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Making real the promises of democracy

A statement on the 2020 Election by the American Friends Service Committee

Photo: / AFSC

"If we desire a society of peace, then we cannot achieve such a society through violence. If we desire a society without discrimination, then we must not discriminate against anyone in the process of building this society. If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end." — Bayard Rustin, Quaker and civil rights leader

As a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) avoids hyperbole and exaggeration, believing the plain truth carries more weight. And the plain truth is that the upcoming U.S. election in November 2020 is one of the most momentous world events in our organization’s 103-year history.

AFSC is a global community devoted to building a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. As a nonprofit organization, we do not express preferences for any candidate or political party. That is not our role. As a network of people from around the world with experience in preventing election violence, defending human rights, and building conditions for peace, our role is to advocate boldly in partnership with communities striving to live lives free of oppression, violence, inequality, and exploitation. That is why we are called to speak out about threats to our democracy and society as this election unfolds.

We are deeply concerned about the lives and safety of Black, Brown, LGBTQIA, Muslim, Jewish, and other groups who may be targeted during and after the election, as white supremacists are increasingly emboldened. We call for all people to stand together against hate and violence, and we are committed to providing resources on allyship and bystander intervention to support those seeking to defuse violence and intervene in oppression.  We call on leaders from all walks of life to speak against election violence, particularly the rise of white supremacist violence that plagues our country.

We believe that everyone should have safe access to vote, and everyone’s vote must be counted, without interference or intimidation. This is an essential human right and a core commitment of any healthy democracy. It is up to all of us to stand against voter suppression, felony disenfranchisement, intimidation, purging, and other tactics that help political leaders pick their constituents instead of constituents picking leaders to represent them. 

Our staff have worked to counter election violence in many countries. Through our experience, as well as the research of scholars such as Sarah Birch and David Muchlinski, we find that multi-party commitment to election integrity is a key factor in preventing election violence. If the voters show that they want new leaders, we call on all government officials and candidates at every level to support a peaceful transfer of power. This is fundamental to our democracy and should not be questioned. 

Respect for opposition and peaceful protest is another key factor in avoiding election violence. A healthy democracy cherishes the right of the people to protest. When governments repress dissent, violence is much more likely. AFSC has led and joined nonviolent protests for decades. While we recognize that there are valid concerns during a global pandemic, we see many tactics being employed to prevent people from demonstrating that have no public health grounds. For instance in Florida, the governor has proposed legislation that would make it a felony to participate in gatherings of more than seven people from which any property damage occurs, while granting protections to people who drive cars into crowds of protesters, even if someone is injured or killed. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, 40 U.S. states have considered anti-protest legislation during the last four years and the federal government has several pending executive orders to pressure local governments into harsh police repression of demonstrations. 

There is never any justification for violence against protesters by police, federal authorities, or others who disagree with their positions. We call on local, state, and federal governments to respect the rights of protesters. 

We believe that collective action is the way forward. We cannot wait for others to do the right thing. We will be a part of efforts to ensure that all votes are counted and engage in peaceful protests if the right to vote is not respected.   

We also recognize that millions of people in the United States are already prohibited from voting—whether because they are currently or formerly incarcerated or are blocked from obtaining U.S. citizenship. This is not unique to this election, but evidence of the ongoing failure of the United States to live up to democratic ideals. Despite these obstacles, we see every day the tremendous organizing and advocacy by people who cannot vote but are nevertheless committed to making their communities and this country healthier, stronger, and more equitable. And we stand together in working for a world where everyone can participate in decisions that impact their lives. 

At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. implored our nation that “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” This is as true today in 2020 as it was in 1963.

No matter who is in the White House, the Supreme Court, or Congress, we need a government truly committed to the well-being of the people. It is essential that our local, state, and federal governments address the economic, public health, climate, housing, and racial justice crises. As we approach the election, these converging crises are harming all of us, with a vastly disproportionate impact on people of color and poor people. Leaders should invest in our communities and stop wasteful and hurtful investments in military and militarized policing, prisons, detention, and immigration enforcement.

This is a tense moment in history. But it is not the first tense moment in history. Over the course of the last century, we have seen people across the globe rise to the challenges and choose a better path forward. We hope that candidates, government leaders and officials, and the people of this country will stand together in unity to ensure we see fair elections and transfers of power—and take action to resolve the crises that are plaguing our nation and world. By acting together, we can address the major health, climate, equity, and other crises we face today and build momentum for democracy, peace, and justice. 

This is a time for courageous action, grounded in our commitments to each other and our deep and unwavering conviction that together we can build a better future.