Some of the cities hardest hit by protest violence this summer are bracing for a second wave as Election Day approaches

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz,Kelly McLaughlin
·12 min read
Portland protests
A Trump supporter looks on during clashes between the Alt-Right Proud Boy group and Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon on August 22, 2020. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
  • Cities that have been hit hard by protest-related violence this year are preparing for it to get worse as the election approaches. 

  • Portland, Oregon, has already seen attempts to disrupt election activity and is preparing law enforcement for increased unrest the week of Nov. 3.

  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, hasn't had any direct threats of violence yet, but the city is preparing for "different scenarios," a spokesman told Insider. 

  • Officials in Lansing, Michigan, which has seen a number of armed-protests from people calling for the state to reopen amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, are preparing for "any situation(s) if they arise."

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For the last six months, Portland, Oregon, has been an epicenter of nightly unrest and clashes between anti-racism demonstrators and counter-protesters. 

The unrest, which began after the killing of George Floyd in late May, has led to destruction and violence in the city. And while the intensity of these interactions is waning, the election next month could bring a new wave of disruption, according to Jim Middaugh, spokesman for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Portland, which has a history of right-wing supremacy groups, has already begun to see threats to election security, including the vandalism to mailboxes, Middaugh said.

"4chan just published a Youtube video today claiming that they had altered the mayor's ballot and, in fact, the mayor had not voted yet. So we're seeing activity intended to disrupt election activity already," he said. "We have some concerns about election security, and that is why we are working very closely with our partner agencies across greater Portland to develop a mutual aid agreement to provide law enforcement support." 

Cities around the nation that have experienced anti-racism protests, counter-demonstrations, and related unrest this year are preparing for possible attacks against election integrity as November 3 approaches and in the weeks that follow.

Among them is Lansing, Michigan, where officials saw a number of demonstrations this year in which armed protesters called for the state to be re-opened amid COVID-19 shutdowns, and earlier this month, several Michiganders were arrested in an alleged plot to kidnap and kill Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Michigan has banned the open carry of guns at the polls, and officials are preparing for "any situation" that could arise on Election Day. 

In Minneapolis, which was the birthplace of this year's uprising and George Floyd anti-racism protests, officials have not been made aware of any threats to voter safety but will activate their emergency operations center just in case.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is also making election safety a priority, and the local government has actively made plans to shore itself up against voter intimidation tactics after President Donald Trump called for his supporters to watch the polls. 

"I've promised a safe, secure, and accurate election, and I intend to make sure that happens," Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said in a statement. "I appreciate the strong support from Mayor Schor and Police Chief Green to ensure that Nov. 3 will be a very secure election, and I encourage every voter to either vote at home, vote early or vote Nov. 3."

Cities across the US are putting measures in place to prevent civil unrest and voter intimidation

Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Philadelphia's City Commissioners, told Insider that there hadn't been any direct threats of violence made to the city yet, but officials are prepared to face anything.

"We are very confident that all citizens who want to visit the polls and exercise their right to vote with have the opportunity to do so," he told Insider.

The Lansing Police Department and the City Clerk's Office said in a joint statement that they would be "vigilant in ensuring a safe election."

In Portland, officials have taken steps to build a plan of action with the county sheriff's office, local law enforcement, and the superintendent of state police, Middaugh told Insider.

"We are planning to cancel vacations and other leave times for our officers to ensure that we have a full complement of people ready should they be needed," Middaugh said. 

As the election approaches, the city could also enforce additional practices, like curfews or deputizing local officers, he said. 

At this point, the city expects that unrest could likely last a week beyond Election Day but is preparing "for the eventuality that we might need to manage things even longer than that." 

"This is why everyone should vote. Regardless of who they vote for, we'd really like a clear answer on election night," Middaugh said. 

Much of the concern around clashes at polling places centers on the Trump campaign's call for an "Army for Trump." The campaign has asked supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully" and says it is hoping to recruit up to 50,000 people.

During his first debate with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump also told the far-right Proud Boys to "stand by and stand back."

Many critics say Trump's calls amount to voter intimidation. 

"He's talking about sending poll watchers to places. When he says that in a debate at the same time he's talking about the Proud Boys standing by, it's very worrisome," Rick Hasen, a professor at UC-Irvine who specializes in election law, told Slate.

"The rhetoric itself is suppressive," Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold told USA Today. "All of that taken together is aimed to suppress turnout. As elections officials, we have to clearly state that voter suppression is systemic racism."

In response to the Trump campaign's calls for a militarized legion of supporters watch polling places, Facebook has banned "militarized" language and language that intends to "intimidate, exert control, or display power over election officials or voters."

Portland has spent millions on police overtime during nightly protests

Portland has spent millions on overtime on police during nightly protests over the last six months. 

"We are seeing a — I'm going to knock on wood here — a general decline in the level of violence and criminal activity, but we don't know if that's temporary or the weather," Middaugh said. "These are small groups of people organized using encrypted messages. They're very motivated."

And as the election gets closer and tensions rise, violence could flare up.

