US States, Cities Bracing for Potential Civil Unrest After Election, Threat Actors Could Stoke Social Tensions

US States, Cities Bracing for Potential Civil Unrest After Election, Threat Actors Could Stoke Social Tensions
Demonstrators face off with riot police during a rally in Philadelphia, Penn., on Oct. 27, 2020. (Bastiaan Slabbers/Reuters)
Isabel van Brugen

A growing number of U.S. states and cities are bracing for potential riots and civil unrest after the Nov. 3 presidential election, amid warnings that social tensions could be stoked by threat actors.

Federal authorities and state officials caution that Election Day and the days that follow could be marred by violence, widespread property damage, isolated violent incidents, and a long stretch of mass protests.

Law enforcement agencies from states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, Washington, and California have said they are preparing for potential unrest given existing social tensions.

In late September, the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness warned in a threat assessment (pdf) that a number of threats from domestic extremists and foreign adversaries that have emerged due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic, anti-government sentiment, nationwide civil unrest, and various forms of disinformation, will begin to converge with the presidential election “in a manner not previously experienced by our nation.”

“Disinformation has played a vital role in the spread of inaccurate information regarding COVID-19, along with ongoing riots and alleged police brutality that have contributed to the civil unrest,“ the report states. ”Several near-peer competitor countries engage in these types of disinformation operations to undermine the United States’ credibility on a global front, as well as to induce political contention.

“This includes nation-state actors such as China, Iran, and Russia, which are attempting to sow anti-U.S. sentiments.”

The threat assessment warns that these threat actors may magnify existing issues to potentially create chaos during the election period. 

“Incidents of civil unrest resulting in riots, violent acts, and fatalities will converge with election uncertainty, producing confrontations between protesters and counter-demonstrators challenging election outcomes,” it said.

“As a result, nation-state threat actors will have additional opportunities to spread falsehoods that can be shared by overseas government officials, public and proxy media outlets, and facilitators of disinformation.”

Sgt. Betsy Branter Smith, an executive with the National Police Association, estimates that 80 percent of the nation could experience unrest in some form.

“Law enforcement is really ramping up for the election not only in urban areas but suburban areas as well,” she said. “If there is no clear winner, we are going to see violence and we are preparing for that.”

New York

New York Police Department’s (NYPD) Chief of Department, Terence Monahan, said during a press briefing last week that this year’s election is “more contentious than in years past.”
The department told its officers to prepare to be deployed for large-scale demonstrations before and after Election Day, and last week advised Midtown Manhattan businesses to take additional security measures.

“We should anticipate and prepare for protests growing in size, frequency, and intensity leading up to the election and likely into the year 2021,” Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said in an internal memo dated Oct. 13 obtained by Fox News.

Owners of luxury Manhattan buildings meanwhile are hiring armed guards and off-duty officers in anticipation of possible civil unrest, the New York Post reported.


The Texas National Guard said Monday that it would deploy up to 1,000 troops to five cities across the state to assist local authorities with any civil unrest in the run up to Nov. 3. If needed, officials said it could send troops to Austin, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Antonio by this weekend.


Chicago police superintendent David Brown told a press briefing that city officials have held several tabletop exercises “so we can have the best response regardless of whatever scenario happens on Election Day.”

Brown listed bad weather, mass protests, and gatherings that could include “embedded agitators that might loot or cause violence or destroy property” as potential hazards.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that the state is “preparing for the worst.”


As a precautionary measure, the Washington National Guard has ensured its 300 active-duty members have received “Military Assistance for Civil Disturbance Training,” ahead of Election Day, Washington military department spokesperson Karina Shagren told the Seattle Times.

“This is merely a move to prepare because it’s the responsible thing to do,” Shagren said.

Gov. Jay Inslee has declined to comment on whether he could call on the National Guard to assist on Nov. 3.


Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said last week that the department is preparing for potential civil unrest, but doesn’t anticipate any major incidents in Los Angeles.

According to the Los Angeles Times, earlier this month, the department sent an internal memo to its officers saying that they may be required to reschedule any vacations around Nov. 3 if the department needs to assist with potential civil unrest.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said without elaborating that the state is taking precautions to ensure the safety of its residents, and to ensure the “process of voting is a safe and healthy one.”


Gov. Tom Wolf told a press briefing Thursday that Pennsylvania has prepared for civil unrest related to Election Day.
Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said a taskforce including Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, state police, the governor’s office, the National Guard, and others, are “aligned” to ensure that “we are not only preparing in advance but ready to react if needed and also to diffuse the tensions that we know are going to be present.”
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
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