Twenty years ago, the United States Presidential election was undergoing a crisis. On Election Night, November 7, 2000, the nation waited with bated breath as Florida was first announced for Democrat Al Gore, then Republican George Bush, then backpedaled completely, claiming the results too close to call with confidence. That night, the count in Florida saw Bush winning by just 1784 votes, automatically prompting a machine-recount. Three days later, the automated recount results showed Bush leading again, but only by a scant 327 votes. The Gore campaign requested manual recounts in four counties, in part citing possible malfunctions with some of the voting machines and the “chads,” the bits of paper hole-punched out of ballots. Some ballots seemed to have “hanging chads” and other incompletions, leading to possible miscounts with the machines. All of these requests were legal according to Floridian law, and reasonable given the extremely close margin between the two candidates as well as the outstanding issues with the automated counting machines. The Gore campaign organized a legal team to argue his case in the Florida Supreme Court, and was granted the deadline of November 25 to complete the recount. Gore seemed to have won the legal case, and as the recount went ahead, the corrected results seemed to be counting in his favor.
Meanwhile, however, a team of lawyers and other paid operatives of the Bush campaign and the Republican Party arrived in Florida. Well-coordinated and seasoned from working the campaign trail, they set about organizing protests among locals, trying to rile up conservatives and especially Cuban-Americans by conjuring up stories of leftists stealing elections. By November 22, with just three days left to count over 650,000 ballots, the officials at Miami-Dade County decided to focus on the 10,750 ballots that could not be read by the machines. By their own admission, Republicans expected the county to go to Gore. And so, as the counting continued, dozens of protesters led by those Republican operatives kicked, punched, and shoved themselves onto the floor of the building where the ballots were being counted, attempting to halt the process. According to the Democratic Chairman of Miami-Dade County at the time, Joe Geller, he was unable to even test his hypothesis about the machine errors due to protesters harassing him, accusing him of stealing ballots. While some Republicans maintain that most of the protesters were locals, there were enough Washington-types prominent in the crowd for the incident to be named for the distinctly conservative and expensive style of dress of most of the participants: “the Brooks Brothers Riot.” Among the Republican operatives involved were Roger Stone, former member of Nixon’s reelection committee, and current Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. These besuited thugs intimidated the Miami-Dade County Board with such a sudden and shocking show that the Board unanimously suspended the recount hours after the encounter. The Board was convinced that continuing the recount would be perceived as illegitimate by the public, and that that negative perception might damage the democratic process as a whole -- ignoring the fact that calling off the recount actually disenfranchised thousands of voters, and that stopping the count of all official votes is fundamentally anti-democratic.
The recent reports coming out from Michigan, Arizona, and other battleground states of protesters attempting to disrupt or otherwise influence the electoral results through intimidation share some similarities with the Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000: mostly white, conservative, rowdy. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable difference is in the clothes: someone dubbed one of these ballot count disruptions in Michigan the “JC Penney Riot.” But focusing so much on the aesthetics of the protests ignores the most important difference between the Brooks Brothers Riot and these 2020 disruptions: the riot in 2000 was planned, organized, and executed by political operatives with months of experience on the presidential campaign trail. They knew each other, had worked together, trusted each other. With far less participants than in the large pro-Trump rallies being held now, those few Brooks Brothers rioters coordinated their demonstration so effectively that they got what they wanted within hours. These protests today, whether organized by locals on the ground or people within the Trump administration, so far do not seem to be nearly as well-organized. While President Trump has called for voter intimidation for weeks, it appears that he has not put in the work to actually organize such efforts. On the other side, however, national groups like Protect the Results, Election Defenders, and Choose Democracy have been preparing for weeks to ensure the elections are safe, accessible, and legitimate for all. Those groups have been analyzing the threats to the election, training people in de-escalation and nonviolent action, and coordinating with local groups for local efforts. The relative lack of voter intimidation, conflicts, and other issues this year despite calls to do so can likely be credited in-part to these groups. And if some of the present pro-Trump demonstrations continue to grow and even organize themselves, these same groups will still be here ready to respond.
We must remember that politics is about power. Foreign observers have said that the institutions of American democracy are more fragile now than ever. Americans themselves openly worry about an imminent second civil war. But American conservatism has always held the rest of the country hostage against itself, using violence or the threat of violence to coerce society and government. Proud Boys and Oathkeepers are just some of the more recent incarnations of the long history of organized American racism and xenophobia. In 2019, Twitter made controversial news when it was revealed that executives at Twitter refused to implement an automatic content filter for White supremacy and neo-nazism because too many currently seated US Republicans would be kicked off the platform. A refrain circulating the internet goes: “Racism is so American that when you protest it, people think you are protesting America.” Perhaps we should not be so shocked that racist gangs and militias like the Proud Boys and the Oathkeepers have been praised repeatedly by the sitting President, and that members are often indistinguishable from “normal” community members. Maybe with the collective trauma of 9/11 -- and all the other disruptions that followed -- most Americans forgot about the Brooks Brothers Riot as just one more issue among the seemingly endless problems that plagued the 2000 election results in Florida. But it should have been a wake-up call. It’s long since time to examine our history honestly, without excusing or brushing aside the repeated pattern of right-wing violence as legitimate expressions of political power.
Sources & Further Reading:
Berman, Ari. “How the 2000 Election in Florida Led to a New Wave of Voter Disenfranchisement.” The Nation. 28 July 2015. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-the-2000-election-in-florida-led-to-a-new-wave-of-voter-disenfranchisement/
Cox, Joseph and Jason Koebler. “Why Won’t Twitter Treat White Supremacy Like ISIS? Because It Would Mean Banning Some Republican Politicians Too.” Vice. 25 April 2019. https://www.vice.com/en/article/a3xgq5/why-wont-twitter-treat-white-supremacy-like-isis-because-it-would-mean-banning-some-republican-politicians-too
Gabbot, Adam. “Two decades after the 'Brooks Brothers riot', experts fear graver election threats.” The Guardian. 24 September 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/24/us-elections-2020-violence-fears-brooks-brothers-riot
Heye, Douglas. “I was in the 2000 ‘Brooks Brothers Riot.’ Trump supporters are way out of line.” The Washington Post. 5 November 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/11/05/trump-stop-count-maricopa-detroit-protests/
Kim, Richard. “Why The Brooks Brothers Riot Matters Now.” HuffPost. 5 November 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brooks-brothers-riot-trump_n_5fa44256c5b623bfac4d4043
Miller, Michael E. “‘It’s insanity!’: How the ‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ killed the 2000 recount in Miami.” The Washington Post. 15 November 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/11/15/its-insanity-how-brooks-brothers-riot-killed-recount-miami/
Shuham, Matt. “‘Brooks Brothers Riot’ Redux: GOP Sends Supporters To Swarm MI Vote-Counting Center.” Talking Points Memo. 4 November 2020. https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/brooks-brothers-riot-redux-gop-sends-supporters-to-swarm-mi-vote-counting-center
Steinbaum, Marshall. “Brooks Brothers Riot.” Jacobin. 22 September 2016. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/09/trump-brexit-racism-xenophobia-globalization-gop/
Wolf, Cam. “The Brooks Brothers Riot, the J.C. Penney Skirmish, and the Changing Republican Uniform.” GQ. 5 November 2020. https://www.gq.com/story/brooks-brothers-riot-2020