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Movements Mobilize To Interrupt a Coup

Three things are key: engaging as many people as possible in demonstrations and non-cooperation; asserting that we are the true defenders of democracy; and committing to strategic nonviolence.

Epp Sue

In this year of plague and evictions, of fires, floods, and hurricanes intensified by climate change, sober analysts and activists see a new peril: a real possibility that President Trump will refuse to accept the results or leave office if he loses the election. “I never thought I’d be organizing to stop a coup, in this country at least,” said Kimi Lee of Bay Resistance.

The threat stems partly from Trump’s weakness: polls slipping, cash dwindling, allies deserting. “A dying mule always kicks hardest,” as the Poor People’s Campaign says. But the white supremacist agenda Trump enacts is as strong as he is weak. It’s showing up in escalated levels of voter suppression, in Trump-led efforts to undermine the election with trash talk and lawsuits, in backlash to this year’s historic racial justice uprisings.

But these outpourings mobilized energy and shifted perspectives in ways that can feed resistance to attempts to bolster minority rule. “Like we saw a few months ago with the uprisings, there is still a core of people in this country who, when they witness governmental overreach, will respond and align with our side,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party.

All over the country, people are preparing to do just that. They are getting out the vote and voting. Preparing to protect polling places and demand that every vote be counted. Preparing to act if anyone attempts to overthrow the voters’ will. In planning sessions and trainings, they are grappling with the new strategies the moment demands: claiming the center, mobilizing in unprecedented numbers, and committing to strategic nonviolence.


“In the popular imagination, when most people think of a coup they think of a militarized moment when the military tries to overturn election results,” said Joshua Kahn Russell of Choose Democracy. “That’s not the situation we’re facing and that’s not how coups always happen. In many cases they can look like an abuse of courts or of the legislative process.”

President Trump’s smears on the election process are just one part of a right-wing power grab.  The GOP has been fabricating allegations of voter fraud for two decades as cover for voter suppression. Their power grab has also involved gerrymandering to create unrepresentative state legislatures and congressional districts; ramming through judicial appointments, most recently Amy Coney Barrett’s; and stopping the census, so some people of color and poor people literally won’t count.

“The particular ways in which the threats to the election are being rolled out are consistent with Trump and the GOP’s overall strategy for maintaining power by building a cross-class alliance of white people as their base, keeping white supremacy as a tool for keeping poor and working class white people from joining black working class people and other people of color,” said Erin Heaney, director of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ). It shows up in the way Trump uses issues, and in his “consistent and escalated reliance on alliances with white supremacist organizations,” Heaney said.


“If we can win by a landslide, it will be harder for Trump to contest the election,” Kimi Lee said. Seed the Vote has exploded from fewer than 100 volunteers to more than 5,000 working towards a common goal with tens of thousands of others across the country.

Voters themselves are doing their part. Early voting numbers are cracking records all over, despite the hours-long lines in many places and various forms of intimidation.

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The U.S. history of violent attacks on Black people voting started with Reconstruction and continued through the murders of civil rights workers in the 1960s. Wilmington, North Carolina saw a white vigilante coup against a newly elected bi-racial government in 1898. As many as 250 Black people were killed and more than 100 Black elected officials and administrators were forced out of office. This year, echoes of those days are louder.

“Voter intimidation has a different tone and tenor than it has had before,” said Ría Thompson-Washington of the Center for Popular Democracy. “The current president has advised and encouraged his supporters to engage in and enact violence against voters.”

Already a ballot drop box has been torched in a majority Latino suburb of Los Angeles; the incident is being investigated as arson. An anti-mask rally in Colorado partly blocked early voters trying to enter a Colorado courthouse; the group that called the rally has militia ties. In Michigan, where militia plotted to kidnap the governor, a judge overturned the Secretary of State’s ban on open carry of weapons at the polls. Minnesota’s attorney general is investigating an out-of-state security firm that advertised for poll watchers with military experience.


In response to the threats, many non-partisan programs are gearing up to make sure that voting is safe and fair. The Election Protection project monitors voting rights issues inside polling places and runs the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, a go-to resource on election rules and rights.

Several groups are tending to voter care outside the polling places. Among them are CPD Action, SURJ, and The Frontline, which is anchored by the Working Families Party and the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project.

