Across the U.S., faith leaders, community organizers, and local election officials are prepared to counter election-related polarization, tension, and violence with nonviolent de-escalation tactics.
According to a recent survey, nearly 70 percent of people in the U.S. are worried voters will be harassed or intimidated on Election Day; the same survey found that more than three-quarters of Americans worry there will not be a peaceful transition of power after the election.
These fears follow repeated efforts by President Donald Trump to challenge the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and his false claims that a winner must be declared on election night. Two days before the election, he expressed his support for a caravan of his supporters who surrounded a Biden campaign bus on a Texas interstate. A recent study from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and MilitiaWatch found 10 states at moderate to high risk for violence from right-wing terrorists in the election and post-election period.
But community leaders and clergy are determined to avoid a violent outcome.
“When we understand that our source of strength is not in picking up weapons, is not in returning evil for evil or hatred for hatred, but in reaching for deep love, then we are able to transform the world,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, during a news conference with other faith leaders.
Through a joint initiative coordinated by Faith in Public Life, Bend the Arc, and the United Church of Christ, Blackmon has helped lead de-escalation trainings for faith leaders who are willing to offer nonviolent intervention on Election Day and its aftermath; in just the past two weeks, more than 800 faith leaders have been trained.
“What we do in de-escalation training is teach people how to reach inside for a stronger and more resilient way of being,” Blackmon said.
These training sessions — as well as similar efforts sponsored by other organizations — usually last between one and three hours. Most training sessions have taken place virtually and are available to watch for free online. Through presentation and role-playing, trainers give participants tools rooted in emotional empathy and nonviolent strategy, such as the Crisis Prevention Institute’s four-step de-escalation process.
For some organizations, the election is an opportunity to put their long-established techniques into practice. The DC Peace Team, a nonprofit organization based in the nation’s capital, regularly holds nonviolence and intervention training throughout the year. Their training sessions challenge participants to work toward solidarity and understanding with others, including political opponents. Participants leave with resources, training, and philosophy on nonviolent intervention.
Eli McCarthy, a professor of justice and peace studies at Georgetown University and coordinator with the DC Peace Team, has been leading training sessions for over a decade. Training around the election has participants preparing for specific scenarios, like conflict between groups who want a winner declared and groups who want votes to continue being counted. But they aren’t hoping to impede conflict altogether; McCarthy said their goal is to keep conflict from growing into violence.
“We’re really clear that we recognize constructive conflict … conflict can be healthy, it can help us grow, it can help us get new insight and it is part of the social justice work that hopefully we are all a part of,” McCarthy said. “We’re not there to stop the protest, to stop people yelling, getting angry, or getting really intense … we try to interrupt when dehumanization starts to really increase.”
McCarthy said that clergy can play an important role at these public conflicts simply by showing up.
“Some people really respect clergy and religious leaders and want to behave in their presence,” McCarthy said. “Another really important role for religious leaders is they can use their leverage at times with police or public officials ... to get police to back off a little more or behave in a more healthy way.”
Rev. Rosie Washington, who has been leading Faith in Public Life’s efforts, agrees.
“Faith leaders have a unique opportunity to shepherd in this moment and become an example of how not to respond to those less desired tactics,” Washington said.
In addition to citizen-led initiatives, states like New Hampshire and Ohio have incorporated training sessions into their election preparation. The secretary of state for New Hampshire offered an on-demand de-escalation session with the state’s director of Police Standards and Training Council. Ohio sent de-escalation training videos to all 88 county boards of elections.
Timothy Thompson, director of elections in Ohio’s Muskingum County, told Sojourners that their training was put into use more than once in the early voting period.
“We had a voter come [to the polling center] who had campaign materials on for a candidate. We asked him to remove those and he didn’t want to do that so he got a bit upset with us,” he said.
Thompson, who has been director for the past five years, said this was the first election where they were asked to complete de-escalation training. He said the main takeaway from the course was to “keep calm and keep the voter calm.”