Cities Prepare for Civil Unrest That Election Night Spared Them

Predictions of widespread violence fizzled on Election Night. But police departments and businesses across the U.S. are keeping preparations in place as President Donald Trump falsely claims victory while ballot-counting drags on — a scenario experts warned could bring the greater potential for unrest.

Anti-Trump protesters gathered Tuesday night in cities including Washington, Portland and Los Angeles, leading to scattered arrests. The relatively quiet night stood in stark contrast to the planning, with more than a dozen states activating National Guard troops, retailers boarding up windows and anxious Americans loading up on body armor and guns.

The question now is whether conflict will move to the streets as Trump sows distrust in the counting.

A Facebook group called “Stand Up Michigan to Unlock Michigan” on Wednesday put out a call to action, asking for volunteers to go toDetroit’s TCF Center, locally known as Cobo Hall, to challenge the Michigan results being tallied there. The post told the group’s 79,000 members that hundreds of left-wing challengers were already on the premises. Protesters streamed into the center chanting “Stop the count!”

The left-leaning group Protect The Results plans more than 100 protests in cities including New York, Washington and Los Angeles, both virtual and in person.

At the New York Public Library, a rallying point, dozens of organizers from the Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter convened Wednesday afternoon, along with a roughly equal number of police. They beat drums and waved American flags.

“I don’t want to be here. I want to be living my life,” said Jonathan Walker, a 59-year-old carpenter from Hell’s Kitchen. “But when the president tries to undermine every vote and discount votes, you have to come out.”

Disinformation Clash

Michael Chertoff, who led theU.S. Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon that, “the next challenge is going to be in the post-Nov. 3rd period, when there is contentiousness about counting ballots, where we’re going to get disinformation about who won.”

In a text message to supporters, the Trump campaign made a fundraising appeal, with half the money going to retire campaign debt and half for “any post-election recounts and election contests.” By Wednesday afternoon, Trump had made several statements questioning how ballots were being counted, at one point alleging fraud.

On social media platforms like Telegram, far-right groups are pledging to confront left-wing demonstrators, in some cases calling for violence. Commentator Ali Alexander is urging Trump supporters to organize protests around#StopTheSteal, which accuses officials, without evidence, of rigging the election.

Conversations on the anonymous internet forum 4chan have largely turned to speculation about what happens if Joe Biden is ultimately named the winner. Chatter on the /pol/ message board, which typically favors Trump, includes musings about whether there will be another Civil War when a winner is declared.

Violent Scenario

A leading concern identified by the Transition Integrity Project was a close election in which Trump adopts “a strategy of casting doubt on official election results.” Under that scenario, both Trump and Biden supporters were seen mobilizing on the ground, which the group said “significantly” increases the possibility of violence.

In a news conference on Wednesday, Washington Police Chief Peter Newsham addressed an incident in which three people were stabbed near Lafayette Square. Two men and one woman suffered non–life threatening injuries. Newsham said the department didn’t know the politics of the suspect or the victims.

“If you assault someone because of their political affiliation, that would be a hate crime,” Newsham said.

After a night of protests in Portland, Oregon Governor Kate Brown kept law enforcement on alert until Friday. In recent months, the city had been shaken by nightly clashes between racial-justice protesters and federal agents.

“All Oregonians have the right to free expression and peaceful assembly,” she said in a statement. “Political violence, intimidation, and property destruction will not be tolerated.”

In Ohio, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office was investigating after a home with a “Dump Trump” sign was shot at early Wednesday, though no one was injured, according to News 5 Cleveland.

New York Clergy

In New York City, clergy were preparing to support protesters, despite a call from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office to stay out of the fray. Park Avenue Christian Church stands ready to both deploy members and open its doors as a refuge. Rabbis have been trained in street chaplaincy and de-escalation, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the human-rights organization T’ruah.

Retailers also are keeping protective measures in place. “Many of the stores who have chosen to temporarily place protective boards on their windows remain open for business and we expect that boards will stay in place until the news on election results become more definitive,” said Jerome Barth, president of the Fifth Avenue Association. Rich Gamble, chairman of the Magnificent Mile Association in Chicago, said protections there would likely be up for at least a week. In Los Angeles, Rodeo Drive will remain shut through at least Wednesday.

Some businesses in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that hadn’t boarded up before Election Day were now paying emergency rates, said Danielle Stickler, a spokeswoman for ServiceChannel.

Floyd Fallout

Even before the election, America was convulsed by months of protests and unrest after the May killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police. The past six months have seen a sharp rise in armed groups, the vast majority of which are far-right organizations, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Oregon are at highest risk of militia activity, the group said in a recent report, followed by North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, California and New Mexico.

Online calls for violence among right-wing organizations have also risen. That only escalated after Trump’s false statement Wednesday morning that he had won, which “provoked a seismic positive, confrontational response from the far-right’s pro-Trump and accelerationist spheres,” said SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online activity of white supremacist and jihadist organizations.

“It makes sense to me that we didn’t see much yesterday,” said Roudabeh Kishi, director of research and innovation at the Armed Conflict project. Risk of unrest increases later this week, she said, as votes continue to be counted and some groups dispute the results.

“We’re not home free quite yet,” Kishi said. “And I don’t think we will be, frankly, for a long time.”

In New York, demonstrators said they would stay in the streets as long as needed.

“I just want to make sure that every vote is counted and make sure that Trump and the GOP don’t further undermine our democratic process,” said Liat Olenick, a 34-year-old public-school teacher from Brooklyn. There is a “lot of really important work to do.”

— With assistance by Christopher Palmeri, Kriston Capps, Brian Eckhouse, Danielle Moran, Alexander Ebert, Jordyn Holman, John Gittelsohn, Andrew Rosati, Shaun Courtney, and Fola Akinnibi

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