Donald Trump, losing badly in the polls, is betting his presidency on law and order. He has repeatedly evoked dangers posed by left-wing anarchists and groups like Antifa, declaring the latter a terrorist organization and signing an executive order directing his attorney general, William Barr, to identify “anarchist jurisdictions” in cities for possible defunding. Never mind that U.S. intelligence and homeland security officials have repeatedly assessed that far-right and white supremacist groups, groups tacitly supported by Trump, are the most significant terror-related threat.
Trump and Barr are merely the latest politicians to portray protestors as “terrorists,” “rioters,” and unpatriotic menaces to law and order. In reality, protest is as American as apple pie. From boycotting the British monarchy, to striking for worker protections, to marches for women’s suffrage and lunch counter sit-ins for civil rights, organized civic action, combined with key legislation and court rulings, has been the pathway to progress for centuries. A large body of research has shown that bottom-up civil resistance is the most significant driver of democratization in the United States and globally.
While polls suggest that Trump’s law-and-order mantra is falling flat with key audiences and research shows that incumbent presidents have a harder time running on a platform of restoring order compared with outside candidates, given the piqued tensions in the United States leading up to the election, it is important to set the record straight. Protest and civic activism could end up playing a major role in defending the integrity of the upcoming election and protecting the Constitution. In such instances, media outlets, protestors, and officials will play essential roles in either exacerbating or alleviating tensions that can lead to violence.
Domestic Disinformation at the Highest Levels
The claims of the president and the Department of Justice that they are bulwarks against violent chaos caused by protestors is wrong on three counts.
First, it’s worth recalling that the overwhelming majority of protests since George Floyd’s murder in June – and since Trump’s election in 2016 – have been nonviolent. In fact, more than 93 percent of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer following George Floyd’s murder were peaceful, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project (ACLED). And if you remove instances of property damage (including the toppling of statues), which ACLED includes in its definition of violence, the percentage of protests that have been nonviolent is even higher. In 99 percent of cases, there were no reports of police injuries. The characterization of protests as violent riots is simply untrue.
While the president depicts protestors as a radical fringe, in fact the nationwide protests following Floyd’s killing, which occurred in thousands of cities and towns, including in conservative parts of the country, were the broadest and most persistent in U.S. history. The mostly peaceful and hugely participatory nature of the protests, which included kids, grandmothers, farmers, and professionals, helps explain the dramatic shift in public opinion to decry police brutality and empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement in their aftermath. Protestor violence, looting, and vandalism constituted a minute portion of the protests and were mostly confined to single city blocks, largely committed by opportunists. Organizing by community leaders, religious figures and civic groups in places like Minneapolis kept police and opportunist violence at bay.
Second, most of the victims of violence have been protestors, with federal security forces and police perpetrating most of the attacks. A large uptick in violent street clashes in Portland, for example, occurred after Trump deployed federal forces, purportedly to protect federal buildings and restore calm. Meanwhile, police and prosecutors have abused over-broad anti-riot laws to round up and punish peaceful protestors, in clear violation of their First Amendment rights. More than 10,000 people have been arrested during protests against racism and police violence, including Kentucky’s only Black female legislator, state Rep. Attica Scott, who was arrested on a felony rioting charge during a protest against the killing of Breonna Taylor. Whereas peaceful protest is protected under the Constitution, violent vigilantism and private armed militias find no support in the U.S. or state constitutions – which leads to the third point.
While Trump has called anarchists and far-left groups the most dangerous threats to the country, in fact domestic intelligence agencies consider far-right and white supremacist groups, elements Trump repeatedly refuses to condemn, to be the most significant terror-related threat to the United States. Violence by far-right groups that has hurt people has increased significantly while such violence by far-left groups has remained the same compared to previous years.
Meanwhile, hate crimes, also on the rise under Trump, have overwhelmingly targeted minority groups and have been perpetrated by those with white supremacist motives. The proliferation of far-right militia groups like the Proud Boys and Boogaloo represent the greatest threat to law and order in the country. The recently foiled plot by members of the anti-government extremist group the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and instigate a civil war is a dangerous case in point.
Key Action Points for News Media, Protestors, and Officials
In other words, rather than restoring law and order, Trump has been the cause of lawlessness and disorder. This highlights a few key action points in the lead-up to a highly consequential election.
