Over the past couple weeks we’ve been stressing how important, yet fragile, our democracy is – especially at this moment in time. I hope you have already voted or have a plan to vote and ensure that your vote is counted. But I want to talk to you about what might happen on Election Night and in the following days.
If the results aren’t clear on Election Night – or even if they are – and one side declares victory prematurely, we need to ensure that our democracy holds. It’s very possible that we’ll need to take the streets en masse to hold open the window for counting every vote and to put public pressure on every aspect of the government, from state-level systems to choosing electors to the federal courts, in order to protect the integrity of the election.
We know what the response to mass protests will be. This summer’s racial justice uprisings provided the template, which builds off of the standard authoritarian playbook we’ve seen in countless places around the world. Local and federal police are likely to escalate protests by using aggressive and brutally violent tactics. Politicians and news outlets of a certain inclination will quickly follow suit by blaming protestors for “rioting” and violence. And it’s very possible that agitators intent on discrediting protestors will attempt to incite violence themselves.
I’m sharing this not to scare you but to say that all of this fits into a strategy of criminalization, a tool frequently used to suppress the voices of people who are marginalized and oppressed. In this case, criminalization of protest serves at least two purposes. It provides an excuse for increased and intensified use of state violence to continue cracking down on protests. But even more importantly, it’s part of a concerted effort to discredit street protests and by association the demands of those protests – in this case, the preservation of democracy and ensuring that everyone’s votes are counted.
Because we are conditioned to think of “criminals” as somehow less than human, criminalization is a powerful tool. People we label “criminal” have their rights routinely violated. They can be abused, even killed, and it’s much less likely that others will speak out in their defense. Think about how little people care about the abuse and exploitation of those in prison, or of the callousness with which we treat people experiencing homelessness. (There is no better example of how crime is socially constructed than the criminalization of urban poverty.)
The same concept can apply to a movement. An uprising can be labeled as “criminal,” or as a “riot,” and suddenly it is less legitimate in the eyes of those susceptible to the narrative of criminalization – which, given our societally-informed prejudices, is most of us. As an uprising becomes delegitimized, its demands more easily fade from public consciousness and the brutality with which it is repressed stops being so outrageous.
This is why we have to proactively fight the criminalization of protest. There’s a strong possibility that street protest may be our only option for preserving the integrity of the upcoming election. We cannot let it be criminalized, the way this summer’s uprisings have been and the way so many authoritarian governments around the world have done to movements that threaten their power.
We hope that, in addition to making a voting plan and knowing your voting rights, you can join a post-election action to help protect the results of the election, if needed. (Be safe! Go with a buddy, know your protest rights and have a safety plan.) If you aren’t comfortable with in-person actions for any reason, you can help by talking with your friends and family and inoculating them against the efforts to criminalize protests that will inevitably come.
Keep safe, be strong, and stay in the fight to keep the dream of a just, inclusive, sustainable world possible – starting right here in the United States of America.
Make sure check out our other blogs on democracy: