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Is Conflict Inevitable After a Contentious 2020 Election?

photo of Jarrod Bowen
Carter Adams
Jarrod Bowen, a leader in the 45th Regimental Ohio Volunteer Infantry, poses for a portrait during a rally for President Donald Trump at the Kamm Shopping Plaza in Cleveland Nov. 7.

President Trump’s refusal to concede the presidential election has rallied his supporters, including self-styled militias. That follows tension during the campaign, including an alleged attempt by an anti-government group to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer last month. Individuals on both sides of the political spectrum are preparing for the worst while there are others trying to ensure people stay safe.

Tired of attacks from the left

On the outskirts of a pro-Trump rally in Cleveland over the weekend, Jarrod Bowen stood wearing camouflage fatigues, a back-the-blue patch on his bullet proof plate carrier, and a pistol on his thigh.

Bowen says he’s an army veteran and the former commander of the Ohio 45th Regimental Volunteer Infantry, a group in which he is still an active member. He says he’s tired of attacks from the left and sees demonstrations like the one he attended as a positive sign.

“We've taken enough bullying from everybody on the left, and we're showing them that we're not going to sit for it anymore. And if it comes down to it, I'll die on my feet before I serve on my knees,” he said.

Bowen says the 45th is in the process of getting certified by the state in an effort to make themselves available to the governor should the need arise. According to Christopher Banks, a professor of political science at Kent State University, there’s no law in Ohio that says a governor could do that. In fact, the only militia recognized by the state is the National Guard.

“At least they could try, and whether they succeed or not is an open question,” Banks said.

Despite this, Bowen’s unit, comprised largely of veterans and first responders, is preparing for what comes next. Which, he says, may involve his unit doing “less than clean work.”

“We are preparing for what's coming. I can't say that it's going to be violent. I can't say it's going to be chaos," Bowen said. "The left, what's coming for them, is going to be a lot less pretty. And this is what they wanted. So you're getting it.”

The counterweight

While Bowen’s militia, and dozens like his, are preparing to go on the offensive, other groups are preparing to be the counterweight.

Kenny, who asked his last name not be used, is also a veteran and a member of a civilian armed group. The group he’s part of, however, does not call itself a militia. It’s a loose coalition of activists, leftists and veterans engaging in what they call community self-defense.

Though there is a strong focus on preparing to defend against violence, Kenny says the vast majority of the work the coalition does is non-violent, ensuring basic needs such as food and shelter are met, by and for members of the community the group serves.

“I would like to point out that while we are preparing for the worst, we're not expecting the worst. Our main focus is building our community, helping the affected communities within our cities,” he said.

But many in the group own guns and are training on how to use them both safely and effectively. A lot of that comes from Kenny who uses the training he received in the Army.

“I never thought I would be bringing those skills back home and teaching my fellow citizens how to engage in combat," Kenny said. "I'm upset that it has come to this. I'm disappointed that we're so polarized as a nation that anybody is preparing for this. This is a testament to just how divided we are.”

In the middle, trying to maintaining calm

In between, perhaps literally, are those training to deal with the aftermath of any trouble, like T. Nicholas Domitrovik. He’s a “street medic,” preparing to lend aid to those who request it at demonstrations and protests in the coming months.

“The main goal of street medicing is to help humanize that person to help spread calm and to be the first, if they get injured, be the first line of medical aid," he said.

Domitrovik says even though they work in a highly partisan environment, street medics stay unbiased.

“The biggest thing with medics in general is that we want to be non-affiliated with real organizations. And by that, I mean, it shows bias if we organize an event ourselves as medics.”

The primary goal, Domitrovik says, it to reassure people that street medics are supporters, making sure they know … ,"there are people that will take on some form of responsibility for them and they will be safe."

Like those surrounding the presidential election itself, questions of safety in the streets remain unanswered.

Corrected: November 13, 2020 at 1:32 PM EST
This story has been updated to correct a typo in the caption for the lead photo.
Carter is an award winning multimedia journalist specializing in audio reporting and photojournalism. His work has appeared in NPR, The Washington Post and The Portager, where he works as a photo editor and reporter. His reporting centers around working class issues and the LGBTQIA+ community with a focus on voter disenfranchisement.