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Here’s How to Be Prepared if the Election Goes South

To defend democracy and prevent violence, nonviolent civil resistance offers more than just protest.

Words: Kelsey Coolidge, Kristin Henderson, and Patrick. T. Hiller
Pictures: Jennifer Griffin

There is a real and credible concern that election-related violence might occur at some point in the coming weeks. It could take place on Election Day, in the form of armed thugs at polling stations in swing states, or extend throughout election season if no clear result is announced or, in what might be a worst-case scenario, if a candidate refuses to concede. Keep in mind that the Trump campaign has already tried to enlist “every able bodied man and woman to join [an] Army for Trump’s election security operation.” As a country, we could be facing one of the most volatile and chaotic episodes in our history. This concern is underscored by many well understood and researched cases of election violence from around the world which have shared, among others, the following contributing factors:

  • An electoral process that is perceived as corrupt, compromised, or unfair
  • An incumbent’s fear of losing power
  • The use of threats to influence results
  • The spread of disinformation
  • Forced “protection”
  • Little or damaged institutional constraints

All these factors are present in the current US context. But risks do not necessarily determine outcomes. As much as experts have analyzed, researched, and studied these risk factors, no expert sits with a crystal ball peering into a murky future. Human beings are unpredictable. But there is real power in the decisions that each of us make when social and political stress is high. Widespread civil resistance has, time and time again, proven to be the most effective tool to defend democracy and delegitimize political violence.

This is why our team at the War Prevention Initiative launched a campaign last week: #NonviolentElections2020. We noticed that mainstream information on nonviolent action is too narrowly focused on attending a protest or march, even though scholarship and practice clearly show that civil resistance is so much more. While protests are immensely important (and we’ve been incredibly impressed by the commitment to nonviolence demonstrated by Black Lives Matter protesters), these highly visible public demonstrations are not desirable or feasible to all. There are myriad reasons why – perhaps you’re a parent concerned about putting your children in harm’s way at a protest. Maybe you’re immuno-compromised and concerned about the risk of COVID-19 transmission at public gatherings. Or you’re a government employee with restrictions on what you can do or say. We also know that while mass protests historically have led to significant concessions, those in power have become savvier. Sustained and diverse tactics of civil resistance can chip away at the pillars of support that uphold the power structures in question.

Sustained and diverse tactics of civil resistance can chip away at the pillars of support that uphold the power structures in question.

There are over 200 forms of nonviolent civil resistance that have been used by social movements around the world, all documented in the Global Nonviolent Action Database hosted by Swarthmore College. During this campaign, we are highlighting several key categories that are cognizant of the risk factors outlined above and in the context of increasing rates of COVID-19 transmission around the country. Here are some to give you an idea:

Using drama and music like “Billionaires for Bush”

During the 2004 presidential campaign, “Billionaires for Bush” was a political street theater group that would appear at George W. Bush campaign stops, satirically supporting the incumbent president. This group used humor to convey their political opinion and attract supporters through entertaining, non-threatening, and nonviolent action.

Employing symbolic actions like the “Redwood Rabbis”

In January 1997, logging companies began clearing old growth redwood forests in northern California. The Redwood Rabbis” protested deforestation by aligning with the Jewish imperative “to guard the earth” with reclaiming land owned by the logging company by trespassing on logging company land and planting redwood seedings.

Noncooperation with unjust laws like Saudi Women and their campaign for the right to drive 

For over two decades, Saudi women waged a nonviolent campaign for recognition of their rights — and at the very least the right to drive. Women would not cooperate with law and customs by driving en masse through the capital city and, in turn, were arrested. In 2018, Saudi women were permitted to drive after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman legally recognized women’s right to drive.

Disobeying authority like how Dutch clergy members stood for immigrant rights

In October 2018, an immigrant family moved into a church in the Hague, Netherlands, to take sanctuary. 650 clergy members, over 1,000 pastors and clergy members of the church volunteered to hold a continuous religious service to resist deportation of an immigrant family. Dutch authorities are prohibited from interfering with a religious service and the church congregation’s disobedience prevented the family from deportation.

Obstructing like “Casino-Free Philadelphia”

Spurred by the 2007 Pennsylvania citizens’ Casino-Free Philadelphia campaign, the Philadelphia City Council stalled and enacted procedural hurdles to prevent two casino plans from proceeding. These obstruction tactics aided the larger campaign to ultimately stop one casino construction and significantly reduce the size of the other.

Striking like Rio Olympic workers

Ahead of the World Cup and Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the state government forcibly removed communities from low-income favelas for “aesthetic” purposes. Simultaneously, multiple industries went on strike in 2016 to demand better service workers pay amidst massive government spending to facilitate the events. The strikes were part of a larger campaign for human rights and against financial mismanagement that eventually led to arrest of the governor of Rio.

The best possible outcome is that this is all a moot point, and our country moves past election day with a clear and decisive winner and a concession by the candidate who fell short of the necessary votes. Short of that outcome, it is best that we all make a plan and take necessary action to defend American democracy. One thing is for sure, we cannot afford to miss the moment and look back at times of violent unrest asking, “how could that happen?”

Kelsey Coolidge, MA, is a social science researcher with an interest in peace and conflict, gender, and climate change. She is the managing editor of the Peace Science Digest and the Associate Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.

Kristin Henderson, MA, is a political violence and nonviolence researcher with an interest in state repression and civilian-led social movements. She is currently the Project Manager at War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.

Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (2012-2016), is a member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and is Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation. 

Follow our campaign on Twitter at @WarPrevention or through the hashtag #NonviolentElections2020, or follow us on Facebook and Instagram: War Prevention Initiative.

Kelsey Coolidge, Kristin Henderson, and Patrick. T. Hiller

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