Inside its sprawling stores across America, Walmart employees began pulling thousands of guns and ammunition boxes from retail shelves this week in a pre-election precautionary move to guard against mass looting amid social unrest.
Meanwhile, National Guard units in many of those states were gearing up to protect their cities and counties from threats—foreign and domestic—in a range of missions from cybersecurity to poll watching.
At the local level, mayors and police chiefs were holding press conferences to reassure constituents about public safety by delivering detailed strategies on how authorities plan to deal with potential voter intimidation, the possibility of violence and other election-related concerns. Their efforts were bolstered by constellations of non-profit organizations throughout the nation that are hoping for the best but are preparing for the worst on Nov. 3.
The preparations for political unrest around an election have never been so widespread, or palpable, in modern American history. Armed militia members have been threatening about a coming civil war. The President has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power. And there’s a rising threat of domestic extremists aligned with the far-right and far-left.
This is America, four days before Election Day.
For the first time in its 25-year history, the International Crisis Group, an organization whose mission is to “sound the alarm to prevent deadly conflict,” issued a in-depth report this week on the U.S. elections, saying the country faces an “unfamiliar danger” and that, as Election Day nears, “the ingredients for unrest are present.”
The nation’s own law enforcement agencies have flagged similar concerns. “Open-air, publicly accessible parts of physical election infrastructure, such as campaign-associated mass gatherings, polling places and voter-registration events, would be the most likely flash points for potential violence,” the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned in an annual threat assessment published this month.
Against this backdrop, Walmart sent a letter to store managers on Wednesday instructing them to clear gun racks and display counters “due to the current unrest in isolated areas of the country and out of an abundance of caution.”
Guns and ammo remain available for purchase, but a decision hasn’t yet been made about when the items will be returned to the sales floor. The retail sales giant made the decision in response to protests in Philadelphia, where Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year old Black man, was shot and killed by police on Monday. “We have seen some isolated civil unrest and as we have done on several occasions over the last few years, we have moved our firearms and ammunition off the sales floor as a precaution for the safety of our associates and customers,” Walmart said in a statement.
Philadelphia isn’t the only American city on edge. Throughout the summer, protesters upset by racial injustice, police brutality and other civil rights issues took to the streets, facing off with police officers, federal agents and counter-protestors.
On Friday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a 10-day plan to activate an emergency operations center, step up police presence and deploy up to 300 garbage trucks, snowplows and other large city vehicles around the city to act as blockade in case widespread violence broke out. “The act of voting is sacred to our democracy, which is why we are deploying every last public health and public safety resource to ensure that right is protected for every single one of our city’s residents,” Lightfoot said.
Separately, the Illinois National Guard has provided about 40 cybersecurity specialists to assist the state Board of Elections with its network defense. The mission is just one aspect of the National Guard’s activation in several states on and ahead of Election Day.
Next door in Wisconsin, 400 National Guard members are mobilizing to support local election officials as poll workers because of volunteer shortages brought on by the covid-19 pandemic. Rather than wear military uniforms, the troops will be wearing civilian clothes and performing the same roles and functions as other volunteers who traditionally staff the state’s polling sites. “If there is any civil unrest, it will go through the normal 9-1-1 channels,” said Army Brig. Gen. Robyn Blader, an assistant adjutant general with the Wisconsin National Guard, adding that her troops will be unarmed at the polls.
Active-duty troops cannot be used for civil law enforcement within the U.S. under the Posse Comitatus Act. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he’s willing to invoke the 213-year-old Insurrection Act, which could allow him to deploy military forces as he saw fit to put down violent protests. But that would almost certainly result in severe backlash from military leaders, who are loathe to cross that line. “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law, U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military. I foresee no role for the U.S. armed forces in this process,” wrote General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in response to questions earlier this year from House lawmakers.
The U.S. military typically supports local law enforcement through the National Guard, which is under the control of state governors. Beginning in late May, when protests broke out after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, thousands of National Guard members have been activated to help state and local law enforcement across the country. For instance, the Texas National Guard announced plans this week to activate up to 1,000 troops in anticipation of any civil unrest.
Election officials across the country have drawn up security plans to deal with intimidation tactics—or even violence—unfolding at the ballot box. Attorneys general in Maine, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin, have issued specific guidance for their law enforcement to act if there is a sign of intimidation and pledged to prosecute anyone who attempts to intimidate voters.
Amid these anticipated threats, outside groups are also entering the fray. Common Defense is a political action group working to mobilize military veterans to lead demonstrations calling for every single ballot to be counted, in the event Trump attempts to undermine the election.
Perry O’Brien, a group member, served as a medic in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division and was discharged as a conscientious objector in 2004. He says the need for action came after Trump called upon his supporters to watch voters inside polling places, implying Democrats will try to rig the election. “He was clearly attempting to intimidate voters,” O’Brien said. “Those of us who took an oath to uphold the Constitution saw it as our duty to ensure every American is guaranteed their right to vote—and vote safely.”
O’Brien will be part of what Common Defense is calling a Democracy Quick Reaction Force, or QRF, a military term referring to a unit that responds to an emergency combat situation on short notice. The group says it has trained about 200 veterans in recent weeks to be on call to de-escalate contentious situations, ensure protest safety and use other non-violent tactics to protect voters.
Come Nov. 3, the group plans to have around 250 veterans at about 45 different locations across the country. The goal, they say, is a safe and peaceful Election Day.
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Write to W.J. Hennigan at [email protected].