How Elections Turns Violent: I’ve Seen It Up Close

Street violence last year in Bolivia following a disputed election. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

My teenage daughter tells me that her Tik Tok feed is full of images of stores in Washington DC boarding up their windows. Over the weekend a caravan of Trump supporters trapped a Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway and rammed the car of a Biden staffer. Americans are used to thinking that elections turning violent is a thing that only happens in other places far away, but now wonder if this is the reality the United States will be living as soon as Wednesday morning.

I have seen election politics turn violent close-up, in the country where my family lived for 19 years, Bolivia. I’ve been stuck right square in the middle of it in the street and have dodged rocks smashing through my office window. Is the U.S. headed down the same road I’ve seen before in South America. Here is what to look for. Here is how ballot politics can quickly escalate into people killing each other in the street.

First, Rival Tribes Begin to Occupy the Streets

Bolivia drew global headlines last year when questions of fraud hovered over the country’s presidential election and the two battling sides spent two weeks engaged in violence in the streets. My own turn in the middle of such violence took place a decade before.

It began as it has already begun here. Two rival political factions, each seeking control of the country’s government, move from being political parties in competition to warring tribes, each convinced that the other is intent seizing total control over them. In Bolivia that battle was between the rural poor who supported the new President, Evo Morales, and the urban middle class and affluent who saw him as a threat. They aligned themselves with a fierce Morales critic, the local governor, Manfred Reyes Villa.

On a sunny summer day in January 2007, those two factions spilled into the streets (as they already have here this year in places like Portland and Kenosha). Each angry side was more than a thousand strong, each occupying its separate part of the city. I walked from one end to the other, passing through both factions and collecting notes and interviews for an article on the conflict. At first, both sides did little more than mill about and seek out news from me about the plans of the other. Standing between them was nothing more than an empty bridge guarded by a dozen nervous police officers. It is not hard to imagine scenarios much the same in cities across the country if the results of Tuesday’s vote are widely disputed.

Once the Spark Ignites, there is No Plan, Just Violence

I was in they city’s main plaza, interviewing a Senator allied with Morales, when I heard voices in the crowd start to yell from all corners at once. Word came that the supporters of the Governor had suddenly raced across the bridge (with no resistance from the frightened police) wielding rocks and clubs. People scrambled to take cover. Being a gringo in such a crowd is not what you want to be so I made a calculation that my best move was to run to my office, which meant running directly toward the mob on its way, hoping I could get to my door before it did. As I turned the corner I saw hundreds of people from the countryside running in my direction at full speed, being chased by men with heavy sticks. I made it to the doorway with about 30 seconds to spare and locked it behind me.

I don’t think that the heavy rocks that came blasting through the Democracy Center’s second floor window were targeted at us. More likely we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s the point, once violence like this begins there is no logic or plan to it. The streets just become a cauldron of confusion and fear and people no longer seeing the other side as human beings. I spent a part of the afternoon under a heavy wooden desk fielding phone calls from international journalists and human rights officials at the United Nations.

These are the scenarios in the U.S. that ought to worry us most. The danger is not some armed militia of Trump supporters suddenly seizing control of small towns. It is protests that draw both factions into the streets near each other, with anger and emotion and fear running high. Any event can set it on fire.

On that afternoon of rocks and clubs in Cochabamba two people were killed. A 34-year-old farmer who supported Morales was shot and killed in the main plaza. In retaliation, a 17-year-old boy on the other side was beaten to death, both a few blocks from my office. How different is all this really than when another 17-year-old boy, a Trump supporter with a gun, shot and killed two rival protesters in Wisconsin last August?

It Makes a Big Difference if the Politicians are Egging Them On

In Bolivia, both last year and in 2007, the protests that turned into violent clashes were more than just spontaneous public outcries. They were cultivated carefully by the political figures on both sides. Street-heat, including violence, was a tool being wielded by each side for its own strategic purposes. Safe in their rival sanctuaries, the politicians turned their supporters into expendable pawns.

Joe Biden and his Democratic allies have been quite clear at every turn these past months — street violence has no place in their vision of politics. Where anti-Trump groups have turned violent it has been their own doing, not Biden’s. On the other side, President Trump has long made it clear that he has no qualms encouraging his supporters to use violence if it is in his favor. In the beginning this was just encouragement to rough protesters up at his rallies. Now that seems like child play. At a campaign rally this past weekend Trump boasted of the Texas bus incident, in the same way he told the white extremist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand by.”

If Trump finds himself losing as the votes are counted, it frankly seems more likely than not that he will send signals of support to those who want to turn to violence on his behalf. That is when we will see what the country and the Republicans in particular are made of. Will Republican Senators call out the president for fomenting violence? Will Vice President Pence break with him over it? Will the millions of Trump supporters who are not extreme or radical or violent, join in calls for peace or will they stay silent?

I have seen too close what it looks like when rival factions of citizens join in battle against one another in the streets, and that was in a country not awash in AR-15s. Americans may soon find out how immune they are to the same forces unleashed of Bolivia. Don’t assume that a peaceful election outcome is just built into our national DNA. It isn’t.

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Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and lived and wrote for 19 years in Bolivia. He can be reached at jimshultz@democracyctr.org.

A political activist for more than 40 years, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Back in the US after 19 years in Bolivia. A dad, a grandpa.

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