Commentary: Trump, militias, and the long history of voter intimidation and violence in the Midwest

By Ryan Schnurr

On May 3, 1876, residents of Indianapolis, Indiana went to the polls. It was a special election day for city council. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified six years earlier, held that citizens could not be denied the vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” so Black men participated. Soon, news came out of the sixth ward that Black voters there were being harassed and attacked. According to Indiana Public Media, Black residents from the fourth ward went to investigate and were met by a mob of white residents and police, who “converged on the Black citizens.” One Black man was stabbed and eventually died; others were shot or beaten.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Democrats—who were, at the time, the party least aligned with Black interests—had made what the Chicago Daily Tribune called “incendiary remarks” about Black people exercising their rights on election day. They also complained that Republicans had “inflated their voting base by importing blacks right before the election and that these black voters intended to cast multiple ballots.” Such allegations offered an apparent justification for efforts to suppress the vote through intimidation and violence. And, according to a contemporary newspaper, they worked: “One man was knocked down and dragged out and others kept aloof from the polls rather than incur the risks of meeting alike fate.”

I thought of that story last month, during the first 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland, when President Donald Trump told his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” moments after telling the Proud Boys, a far-right militia group, to “stand back and stand by.” I thought of it earlier this summer, when armed men in camouflage roamed through the Michigan Statehouse, and again when I learned of the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. And I thought of it, too, when right-wing militias patrolled Black Lives Matter protests this summer, and when one of their members was charged with shooting and killing two protesters, injuring a third, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The presence of armed, angry white men is a constant in American cultural and political history, even—or especially—in the years after the Civil War. The fifteenth amendment was the last of three reconstruction-era amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which were intended to address some of the root inequities in the U.S. system (the thirteenth outlawed slavery in most cases, and the fourteenth expanded citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil.) But a lot of white people, north and south, were opposed to Black people wielding any amount of social and political power. And some of them expressed that opposition by walking around with weapons, intimidating Black folks who acted on these rights in ways they didn’t like.

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Lynching was one of the tactics for maintaining white political and cultural supremacy in regional communities. The historian Brent Campney writes in Hostile Heartland that, from the 1830s well into the twentieth century, white mobs in the Midwest consistently shot, hung, and burned Black people, as well as looting and destroying Black-owned property, in response to perceived misconduct of any kind. The reconstruction era of the 1860s and 1870s was a particularly violent period, and, as Jonathan Foiles has previously written for this magazine, lynching persisted in what we now consider to be the Rust Belt states, including Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, until 1940.

During this time, many of the Midwestern towns and suburbs where Black people had migrated during Reconstruction ran those residents out, using violence and threats of violence to create and maintain functionally all-white towns. Signs on the outskirts of these Sundown Towns, some of which persisted into the 1960s, warned Black people not to be found there after dark. Roving gangs of white men, armed with clubs, bricks, and ropes, enforced the warnings. (Often, these towns continued to be unwelcoming to Black residents for decades after the signs came down, and many remain all or primarily white to this day.) This had significant electoral implications, as there would of course be no Black voters in an all-white town.

The resultant white-majority communities and legislative bodies did everything they could to limit the political power of Black people, as did cities where Black people continued to reside. Increasingly, voter suppression was institutionalized through processes like poll taxes, literacy tests, and all-white primaries. (Pennsylvania had a poll tax until 1933). These were enforced not by civilian mobs, but by officials and police departments—the armed arm of the state. In fact, Campney notes, “The authorities, and particularly the police, co-opted the role of the mob in controlling and intimidating blacks and in dispensing pain, torture, and sometimes death.”

Non-police voter intimidation also persisted well into the twentieth century, including (though not exclusively) under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which considered itself “an unofficial arm of the law.” Perhaps the most famous example of voter intimidation-related violence occurred in Selma, Alabama in the 1960s. The movement that culminated in “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama State Troopers attacked those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, began as a campaign to register Black voters in the south, during which authorities and law enforcement harassed and abused attendees and volunteers.

That campaign eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But neither the Voting Rights Act nor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to intimidation of Black voters and others. In 1981, for example, the Republican National Committee created a fictional “National Ballot Security Task Force” to intimidate voters in the New Jersey Governor’s race. They hired off-duty security guards, sheriffs, and police officers who wore arm bands, carried guns, and patrolled Black, Hispanic, and Democratic precincts, asking some citizens to show their registration cards, worrying others with shows of force, and ultimately turning many voters away from the polls. As the Guardian explained: “Republican organizers claimed their plan would combat widespread Democratic cheating at the polls.”

The RNC got in trouble for this. A 1982 “consent decree,” designed in response to these activities, prohibited the Republican Party from poll watching activities unless a court explicitly allowed it. That consent decree expired in 2018—just five years after the Supreme Court struck down key components of the Voting Rights Act.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, paramilitary groups surged in states like Michigan, organizing around gun rights and a strict view of the constitution in response to perceived tyranny. More recently, militia groups have showed up to Black Lives Matter protests with guns and tactical gear, including in Wisconsin, where a self-described militia member has been charged with shooting three protesters, killing two; to anti-mask protests; and plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The president has sided with and encouraged these groups, writing on Twitter that anti-mask militias “are very good people, but they are angry.”

Enter the 2020 general election. This will be the first presidential election since the expiration of the RNC’s consent decree, and the Trump campaign has called for an “army” of poll watchers. Pro-Trump militia groups are organizing alongside retired soldiers and law enforcement. During the first presidential debate, Trump was asked if he would tell his supporters to remain calm and avoid civil unrest. He declined. Instead, he responded by “urging” them “to go into the polls and watch very carefully.” Mary McCord, legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University, said militias will take Trump’s statements as a call to arms.

Voter intimidation and election violence are illegal. But a recent study found five states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, at risk of right-wing militia activity around election day, and the Department of Homeland Security considers far-right extremists, including militias and white supremacist groups, to be a threat to the 2020 election. And even if militia groups aren’t actively breaking the law, they may attempt to deter voters by making a show of (armed) force—most states still allow people to bring guns to the polls.

Threats of intimidation and violence layer on top of structural forms of voter suppression, like gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and limited voting access for incarcerated people, including felony disenfranchisement. All Rust Belt states practice at least one of those policies, though Michigan recently expanded some voter rights in the state. (The Trump campaign is currently trying to make it harder to both vote and count votes in Pennsylvania, which looks to be an important state in deciding the election.)

There is, of course, no guarantee of violence or intimidation in polling places next week, and experts stress that no one should avoid voting for this reason. (In fact, record numbers of voters have already showed up safely to the polls.) Local election officials, unlike the president, have asked people to stay calm and prepared for threats. Voters can also take precautionary steps to ensure a safe experience, like voting early, knowing their rights, and preparing for what to do if they face voter intimidation, including calling the election protection hotline.

The right to vote is constitutionally protected, but reality has always been more complicated—and racist. Black people, in particular, have consistently exercised this right over the protestations of armed, angry white men. Whatever happens at the polls on Tuesday, the actions of the Trump campaign and militia groups in the lead-up to this year’s election reflect an unmistakable tradition of violence and intimidation in American politics, which demands to be taken seriously. The story is all to familiar. ■



Ryan Schnurr is editor of Belt Magazine.

Cover image: Protesters carrying weapons gather at the Michigan Capitol Building on May 14, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

*Commentary pieces are the work of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.

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