After President Donald Trump ordered members of the military to repress non-violent demonstrators in Washington, D.C., last June, an intergenerational, interracial group of organizers and activists came together to write “Hold the Line: A Guide to Defending Democracy." The group saw the action and Trump’s ongoing attempts to cast doubt on mail voting as an indication of the lengths he might go to stay in office. The guide offers strategies the public can take to ensure the election is free and fair leading up to and after Nov. 3.
When the Rev. Cecilia Kingman, Minister for Faith and Justice at Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation (UU), learned of “Hold the Line,” she was relieved. She and other interfaith ministers and activists around the country had been looking for ways to build a movement to ensure the integrity of the election. The guide offers strategies to “hold the line” and a road map of red lines Trump and state and local officials might cross, from discarding or not counting all mail-in ballots to electrical failures or cyberattacks that might cause polling places to shut down prematurely. Kingman fills in the points of resistance here with a Q&A.
Real Change: You’ve studied totalitarian and authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe, lived there awhile as a UU minister and learned from a successful uprising in the Ukraine. What parallels can you draw to the U.S. at this time?
Rev. Cecilia Kingman: When an authoritarian figure says they’re thinking about doing something, even if they retract and say they’re joking, we have to believe that they’re going to attempt to do what they say. It’s clear that Trump is not only intending to do what he says but is putting things in motion to subvert the electoral process — from declaring that vote by mail is ripe for fraud to vowing to unleash tens of thousands of people to go to polling places to try and intimidate [voters]. So, I’m absolutely certain that we are going to have a chaotic aftermath to the election and that there will be an attempt to discredit the democratic process.
RC: “Hold the Line” outlines three potential scenarios that could unfold on Election Day. The first is that Trump declares victory on election night before all the votes are counted. The second is that election results show significant irregularities or signs of tampering, but he declares victory anyway. And third, Trump loses, but refuses to leave office. Each comes with red lines to watch for. Can you talk about them?
CK: The line we have to hold is to insist that all of these irregularities or voter suppression are investigated — that we take the time to remedy or repair the situation. Those things have to be done jurisdiction by jurisdiction. They can’t be remedied by sweeping proclamations that come out of the president’s own assessment.
Ballots that are confusing have to be checked one by one. Voters have to be called to say, “We have a problem with your vote. Can you declare your intention?” We have the technologies to examine these situations, but they take time. An authoritarian like Trump is going to press for a swift resolution and a swift resolution in his favor.
[The “Hold the Line” authors similarly note that election results must be respected regardless of who wins. “Preserving democracy is more important than any individual candidate.” — RC]
RC: Nonviolent civil disobedience has a critical role to play here. At other times in the country’s past when government hasn’t been accountable, ordinary people have engaged in nonviolent actions such as mass demonstrations, boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience. All require people power, discipline and unity, as the guide points out.
CK: I think it is going to be crucial that people are mobilized for civil disobedience, and those tactics might take the full gamut of being in the streets or protecting the offices where ballots are being counted or election workers. Because what we have to do is help sway all the people who are confused and frozen.
Everyone will want it to be over. “Can’t we just know who won? I can’t take this anymore!” And Trump will benefit from whipping up the fervor in the media — this anxiety-producing fervor. And what we need to say: “This is non-partisan. We choose democracy. We’re protecting the voters. We’re protecting our election.”
RC: Engaging in civil disobedience can be physically challenging and sometimes results in arrest. Many people can’t do it. But you say there are other things people can do to make a resistance movement successful.
CK: There is a place for everyone in this kind of movement. You can provide childcare, make sandwiches, donate money, make phone calls, be a legal observer. After years of watching uprisings around the world — successful and not — against authoritarians, there comes a moment where people simply can’t not participate.
In the early moments of the uprising in the Ukraine, it was just the students. But when police violently dispersed crowds, parents and grandparents stepped in and said, “Hey, don’t touch our kids.” This sort of imperative — this internal imperative to resist becomes irresistible for people, so they take to the streets or resist in other ways because they simply have to. Because they can’t not resist.
RC: During the Black Lives Matter protests against police violence, you, other interfaith leaders and the Washington Poor People’s Campaign provided training in non-violent civil disobedience. You trained over 400 people and are continuing to train people now. What’s the connection with the Black Lives Matter protests and today’s organizing to ensure the integrity of the vote in November 2020?
CK: As tragic as it was that we had a need for those protests and actions in support of Black lives and against police brutality, it connected a lot of people in ways they hadn’t previously been connected. A lot of people who’d never protested before came out. That’s one of the most powerful things that allies can do — is just be there in body saying, “This matters to me too.” And with that, you build up muscle memory for what it means to stay in the streets.
RC: And you think they’re prepared to do it again to defend democracy?
CK: The awareness when we did the training was that there’s a multi-faceted progressive movement underway and that training folks in civil disobedience would be a useful thing in the days ahead. If we can keep enough ordinary people focused and executing the tactics they agreed on, we might be able to protect the election results and get this authoritarian out of office — if that’s what the election results determine.
RC: A groundbreaking study by Dr. Erica Chenowith published in the Harvard Gazette examined more than 100 non-violent movements around the world and found that when 3.5 percent of the population visibly participated in the movement, the movement always won.
CK: Yes, it only takes 3.5 percent, but it needs to trigger more engagement and participation. It’s not that only 3.5 percent don’t like what’s happening; it’s that 3.5 percent are actually in the streets, doing the protests. It doesn’t have to be 3.5 percent of Indianans or 3.5 percent of Floridians; it’s that 3.5 percent of the country is in the streets. And what that does is it keeps it in the news. It keeps the idea that there is resistance. That something is wrong.
RC: “Hold the Line” says three principles must be followed for a nonviolent movement to succeed: power, discipline and unity. Ordinary people are made to believe they don’t wield much power, write the “Hold” authors, “but the deeper truth is that power holders depend on the direct obedience and cooperation of a large number of people.”
CK: Organizing and teamwork will be critical to “hold the line.” We have to force our institutions by virtue of protest and public will to withstand the attempt at a coup. We have to be patient until all votes are counted. But the most important part will be not giving up in the middle of that process. That’s what many Trump allies are going to count on, and we have to be psychologically prepared to “hold the line” for as long as it takes.
Listen to Baskin's original radio story: https://beta.prx.org/stories/342900
Read more in the Nov. 4-10, 2020 issue.