As a turbulent election season draws to a close, authorities across the country worry frustration may spill onto the streets, and officials are watching for disturbances at the polls or protests in their communities. That tension is heightened in the nation’s capital, where the White House and other symbols of government regularly draw demonstrators.
“It is widely believed that there will be civil unrest after the November election regardless of who wins,” D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham told lawmakers this month. “It is also believed that there is a strong chance of unrest when Washington, D.C., hosts the inauguration in January.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said the District’s public safety officials have been discussing plans for post-election unrest “for many weeks if not months.” The D.C. National Guard is already called up because of the coronavirus crisis and could be deployed, though Bowser expects to use them only for traffic control, if at all.
On Thursday, D.C. police announced possible street closures and parking restrictions that are expected to cover much of downtown Washington on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Officials have not recommended that shop owners board up their buildings, according to a resource guide for businesses distributed by city leaders this week. Some small-business owners are heeding their guidance, focused on bolstering sales as winter approaches. Others are boarding anyway, and concrete barriers were being installed outside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building across from Lafayette Square.
“We do not have any intelligence on planned activity to suggest the need to board up; however, we remain vigilant,” John Falcicchio, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said in a statement. “We understand the difficult position building owners and operating businesses are in, and we call upon all who participate in First Amendment activities to denounce violence and report it immediately should it occur.”
Officials say they are concerned that a politically polarized electorate coupled with divisive rhetoric and President Trump questioning the integrity of the election could create flash points in the District and elsewhere.
Newsham said several groups have applied for demonstration permits starting Sunday and for days after the election. The National Park Service is considering permit applications from several organizations with various views on the election.
Shutdown DC is planning weeks’ worth of demonstrations around the White House and Black Lives Plaza starting Tuesday. “After you vote, hit the streets,” the group posted on its website.
George Washington University sent students a message recommending they prepare for Election Day as they would for a snowstorm or hurricane and stockpile a week’s worth of food, supplies and medicine.
Federal and local authorities in and around the District are also taking pains to reassure the public they are working for a secure and safe election. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) joined state and federal officials to say a “confident public is more likely to vote” and trust the outcome. D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) reminded residents that destroying election signs is illegal. And Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby is telling prosecutors to pay close attention to crimes that “occur in the context of the election.”
The acting U.S. attorney for the District, Michael R. Sherwin, announced that a federal prosecutor will oversee election-related complaints and allegations of election fraud in D.C.
The District endured months of sustained demonstrations after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, which targeted areas outside the White House but also impacted the downtown business district and neighborhoods such as Georgetown, Adams Morgan and Shaw.
The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, but outbreaks of violence — much of it attributed to agitators more intent on destruction than protest — resulted in hundreds of arrests after nights of fires, looted stores and clashes with police. D.C. police said that on May 30 and May 31, the two most volatile days, 204 businesses were burglarized and 216 properties were damaged.
In recent days, crowds gathered outside a police station in Northwest Washington to protest the death of a young man in a moped crash after police attempted to stop him because he was not wearing a helmet. Those protests resulted in clashes with police, broken windows and damaged police cars.
There also were store windows smashed in Georgetown on Wednesday night, casting some doubt on the city’s recommendations for business owners to maintain calm in advance of the election. It was unclear whether those causing the damage, which business leaders described as attempted looting, had any link to those demonstrating at the police station.
A handful of Georgetown businesses requested plywood after Wednesday night’s events. One boarded up overnight.
“It seems like we are sitting on a tinderbox, and there are so many different things that could potentially cause problems,” said Rachel Shank, executive director of Georgetown Main Street. “We saw some serious devastation back in May and June, and we are trying to avoid that, but we are also trying to avoid Georgetown looking like a ghost town.”
Business improvement district leaders across the city are working with contractors to implement what they describe as standard protocol in advance of any anticipated large gathering in the area, which includes tying up loose ends at construction sites to remove material that could easily be used for destruction.
Josh Turnbull, a general manager at Oxford Properties Group, oversees three buildings in downtown D.C., including one on the edge of Black Lives Matter Plaza. He never removed plywood from the property closest to the White House and said he planned to board up the other two this week in anticipation of unrest around the election.
“It’s really like an insurance policy,” he said. “The cost-benefit analysis here just makes sense.”
On Monday, security contractors were hard at work down 17th Street, fastening plywood to open glass. By Friday, businesses could be seen boarded up along K and L streets downtown.
Other business owners are planning to avoid fortification, putting faith in D.C. leadership to guide them through the next few weeks and hoping that keeping their windows open may contribute to a more peaceful November.
“It has been such a difficult year, so financially challenging, that the attitude right now is we will wait until the last possible moment or until we hear something definitive from the government,” said Alexander Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets, where more than three dozen businesses were damaged in late May and June.
In May, rioters smashed windows at Dan Simons’s downtown restaurant, Founding Farmers. When a member of his team emailed him asking whether he planned to reinstall plywood on his windows in advance of Election Day, he balked.
“Sometimes, by preparing for war, you create war,” he said recently, providing insight into his decision, at least for now, to avoid fortification. “And I am not that guy. Might that make me a fool? Yes. But that is probably a risk worth taking.”
A few blocks away, Michelle Brown stood in her downtown restaurant, Teaism, which was still charred and damaged from when rioters set it on fire one night in May. Four months later, on the last Monday in October, there was still no HVAC unit, no 20-year-old tea chest that greeted customers on the back wall and no stream of revenue to help her through the daily slog of pandemic-time entrepreneurship.
Brown supports the Black Lives Matter movement (a sentiment she shared in a series of viral tweets after the restaurant was damaged). Now, anticipating a month that could bring about even more unrest, she harbors the same steady focus on the importance of free expression.
“This is just part and parcel of being a neighbor to the White House,” she said.
Brown said the owner of her building added fencing to brace for Election Day. But like many of her neighbors near the White House, she is listening carefully for guidance from city officials and “rumorville on the street” to determine whether she should take additional precautions.
“It’s all just wait and see now,” Brown said, watching a truck full of red cones and plywood drive past her shuttered store.
Julie Zauzmer and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.