A Brief History of American Political Violence

WIB politics October 26, 2016 0

Peace marchers during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Photo via Wikipedia A tradition as old as the American republic by JOSEPH TREVITHICK & MATTHEW GAULT The...
Peace marchers during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Photo via Wikipedia

A tradition as old as the American republic


The objectively low levels of violence in 2016 — brawls at rallies aside — is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In 240 years, assassins have gunned down four sitting presidents. Myriad individuals have planned to kill at least 18 of the nation’s 44 chief executive. Of course, some would-be killers were driven by mental illness, cult beliefs or a desire for fame rather than politics.

But America’s presidents are far from the only targets of political violence. For decades after the United States declared independence from Great Britain, only land-owning white men could vote, and violence marred each presidential election cycle as the disenfranchised took to the streets.

In 1856, North Carolina became the last state to do away with this restriction, opening the polls up to all white males. Previously, presidential elections managed to escape the riots and protests often associated with new taxes, controversial federal laws, foreign wars or other social upheaval.

With the debate over slavery and the ensuing Civil War, the American political landscape once again changed dramatically. In 1868, all men over 21 years of age formally gained access to the national franchise under the 14th Amendment.

Two years later with the 15th Amendment, Congress expanded the right to vote to include non-whites. At the same time, women started protesting to be included in the expansion of voting rights. In 1920, the 19th Amendment finally eliminated the gender restriction.

As the roles expanded, a larger politically-active populace grew more politically divided. Reports of voter-intimidation, vote-buying, ballot-stuffing and other forms of electoral fraud became more common.

A ‘Harper’s Weekly’ cartoon decries South Carolinian political violence. Image via Wikipedia

In the 1876 election, white-supremacist militias blocked Republican voters — supporters of Abraham Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War — from polling stations across the American South.

In South Carolina, white supremacists clashed with black citizens and National Guardsman. During the notorious Hamburg Massacre, white militias executed black men and looted the city. In 1921, a white mob — backed by aircraft carrying incendiary devices — burned the black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing around 300 people.

The Ku Klux Klan intimidated politicians and citizens during local and national elections. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, anarchists, communists and other leftist revolutionary movements promoted their own brand of violent political activism.

In 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz murdered Pres. William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. More than six decades later, Marxist gunman Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Pres. John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.

In 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater tried to turn this racial tension, anger and violence to his political advantage. This earned the firebrand politician the endorsement of the Klan and rebukes from some prominent Republicans such as former president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Trump has repeatedly stoked racial tensions at his rallies. When he refers to the gold old days, he’s talking about an unrepentantly racist America. One where women and minorities sat on the sidelines of the political discussion … and political violence was common.

After years of these steadily building social and racial tensions, the 1968 election season became a perfect storm of political violence. The war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy brought America to a breaking point.

The Pentagon prepared for the possibility of violence. It’s worth reviewing Operation Demcon’s official documentation for a peek at how the summer of 1968 might prepare us for the winter of 2016.

As Democrats readied for their convention in Chicago, riots consumed the city and dozens of other communities across the country. Fearing things might get even worse, the Pentagon and the Illinois National Guard turned out to reinforce the Secret Service and state and local police.

During the convention itself, military police and intelligence experts worked with their civilian counterparts to prepare for everything from sit-ins and picket lines to bombings and other violence. At any given time, five Army helicopters sat ready to ferry around Secret Service agents in an emergency.

One important task for the military spies was the “identification by name of extreme right and/or left wing dissident organizations expected to participate in scheduled or anticipated demonstrations, and number of participants each can be expected to mobilize for protest activities concerning the Democratic National Convention and its activities,” according to the Army’s official operational plan.

Analysts would need to identify “all personalities involved or expected to become involved” in any demonstrations, the orders added. This included “leaders or ‘activists’ of local dissident groups and leaders, known cranks and psychopaths, representatives, or speakers of national or regional organizations.”

On top of that, the Pentagon wanted troops to figure out where these people were staying, how they were paying for things and whether foreign agents — such as the Soviets — were involved. As it turned out, predominantly left-leaning anti-war and civil rights groups launched protests, which in many cases escalated into riots.

Dozens of protesters and police were injured in clashes during the convention. Journalists, activists and politicians from across the country descended on Chicago and waded through tear gas, billy clubs and madness.

Inside America’s Militias

The violence subsided, but it left the Democratic Party in ruins. Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey struggled to win support. Republican Richard Nixon handily won the election.

In October 1969, the radical leftist group the Weather Underground returned to Chicago to hold its “Days of Rage” demonstrations. The Weathermen claimed the violent protests were meant to support seven individuals still on trial for inciting riots during the 1968 convention.

