Barry Yeoman, Scott Wilson, Shayna Jacobs and Mark Berman
Graham, North Carolina – Americans, at least those who had yet to cast ballots during a prolific early-voting season, went to the polls on Tuesday mostly free of intimidation and violence after a campaign in which brandished military-style rifles, homemade pepper spray and paramilitary uniforms were features of the race.
Many polling centres reported minor problems, mostly involving technical issues, the proper distance allowed for voter campaigning and other fairly routine inconveniences.
Fears of potential widespread unrest were not realised on Tuesday, though authorities in many major cities braced for the moment that they worry could push a tense public over the edge: announcement of the election’s outcome.
Police spread throughout New York City in a massive deployment before what were expected to be peaceful demonstrations and marches Tuesday night.
Cities across the nation boarded up – or stayed boarded up – anticipating the possibility of raucous celebrations, protests or clashes between extremists.
One volatile spot on Tuesday was here, in this city of about 15 000 people between Greensboro and Durham, where racial tension has risen sharply in the past week.
Before a voting rights march on Tuesday in Graham, more than a dozen supporters of a Confederate memorial gathered across the street from the monument and the historic courthouse on Sesquicentennial Park.
A pickup truck parked on the street flew four Trump flags, an American flag and a Black Lives Matter flag, which witnesses said appeared to be in a gesture of sarcasm. The truck also displayed a sign that read, “Honk for Trump.”
Two men, both with pro-Trump baseball caps and who declined to give their names, stood sentinel before the marchers approached.
Participants in the march, a planned protest against the decision by local law enforcement officers to disperse with pepper spray an earlier peaceful march to the polls, gathered at a Black church outside downtown. They accomplished on Tuesday what they could not Saturday: They marched peacefully to a voting site.
But they did pass through a throng of about two dozen White Trump supporters who shouted “child abusers,” “four more years” and “run ’em over.”
The church’s organiser, the Reverend Greg Drumwright, told the civil rights activists not to engage with the other group or with police. He also warned them to be “cordial” to officers and to not block traffic: “They think we have come to be disruptive, but we have not. We have come in peace.”
As the marchers moved quietly through Graham’s residential streets, stopping at a precinct so some members could vote, they chanted: “Black lives matter!” The response from those surrounding them: “Confederate lives matter!”
Two federal lawsuits were filed Monday by civil rights activists, charging local law enforcement officials with violating civil and voting rights laws and with intimidating voters.
The run-up to Election Day featured violence – and suggestions that violence was in the offing – on several occasions. The Proud Boys, a far-right group, fought for weeks in the streets of Portland, Oregon with members of the Black Lives Matters movement. Trump supporters appeared to try to block a Biden-Harris campaign bus in Texas on Friday, and Trump caravans closed the express lanes of the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey on Sunday as part of widespread weekend campaigning.
The FBI last month revealed what authorities said was a plot by an armed White group to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who at one point was on presidential nominee Joe Biden’s short list as a running mate.
On Tuesday, attorney Katherine Henry, who officials say is close to the people arrested in the alleged Whitmer plot, appeared to have been arrested and accused of trying to gather signatures too close to polling centres. Henry posted the incident to YouTube.
Police in Charlotte said on Tuesday that they arrested someone at a polling location in North Carolina’s biggest city for allegedly attempting to intimidate voters while armed.
According to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, Justin Dunn, 36, voted on Tuesday morning in the closely watched battleground state and then lingered at the polling site while “legally carrying an unconcealed firearm.” Police said they were called shortly after 10:30 a.m. about the man “possibly intimidating other voters,” the department said in a statement.
The man was asked to leave and was banned from returning, police said. About two hours later, the department said its officers were called again because he had returned. They arrested Dunn and charged him with second-degree trespassing.
Although much of the day passed without major incident, law enforcement officials across the country worried that the anger, disappointment and possible violence would emerge once the polls closed.
The Atlanta Police Department said it was coordinating with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and was ready to respond “should post-election protests or illegal activity” break out. The department said it was using its joint operations centre to monitor events on Tuesday and would keep observing activity “as warranted.”
“At present, there are no verified threats to indicate that violent activity is being planned,” the department said on Tuesday, adding that if something did happen, police were “prepared to respond quickly to prospective protests or illegal and violent activity.”
Officials in areas rocked by unrest this year also said they stood ready. Mike Schmidt, district attorney in Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland, issued a video statement on Tuesday saying authorities there did “not support violence, theft or destruction, and we will prosecute these cases when there is clear evidence to do so.”
Portland had been the site of months of steady protests this year, some of them turning destructive and violent. Oregon Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, on Monday said she had put the state police and the Multnomah County sheriff in charge of the police response in the city while also putting the Oregon National Guard on standby.
“We know that there are some people who might want to use peaceful election night protests to promote violence and property destruction,” Brown said during a news briefing.
Brian Manley, the police chief in Austin, wrote in a memo released on Tuesday that his department in the Texas capital was on “tactical alert,” meaning that all officers would don their field uniforms to deploy as needed.
In New York, no credible threats of election violence were detected hours into voting at 1,200 sites across the city, where several planned protests were underway but were expected to be peaceful. The five rallies were expected mainly by groups that have been active in the city throughout the summer. But the department was not aware of any safety threats or efforts to meddle with voters’ rights.
“Right now, we’re not tracking any credible threats; we do have several leads that we are running down as we speak,” Chief of Intelligence Thomas Galati said at a briefing with other top police officials at One Police Plaza late in the morning.
NYPD officials are concerned that protests could be used as cover for people with criminal intentions, who aim to injure others or wipe out stores, which was rampant during some of the protests after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody May 25.
Dozens of storefronts in the city – including the ground-level shops at the Empire State Building – were boarded up with plywood on Tuesday afternoon.
“I think after we find out the results of the election . . . or if there’s no winner, you’re going to see more protests, and I think you’re going to see probably larger protests,” Galati said.
Officials said they doubted that armed groups would try to enter the city, something that has not happened before. Gun owners who do not have a permit to carry in the five boroughs would be charged with gun possession, Chief of Department Terence Monahan said after the briefing.
“If people are showing up with weapons, they’ll be sitting in Central Booking, going to court and hopefully spending a lot of time in jail,” Monahan said.
Thousands of extra police officers – most of the 34 000-member force – worked on a staggered schedule of tours throughout the city and planned to through Wednesday, when a rise in protest activity is anticipated.
People nationwide steeled for what might happen after results are known.
A truck rally of supporters for President Donald Trump travelled through Des Moines, Iowa, in late Tuesday afternoon in a last-minute effort to get out the vote. Bryan Kratzker, who owns a business that builds muscle cars and who organised the rally of about 60 vehicles, said he has been leading such parades for weeks because he fears “if Biden gets in, we won’t have no businesses left.”
The vehicles that travelled through Des Moines sported flags waving in support of the president while passengers urged people to vote.
Kratzker anticipates a “landslide” in favour of Trump, but he said he expects a “civil war” in the form of rioting if that happens because he believes the opposition will not accept the results. He said gun owners like himself are prepared in case that happens.
“These people are criminals,” he said. “We’re all ready for them.”