By Ken Stone
A group of local academics fears that San Diego could be touched by “historic civil unrest” — including possible violence — in the event of a contested national election.
Four leaders of the civil political dialogue community sent email Thursday to 70 people calling for a “rock soup” of skills, experiences and commitment to “keep San Diego safe, sane and civil in the weeks to come.”
Specific concerns weren’t detailed in the email, but the four linked to a Guardian article headlined “The threat from right-wing terror groups is more serious than for decades.”
“We are appealing to any institution and organization with the experience, lift and interest to immediately reach out to us to help organize the initial infrastructure for this effort,” said the email signed by Necla Tschirgi of the University of San Diego Kroc School of Peace Studies, Andrew Blum of the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Carl Luna of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement and Ken Druck of The Jenna Druck Center.
The signatories said: “Normally you could take this email and put it in your ‘crazy sky is falling’ spam folder. We really wish this were the case this year, but it simply is not. … We sincerely hope that our fears … will ultimately prove baseless and the days leading up to and weeks following the election will be civil and nonviolent.”
But the four said they had an obligation to at least discuss planning for scenarios and consider constructive, nonviolent outlets for people to voice concerns and emotions after the fraught presidential election.
The email said the initiative is supported by senior leadership of the University of San Diego and San Diego Community College District.
The letter urged participants to respond by Saturday night, asking about logistics and coordination.
“Once we’ve established our initial cohort, we will get back to you by email (targeting Monday, 10/26) to share the group consensus on how to move forward,” the letter said. “We are serving as the initiators and clearinghouse for establishing this effort. We hope this becomes a group-driven collaborative as quickly as possible.”
The chairs of the San Diego Democratic and Republican parties didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
But in a statement, San Diego-based U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said: “All state, local and federal law enforcement partners are meeting regularly to share information and plan for all possible election-related events.”
A spokeswoman for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office said that agency has a representative working with the academic group and “very much [backs] their efforts to support civil discourse and peaceful protest.”
“We support First Amendment rights, but when people become violent and commit crimes it disrespects the peaceful protesters, and our office is responsible for protecting public safety by holding individuals accountable for their criminal actions,” spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said via email.
Lt. Ricardo Lopez of the county Sheriff’s Department said his agency has worked with the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice in the past and would be happy to have a dialogue with them to share ideas.
He said the department works closely with local, state and federal law enforcement partners as well as the Law Enforcement Coordination Center to investigate any threats to public safety.
“While we can’t discuss tactics, every threat received by the Sheriff’s Department is taken seriously and evaluated to determine the validity,” Lopez said. “Cases determined to be valid are investigated and acted upon accordingly. Sheriff’s sworn and professional employees routinely train to prepare to respond to crowd management events. Our goal is to protect the public’s right to free speech. We encourage the peaceful gathering of people.”
Also contacted, but not yet responding, was the San Diego Police Department.
The email, sent a little after 7 p.m. Thursday, also linked to a Time magazine article headlined: “‘Plan for the Worst and Hope for the Best.’ Why Law Enforcement Officials Are Worried About Post-Election Violence.”
The subject line of the email: “An Urgent Request To Work Together To Prevent Electoral Violence in San Diego.”
The email came amid concerns that Facebook groups like Defend East County, with 22,000 followers, were harboring conversations that could encourage violence in the wake of a Joe Biden victory in the presidential election.
President Trump has been criticized for not tamping down factions, including nongovernmental militias, that advocate for “defending” the United States from “socialists” backing Biden.
In an email interview Friday, Luna of San Diego Mesa College responded to certain issues.
Times of San Diego: What are your specific concerns for San Diego?
Carl Luna: We are in uncharted territory when it comes to possibilities of political violence in our nation. Tempers haven’t been this hot since the 1960s and political division since the 1930s – or 1860.
There is no end to academic, journalistic and government reporting that threats of political violence around the country are real. While San Diego is a beautiful beach city, there is no reason to think we would not see violence spread here if it starts elsewhere unless there is some cognizance and action to prevent it from doing so.
This doesn’t mean silencing political participation – just working to channel participation into peaceful and effective expressions. We are acting under the old prescription that a pound of prevention is worth a ton of cure. It may well be that there are already substantial and robust organizational structures and strategies in place to keep San Diego safe and sane in the weeks ahead. We are trying to assess how robust these efforts are.
Your email cites an article focusing on fears of violence from right-wing groups. What evidence do you see of this in San Diego County?
San Diego has, like many communities across California, a long history with more extreme political groups – KKK, white supremacists, John Birch Society, etc. (think Tom Metzger back in the 1980s) in modern times.
Our outreach is, in no small part, to see how other organizations are assessing threats of political violence associated with the election and what plans are already in place/being developed to channel political participation into peaceful and effective pathways. Our focus isn’t on “right-wing” or “left-wing” violence but on preventing violence from any source as any political violence threatens the legitimacy of our electoral democracy.
Have you contacted law enforcement agencies in San Diego County? Do you intend to reach out to such agencies?
We are in the process of trying to build a broad coalition of nongovernmental and governmental actors.
Have you contacted local Republican and Democratic leaders for their cooperation?
Our focus at this point is on nonpolitical, nonpartisan organizations. Parties are currently wrapped up in the election itself. Moving forward, we would greatly appreciate seeing both parties’ leadership clearly and unequivocally renouncing any resort to violence by anyone for any reason.
How can average citizens get involved in your project?
Right now there is no actual operational project. We are at the exploratory stage to see a) are there groups that agree this is an issue to confront? and b) what levels of cooperation and coordination can be developed? Taking this message to the public follows based on what we can accomplish in “a” and “b.”
Updated at 5:38 p.m. Oct. 23, 2020
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: