- James Dobbins
- Protesters march by a San Antonio police officer at a demonstration this spring.
President Donald Trump has claimed repeatedly that he will only lose if the election is rigged. He's asserted without evidence that the balloting process is riddled with fraud, telegraphing his unwillingness to accept the outcome of the election.
Trump has also encouraged his supporters to stand watch at polling places on election day, threatened to send law enforcement personnel to observe the balloting process and told far-right fraternity the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by" during the first presidential debate.
Taken together, it's easy to read those as signals that we could face violence in the aftermath of a U.S. presidential election for the first time in modern history.
"It has very real consequences when you tell people to stand back and stand by," San Antonio racial justice activist Pharaoh Clark said. "You're not telling people to disarm. You're telling people, 'Don't move yet — unless I don't win.' That kind of talk is alarming."
The San Antonio Police Department didn't respond to a request for comment. However, at the beginning of the month, a department official told the Texas Tribune that it has a plan in place, "just as we have for the previous elections."
Trump's Democratic challenger Joe Biden leads in national polls by a commanding margin, and may well convincingly win the election on the night of November 3.
But the outcome of the election may not be immediately clear — particularly with record numbers of voters casting mail-in ballots. What's more, several recent opinions foreshadow how the Supreme Court could wade into vote-counting process after election day.
Certain states will report early votes, which tend to skew Democratic, first on election night. Others will report election day votes first, which should disproportionately favor Trump. The process could potentially drag on for days.
Burley said far-right actors would likely designate any violence on their part as an attempt to protect the integrity of the election process, halt a coup or stop violence by an opposed group such as Black Lives Matter.
Signaling the base
For Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, Trump's signaling to the militant white nationalist portion of his base alone is reason to worry.
"When Trump told supporters to go to the polls and watch very carefully, he told them to be there," Henderson said. "And militia groups and the polls are a dangerous, dangerous combination."
Indeed, the threat of far-right violence may have a chilling effect on people who would ordinarily take to the streets to peacefully protest if it appears that democracy is under threat.
Both Clark and fellow San Antonio activist Valerie Reiffert noted the dramatic spikes in sales of guns and ammunition this year as a potential cause for alarm. In Texas alone, there have been nearly 2 million background checks this year. Gun sales typically increase in election years, but not by that much.
However, guns aren't, by any means, the only way peaceful protesters have been attacked this year.
There have also been more than 100 documented incidents of people driving motor vehicles into protests in 2020 — including eight police officers. One such incident took place in San Antonio in September. The driver in that case has never been charged.
Clark said he and other social justice activists have received death threats, making safety is a major concern.
'We plan on mobilizing'
"We're going to see the results and see what's going on, but I want to make sure that myself and my community are all safe," Reiffert said of potential post-election protests. "It really depends on what's going on out there — because I never want to be in a position where I'm putting people in harm's way.
But that's not to say she and others won't take to the streets if democracy is threatened in November.
"We plan on being there every time we see an injustice carried out," Clark said. "So, to that extent, if there is a miscarriage of justice, and it seems that democracy is being thrown out the window, we plan on mobilizing — on getting everybody we can."
That kind of opposition will be integral to preserving democracy should the election process be compromised, Fascism Today author Burley said.
"Social movements are a necessity," he said. "I don't think electoralism has the capacity to maintain itself against contest on its own. But I think [the threat of violence] should change how people handle it, absolutely. I think that people need to have a very complex, sophisticated and nuanced understanding how to make yourself safe and make your community safe."
Burley pointed to mutual aid networks and organizations that set up among neighbors to provide each other with food, shelter and supplies as especially important in times of turbulence on the streets.
Local activists say they're skeptical that SAPD would respond to protesters in an evenhanded manner if the election is contested.
"The president has already shown that he is anti-democracy," Texas Southern University's Henderson said. "And the police have shown that they work for the president. Read between the lines."
While it's unclear whether the United States and San Antonio will face unrest following the election, it's clear that concerns over the outcome — and its aftermath — aren't likely to dissipate.
"What 2020 has shown us is that anything is possible — which is very scary to think about," Reiffert said. "I'm a small Black woman in San Antonio, Texas, and I feel like racism has really been ramped up, these last four years especially. So for me, you kind of prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
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