It is now pointless to argue that the Trump administration is a menace to constitutional democracy in the U.S., that it threatens the fairness and legitimacy of the November election, and that working to defeat this administration is the most urgent imperative for everyone who is not a Trumpist and who believes in democracy.
It is pointless because these things are obvious. But also because the time for analysis has passed, and in the next few months what is needed is relentless action, and careful preparation for the crisis to come.
This preparation takes many forms.
One is simple and yet requires much work, though I will not elaborate here: vigorous voter education and mobilization, designed to get as many people as possible to vote early or in person and to deliver decisive majorities to the Biden/Harris ticket in each state and in the national popular vote.
As second is legal. It is essential that both poll watchers and election law attorneys be organized in every state, and that they be prepared to monitor and defend the exercise of voting rights, and to expeditiously and vigorously pursue any and all court challenges that might be necessary on November 3 and in the days and weeks that follow.
I discussed a third in a recent Common Dreams piece: “We Must Be Prepared to Nonviolently Defend a Democratic Election in the Streets.”
Here I want to elaborate on a fourth form of preparation which is as important as any of the others: the need to seek proactive and public assurances from responsible local authorities that our constitutionally-protected rights to vote and to peacefully assemble will be protected by local law enforcement agencies. And the need also for assurances that these law enforcement agencies will be properly prepared to handle right-wing attempts to intimidate opponents, either at polling places or on the streets, either by issuing verbal threats or by the bearing of arms and the use of coercive force. We need to know that the police will not side with the intimidators, however much they shout “Blue Lives Matter” and prate about “law and order.”
Maria Stepan, Candace Rondeaux, and Erica Chenoweth get at this, without specifically discussing it, in their important recent piece on “Preparing for a November Surprise,” arguing that democratic activists need to identify “potential key pillars of support for anti-democratic actions and plan out how to keep them on the democratic path . . . Identifying these leverage points and designing actions to pressure and persuade members of these pillars to join the pro-democracy fight is key to building mass participation, a key ingredient of successful nonviolent campaigns.” “Fair Elections During a Crisis,” the recent report of the Ad Hoc Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy, also urges that state and local officials be proactively engaged to deal with a November crisis and the various emergencies that might ensue.
But these important pieces do not focus on specific efforts to gain assurances and commitments regarding law enforcement and policing. Recent events in Portland, Kenosha, and elsewhere make vividly clear that police will play an absolutely crucial role in the politics leading up to the election, and that civilian and police leadership in every city in the country need to be pressed to make the protection of our democratic rights their most urgent priority.
Toward this end I’ve drafted a model letter that can be used, amended, etc., by citizens across the U.S. We should not underestimate the importance of such efforts, for local and municipal governments might well turn out to be the “last line of defense” of our civil liberties at a time of protracted crisis. At the same time, it would be naïve and foolish to overestimate the force of such communications. For such communications are not a substitute for political organizing. They are merely one means of appealing to allies in the government and outside it; of putting public authorities on notice; and of helping to perform the politics of robust, contentious, and nonviolent civic action. In many places efforts to communicate with public officials in this way can have real effects in making it safer for citizen action. But even where they fall on deaf ears, such efforts can make clearer the kinds of precautions that might be necessary in November so that democracy can be defended without blood being spilled in the streets.
Communicating Privately and Publicly with Local Officials: A Model
I hope you are safe and well. I know this has been in many ways a challenging summer for public officials across the country.
I’m writing because I am very concerned about the turn towards violence in so many places in our country, including here in ____, and its implications for the November election. This turn towards violence has many sources. In my opinion, one very potent source is the rhetoric and incitement of President Trump and his most ardent followers on Fox News and in social media. I am one of many political scientists and legal scholars to worry about the upcoming election, whether or not it will be fair, and even whether validated results will be respected. As you know, many commentators have predicted that in the coming weeks Trump will intensify his attacks on Democrats for “rigging” the election, etc., and that this will incite his supporters to acts of anger and violence.
I think such a scenario is almost guaranteed to unfold, and the only question is how well it can be contained, by responsible citizen action and by the responsible exercise of public authority by local officials such as yourself.
In such a situation, citizens who are serious about constitutional democracy—Democrats, independents, former-Republicans, Never Trump Republicans—will need to know that they can vote without intimidation, and that they can freely assemble in public to protest on behalf of constitutional democracy without fear. And they will also need to know that their local police departments are absolutely committed to protecting them and ensuring their safety as they exercise their constitutional rights.
I am very concerned about recent developments in the country and also in our community:
– the climate of threat and intimidation that seems to grow and become more public and thus more dangerous by the day;
– questions about how actively and impartially the police department is “keeping the peace.” In some places, like Portland and even NYC, some police officers have been very solicitous of right-wing militia groups. And as you know, the conduct of Kenosha law enforcement officials—very racist statements made by the sheriff in 2018, and the welcoming treatment accorded by the police to Rittenhouse the white militia shooter before and after he killed people—has been very troubling. Given these realities, citizens in our community need to be reassured;
– concerns about when citizen support for hard-working police officers shades into solicitude for “Blue Lives Matter” activists who, honestly, are about much more than criminal justice and policing, and who exist to oppose Black Lives Matter and broader struggles against racism and police brutality. And let me be frank here, as someone who admires what many officers do: police departments in this country are home to some of the most reactionary and violent people in our country, even if there may be only one or two such people on a small police force; I am seriously concerned about whether every officer on our force fully understands what civil liberty and public safety (including mask wearing) means, and also understands that police who violate rules will be disciplined. And while I understand why police appreciate civilians who laud them, I think it is very important that every police department in the country and every officer in the country be fully independent of politics, and not be associated in any way with “Blue Lives Matter,” and that this be understood by everyone in the community, especially the “Blue Lives Matter” activists;
– and finally, concerns about the fact that I have not heard a strong and reassuring statement from the Mayor about the city government’s commitment to protecting the rights of protesters in the face of looming authoritarianism in the country at large.
Of course, I know that the city can’t “take sides” between groups publicly assembling to protest.
But we both know that the sides are not equivalent, in terms of either ends or means. And if things get nasty and violent after November 3, it will be the right-wing militias and lone-wolf sympathizers, abetted by Trump, who will likely make trouble, and who are quite honestly much better trained and disposed to do violence. It is these groups that pose the most serious danger of violence and threat to “public safety,” and it is these groups that warrant the most serious attention when it comes to “law and order.”
The Mayor’s office and the police department need to be prepared for this. Really prepared. I don’t just mean tactical plans. I mean clear public communication, and proactive efforts to meet with and talk to the leaders of key activist groups across the board, to make sure that they understand that the entire election process needs to be safe and civil. I mean a real civic strategy that incorporates community leaders and prepares people, in a non-alarmist but realistic way, for a dangerous situation that is unprecedented in our lifetimes.
I truly believe that a free, fair, and legitimate election in November is in jeopardy. God only knows what Trump will do. But city government is not only what John Dewey famously called the primary “laboratory of democracy.” It is also the “first line of defense” for democracy in a time of crisis. And I really think it is so important that our leaders be very proactive, visible, and public about their commitment to civil liberty in a time of crisis.
This is not business as usual in any way. And in places like our community it is especially important that citizens feel safe and are safe in the exercise of their constitutional liberties, before the election, during the election, and after the election.
A great many people in our community share these concerns. You know this.
We need reassurance, we need communication, and we need to know that our public authorities are prepared to protect our constitutional rights and to properly enforce the law if a crisis unfolds in November.
Can you reassure us?
We are waiting.