American tinderbox: Nation braces for unrest ahead of Election Day

Retailers and businesses all across the nation -  from high-end designers on Fifth Avenue to small neighborhood stores - are boarding up buildings this weekend

Clare Hill
New York
Tuesday 03 November 2020 17:12
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Members of Proud Boys gather for a rally in Portland, Oregon, US, 26 September 2020
Members of Proud Boys gather for a rally in Portland, Oregon, US, 26 September 2020

At Warehouse Wines and Spirits in Noho, Manhattan, the owners and staff aren’t taking any chances next week.

The family-owned store was damaged two nights in a row back in June when New York City was shaken by rioting and looting, in the wake of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd.  

“The whole front of the store was destroyed, the glass was broken, merchandise was stolen. Everything was one big mess,” one of the managers, Costas Mouzouras, tells The Independent.

“Walking into the store two mornings in a row to that is an experience we don’t want again.”

That’s why on Friday – four days before Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off in the presidential election - workers were up ladders, boarding all the windows along the storefront with plywood.

“Unfortunately we believe there will be some unrest again so we’re taking precautions this time," says Mouzouras.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen but we’re preparing as much as we can.”

Retailers and businesses all across the city – and the nation – have had similar ideas, with everyone from high-end designers along Fifth Avenue to small neighborhood stores boarding up buildings over the weekend.

Fears are mounting that this week’s presidential election will spark violence and unrest across America at a time when the nation is already buckling under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, a collapsing economy and nationwide demonstrations calling for an end to systemic racism.

According to a recent YouGov poll, more than half (56 percent) of voters said they are expecting to see an increase in violence following the election.

And business owners aren’t the only ones preparing for the chaos.

In households across the nation, the stockpiling phenomenon has made a return, with nervous shoppers who snapped up supplies back in March when states went into lockdown now preparing for self-imposed lockdowns in their homes amid fears of unrest in the streets.

Some shoppers are already reporting shortages of toilet paper and other household staples in grocery stores in online discussion groups.

The recent “Back to Normal Barometer” study from Sports and Leisure Research Group, Engagious and ROKK Solutions, found 52 cent of people planned to stockpile or had already stockpiled as of early October, with 23 percent saying the main reason was uncertainty over the election.

Americans are also buying guns in record numbers, with a staggering 28.8 million firearm background checks carried out between the start of the year and end of September – dwarfing full year figures for every year over the last two decades, according to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System - regarded as the best indicator of US gun sales.

Federal agencies, state officials and local law enforcement have also taken precautions including drafting in more police in case of civil unrest on 3 November.

The NYPD has put “hundreds” of police officers on standby to deploy them to the streets of New York if, or when, they are needed (on top of the officers already stationed at all 1,200 polling stations throughout the five boroughs).

The official stance from NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan at a press conference last week is that the force does not foresee any “skirmishes” on Tuesday though Mayor Bill de Blasio said “prolonged protests” are expected for some time after the result.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom told Politico this week that the state was prepared for various potential scenarios that could play out.

“As it relates to making sure people are safe, making sure not only the process of voting is a safe and healthy one, but keeping people safe after the election for whatever may occur,” he said.

“The answer is yes, we are always gaming out different scenarios and making sure that we are prepared.”

Meanwhile, over in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned the city was “preparing for the worst” with officials carrying out “all-hazards drills’ for how to handle a potential eruption of election-related violence. 

On a national level, federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection have also reportedly been placed on standby to protect federal buildings and lend support to local police departments.

The CBP said in a statement to The Independent the agency “will continue to provide support, as requested, to the Federal Protective Service to protect federal facilities and property if needed.”

Clearly, fears of election-related unrest are all around.

One of the main reasons for this is that trust in the nation’s democracy has been eroded through the rhetoric of the president himself.

Trump has repeatedly laid the foundation throughout his campaign trail that if he loses to Biden, it will be because the process is “rigged”.

He has made several unsubstantiated claims that mail-in voting is "manipulated".

And he has encouraged his supporters to stand guard at polling stations to stop what he calls voter fraud (something Democrats have decried as an intimidation tactic).

Aside from Trump casting doubts on the validity of the election outcome and the process itself, there’s concerns of foreign interference, stoked by the announcement last week from Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray that Iran and Russia had accessed voter registration data.

The revelation added fuel to the already roaring fire of foreign governments tampering with America’s constitution that was lit up last year by the Mueller report findings that the Russian government "interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion".

Altogether, the election has started to look like a melting pot of distrust in America, its institutions and democracy itself, explains Carolyn Gallaher, Professor in the School of International Service at American University, Washington DC and an expert on extremist violence.

"The president has spent months calling into question the election, talking about election fraud, mail-in voting, people voting twice… so people who support him started to become suspicious," Gallaher tells The Independent.

"Then on the other side, [Democrats] see the president calling into question the systems and they also go ‘is he going to cheat then?

