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Concerns rise over potential post-election violence

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The partisan divide has grown wider over the past four years, and the threat of political unrest continues to grow. A rise in anger and awareness over the police killings of unarmed black men, and an upsurge in the participation of militia groups have already led to confrontations and violence.

Russ McNamara examines the how and why of potential post-election turmoil.

Frustration, injustice, and politics make for unstable chemistry.

 “I think that what we're seeing now is the combination of the covid 19 pandemic racialized violence that we've seen since forever, and politics and things like that. I think that kind of creates a brew that really puts people on edge.”

That’s Chad King with Detroit’s, Black Bottom Gun Club. Membership in the group has grown substantially this year despite the pandemic.

2020 has already seen great numbers of people in the streets protesting systemic racism and injustice.  To King, Black people aren’t the issue when it comes to marches.

“By and large, African Americans… when we do protest is not necessarily violent," said King. "You have agent provocateurs, coming from outside of black spaces and doing things like that, like we saw with the folks who burned down the precinct in Minneapolis.”

Recently, a Texas man, a supporter of the predominantly white ‘Boogaloo Bois’ was charged with inciting a riot and firing his gun into a Minneapolis police precinct during protests there in May.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks extremism and says the end game for the Boogaloo Movement is – quote –  “for society (to) descend into chaos so that they can come to power and build a new fascist state.”

Shawn Turner worked for the Director of National Intelligence in the Obama Administration and is currently a Professor of National Security Communication at Michigan State University. Violence, he says, is just one part of the chaos equation.

“I believe that obviously it's always the case that violence is going to be at the top of the list in terms of what's most disruptive," Turner says. "But when we look at what is a close second and what can contribute to violence, certainly disinformation has risen to the top and is one of the most important tools that these groups use to sow discord in this country.”

Donald Trump has only added to that problem. The Washington Post says the president has made over 22-thousand misleading claims while in office.

Turner says largely white militia groups thrive on attention.

“These groups don't want to be ignored," said Turner. "When they take up arms and they go and they stand in front of the Capitol Building when they marched through the streets espousing these views, they want the attention, and part of the way they get that attention is by engaging in misinformation and disinformation prior to those events.”

Dr. Amy Cooter is a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt and an expert in what makes militia members tick.

She says it’s not a surprise that the protesters against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Covid-19 executive orders showed up armed.

“The commonality across all militia groups is this idea that they feel it is their responsibility to watch out for government overreach," Cooter said. "Trying to make this argument effectively that the Second Amendment is what allows for the first amendment allows for the average everyday citizen to remind the government that they're there to represent them.”

With President Trump baselessly making claims about voter fraud, Cooter says the upcoming election has only added to the fears of white men.

“A lot of these folks have had anxiety for quite a while, even before the pandemic about this upcoming presidential election - perceptions that it would not be fair that somehow Trump would be basically screwed out of a chance to have an opportunity to be fairly reelected,” says Cooter.

And that’s led to fears about militia groups showing up at the polls to discourage turnout. President of the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP, Reverend Wendell Anthony says despite concerns, Black people in the city will not waver in exercising their right to vote.

“This is no game and we are not playing," Anthony said. "We have determined that everyone who seeks access to the voting booth is afforded the opportunity without intimidation, interference or harassment at the polls.”

Anxiety remains for the possibility of unrest in the days and weeks following Election Day. Ron Brown is an associate professor of political science at Wayne State University. He says protest is democracy in action.

“The best case scenario is to see civil disorder as part of the democratic process and that there are boundaries and that we do not want to stop people from engaging in civil disobedience," said Brown. "And in civil dissent. The only time we should arrest people is if they threaten the security of the state. And Black Lives Matters groups are not threatening the security of the state – they’re asking for reform.”

Protests by racial justice groups have drawn counter protests from right-wing militia and white nationalist groups. Brown says police have a responsibility to arrest troublemakers.

“You will probably see the police put both groups in jail. However, I think that that the vast majority of those must be again those on the right because they are the ones who are disruptive," says Brown. "They are the ones that are largely a threat to democratic norms.”

Although MSU Professor Shawn Turner says relying on law enforcement can be problematic.  He points to police in Kenosha, Wisconsin who were seen passing out water and offering support to armed white men – shortly before a white teenager from Illinois killed two Black Lives Matter protesters and shot another.

“There has existed a special relationship between some arms of law enforcement and militia groups," Turner said. "We go back and we look at what happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and we've all seen the stories of law enforcement saying we're glad you're here. And, and standing shoulder to shoulder with the groups that showed up and we've seen that in other states.”

Sociologist Amy Cooter says she’s concerned that some sort of violence might be unavoidable.

“I would not at all be surprised to see some outbursts of violence around the election if Biden wins, or especially if we don't have a clear result election night or for several days after,” said Cooter.

Since George Floyd was killed by a police officer last May, protesters of been on the streets in major cities across the country every single day. The FBI says right-wing terrorism and white supremacists make up the biggest threat to this country.

With this combustible mix, only time will tell whether this election will be the first step towards healing, or the spark that sets it ablaze.