richmond, Virginia and California.
Beginning Tuesday, officials will be monitoring any unrest across the country from a command center at FBI headquarters.