Why a Philadelphia pastor's flock will be watching Trump's supporters on election day
by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)
Weeks before the U.S. election, Donald Trump was predicting a rigged vote and corruption at the polls. At his rallies, he began telling his supporters to do something about it.
"You've got to go out, and you've got to get your friends, and you've got to get everybody you know, and you gotta watch the polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas…" Trump said at an event at the beginning of October.
"So go over and watch. And watch carefully, because we're going to win the state of Pennsylvania."
Trump said these words in rural Pennsylvania. Later in the month, he was more specific about the "certain areas" he wanted his people to monitor.
"Take a look at St. Louis. Take a look at Philadelphia. Take a look at Chicago," Trump told his followers in Colorado.
Trump's repeated calls for extra vigilance on Election Day caught the ears of voting rights activists. There's a history in the U.S. of race-based voter intimidation at the polls, including an illegal operation in New Jersey when off-duty cops wearing guns and arm bands intimidated voters in a 1981 gubernatorial campaign.
The potential for violence
Lawsuits have already been filed against the Trump campaign alleging intimidation. But some of his supporters are vowing to follow through on his call for vigilance, among them white nationalists and militia type groups. They say they will be watching the polls, setting up a potential for confrontations that many believe could become violent in cities like Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, alarmed by the threat of disruption on Election Day, wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch this week urging her to safeguard against any abuse of the electoral process.
"We have come too far to allow a group of white nationalists to intimidate minority voters in Philadelphia or anywhere throughout the nation."
"I don't honestly believe that is going to happen," Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, Senior Pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church told me on CBC Day 6. "But we are going to be prepared in case it is."
Reverend Waller's church is a massive presence in North Philadelphia with some 15,000 parishioners. Since 2004, a group of men from the community has been active on election days, helping people get to and from the polls and encouraging them while they wait. They are, Reverend Waller stresses, a protective force, and though he doesn't think the rhetoric around poll watching will escalate to violent confrontation, his people are ready.
"We are prepared to both encourage voters and discourage agitators."
Already a familiar presence
Reverend Waller describes his group not as poll watchers but as voter advocates. They are already part of a neighbourhood watch initiative the church uses to secure the streets.
"Every Friday night from 10:00 until 1:00 in the morning, these same men are on the roughest corners in this city trying to bring peace, trying to establish relationships. These men understand how to de-escalate, how to have a conversation and [they] know the law," he says.
He's counting on those same skills to de-escalate conflict at the polls.
"We are going to be law abiding and we will call the necessary authorities if there is any foolishness. But we are also able to make sure that anyone seeking to keep someone from their voter rights will be escorted off the property."
"We are not looking to do violence. We are not looking to cause any problems but we are going to make sure that those standing in line will not be deterred from voting."
Blackness and the 2016 election
In the previous elections monitored by the voter advocates Reverend Waller is sending out, there was not the same level of uneasiness around the election. I asked him what has changed.
"What's different about this climate is that this presidential election has been the ugliest national discourse that we've seen in recent history. The rhetoric of Donald Trump has raised the ugly raw nerve of racial unrest in our country. And because of that we have become more polarized than we ever have been," he said.
Reverend Waller met with other religious leaders including members of the Muslim community to talk about the rhetoric and the spectre of voter intimidation.
"We are recognizing that while we may hold different religions, our common denominator is that we are black and there is an attack on blackness in this election cycle."
On Tuesday night, a black church in Mississippi was set ablaze and someone spray painted "Vote Trump" on the wall. I asked Reverend Waller how that was seen by his parishioners. Have any of them admitted they're afraid of what might happen when they vote?
"No one has told me that they're worried about going out to vote," he said. "But we are all concerned about the climate. I think that they're more concerned about the day after the election because the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his movement is not going to end with election results."