"Again, the election, depending on how it turns out, could pose pretty serious threats, so we hope people will behave responsibly regardless of the outcome," he said. 

ted wheeler portland
Portland's Mayor Ted Wheeler is pictured during a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Oregon, U.S., July 22, 2020. Reuters/Caitlin Ochs

There have also been clashes between protesters in Philadelphia in recent months — during a demonstration in June, a group of 50 armed men confronted Black Lives Matter protesters and heckled them with homophobic slurs.

For his part, Trump singled out Philadelphia in his first debate with Joe Biden, and claimed poll watchers were being "thrown out" of polling areas.

Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney disputed Trump's claim, saying official poll watchers, who are certified with the state, are welcome.

But the city is still taking measures to prepare against any clashes. 

"Pennsylvania is a right to carry state, so we're not going to break the law to try to enforce the law, but people have to have unfettered access to polling places," Feeley told Insider. "And so we're prepared, and we've looked at different scenarios and believe we're fully prepared to ensure whatever the situation is we encounter, we'll have the resources and the ability to ensure that people can get safely into and out of the polling places."

minneapolis
A man carries a Black Liberation flag through a Juneteenth celebration at the memorial for George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 19, 2020. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Minneapolis will increase security and communications efforts this year

In the days following George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis officers, the city had seen a wave of unrest and protests that inspired a reckoning in cities around the world. 

"I've worked with our public safety and emergency response agencies to ensure Minneapolis has the appropriate plans in place to respond, if needed, to any concerns in the community, both in the days leading up to and the days following the election," Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told Insider in a written statement. "While I'm hopeful we won't need to implement response plans, I'm confident that the City is prepared."

Casey Carl, Minneapolis city clerk and chief elections official, told Insider that there have been no direct or indirect threats ahead of Election Day, but due to concerns around potential voter intimidation and security at polls, agencies have joined forces to prepare for the worst. 

For the first time, the city's emergency operations center — an Interagency communications platform utilized during disasters — will be put into use during the week of the election. 

Election staff will be able to communicate directly with all city departments and have access to state and county resources, Carl said.

"Not only can we ensure our polling places are protected, safe and secure, but also if there are messages we need to get out to the broad community, or to target communities, we're able to do that in a timely manner," he said.

The emergency operations center has been operational at different times during the unrest this year but is currently in a standby mode, Carl said.

As Election Day approaches, it will be reactivated to its full capacity.

The city has also deployed "Sergeant at Arms" election staff — who are not armed — and work as greeters outside the city's 90 polling places. They assist voters with ensuring they are in the right spot and work to make sure that nobody is violating the 100-foot buffer zone outside of the sites. 

These people work under the supervision of the "head election judge" at each polling place, Carl said.

"If there is a problem, the head election judge and the sergeant at arms get on their walkie talkies which they connect to election headquarters — my staff and me — and we say 'tell us what you're seeing.'"

Additional election workers might also be deployed to the site to help mitigate the issue. Minnesota state law prohibits law enforcement from entering polling places unless authorized by an election judge.

"If, between all of us, we agree that we need to call law enforcement to address a situation, then the head election judge summons the police or the sheriff to that site," Carl said. 

Carl said that he's not anticipating any violence on Election Day or the days that follow, but says the city is prepared.

"I feel very comfortable going into Election Day," he said. "Obviously we're on alert and we're being cautious. We have not heard of or received any threats and our drop-off boxes have not sustained any damage in any way." 

Michigan is banning open carry guns from polls on Election Day to help prevent voter intimidation

Michigan, meanwhile, has banned the open carry of guns within polling places, clerk's offices, and absent voter counting boards over concerns of voter intimidation and fear among voters, election workers, and others.

Officials in Lansing haven't received any credible threats of violence in the city, but Lansing Police Department and the City Clerk's Office said they're prepared to respond to any suspected voter intimidation, acts of violence, or civil unrest.

Coronavirus lockdown protest Michigan
People take part in a protest for "Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine" at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 15, 2020. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Michigan law bans people from showing support for candidates or political parties within 100 feet of polling stations, and officials said they would encourage people not to speak about candidates at the polls.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, Lansing officials are encouraging people to wear masks and said those who don't want to should take advantage of early voting.

"While there is no credible threat information to support the likelihood of a major issue, we are preparing our staff as a precautionary measure to respond to any situation(s) if they arise," Police Chief Daryl Green said in a statement.

Cities are using a variety of tactics to stem unrest but haven't found the perfect solution

Middaugh told Insider that, like most cities, Portland has been trying to protect civilians and property while also allowing protesters to practice their First Amendment rights to protest.

"Were all just trying to find the appropriate balance of accountability versus allowing people to express their allowable constitutional rights. We've tried engaging early, we've tried not engaging, and we've tried targeted arrests," Middaugh said.

"We had the Feds here, who made things significantly worse because they took a very aggressive, very violent approach without our permission," he added. "I don't think anyone has the right solution."

Middaugh said that the threat of violence at polling places is just one of the myriad struggles the city needs to combat to ensure fair and safe elections.

"We don't have good mental healthcare, our education system isn't providing what we need, economic opportunity is not fairly distributed to people of color," Middaugh said. "So it's these system failures that have really been caused by disinvestment by the Feds that leave police as the last resort."

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