The Frontline has enlisted 12,000 “Election Defenders” in all 50 states. “We serve all voters,” said Working Families’ Nelini Stamp. “We want to hand out masks, hand sanitizer, water, and in some cold states, hand warmers, and tell them to pay no mind to the angry people shouting. We will encourage people and thank them for voting. Yes, they may try to intimidate us. Yes, they try to bait us with fear. But with our joy, with our resistance, we will be there for our people,” she said. The Election Defenders are partnering with grassroot groups and networks in many states.

Given the potential for nastiness at the polls, election defense groups are doing in-depth de-escalation trainings – and emphasizing the importance of not involving the police.

“I don’t think having any sort of police even close to a polling location would be beneficial for our communities.,” said Alma Pérez Camarillo, Civic Engagement Organizer for the Arizona Center For Empowerment, which is working with CPD’s Voter Guardian program. “We see how police have taken advantage of their power to create a hostile environment,” said Pérez Camarillo. “I’ve seen police officers pull up into voting locations to check people’s plates and see if they have tickets. People voted in 2018 and got a ticket.”


The surge of mail-in ballots will make it impossible to get clear results on Election Night. Some states start tabulating as soon as ballots are received. Three battleground states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan) can’t start counting until Election Day.  Some states will count ballots postmarked on Election Day but received as much as ten days later.

The fight for the story will begin immediately. Media feeds on election-night drama and people have been conditioned to expect instant results. Trump will play to that expectation.

“Trump will be trying to claim victory, or challenge the legitimacy of the results, or both. Quickly establishing a counter narrative premised on the need to count every vote and have a peaceful transition of power will be essential to shape how the public and key powerholders view the ‘facts’ and how powerholders weigh the consequences and risks of action or inaction,” Protect the Results advised its more than 100 partner organizations.


Protect the Results is coordinating mass mobilizations Nov. 4, the day after the election, to demand that every vote be counted. Events keep popping up on its interactive map—458 as of Oct. 30, in small towns and big cities and huge urban centers.

Indivisible and Stand Up America convened the coalition, which links groups ranging from Republicans for the Rule of Law to the Working Families Party. It includes two unions (Communications Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union); grassroots organizing networks including People’s Action and the Center for Popular Democracy: environmental groups from Friends of the Earth Action to Extinction Rebellion; civil rights and good government groups; SURJ and the Women’s March. Partners must commit to peaceful protest. The coalition offers training for groups who may be new to planning public events. It plans to continue its work throughout the first critical week after the election, and as long as necessary – because, important as Nov. 4 is, it is one point on a timeline that started before the election and could continue into January.

SURJ, for one, began organizing before the election to be sure that every vote counts, and plans to continue during and after. Its Election Defender teams had activated in 38 states as of mid-October. Working in coordination with local grassroots groups, they put particular emphasis on outreach to the county election officials who oversee the ballot counting. In October they began calling and emailing those officials in Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia, asking them to pledge to count all the votes.

The Frontline will hold a mass call Nov. 4 at 8pm ET to assess next steps. It’s asking Election Defenders to be ready to offer the same sort of care and de-escalation at county offices as at the polls. As recently as 2000, a mob made up mostly of white men in suits stormed into the Miami-Dade County elections offices in the “Brooks Brothers Riot.” They forced the Florida recount to stop, the Supreme Court stepped in, and George W. Bush was selected over Al Gore.

Three current Supreme Court Justices- Chief Justice John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett- assisted the Bush legal team in Bush v. Gore. With more than three hundred lawsuits over election rules and rights in play, this does not bode well.


The Electoral College, undemocratic in its origins, opens further possibilities for thwarting the voters’ will. The Constitutional Convention devised the College as a compromise to address some delegates’ fears of giving the people too much power, and Southern delegates’ fears of losing influence. “Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region [the South] would have less clout under a popular-vote system,” the Brennan Center’s Wilfred Codrington III wrote.

States name their electors, who will vote for president at the Electoral College meeting Dec. 14. Normally electors respect the popular vote. This year, it is possible that they will not. The GOP is considering asking state legislatures in battleground states where it holds a majority to bypass the popular vote. The new Congress will count the Electoral College votes Jan. 6. Normally this is routine. This year it may not be.