"So it’s become a heated atmosphere and people have become convinced on both sides that the election is going to be unfair and then of course some people are going to take that further."

Of course, elections have been hotly contested in the past.  

Back in 2000, the race was so close between George W. Bush and Al Gore that the result wasn’t revealed on election day and the two candidates became embroiled in a month-long legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

In the end, the White House was won on just 500 votes cast in Florida.

But there’s two key differences between then and now, points out Gallaher: both parties trusted in America’s institutions to decide the outcome and - despite controversies - Gore sent a clear message to his supporters that Bush was accepted as the new president.

"Al Gore came on TV and said he conceded and didn’t call the process into question, call for armed insurrection or call the results invalid. He said Bush was the president and that set the stage for people. But if Trump loses I don’t see him doing that," she says.

"Also the battle was legal – the two sides had teams of lawyers figuring out how to play the rules of the system. Both sides agreed to play the rules, one side was declared the winner and both sides accepted it.

"If you agree to play by the rules and lose the game then you accept it - but Trump has said the rules are fixed against him even before the game has started."

Gallaher said this poses a threat to America’s institutions because both sides are losing trust in the rules of the game. 

"In a soccer game both teams accept the pitch is level, they could get red cards, they both have the right number of players, the rules are there and the pieces that make the game fair are there. But now people are asking is the pitch level, does only one side get given red cards, is the ref in someone’s pocket?"

Aside from violence being stoked by distrust in the election process, the right and the left have perhaps never been so divided.

2020 has played host to a series of violent clashes between left-wing BLM protesters calling for racial justice and right-wing counterprotesters from militia groups.

Trump has actively encouraged right-wing armed militia groups to take to the streets, controversially supporting Kyle Rittenhouse – the teen who shot dead two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha – telling Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by" while condemning BLM as "anarchists" and "Marxists".

Gallaher believes "there will be protests no matter who wins" but says it remains to be seen if things will turn violent between the two sides.

However, she predicts the threat of potential violence comes predominantly from the far right.

"The real danger right now is coming from the far right not the far left," she says.

"Black Lives Matter protesters aren’t walking the streets with weapons. Whereas far-right groups like the Proud Boys have been turning up with weapons in a show of force that hasn’t always necessarily led to violence but is designed to be intimidating."

Far-right groups say they are simply exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms but Gallaher says it can be viewed as a "threat".

"Most people don’t go round walking to the shops or getting a coffee with an AK47 in tow," she says

Research carried out this summer by Amnesty International found that when violence has broken out at protests the vast majority of the time it has been when armed right-wing groups have turned up and confronted peaceful demonstrators.

Meanwhile, intelligence from the Department of Homeland Security has warned that "white supremacist extremists" pose the biggest threat to the election this year.

"We continue to assess lone offender white supremacist extremists and other lone offender domestic terrorist actors with personalized ideologies, including those based on grievances against a target’s perceived actual political affiliation, policies, or worldview, pose the greatest threat of lethal violence," the assessment dated August 17 read.

It also raised concerns of violence from Second Amendment extremists, people unhappy with COVID-19 restrictions and confrontations between protesters and counterprotesters.

However, Josh Ellis, the far-right militia promoter who operates MyMilitia.com, tells The Independent that right-wing militia groups won’t be the first to start unrest on the night of November 3.

"The only way we will go to the streets is if Antifa and BLM go out and riot and burn s*** down like they always do - then we will go out and defend businesses and people and make sure people stay safe," he says, adding that he has seen "tons of intelligence" on social media of Antifa gathering ahead of the election.

Ellis says this is when an armed response from right-wing groups could emerge.

"The First Amendment right to protest goes with the second and the second is just as important," he says.

"If you want peace prepare for war. That’s what we live by."

Ellis echoes Trump’s sentiment that if Biden wins, something has gone wrong in the process.

"Most people I speak to think Trump will win by a landslide and that it will take a lot of tampering for that not to happen," he says.

‘[If Biden wins] there will be instant doubt but I don’t think there will action until there is evidence. And if facts come out that say clearly there was tampering and there was enough to have changed the results then it will be a different story."

Though he dismisses the idea Trump supporters could spark violence on November 3, Ellis doesn’t rule out springing into action if summoned by Trump.

"Trump is the president until January and the president has the ability to command the militia," he says.

Unrest arising from the belief the election has been ‘stolen’ from one side or the other is perhaps even more possible given the likely delay in the final result.

Experts warn it could be days – even a week – before all the votes are counted given some voters will still be posting off their mail-in votes on election day.

The danger is that one side could claim victory on election night – only for more votes to flood in in the following days and turn the outcome on its head, sparking unrest not on election day itself but in the days and weeks that follow.

Then there’s the two-month gap between election day and the inauguration and if Trump – as he has suggested – refuses to leave the White House even if he loses.

And even if the two leaders each play the game fairly, one will be left with the unenviable task of tackling the deep-seated division currently facing the country.  

As Gallaher warns: "The bigger question is how long will the unrest last."

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