With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Our Long, Forgotten History of Election-Related Violence

In the fall of 1856, according to news reports, a Baltimore resident named Charles Brown was “peaceably walking along the street” when he was shot dead. It was a local Election Day, and Brown was in the vicinity of a Twelfth Ward polling place. Democrats attempting to enter it had been repelled by supporters of the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings. For some two hours, the groups exchanged gunfire in what the Baltimore American described as “guerrilla warfare.” Brown was one of five people killed, and the newspaper marvelled that more lives were not lost. This was not an uncommon event. The American Party, a group defined by its truculent nativism, frequently deployed violence to political ends, particularly against immigrant voters. As Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, in their book “American Violence: A Documentary History,” wrote of Baltimore, “In many districts immigrants were stopped from voting entirely.”

The United States is considered one of the most stable democracies in the world, but it has a long, mostly forgotten history of election-related violence. In 1834, during clashes between Whigs and Democrats in Philadelphia, an entire city block was burned to the ground. In 1874, more than five thousand men fought in the streets of New Orleans, in a battle between supporters of Louisiana’s Republican governor, William Kellogg, and of the White League, a group allied with the Democrats. And the nation’s record of overlooking the violent prevention of Black suffrage is much longer than its record of protecting Black voters. The general public tends to view such calamities as a static record of the past, but historians tend to look at them the way that meteorologists look at hurricanes: as a predictable outcome when a number of recognizable variables align in familiar ways. In the aftermath of events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon, we are in hurricane season.

Following the release, on August 23rd, of a video showing Officer Rusten Sheskey shooting Jacob Blake, an unarmed twenty-nine-year-old Black man, seven times in the back, protesters poured into the streets of Kenosha. Some of them engaged in looting, and, two nights later, Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old with an AR-15-style rifle, reportedly crossed state lines, from Illinois, to defend property in the city. According to prosecutors, he shot three protesters, two of them fatally. Several nights later, a caravan of Trump supporters drove through downtown Portland, where anti-police-brutality protesters have been gathering for months, and fired paintballs and pepper spray into the crowd. Aaron J. Danielson, a supporter of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, was shot dead; the suspect, Michael Reinoehl, an Antifa supporter, was fatally shot by law-enforcement officers last Thursday, as they attempted to apprehend him south of Seattle.

Throughout these horrendous developments, Donald Trump has been at cross-purposes with the calling of his office. He has sown conflict where none existed and exacerbated it where it did. On a visit to Kenosha, Trump did not mention Blake, who has been left partially paralyzed. But he has said that Rittenhouse, who has been charged with homicide, was likely acting in self-defense, claiming—without offering any evidence, as is the President’s habit—that Rittenhouse “probably would’ve been killed by protesters.” In 2013, when President Obama spoke about Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black seventeen-year-old who was shot to death in Sanford, Florida, he addressed racism but not the particulars of the case, so as to not interfere with legal proceedings. Republicans were nevertheless quick to accuse Obama of impropriety. Seven years later, Party leaders have made no such complaints about Trump’s advocating for Rittenhouse.

Read entire article at The New Yorker