Angelique Jackson said she still gets dizzy if she tilts her head a certain way. It’s been a month since she was hit by a large pickup truck that turned into the group of demonstrators protesting Breonna Taylor's police killing in Hollywood, California, and revved its engine before knocking her across the hood and onto the concrete and then rolling over her foot. She ended up in the hospital with a fractured skull, a painful limp, and cuts all over her body.
Now worried that the postelection period will be even more turbulent than what happened to her that September night, Jackson, a Democrat turned independent voter from Los Angeles County who has spent the last few months participating regularly in Black Lives Matter protests, is acquiring body armor, a helmet, and some type of shield.
In this — if not in her political views — Jackson has plenty of company across the ideological spectrum.
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Jackson being hit by a pickup truck during a Black Lives Matter protest.
As the country lurches toward Election Day, activists, right-wing militants, racial justice organizations, and everyday voters have been preparing themselves for the possibility of widespread and violent civil unrest. Spurred by a year of historic tumult, they’re constructing their own bulletproof vests, stockpiling food, buying guns for the first time, and planning escape routes to safe spaces off the grid.
Ryan Nichols, a military veteran, Republican, and citizen search and rescue operator, said he no longer trusts that the nation’s institutions will be able to keep the peace.
“What is really happening right now is people want weapons to defend themselves,” he said. “Everybody feels this way in my circles. I don’t trust my government, and that’s coming from me as a Republican, a veteran. I don't trust the country. I don't trust people at all levels of government who are overseeing me to do right by me. I trust people like myself.”
Across the political divide, Mary-Katherine Fleming, an independent activist who supports Black leaders around Denver, said she worries about right-wing extremists and police officers targeting racial justice protesters, not to mention the militants who often show up to support law enforcement.
She and fellow activists are collecting food, water, and toilet paper in case supply chains break down or “Black and brown residents are too afraid to go to the store or hospital.” They’re amassing first aid kits, respirators, and protective vests; they’re hosting trainings on self- and community defense and how to spot tactics that law enforcement agents use to infiltrate their groups.
“We are preparing for an extended period of protest that will make the summer look like camp,” she said. “People have this idea that it’s all going to be over after the election. It’s not.”
BuzzFeed News spoke with close to 20 people across political divides — including Trump voters, Biden voters, Black Lives Matter activists, Three Percenters, and anti-fascists. They all agreed on one thing: They do not trust the people and systems tasked with protecting them, so they’re taking matters into their own hands.
Many on the left say they fear attacks from emboldened Trump supporters. In recent months, white supremacists and newly-formed right-wing groups have mobilized and demonstrated with assault rifles in a stated effort to defend property and police from rioters. While neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and armed groups were not born in the Trump era, they’ve become the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland” because of it, according to an October threat report by the US government.
White supremacists have infiltrated mainstream channels and events, like a pro-police rally in Ithaca, New York, last Saturday, and in online forums and other communication systems, they have been planning and coordinating their response to the election, recruiting, and promoting their desire for an ethnostate.
Militant groups have proliferated, their presence more pronounced and aggressive in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns and the sweeping racial justice movement still simmering across the country five months after the death of George Floyd, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and Militia Watch, who recently published a sweeping report that tracked more than 80 right-wing militant groups.
Drivers have steered their way into crowds more than 100 times since May, killing two people, terrorism researcher Ari Weil told BuzzFeed News. There have also been documented cases where white nationalists not only sparred with racial justice protesters but instigated chaos to accelerate tensions.
Fanning the flames, President Donald Trump has repeatedly warned his supporters that left-wing mobs are attacking police, destroying property, and trying to steal the election from him. With his message for more “law and order” ringing across the country, right-wing groups have heeded his tacit call to defend their shared vision of America.
On the left, people who spoke with BuzzFeed News said they do not trust and are often targeted by the police. As the historic protests smoldered over the summer, racial justice demonstrators, law enforcement agencies, and right-wing counterprotesters collided in street clashes that have grown more frequent and intense. The vast majority of the more than 12,000 protests held in the United States since May have been peaceful, according to the ACLED data — but there has also been significant violence and destruction. And in hundreds of instances, police have teargassed, pepper-sprayed, and fired rubber pellets and flash grenades at protesters.
“We have been screaming about these armed asshats showing up and basically coordinating with the police,” Fleming, the Denver activist, said. “The police are hell-bent on arresting protesters while the Proud Boys have been everywhere. What they have been able to get away with represents a huge breakdown in law and order.”
In a new report, Amnesty International cataloged and reviewed hundreds of violent confrontations that have occurred at protests since May and found that “US law enforcement agencies have often negligently failed to protect protesters from violent attacks by third-party actors.” And in nearly half of all states, police forces did not take preventative measures to avoid disruption or halt acts of violence, the report says.
Sean Beckner-Carmitchel, an activist and videographer, said he was filming a popular weekly gathering for Trump supporters in Beverly Hills' iconic park one weekend in late August when several attendees lunged at him with a US flag–cloaked baseball bat and covered him with bear spray for what felt like five minutes. “Watching the same police do nothing while I was being hit by a bat in the face and head and being covered in bear spray by right-wing nationalists not long after I was arrested for filming a protest speaks to the personal beliefs of the officers,” he said. “It sets a terrifying precedent for right-wing terrorists.”