First, it is critically important for news media outlets to cover the full context of protests, center the voices of community leaders in their coverage, and avoid ambiguity surrounding the sources of violence if and when it breaks out. For example, instead of writing that “the protests turned violent” which suggests that both sides were equally responsible for the violence, describe who was responsible and place it in the larger context of organized civic action in the area. In many cases, responsibility can be attributed clearly enough soon after an incident, as in the case of the initially unknown “Umbrella Man” who smashed an auto-parts store’s windows during Minneapolis protests over Floyd’s death, vandalism that seemed clearly intended to inspire or provoke violence. Minneapolis police later identified him as being associated with a white supremacist group.
In covering protests, journalists should include the voices of Black and Brown community leaders, rather than focusing mainly on rioting and looting involving persons of color, to tell a fuller and more accurate story of demonstrations in America. Stories that remind Americans of the long history of patriotic nonviolent protest in this country would help set expectations about what is constitutionally protected behavior – and what is not – while shedding light on what has resolved conflicts and brought positive changes for centuries.
Second, for protestors, the risk that any incident will be exploited by the far right (not to mention the president) highlights the strategic imperative of avoiding violence and maintaining nonviolent discipline in the face of potential attacks by police and vigilante groups. This is not easy to do, particularly given the long and painful history of police and vigilante violence targeting Black and indigenous people and other persons of color in the United States. Activists often debate whether and how to respond to violent attacks. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, others questioned the focus on protestor behavior when state violence is the bigger problem.
While one could argue that the use of protestor violence is moral or justified, the question is whether it is effective. Most research has found that drawing a stark contrast between protestor actions and violence committed by police and militias helps win legitimacy and popular support, whereas mixing violent and nonviolent tactics tends to muddy the waters and decreases the likelihood that state perpetrators of violence will face negative backlash. Violence used by protestors, even when used in self-defense, tends to push voters into the law-and-order camp, leads to even greater crackdowns by the state, and diminishes overall participation, notably by women, the elderly, and the disabled. Since maximizing participation is key to campaign success, nonviolent discipline makes strategic sense.
Various organizations are providing trainings in nonviolent action and violence de-escalation techniques, drawing on the history of Black-led protests during the Civil Rights movement, which faced both federal forces and Ku Klux Klan terrorists. They are showing how sequencing of a broad array of tactics, including petitions, vigils, boycotts, strikes, and stay-aways could be used effectively in the event of a contested election, executive power grab, or coup.
While a military seizure of power is unlikely in the United States, an autogolpe, or an attempt by those in authority to expand their power – as Viktor Orban has done in Hungary and Tayyip Erdogan has done in Turkey, is more likely. We would face such a scenario if the Trump administration declares victory while votes are being counted, tries to stop the vote count, or refuses to leave power in the event he loses.
Something similar happened in Serbia in 2000, Ukraine in 2004, and the Gambia in 2016, when incumbent presidents attempted to steal the elections and were confronted with mass nonviolent resistance involving large segments of the population, prompting the officials to accept the legitimate results and leave office. In the United States, grassroots groups and initiatives like Protect the Results, Choose Democracy, the Fight Back Table, and Hold the Line are preparing for those possibilities and strategizing on how to sustain pressure. That might include, if necessary — through labor strikes and consumer boycotts –ensuring that all legitimate votes are counted and the rightful winner is sworn in on Jan. 20.
Third, elected officials, military leaders, and police should publicly commit to ensuring that all votes are counted and to protecting those who exercise their First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and association from violence committed by either police or militia forces. Officials and police should denounce the abuse of anti-riot laws to punish those who choose to protest nonviolently.
Along these lines, the bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity, which includes a number of Trump supporters, announced a pledge calling for peace and patience surrounding the election, and ensuring that every vote is counted. Hold the Line has developed a Commitment to Uphold Democracy campaign that is seeking written commitments from elected officials and police and military leaders to protect the integrity and results of the 2020 election. Choose Democracy has similarly called for individuals to pledge to vote, demand that all eligible votes are counted, and to prepare to engage in nonviolent mass action in the event that the election is stolen. The Leadership Now Project is calling on businesses to commit to five actions to support the election, while others are calling on social media companies to publicly commit to developing and enforcing standards for election misinformation and disinformation.
While it is unclear what will happen between now and the inauguration of the president in January, we do know one thing: what ordinary people do, and how they mobilize, will determine the outcome of the election. Whereas the Trump administration has inspired chaos and lawlessness, disciplined nonviolent protest and mass civic action could be the most important guarantors of a free and fair election – and our country’s democratic future.