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Political Violence, Ethics, and the U.S. Elections

Like many of my fellow citizens and residents of the United States, and likely people around the world, I watched President Donald Trump’s press conference in which he used his platform as president to spin the narrative that the U.S. elections, particularly in states that he has lost, or where votes are still being counted, are fraudulent.  He also accused pollsters of engaging in a calculated effort at voter suppression.  The false claims became so pronounced that a number of networks cut away from the president’s remarks, saying that they had to do so because they have a journalistic responsibility to refute his false claims.  But his claims are not only false.  They are dangerous and inciteful. As a theological ethicist who has devoted my career to studying, writing, and teaching about the ethics of revolution and political resistance, I, too, feel a responsibility to counteract the President’s messaging and to make it clear that political violence around this election is not an ethical option in the United States.

Tensions in the U.S. are escalating. We need leaders – from the President down to community organizers and activists – to de-escalate the possibility of political violence. Here are some examples:

  • President Trump’s supporters in Phoenix, Arizona brought weapons to a vote counting center, banged on its windows, and demanded to be allowed inside, making it necessary for poll workers to be escorted out by police. 
  • Thursday night in Philadelphia, police arrested two armed men after receiving a tip that they were targeting the convention center where votes are being tallied. 
  • NPR reports that analysts and experts are warning us of the very real possibility of serious election violence as tensions rise around the close vote counts.

My fellow Americans, I am deeply alarmed.  And my rising panic makes my responsibility all the clearer.  I must state with conviction that violence in response to this election is morally unacceptable. I am addressing you whether you are Blue, Red, or Purple, Democrat, Republican, or Independent.  My resounding NO to political violence is for all of us so that we understand clearly what is morally and ethically justifiable as political resistance in our current context.

Whatever justification you may think you have for smashing windows in response to the election, brandishing weapons against vote-counters, or any other violence you are plotting to commit against fellow human beings, it is not ethically justified.  You may have an urge, in the heat of an intense moment to physically harm an opponent; this is not ethical.  However legitimate your concerns may be, violence is unethical in our context given the options for the nonviolent expression of those concerns that we have at our free disposal here in the U.S.

I do not say this from a pacifist perspective, or from one that believes that nonviolent direct action solves all political injustices.  Nor do I say it as a response to all “rioting” that has occurred in the United States, both historically and more recently.  I am speaking specifically about the possibility of election violence here in the United States in the year 2020. 

Here is why there is absolutely no moral justification for a violent response to this election:

In the United States we continue to have recourse to multiple methods of nonviolent resistance with relatively little fear of harm to our bodily integrity.  I say this somewhat cautiously as a white cis-gendered female, because I do realize that the differences in our embodiment (whether for example we are female or male, whether our skin is lighter or darker) change our personal risk factors. But I have studied political resistance in multiple historical contexts, and overall Americans can exercise numerous methods of nonviolent political resistance with relatively little fear of harm to our bodily integrityAs long as that remains true, then we must avail ourselves of these nonviolent methods and resist the notion that we should employ violence against those with whom we have political differences. 

Here are just a few of the nonviolent options available to you.

First, those with no risk to your bodily integrity: writing and calling your elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels to voice your concerns whatever they may be.  The more you can persuade others to join you in writing and calling campaigns, the more effective you are likely to be.

Second, with no real risk to your bodily integrity you can submit letters to the editors of newspapers and other media organizations voicing your concerns whatever they may be. If a media source chooses to publish your letter, you gain a wide audience for expressing your concerns.

Third, participating peacefully in a rally or march.  Rallies and marches are overwhelmingly peaceful in the United States. They are often tense and confrontational.  Indeed, confrontation between large numbers of ordinary citizens on the one hand, and powerful institutions and the people that represent them on the other, is often what makes rallies and marches effective.  Bear in mind that confrontation is not violence.  Indeed, in the United States, where I would venture to say there are rallies and protests in support of one thing or another every single day, the probability that your bodily integrity is at risk at a protest is low.  We are fortunate to live in a nation where our right to protest peacefully is legally protected.  Confrontational demonstrations can get loud, they can be large, and smart activists will choose locales for demonstrations that have maximum impact in terms of drawing attention to their concerns.  In other words, confrontation when it is managed as part of a well-organized march or rally is a useful tool for voicing your views whatever they may be

A word about bringing weapons to marches and rallies: While I understand that protestors (especially members of minoritized communities who have greater reason than I do to fear for their bodily integrity in the course of protest) sometimes have serious concerns with regard to self-defense, I believe that it is unwise, largely unnecessary, and often inflammatory to bring weapons to a protest or rally.  The increasing presence of armed civilians (not to even touch on militarized police officers) at otherwise peaceful protests is a disturbing trend in our nation today. Without even addressing questions about open carry laws, it is enough to say that it is not prudent to bring weapons into situations that are already tense.  In the confrontational settings of marches or rallies, brandishing weapons can only heighten the sense of distrust among those who disagree, or who plan to counter-protest.

Fourth, you can choose to commit civil disobedience.  There is greater risk to your bodily integrity with this option, but the risks involved in civil disobedience (in a few words – the humiliation and discomfort of being arrested, spending time in jail, and potentially enduring a trial) are not more serious than the consequences for bodily integrity of armed political resistance. 

Civil disobedience is planned, peaceful, intentional violation of a law in order to draw attention to an injustice, often, but not always, an injustice embodied by the law itself.  It can be ethical and moral to break the law nonviolently. The example most Americans know best is Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a bus. Some forms of civil disobedience we may see in coming days include sitting down in the streets in ways that disrupt traffic; crowds refusing to leave government buildings at closing time; symbolic actions that break the law or encourage arrest (like activist Bree Newsome’s choice to climb the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse and remove the Confederate flag following the Emanuel AME Church massacre in 2015).  These can all be ethical means of drawing attention to your concerns whatever they may be.

Civil disobedience ought to be normalized as a tactic of political resistance before we start deciding we need an armed revolution.  Even in the earliest days of our history as a nation, colonists threw tea into the Boston Harbor well before the first shots of the revolutionary war were fired.  To America’s self-designated militias (like those who intended to kidnap Michigan’s democratically elected governor): I urge you to put down your weapons and see what courage, what mettle it takes to lead and perform a disciplined campaign of civil disobedience.   

What I am proposing here is an ethic for political resistance that we all ought to agree to uphold.  If we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all human beings are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; if we have the freedoms of speech, and the press, and assembly, and if we can exercise these freedoms with relatively little expectation of harm to our bodily integrity, then we have no business inciting or engaging in election violence.  Use the nonviolent means at your disposal to voice your concerns whatever they may be.

Some nations around the world routinely experience what is called “election violence.”  As someone who studies these phenomena, I am genuinely concerned that we may be facing similar violence right here, right now.  Our country is polarized. Our differences are meaningful and are worth debating, talking about at length, and committing to find solutions that fulfill the promises of our American citizenship.  But if instead we choose the path of political violence, any road to reconciliation is deeply compromised.  I am alarmed. 

One thought on “Political Violence, Ethics, and the U.S. Elections

  1. You are an exceptional person and author. We all must do our part to be calm and silent. Silently protest, silently scream to count every vote. Silent on our angry impulsive speech aimed at others who don’t think like us. I don’t mean silent as in do nothing, say nothing. But silent in that you aren’t antagonizing another person. These times call for us all to give a little with the hope that we will all get a lot in return, even if we don’t deserve it.

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