Similar scenes have taken place in Texas, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and elsewhere. In response, BLM activists in several of those states said they’re stocking up on gas masks and goggles for when police pepper spray, earplugs for the loud bangs, and arm sleeves that are supposed to thwart flames and knives. Demonstrators are either dropping hundreds of dollars on professional-grade body armor or they’re getting crafty — covering paintball vests with metal plates to make them bulletproof, and repurposing boogie boards to soften blows from cars and batons.
Last week, the Socialist Rifle Association, a far-left nonprofit, said in a tweet that it shipped 100 medical kits to treat gunshot wounds and other major injuries to 20 chapters across the country. “By increasing the availability of equipment and trained people we hope to reduce the likelihood of death at these protests,” the group tweeted.
People on the right are scared too. Jay Slack, a 28-year-old gun store owner and firearms instructor from Muskegon, Michigan said he’s had a “cornucopia” of new customers in recent months, shipping rifles as far as Arizona and Florida.
“People here are taking things pretty seriously,” Slack said. “I don’t believe there will be a civil uprising, but I have a lot of friends, people in my circles — a lot of them think we are getting to that point. It’s scary.”
He told BuzzFeed News that many of his new customers are women and nearly half of them are Black. At a training he helped lead in mid-August, 1,938 women of all ages from around the country showed up to learn how to shoot a gun for the first time. When he asked them what motivated them, 70% said they were scared of what they were seeing on the news.
Slack is also a member of the Michigan Home Guard, the state’s largest armed organization. He joined the Home Guard last December after being “amazed at the comradery” after a training event that included lessons in target practice, wild foraging, and canning. Recently, he said, so many people have been requesting to join the Home Guard that the group had “to put a stalemate” on new members to ensure they were properly vetted.
Like other armed groups, the Home Guard has trained and prepared for worst-case scenarios, and has hosted more than 150 trainings a year at 35 areas across the state and upper peninsula. It operates with the ethos that its role is to protect and defend what it deems important, like a barbershop opening in spite of coronavirus lockdown restrictions. The group works closely with law enforcement agencies in the area and deploys to an area when it’s called, Rick Foreman, the Home Guard’s cofounder and commanding officer, told BuzzFeed News. Among its 500 members are local politicians, police officers, firefighters, and federal officers.
“If our men and women in blue get overwhelmed, we will be there for them,” the 53-year-old veteran said, adding that some “smaller community police units and sheriff departments” already assist officers. Foreman said his group also would respond to problems at polling stations if needed.
Because of the protests and unrest in the state, interest in the group has exploded, Foreman said. Over the summer, it was getting about 70 requests a day from people wanting to join, most of whom were turned away or didn’t make it through the vetting process. “Antifa and BLM burning and looting and the governor and politicians not doing anything about it — people wanted a safety net,” he explained.
Foreman made a point to distinguish his group from the 14 people arrested on charges of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, condemning their alleged “radical behavior.” Adam Fox, the accused ringleader of the kidnapping plot, actually made it through several rounds of the Home Guard’s application process before it kicked him out when he said he “wanted to go to war and show the government we meant business,” members said.
In other states, from Indiana down to Texas, gun rights activists and Trump supporters who spoke with BuzzFeed News described a collective call to bear arms and protect their streets from antifa and looters, citing what they see on their local news. After watching small businesses burn and looters break into and destroy stores in their communities, residents across the country believe they need to rely on themselves to keep or reinstate order.
Nichols, the military veteran and search and rescue operator, who lives in Texas, says he and his friends have been “sitting on weapons, waiting.” They’ve stopped hunting and hosting target practices because ammunition has become so scarce. Last month, Ammo Inc., a major ammunition manufacturer, reported a record backlog of orders worth more than $80.1 million, the largest backlog in the company’s history.
If he feels threatened due to election unrest, Nichols says he and his friends in other groups have organized a plan: They will gather their guns, ammo, and families and go to a predetermined location.
“We would see you before you saw us,” he said. “There is water and food supply around. Cows, rabbits, things we can live off. We know how to take care of ourselves — but if shit goes down, we are ready.”
Across the political spectrum, people expressed shock to BuzzFeed News that it had come to this, that their once relatively stable nation feels like it’s about to break apart.
“We’re in America,” Slack said. “We should not have people this afraid, such a wide array of people, scared for their lives.”
Jackson, the protester who was rammed by a car in Hollywood, said she too is traumatized but won't let that stop her from going back to marches to demand change.
“It’s definitely bleak, looking out at the rest of the world,” she said, “but I definitely see hope within the movement, especially in the unity between all of us, city to city. That gives me hope.”
The election has heightened tensions and exacerbated differences in part because the United States is in uncharted territory, said Nealin Parker, an expert in political polarization who helps support community resilience through Bridging Divides Initiative, an independent group based at Princeton University. The organization has tracked15,000 peaceful demonstrations across the US over the past six months.
But while “there is a lot of anxiety living in the worst-case scenario reality,” she said that the urgency of the moment has also sparked a surge in civil interest in maintaining democratic standards that are easier to take for granted in more tranquil times. She pointed out that many more mayors across the US are hosting town halls, and organizations have sprung up to battle misinformation and encourage people to take political action
“This is not a war,” Parker said. “We are not at war. This moment is big and will require a lot of effort, but we can turn this around if we want to. We are not alone in trying to do this.” ●