The 'Recipe' for Election Unrest Exists but So Do the Chances to Avoid It, Experts Say

As Election Day draws closer, so too does the worry about what kind of anger and anxiety might be unleashed by the results of such a contentious campaign — one in which the president baselessly accused his opponents of fraud and suggested he may not accept defeat. 

Days ahead of Tuesday's voting, various officials across the country say they are “prepared” to face civil unrest in cities and states next week.

Worry over whether the general election results could spark violent clashes at the local level (or whether such conflicts might spin into larger chaos) has led some stores to consider precautions after the country experienced a summer of social upheaval.

In one headline-grabbing move this week, Walmart announced and then reversed a decision to remove guns and ammunition from its sales floor ahead of the election, citing policies around past concerns of "civil unrest."

Political leaders are preparing as well.

Some state officials, CNN reported, began signaling worry and disappointment late last month after Donald Trump urged his supporters during the first presidential debate to "go into the polls and watch very carefully," arguing, without evidence, there would be some kind of voter fraud.

In Michigan, NPR reports officials have taken to the courts to try and block firearms from being allowed to be carried at polling places. 

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters the state was taking preventative measures in case of upheaval. And in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday the city was “ready and prepared if we need to scale up." (But she made it clear the city had no indication of any specific problem.)

In some instances, global conflict experts are turning their attention stateside for the first time ever, as Americans wait for the results of the contest between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“In 25 years, I don’t think it ever dawned on us that we’d be writing about the United States,” Robert Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, tells PEOPLE.

The global crisis watchdog group released its first-ever report on the U.S. this year, Malley says, after some of the protests touched off by the killing of George Floyd dissolved into violence and destruction involving the police and various groups.

Malley lists the boxes his team began checking off this year while studying the U.S., including: political polarization, a history of racial division, a deepening distrust of institutions, a polarized media, a proliferation of weapons and the existence of armed groups aligned with political views, a conviction on both sides that the only way to lose would be if the other side cheats and political leadership that is fanning the flames.

“Those are all recipes for things going off course,” Malley says, though he’s quick to point out the country has a lot of institutions that weigh in its favor, including an apolitical military and checks and balances, which he says don’t exist in many countries the group studies.

“The first thing is not to throw gasoline on the fire,” he says. “Unfortunately, that is the opposite of what we’re seeing [from U.S. leadership].”

Trump, trailing in most national and state polls and facing sharp public disapproval over his handling of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, has leaned on divisive rhetoric.

The president has repeatedly spread misinformation about the trustworthiness of the election, including baselessly claiming mail voting is fraudulent and arguing that ballot counting should end on Nov. 4.

And he has at times hesitated to denounce violent groups who support him. 

During the first debate, he was asked to speak out against the far-right group The Proud Boys and instead said, "Stand back and stand by."

But, against a backdrop of these worries, some activists have increasingly stressed that people hold the power.

During a recent virtual joint conference between the The King Center and The Carter Center, Dr. Bernice King said the role of citizens is “not to add fuel to the fire, but to use our courageous voices” through nonviolent protests.

“We know people are going to protest. We might as well prepare for it,” King, the youngest daughter of the late Dr. Martin Luther King said. “People are very vested in this election … and tempers are probably going to flare after it’s over, but we don’t want to be that log on the fire."

“Somebody’s going to lose" and "we have to accept that," King said, pointing to her father's famous "I Have a Dream" speech and his legacy of advocating for nonviolent protest: "We want to be those who respond, as my father said, on the high plane of dignity and discipline."

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