What do cattle herders in South Sudan and voters in Minneapolis have in common? Today, the answer is the Nonviolent Peace Force, a nonprofit protection agency that usually works in international conflict zones. But when I went to vote this morning at my polling place in the Near North neighborhood of Minneapolis, there were the Nonviolent Peace Force volunteers, wearing blaze orange vests with the words “Democracy Defenders” on the back.
They were there largely because the NPF’s U.S. office is located here, said Marna Anderson, NPF’s US director. After a police officer killed George Floyd this summer, the agency decided that it wanted to bring its work close to home, using volunteers from the community, just like they do elsewhere.
But distrust and tensions are running high in this city. When I got home from voting, my neighborhood listserv was blowing up with folks who were worried the Democracy Defenders were there to disrupt or intimidate voters. And that, too, is familiar to Anderson. “It’s just the nature of what happens in a conflict. When you have a lot of tension between groups and political polarization there’s a lot of suspicion,” she said.
So far, Anderson said, it’s been a perfectly boring day in Minneapolis. But there was an incident at the polling station where she was volunteering that really highlighted the need for peaceful conflict resolution in the face of partisan suspicion. A pickup truck with two Trump flags and an American flag pulled up outside Loring Elementary, sparking anxiety in this heavily Black part of the city. But it turned out the two men inside were just there to vote. When a poll worker asked them to move their car further away from the polling place, they did. “That could have easily been a problem,” she said. “In this environment it’s easy for rumors to get started and people to react without thinking.”