As tension builds toward Election Day, law enforcement officials in Washington and elsewhere are preparing for the prospect that this year’s long, hot summer of unrest won’t end on Nov. 3, regardless of who wins the presidency.
If anything, officials worry that pressure will only build in the coming weeks, faced with the possibility of a contested election, spiking gun sales and ongoing civil unrest over institutional racism and police violence, all driven by a tsunami of social media misinformation and conspiracies from the right and left, not to mention from foreign adversaries.
“I can say that we have no specific, credible threats at this time,” said Joshua Murphy, the assistant special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the FBI, where he oversees counterintelligence. Before that, he ran the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Even so, federal, state and local officials have participated in “tabletop” exercises outlining possible scenarios for post-election violence and mayhem. At least 300 National Guard soldiers, recently deployed overseas, are being trained to handle civil unrest. They will be placed on alert with hundreds of other Guard members who have already been trained for handling such disturbances. Police leaders in Seattle, which has hosted some of the country’s largest racial justice protests, have canceled time off for officers.
“Given the atmospherics and the civil unrest this summer since the May riots, we’ve focused and increased our resources,” said Murphy. Agents anticipate more unrest like that seen in the aftermath of the mass protests that sprang up in the wake of the May 25 video-recorded death of George Floyd while handcuffed and restrained by Minneapolis police.
On one of the most chaotic days, thousands of mostly peaceful protesters gathered in downtown Seattle on May 30 in support of Black Lives Matter, but some in the crowd looted stores and vandalized buildings. Federal prosecutors have charged a handful of individuals for burning police cars and gun-related charges, including stealing police firearms from patrol cars.
In June, Seattle police temporarily abandoned the East Precinct in the face of nightly protests on Capitol Hill and downtown, drawing criticism from President Donald Trump, who threatened to send in federal troops and has referred to Seattle as an “anarchist jurisdiction.” The Seattle Police Department says dozens of officers have been injured during the protests, often by rocks, fireworks and thrown water bottles, and the department has been criticized for using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators.
The racial justice protests also have drawn the attention of armed opponents from the other end of the ideological spectrum. Right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, some with white supremacist agendas and often heavily armed, have organized counterdemonstrations to support law enforcement. The tensions between the two can be observed in almost nightly clashes in Portland, where hundreds have been arrested and a Patriot Prayer supporter was killed.
Federal agents and police killed the suspect — a self-proclaimed anti-fascist — in a controversial shooting outside an apartment in Thurston County.
While many states are concerned about voter intimidation, experts who monitor extremist activity say they’re less concerned about that here, given that the state’s residents vote by mail, said Devin Burghart, the Seattle-based board president of the national watchdog group the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights. Voting by mail generally reduces or eliminates polling places that extremists can target, he said.
But extremist chatter about post-election unrest is intensifying in this state, Burghart said.
“There have been a number of groups in Washington … who’ve been talking about the likelihood of a civil war if the elections don’t go the way they want,” Burghart said.
Burghart said his group has observed an increase in “apocalyptic rhetoric” from members of People’s Rights, a paramilitary group founded by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, who led the armed occupation of the federal Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016.
With chapters in at least 15 states and a purported membership of 26,000, the Idaho-based extremist group’s largest stronghold is in Washington state, Burghart said. In the months leading up to the election, People’s Rights and other far-right groups have fomented hostility toward COVID-19 restrictions in Washington and elsewhere by staging rallies and other events.
Murphy, at the FBI, declined to discuss specific groups. However, he acknowledges that the period between the vote and the determination of the winner is a period that will be fraught with uncertainty.
“There is risk from both the far-left anti-government factions as well as the far-right militias,” Murphy said.
Federal authorities also thwarted several right-wing terrorist plots across the country in recent months — from the alleged conspiracy in June to firebomb buildings and Black Lives Matter protests in Las Vegas by three self-identified members of the “boogaloo” movement, to this month’s arrest of 14 men linked to two anti-government groups that allegedly conspired to kidnap Michigan’s governor.
Murphy said a driving concern this election has been attempts to escalate an already tense situation by “malignant foreign influences” such as Iran, China and Russia, who he said are using social media “to flare up both sides.”
