Election jitters spark Portland push for peaceful 'coup' protests
Oregonians are nervous about the upcoming election, and Alejandra Moreno is one of them.
Moreno, a Portland activist, is spearheading an effort called Speak Up Now Oregon, calling for people to be prepared to take to the streets and shut down the country using peaceful civil disobedience if it looks like vote-counting shenanigans by supporters of President Donald Trump appear to be underway.
"Everyone is acting like they've completely abdicated their power," she told the Portland Tribune. "We can withdraw our cooperation from the process if things are being done in our name we don't agree with."
Moreno is not the only one with fears; similar "coup" concerns show up on social media every day, even as Trump, without evidence, has predicted a pandemic-sparked push for absentee ballots will breed fraud. On Sept. 21, the day after Trump went on Fox News to warn of "tremendous disruption" in voting, staff at Multnomah County elections notched a record 400 calls from members of the public with questions, many of them driven by national messages like Trump's. The county has even set up a website to reassure people their vote will be counted.
"People just want to vote, that's the bottom line," said Tim Scott, the county's election director. "The number of calls we've been getting daily is significantly higher than in any other election we've had."
Moreno, 33, grew up in Venezuela only to move to the United States at the age of 13. From afar, she watched as newly elected President Hugo Chavez over time suppressed dissent and established what critics called totalitarian rule amid a crumbling economy. She went back to the country in 2012 to work with a progressive party set up to resist Chavez.
A Peace Corps veteran, she managed a student-exchange program in Washington, D.C., before moving to Portland just in time for the pandemic-driven economic shutdown.
In June she launched her effort — which is not registered as a company or a nonprofit — to focus on election response and institutional racism. Its message to Oregonians: call on local officials and media outlets to support elections integrity. If there is a push to hijack the election, people need to take to the streets, without violence.
"I personally decry violence morally, but I think violence in general is just not an effective way to resolve conflict," Moreno said.
When violence occurs at protest, she added, "unfortunately, the message gets lost in the process. So we're just advocating for people to be smarter than that."
People in Venezuela had been doubtful that their democracy could erode, Moreno said, so she understands how people in the United States feel the same way.
"People continue to say that that can't happen here," she said. "And things keep happening."
Trump has sparked fears with his statements predicting, without evidence, that the 2020 election would be marked by massive fraud. Last month, asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power he said "we'll have to see what happens." Critics accused Trump of seeking to block the U.S. Postal Service from processing mail-in ballots expeditiously, and some suggested he is desperate to stay in power because of fear of being prosecuted for tax fraud or other alleged crimes.
Trump's opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has accused Trump of trying to depress the vote by questioning ballots and urging people to monitor polling places. Biden recently urged supporters to vote, saying "the only way we lose this is by the chicanery going on relative to polling places."
The constant barrage of questions, attacks and concerns about voting have kept Paul Gronke, a Reed College political science professor who specializes in voter access and election integrity, busy. He's fielded calls from the New York Times and other national media outlets, while doing research of his own.
"I don't think I've ever worked as hard my whole life," he said. "There's so much … noise and static, primarily coming out of the White House... I just think democracy is on trial this election, I really do."
Asked to look at the video Moreno has posted online, he said it impressed him: "It actually doesn't seem so alarmist. People should be ready for eventualities."
One concern, though, is how peaceful protests could escalate if armed people interested in violence show up. It could "just get ugly really fast," Gronke said.
In the first — and so far only — presidential debate of the general election, Trump called on a right-wing group, the Proud Boys, to "stand back and stand by." A Proud Boys rally in Portland in September drew a bit more than 200 people, many of whom were armed with assault-style weapons and side arms. Some left-wing activists have been armed as well. On Aug. 29, one of them, Michael Reinoehl, is thought to have killed a conservative Patriot Prayer supporter, Aaron J. Danielson.
Gronke also said he questions Moreno's call for every vote to be counted.
"You just can't honor that sort of language," Gronke said. "The final ballots are not going to be counted for weeks. But that doesn't mean that we won't have enough ballots counted in order to determine an outcome."
James Moore, a Pacific University professor who works with the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement, said he also is impressed with Moreno's effort. But he said a call for civil disobedience needs to be more specific if it is going to be effective.
Like Gronke, Moore said he is hopeful that the election will proceed mostly normally, without the level of irregularities that Moreno fears.
"Republican lawyers are getting ready to challenge things that feel they need to challenge," he said. "Democratic lawyers are getting ready to challenge the Republicans (if) they file any challenges. And that's no different than any election since 2000."
A Portland Police spokesperson and a staffer to Mayor Ted Wheeler recently said they are preparing for election day protests, but declined to go into detail.
Kevin Hoar, a spokesman for the Oregon Republican Party, initially was upbeat about Moreno's effort after being told of her emphasis on nonviolence.
"That would be a refreshing change to have people who do that instead of riot, loot, commit arson," he said, adding that he also agreed with the group's aim of urging the media to report fairly and accurately— which he said hasn't been happening from Republicans' perspective.
But Hoar blamed Democrats for undermining the election, and defended Trump's concerns about voting integrity as valid, saying states that don't have Oregon's vote-by-mail safeguards could be vulnerable to trickery.
He said Republicans continue to worry that efforts to pressure people in Oregon to vote one way or another are going unreported.
He said Moreno's group's stated willingness to shut down the country long after electoral votes are to be counted in Oregon — where the deadline to finalize the count is Dec. 14 —"looks like an effort to undermine and delegitimize the electoral college and the American presidential election system."
A conservative website, Breitbart, recently focused on superficially similar efforts such as the Disruption Project, which use aggressive language suggesting the goal of election-day protest is to not just stop a potential "coup," but full-blown revolution.
Moreno, for her part, said her group is not affiliated or aligned with the Disruption Project.
In contrast, her video points people to resources that tend to echo George Lakey, the longtime nonviolent organizer who has criticized more aggressive tactics such as violent confrontation with police or right-wing extremists. The websites discourage not just violence but property destruction, saying it is self-defeating.
One resource Moreno cites, spearheaded by a member of the Speak Up Now advisory council, Hardy Merriman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, is called "Hold the Line: A guide to defending democracy." It counsels that "we can affirm that there is no viable strategy based on the use of property destruction that can defend democracy by protecting the 2020 election."
Another member of the group's advisory council, Tom Hastings, a longtime local activist and professor of nonviolence and conflict resolution at Portland State University, in August discouraged violent protest in a KATU interview.. "We may see destructive conflict fatigue. It's certainly hit that point for greater Portland. Greater Portland does not support what goes on late at night any longer," he said.
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