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We can safeguard democracy without giving in to fear and more policing

Date: June 7, 2024

Press Clip Original Source: Waging Nonviolence
Also Featured In: Nation of Change | Scheer Post

With voter intimidation and political violence on the rise, it’s time to invest in proven nonviolent, civilian-led safety endeavors.

By Claire Guinta and Kalaya'an Mendoza 

Elections are flashpoints for political violence. Across the country, voter intimidation and related threats have spiked in recent cycles. In one particularly extreme case — in the battleground state of Arizona — one voter was reportedly approached and followed by armed “vigilantes” dressed in tactical gear outside a drop box during the 2023 midterms. Not surprisingly, voter intimidation has become a rising fear among many voters as the U.S. heads toward elections in November.

In an effort to dissolve the misinformation that drives threats and violence, some state officials have actually urged election deniers to become poll workers or official observers. While the invitation has led to reports indicating an increase in poll workers and election monitors with election denial ties, it is not clear that minds have been changed. Election workers continue to face harassment, with some of their accounts having been detailed before Congress, including during the Jan. 6 hearings.

Back in 2020, election experts warned of increased threats from militias, such as the foiled kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. That threat shifted ahead of the 2022 midterms, with “lone offenders” being the more likely perpetrators of violence — as seen in the attacks on Lee Zeldin and Paul Pelosi. This speaks to yet another concerning indicator: a rise in threats against candidates and elected officials

Political violence also ends up increasing hate violence. Harmful trends such as anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment damage social cohesion and democratic participation — and directly impact personal safety for many. For instance, Scientific American reported on how anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric fuels violence, creating an unsafe environment for LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly young people. Similarly, xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric not only fosters harmful policies but also incites violence against immigrant and non-white communities. 

This climate of hostility and fear affects all aspects of society, including public figures for whom political mud-slinging has turned serious. Take the case of Democratic Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has received “hostile calls, antagonistic mail and death threats,” as well as “people outside my home with weapons.” She calls these actions a reflection of “the vitriol, bullying, rage and threats we are witnessing across the country today.”

Meanwhile, the recent crackdowns on civic spaces and rights — which are both the impetus and response to antiwar campus protests across the country — exemplify political violence extending beyond physical altercations. Such repression only deepens polarization and erodes democratic trust, fostering voter intimidation, threats against elected officials, hate speech and other political violence. Resourcing and pursuing alternate pathways to dialogue and holding space for conflict nonviolently is crucial for safeguarding democracy and fostering community safety.

Beyond ballots: Shaping our shared community

Despite suggestions that the coordinated efforts of hate groups have waned since Jan. 6, 2021, the harmful and violent rhetoric of these groups — and the threat they pose to safety — persists. This is compounded by the evolving technological dynamics affecting elections and democracy, including decentralized social media and the impact of AI on misinformation and disinformation. Consequently, there is an increased demand for voters to demonstrate unwavering commitment to each other’s safety.

Elections are more than just choosing individuals for office, they are a pivotal moment in determining the kind of community we aspire to build together.

From countering divisive rhetoric to enhancing community-centric safety skills, voters themselves are showing what it looks like to protect against election violence. Tackling divisive rhetoric, strengthening community-led safety skills and adeptly navigating the evolving landscape shaped by the 2024 election cycle is essential. We must invest time, energy and resources to reinforce nonviolent, civilian-led safety endeavors — rather than accepting violence and deepening securitization.

It is essential that this undertaking begins with community-based systems for safety, which means adopting a forward-thinking, constructive strategy rooted in relationships. By reinforcing the connections that bind us together, neighbors can come together to control rumors, provide protective presence, receive training in violence de-escalation, interrupt violence and more. This is not a new approach, and there is precedent. Creating pockets of safety during elections has been done from Nigeria to Myanmar to the United States.

This might feel counter-intuitive to some. Often, when people feel unsafe, they turn to state-based protection or other violent means — such as purchasing a gun — as they are unable to envision an alternative approach. People hear reports of increased violence and call for increased policing without asking a community what safety means to them. Similarly, people hear that fear speech is running rampant on social media platforms and call for speech restrictions instead of looking at design-focused approaches. However, by expanding our vision of what safety can look like — without it coming down the barrel of a gun — we equip ourselves and our communities with a wide range of effective tools and strategies.