Just Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI blamed Iran intelligence officials for authoring threatening emails sent to voters from an internet account associated with the Proud Boys.
U.S. Attorney Brian Moran said his office has been coordinating with law enforcement and will, as it has in the past, have a “designated election officer” on duty — veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlen Storm in Tacoma — in the event of questions or problems. Storm is responsible for overseeing the district’s handling of complaints of election fraud and voting rights concerns in consultation with Justice Department Headquarters in Washington, according to the DOJ.
“There is clearly all sorts of potential election mischief that can be out there,” Moran said.
“There have been robust preparations,” he said. “The bedrock of our democracy is the vote, so you have to be careful that you’re guarding that right stringently.“
Meanwhile, a spike in firearms sales amid the COVID-19 pandemic and summer protests may be an indicator of just how high tensions have risen.
Data compiled by the FBI as part of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) showed a sharp jump in the number of firearms purchases in Washington. In May, NICS conducted 53,922 point-of-sale background checks for firearms purchases in the state. In June, as the pandemic gathered strength and protesters took to the streets to support BLM, that number jumped to 73,517 firearm-purchase background checks in the state. The number has remained above 70,000 a month through September, according to the NICS data.
King County in September conducted 1,781 background checks for pistols, a 66% increase from September 2019, according to county records. Snohomish County conducted 1,377 background checks for pistols for roughly the first three weeks of September. But even that incomplete monthly total dwarfed the 525 checks for pistols that Snohomish conducted in September 2019. Counties generally process background checks for people buying or transferring pistols and semi-automatic rifles in the unincorporated areas outside of cities.
Sgt. Randy Huserik of the Seattle Police Department said SPD has limited time off for personnel around Nov. 3 “to ensure the department is able to adequately provide public safety services at any events, gatherings or demonstrations related to the election.”
Gov. Jay Inslee said last week that his office is considering how to handle any civil unrest in Washington, “to be prepared, should that occur.”
“I’m very hopeful that the margins of the election will be large enough that there’s not a reason for controversy,” Inslee said during a regularly scheduled news conference. “That would be a great blessing for the United States.”
Asked whether he was preparing to activate the National Guard for Election Day, Inslee didn’t say. But, “We are considering a variety of ways, measures to make sure that we provide security, and I think we’ve got a good handle on that,” he said.
Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department, said the Washington National Guard is preparing soldiers for potential civil disturbances, but it hasn’t received requests for help since about 1,100 guardsmen were deployed to Seattle and a few other cities during the height of the protests in June.
Shagren said about 300 National Guard soldiers, including many who have recently returned to Washington from Jordan, are currently undergoing Military Assistance for Civil Disturbance training.
“This is merely a move to prepare because it’s the responsible thing to do,” she said. “That’s our role, to be ready when needed, so it’s prudent to train our men and women in the event that they are needed.”
There are legal remedies to concerns that armed right-wing militias might take to the streets in the event of a Trump loss, said Mary McCord, the legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law Center.
All states have laws that could be enforced to stop far-right militias or armed vigilantes from self-activating, she said. The center has recently published several reports, including state-by-state fact sheets, identifying applicable laws and other resources to help local and state elected officials, police chiefs and prosecutors prevent unlawful paramilitary conduct and voter intimidation in their jurisdictions.
In Washington, the state constitution forbids private military units from engaging in activity reserved for the state militia, while state law makes it illegal for groups to organize as private militias without first getting state permission. State law also makes it a felony for someone to teach or demonstrate techniques to hurt or kill others in the name of furthering civil disorder.
“I think there’s a great potential for civil unrest in Washington, where there are a number of these paramilitary organizations,” McCord said. “How long it goes on will really depend. How long will it take for a winner to be declared? How long will the election be disputed? Will there be a legal challenge that drags out? All of this would prolong the uncertainty and wouldn’t be helpful in maintaining peace and calm.”
“Regardless of the [election] results, we’re going to have protests in the streets. And hopefully there’ll be peace,” McCord said.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately said a Proud Boy supporter was killed in Portland. The man killed was a supporter of the Patriot Prayer group.