Much scenario planning has been done on what could go wrong, notably by the bi-partisan Transition Integrity Project.  Activists and organizations with history and practice in nonviolent direct action have stepped up to offer guidance on dealing with escalated threats to democracy. They suggest that three things are key: engaging as many people as possible in demonstrations and non-cooperation; asserting that we are the true defenders of democracy; and committing to strategic nonviolence.


“Primarily what we’re entering into is a contest around legitimacy. To delegitimize the Trump administration in the event that a power grab happens, we need to be creating as broad-based an alliance as possible,” Choose Democracy’s Joshua Kahn Russell said. “This is a Big Tent, popular front strategy.” For many left and social justice activists, this is a distinct shift. It requires us to claim the center and defend the imperfect system we so often critique. But it is rooted in lessons from coups past.

“We’re in a unique movement moment that can draw on many lessons from our own experience,” George Lakey said at an online training offered by Choose Democracy. Lakey – who has been doing nonviolence training since Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964—sketched a few quick examples. In Argentina in 1987, mass mobilizations and a general strike kept a mutiny by disgruntled military officers from turning into a coup. In Thailand in 1992, 41 days of resistance by hundreds of thousands of people brought down the military junta that had taken power the year before. “Ten Things You Need to Know to Stop a Coup” distills some of those lessons and applies them to the moment.

Choose Democracy is a multi-racial, intergenerational group of activists with direct action experience from different movements, including labor, climate justice, and racial and economic justice. Its online pledge to defend democracy has gathered more than 36,000 signatures. Several other groups also offer resources, training, and networking. Among them:  Hold the Line, with its “Commitment to Uphold Democracy” pledge; Shut Down DC, and The Disruption Project, with its “Stopping the Coup: The 2020 Guide.”


Nonviolent discipline will be crucial in this moment where the narrative of violence is weaponized by the perpetrators.

“The right wing and the fascists are waiting for us to do anything that will play into their handbook,” Nelini Stamp said. “It’s important as people plan actions that we plan the tone, and think about what they’re already going to roll out on us. There must be conversations about strategic nonviolence. It’s about strategy, not about principle.”

At the same time, the moment demands mindfulness. “In our anxiety about this moment we may find fault and accuse those who are with us but whom we disagree with. That is human. But what will make it possible for us to win and to reclaim legacies of turning the tide towards liberation and humanity is our ability to bring the greatest number of people with us in that pursuit,” said Sara Kershnar, interim executive director of the San Francisco Branch of the National Lawyers Guild.


Leaders of an online training offered by Bay Resistance encouraged attendees to note their emotional states and recognize that those have a material impact. This moment is “an emotional rollercoaster. We’re frozen and gutted one moment, thrilled and exhilarated and inspired and empowered the next,” one trainer said. Demoralization can be deadly, she said, but “I don’t mean we should all be Ms. Toxic Positivity. But instead of saying, ‘something’s on fire, we’re all going to burn to death,’ say ‘something’s on fire, let’s get the water right now’.” Like labor organizers preparing people at a non-union workplace for typical employer tricks, she said, “We can prepare for what could go wrong with us, and talk about it.”


At the end of each training, the next step is the same: find your people, find a network, stay alert. And new networks keep sprouting as we hurtle towards the election. Union activists have formed Labor Action to Defend Democracy. Four of largest millennial and Gen Z movement organizations—Dream Defenders Fight PAC, United We Dream Action PAC, March for Our Lives (Parkland), and the Sunrise Movement have formed a network. They call themselves “We Count On Us.” They chose the name to affirm their commitment as a generation—their commitment to beating Trump, leading a nonviolent strike, mobilizing behind their policy demands from day one of a new administration. The same sentiment could apply to everyone taking action in this moment.

“We are going to be here for each other,” the Bay Resistance trainers said. “We affirm what we are doing and why it matters. It is too important to give up. It doesn’t matter if it’s not easy, we will do it because we have to.”

Marcy Rein is a writer, editor, and organizer who has engaged with a wide range of social movements and organizational forms. She co-authored Free City! The Fight for San Francisco’s City College and Education for All (with Mickey Ellinger and Vicki Legion), forthcoming from PM Press in Fall 2020; with Clifton Ross, she co-edited Until the Rulers Obey: Voices From Latin American Social Movements (PM Press, 2014).