We know this works because our own organization — Nonviolent Peaceforce, or NP — has championed these approaches (which we call unarmed civilian protection, or UCP) for more than 20 years. By using encouragement and deterrence, rather than violence and fear, we interrupt cycles of violence in the short and long term. 

On election day 2020, NP strategically positioned teams of trained staff, volunteers, and community partners in potential hotspots in Minneapolis, engaging with neighbors and de-escalating high tensions before violence erupted.

In one instance, two friends went to a polling station, but election officials asked them to move their car — which was decorated with candidate flags — out of the restricted area. They relocated to a nearby intersection, but the car’s presence and political flags agitated voters and bystanders. While one friend went to vote, NP volunteers approached the other in the car, explaining how his presence could escalate tensions. He assured them he didn’t want any trouble and would try to get his friend to leave. However, when his friend returned, he refused to leave and stood by the car. A nearby voter, agitated by the flag, began screaming and rushing the group, but the team calmed him down, explaining they were trying to resolve the situation and took him aside. To further defuse the tension, an NP staff member offered candy to all and started a casual conversation. Realizing the potential for the conflict to turn physical, the friends eventually decided to leave.

Another group — DC Peace Team — specializes in providing UCP and accompaniment to activists and individuals facing increased risk of violence at protests in our nation’s capital. In one instance, during a Black Lives Matter protest, team member Merwyn D.M. intervened using distraction techniques when agitators escalated an already heated situation. Merwyn’s initial attempts to introduce himself and speak about restraint and respect failed. Noticing an agitator clenching his fists, he asked for the time, which distracted the man enough to defuse the situation. When a police officer approached, Merwyn signaled that things were under control, and the conversation resumed in a calmer, more constructive manner.

Yet another UCP group, the Shanti Sena Network, has lessons to share from its efforts during the 2020 election cycle, as one of the teams it coordinates with began working with Rep. Cori Bush, during her run for office that year. As Bush encountered threats, including death threats, the team acted as a buffer, engaging with crowds even when there was no malice intended — for example, requesting mask-wearing and hand sanitization. They also considered her travel routes, modes of transportation and securing her home upon her return. Through mapping, assessment and observation, the protection team was able to anticipate potentially unsafe situations and prevent them from occurring in the first place. They were able to address and promptly resolve multiple risks.

Resources for next steps

This work didn’t just start in 2020, and it didn’t stop then either. Communities have been enhancing skills and networks focused on conflict resolution and mitigation — much of it mapped and researched by national efforts like the Bridging Divides Initiative and the TRUST Network

Each one of us has the power to embody the principles of community safety and mutual protection. Even seemingly simple acts hold transformative potential. Consider Across Frontlines’ efforts during the special election in Georgia in 2020: By distributing snacks, water, warm gear and PPE, they ensured voting was “safe, secure and joyful for all voters.” (Unfortunately, since March 2021, this type of work has been restricted in Georgia). More recently, faculty have provided protective presence and interpositioning on college campuses, protecting students in the midst of violent police and retaliatory action, restriction of civic space, and exclusions of third-party observers and responders.

The challenges we face — not just from the threats to voters, poll workers and candidates, but also polarizing and violent rhetoric — require action beyond mere acknowledgement. It’s time to embrace our role as active agents of change.

Cultivate your skills in countering hate speech with this guide from Over Zero, which was founded in response to the global need to counteract and prevent identity-based violence and other forms of group-targeted harm. Check out the Bridging Divide Initiative’s De-escalation Directory to find trainers and trainings available in your state. To foster connections and strengthen our communities, start thinking about what communities you are in and who in your community is at increased risk. There are many ways to remain safe amidst crackdowns on civic spaces and in the face of hate violence — and we encourage you to check out this guide we put together: “Three Essential Resources for Personal Safety and Community Care.”

As voters, neighbors, organizers and advocates of community safety, we bear the responsibility of nurturing a safer, more inclusive, more harmonious world. Support one another, protect one another and stand united for the well-being of all.

You can protect civilians who are living in or fleeing violent conflict. Your contribution will transform the world's response to conflict.