Police departments in cities across the country are beefing up their ranks for Election Day, preparing for possible civil unrest and riots after the historic presidential contest.
Public safety officials said in interviews with The Hill that the election, which will end with either the nation’s first black president or its first female vice president, demanded a stronger police presence.
Some worry that if Barack Obama loses and there is suspicion of foul play in the election, violence could ensue in cities with large black populations. Others based the need for enhanced patrols on past riots in urban areas (following professional sports events) and also on Internet rumors.
Democratic strategists and advocates for black voters say they understand officers wanting to keep the peace, but caution that excessive police presence could intimidate voters.
Sen. Obama (Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, has seen his lead over rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) grow in recent weeks, prompting speculation that there could be a violent backlash if he loses unexpectedly.
Cities that have suffered unrest before, such as Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Philadelphia, will have extra police deployed.
In Oakland, the police will deploy extra units trained in riot control, as well as extra traffic police, and even put SWAT teams on standby.
“Are we anticipating it will be a riot situation? No. But will we be prepared if it goes awry? Yes,” said Jeff Thomason, spokesman for the Oakland Police Department.
“I think it is a big deal — you got an African-American running and [a] woman running,” he added, in reference to Obama and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. “Whoever wins it, it will be a national event. We will have more officers on the street in anticipation that things may go south.”
The Oakland police last faced big riots in 2003 when the Raiders lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. Officials are bracing themselves in case residents of Oakland take Obama’s loss badly.
Political observers such as Hilary Shelton and James Carville fear that record voter turnout could overload polling places on Election Day and could raise tension levels.
Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said inadequate voting facilities is a bigger problem in poor communities with large numbers of minorities.
“What are local election officials doing to prepare for what people think will be record turnout at the polls?” said Shelton, who added that during the 2004 election in Ohio voters in predominantly black communities had to wait in line six to eight hours to vote.
“On Election Day, if this continues, you may have some tempers flare; we should be prepared to deal with that but do it without intimidation,” said Shelton, who added that police have to be able to maintain order at polling stations without scaring voters, especially immigrants from “police states.”
Photographer Joe Eddins and I headed over to the closest one and found a steady line of voters hoping to cast ballots early. Most seemed to be Obama supporters and several had come from the rally. Nearly all the voters were black.
Also at the polling site was a group of loud and angry protesters who shouted and mocked the voters as they walked in. Nearly all were white.
As you can see from these videos, no one held anything back. People were shouting about Obama's acknowledged cocaine use as a young man, abortion and one man used the word "terrorist." They also were complaining that Sundays are for church, not voting.
The first video closes with Roger Farina (who won NHL fan of the year in 2003) going into detail about why he was heckling the voters.
I sent Stephen Dinan a quote from Farina about former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's endorsement of Obama yesterday. Read his story wrapping up that news and Sen. John McCain's reaction here.
At the voting site, I asked a local sheriff monitoring the scene if the protesters were allowed. "They're fine," he said. I asked if he'd ever seen anything like that and he said he'd never seen Sunday voting.