Americans like me who survived Ferguson understand just how bad Election Day violence could get

Men carry guns outside a Trump campaign rally in June.
Men carry guns outside a Trump campaign rally in June.
Image: Reuters/Brandon Wade
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In August, Donald Trump’s adviser, Roger Stone, announced there would be a “bloodbath” should the GOP nominee lose. Since then, Trump’s white supremacist fans have given many indications that they intend to make good on his promise. Trump campaign chairman Steven Bannon has bragged of “voter suppression” efforts while fans proclaim plans of voter intimidation. Authorities have thwarted violence aimed at Muslim communities, including a planned bomb attack in Kansas and a planned Columbine-style shooting in California. A black church was burned, with Trump’s name spray-painted on the side.

Numerous militia groups, empowered by the recent acquittal of a militia in Oregon, have proclaimed they will enact vengeance in Trump’s name as well. Meanwhile, factions of the FBI—the organization that arrested the Kansas bombers and are responsible for tracking homegrown terrorism—appear to be pulling for a Trump win, leading some to question whether it can be trusted to carry out its nonpartisan duty to protect people targeted for violence.

For many in the US, this turn of events in shocking. It suggests a fundamental breakdown of institutional order, as well as possible collusion between vigilantes, supremacists, and even some in law enforcement. As Election Day looms, some Americans are even questioning the lawlessness of the law.

It is one thing to watch this scene play out on cable news. It is another to live in it, to try to go through the activities of daily life as your region increasingly resembles both a military zone and a magnet for vigilantes. In St. Louis, we have lived this fear before.

Nearly two years ago, on November 17, 2014, governor Jay Nixon declared Missouri in a “state of emergency.” For over three months, St. Louis had been waiting for the grand jury decision in the case of Darren Wilson, the white police officer who had shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown to death in Ferguson on August 9, 2014. For three months, we woke with a feeling of dread, wondering if the day of reckoning had arrived.

When the jury officially cleared Wilson, a week after the state of emergency was declared, few were surprised. Prosecutor Bob McCulloch had a history of bias toward police, and many (if not most) already assumed Wilson would go unpunished. The Wilson decision was part of a long legacy of police brutality against blacks in Missouri—a legacy that saddens but does not surprise. What we did not know is how citizens would react; and more to the point, how authorities would react to citizens.

What began with the sanctioned slaying of a teenager ended with police gassing not just protesters, but Ferguson residents on their own lawns. So many different forces were eventually called in—the Ferguson police, the St. Louis County Police, the Missouri Highway Patrol, the National Guard— that the only constant was ubiquitous militarization: tanks parked at malls, soldiers roaming grocery stores, armored vehicles flooding highways. Stores were boarded up, schools were canceled, locals were told to stock up on food and water. And everywhere you turned, there seemed to be a stranger with a weapon staring you down.

Not unlike Trump rallies, Ferguson protests attracted a slew of out-of-state fringe groups. Some, like the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia, flagrantly patrolled the streets with high-caliber guns in hand, stating their goal was maintaining order. Police who had gassed protesters for chanting slogans and waving signs let the Oath Keepers roam armed and unimpeded. (The Oath Keepers are one of many “patriot” groups who have promised to monitor the Election Day polls with guns in hand and who appear to be at least sympathetic to Trump.)

In the fall of 2014, St. Louis residents on all political sides struggled with questions they had never anticipated. To whom do you turn to when your region is engulfed both by chaos and militarization? To whom do you express concern about the men on the rooftops pointing guns, when the police seem to either condone or fear them? Is there any use in publicizing your fears, when the media treats your region like a real-life Hunger Games, scouring the streets for blood?

This is the nightmare St. Louis endured in the fall of 2014, and it is a nightmare that may play out in cities across the US, both on Election Day and in the weeks to follow.

So what should you do? There is no universal answer, in part because the likelihood of white supremacist or militia violence will vary from region to region, as will the response by law enforcement. A lack of understanding of differing regional dynamics, unfortunately, has prompted some (mostly white, mostly liberal) coastal dwellers to play down the likelihood of this scenario altogether, insisting that everything will be fine or encouraging citizens to simply ignore the threats. (This regionalism may also explain why heartland attacks, like the bomb threat aimed at Somali Muslims in Kansas, have been largely ignored by the national press.)

But denial is about as helpful in this kind of scenario as hysteria. If you live in a region likely to be targeted, you should have a plan. Part of that plan involves researching the hate groups in your area, assessing possible threats, and forming closer ties with your local community.

Developing an extensive and diverse support network proved beneficial for those of us who endured the Ferguson events. Keeping your defense strategies off the internet, in an era of mass surveillance, is also wise. Whether to trust law enforcement is, unfortunately, dependent on how law enforcement treats non-white citizens or citizens who do not support Trump—in San Antonio, police were recently disciplined after wearing “Make American Great Again” hats on the job.

There are other decisions to make—whether to take up arms yourself being a major one—which I will not give advice on, as everyone’s prerogatives will differ. My only main advice is to not allow fear to dissuade you from exercising your rights (like voting) or from looking out for the most vulnerable. Do not be scared, be prepared. Keep going about your life. Think not only of yourself, but of those in your region who are more vulnerable than you—and possibly more wary of law enforcement—and be willing to advocate on their behalf if necessary.

These are confusing, scary times. In St. Louis, many have still not yet recovered from the events that transpired during the fall of 2014. There was and still is no accountability. The paranoia and anger has been simmering for two years and now seems to be at a point of near eruption again.

Hopefully, I am wrong. It would be a pleasant surprise should no violence occur—not only here, but nationwide, with the plots and threats reduced to mere talk, with the violence that has already taken place chalked up to anomalies.

It would also have been nice had a white supremacist candidate prone to making violent threats not won the GOP nomination. It would have been nice if he were not backed up by frothing fans vowing vengeance. It would have been nice if I didn’t need to write this article at all, and if I hadn’t had the experience of living through a chaotic vigilante and military situation only to spy a possible sequel on the horizon.

All of that would be nice. But this is not nice: this is America in 2016.