The Illinois National Guard deployed. Chicago authorities arrested nearly 290 Weathermen.

Fred Hampton, the head of Chicago’s Black Panther Party, and one of the individuals on trial, blasted the Weather Underground and distanced himself and his comrades for these actions. “We believe that the Weatherman action is anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic. It’s chauvinistic, it’s Custeristic. … It’s nothing but child’s play, it’s folly.”

Chicago police officers murdered Hampton during a raid on a Black Panther Party apartment on Dec. 4, 1969. Between 1968 and 1977, the Weathermen bombed the homes of government officials and official buildings, including the Pentagon.

At the same time, Nixon’s two terms were dogged by scandal and unrest. In 1974, the controversial leader resigned rather than face impeachment.

For the next three decades, presidents and presidential elections largely escaped the kind of politically-motivated violence of the 1960s and early 1970s. Mental health issues motivated the next few presidential assassins more than political ideology did. During the 1972 election campaign, paranoid schizophrenic Arthur Bremer determined to kill either Nixon or the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace.

Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin after a Weather Underground Bombing in 1970. Photo via UW Digital Collections

Rather than wanting to make a political statement, Bremer sought notoriety. After deciding it would be too hard to get to Nixon, he shot and paralyzed Wallace on May 15, 1972. Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr., wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster. A court deemed him not guilty by reason of insanity.

Still, political violence and violence that prompted political action persisted throughout the United States. Government raids on members of fringe political movements became rallying cries for similar organizations across the country. This fringe fire burned brightest in the first half of the 1990s.

In August 1992, federal agents laid siege to the home of Randy Weaver and his family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Weaver’s wife Vicki, their 14-year-old son Samuel and Deputy U.S. Marshal Bill Degan died in the 10-day standoff.

Less than a year later, a federal task force that included elements of the Texas and Alabama National Guards surrounded a compound owned by David Koresh and his Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas. On April 19, 1993, a fire consumed the site a federal agents and state troops moved in to arrest the occupants.

Nearly 80 members of the radical sect, including women and children as young as two years old, died in the blaze. Two years later to the day, in direct response to the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahom City.

American political violence has been largely dormant in the intervening 20 years. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. In 2011, paranoid schizophrenic Jared Lee Loughner killed six people in an attempt to assassinate Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Fast forward to 2016 and the years of increasing tensions make for a scenario eerily similar to 1968. Again, American politics are beset by a broad set of factors, including racial and societal tensions, inflamed by a politician who talks like a populist autocrat.

To get a sense of what Washington is preparing for, War Is Boring used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain official documents from various federal agencies regarding their preparing for the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

There were “no indication of any specific or credible threats directed at the 2016 Democratic National Convention events,” according to an unclassified assessment from the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center.

However, the assessment described a laundry list of potential actors, from foreign terrorists — to homegrown radicals inspired by overseas group — to domestic extremists. The review brings up Islamic State’s attacks in Paris and on the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida plus the July 2016 attack on police in Dallas, Texas.

According to the report, protests could easily lead to disruptions or violence. The analysts lumped together supporters of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement and white supremacist organizations such as Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party as prime examples.

Any attacks or other violence could cause physical and economic or psychological impacts that might provoke additional crises. Depending on the size and nature of the incident, local, state and federal government could need additional resources to respond and still protect the convention sites.

“Attacks on events, such as the Democratic National Convention events, have resonating effects,” the assessment explained. “Additionally, Philadelphia has an abundance of historic and symbolic landmarks and provides numerous opportunities to attack both people and symbolic infrastructure.”

“Any attack including one on a nationally significant and symbolic target will have a more pronounced effect on national psyche.”

The reviewers put together 12 potential signs of possible violent activity, but warned that any of them could easily be constitutionally protected. Police would need to collect “additional facts that justify reasonable suspicion” before arresting anyone.

That’s good advice. The indicators included “reports to law enforcement that individuals have adopted significant behavioral changes,” “consumption and sharing of media glorifying violent extremists [sic] acts,” “interpreting and using religious texts to justify violence to prospective recruits” and “acquisition of suspicious quantities of weapons and ammunition or materials that could be used to produce explosives.”

Thankfully, the 2016 Democratic National Convention proved uneventful. On July 27, 2016, a man did ram the gate at the FBI office in Pittsburgh, on the other side of the state.

Thomas Ross claimed he had a bomb in his truck before plowing through the barrier, causing significant damage. A thorough inspection of the vehicle didn’t turn up any explosives.

Back in Philadelphia, the National Guard task force at the convention simply recorded the incident in their regular situation reports. The only other significant activities the briefings noted were traffic accidents.

Hopefully the 2016 general election proves to be equally quiet.

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