Something Important Happened in Detroit

Election challengers protest and demand to enter the room where ballots were being counted in Detroit on Nov 4. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Election challengers protest and demand to enter the room where ballots were being counted in Detroit on Nov 4. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

by Rev. Wendy von Courter, Dan Luker, and Bob Master

November 4th, 2020, TFC Convention Center, Michigan Ballot counting location

The day after the election, November 4th, large groups of people gathered outside the TFC Convention Center in Detroit where the votes for the presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the state of Michigan were being counted. The group included people hoping for different outcomes of the vote count, a few police, and seven A-Team de-escalators/peacekeepers from the organization Frontline Election Defenders.  Here are two perspectives from the A-Team on what happened that day.

The telling by a Faith-based leader:

Two local Vietnam vets just returned from Detroit where they served as Frontline Election Defenders and they have a story they want us to hear. “Something important happened in Detroit,” said Dan Luker” who, along with his best friend, Bob Masters drove the 800 miles to be peacekeepers. The two met at Standing Rock and discovered they were both in Vietnam 1969-1970. They experienced more violence in that war than they care to remember and have dedicated their lives since then to peace. Both are members of Veterans for Peace and both felt called to work with the nonpartisan group Frontline Election Defenders.  They landed in Detroit where they were teamed with Laura, Monica, Walter, Gini, and Wendy.

“It was very tense” said Dan, noting the presence of nearly 300 people outside of the TFC Center where the ballot counting continued into the wee hours of Thursday morning. People were shouting, many were unmasked, and the team suspected some were armed. Some of the team had spent much of the night in the counting room itself, joining democratic and republican observers. “It’s been difficult to see all the misreporting of those hours,” said Rev. von Courter “because what we witnessed was hardworking ballot counters working under extreme scrutiny and processes that kicked in smoothly whenever there was a question about a ballot. The process is well oiled, and observers were given the attention they were due. Sadly, some of the observers didn’t respect the guidelines and were repeatedly asked to step back to keep the counters safe.”

But that is not the story Dan wants to share. “What I want people to hear is that amid the rancor and the inflamed rhetoric, there was an invitation for us all to breathe, together. It was such a privilege to be there, as a team dedicated to non-violence. One of the most poignant moments I had was when my veteran brother, Bob, and I got in between the warring groups and were able to de-escalate. There were these two fellows, clearly on opposite sides, screaming at one another and it began to escalate with shoving. Bob and I placed our bodies in between them, looked them each in the eye and just kept talking, but more importantly listening. The tension did not go away entirely, and I suspect no opinions were changed. But in that brief slice of time, together, we all moved away from what could have ended violently.”

“I think that is the story we want to share,” said Rev. von Courter “ With all the heat, and hatred in the air, we all need a reminder that we’re part of a single family. Throughout the day, Dan and Bob kept offering people, regardless of what ‘side’ they were on, an invitation to connect and breathe together. I watched them invite each person to connect with their best selves and it is an invitation I know I want to heed. And I hope others do as well.

The telling by two Vietnam Veterans:

We were chosen as the Michigan A-Team and are a truly diverse team.  Bob and I are Vietnam veterans, and are joined by a lesbian couple (one a minister), a Gen Xer, and two Millennial women, one of which is queer. All of us are experienced de-escalators who were trained and deployed to Michigan by the nonpartisan organization, Frontline Election Defenders. Our mission was to protect voters from intimidation and promote a safe and fair election process in the context of a highly charged political environment with significant risks of conflict.

On November 4th, we spent six hours de-escalating situation after situation outside the Detroit TFC Convention Center as the votes were being counted. There were about 200 Trump supporters including some militia and white supremacists. We suspected and it was later confirmed that some were armed.  They were chanting “stop the count” and some were pounding on the glass windows. About 100 Trump supporters rushed the convention doors and were held back by a handful of police. As our contingent of de-escalators watched from close behind the demonstrators, tensions were clearly peaking.

A short time later opposing local left wing political and social justice groups, including BLM and possible antifa began showing up.  At the same time more Trump supporters including more militia elements and members of white supremacist groups started trickling in.  Our group of seven, who had met in person only a few hours before, started doing what we were trained to do, de-escalation. I have never been part of a more cohesive, professional, and brave group of de-escalators.

Right away, angry men started yelling and pushing each other. Given our veteran de-escalation experience, we (Dan and Bob) instinctively stepped in between them as the rest of the team moved in as back up.  Facing the militia looking person Dan said, “I am here as a Vietnam veteran with Frontline Election Defenders.  We are nonpartisan and here to ensure no one on either side gets arrested or injured and any protests remains peaceful.”

He replied, “I am not the one who will get hurt and why are you facing me when that guy over there is screaming at me?”

Dan then turned to face the antifa looking person, put his fingertips together, elbows out and motioned down to lower the volume much like a symphony orchestra conductor would.  A welcomed reply from antifa came, “Oh, am I being too loud?”  To which Dan, said “Yes!”. With a response, “I’m sorry “

Turning back to militia Dan quietly says “better?” the reply was “Yes that’s better”

However shortly afterwards both sides started to rachet emotions up again. Dan turns to antifa with a nonverbal lowering motion of his arms to which antifa says “Oh yea, Sorry” as he lowers his voice.

Dan then turns back around to the militia person, asking him to lower the volume too, but he does not.  Two muscular 30-something men with long beards step in beside him with a clear order “bring it down, bring it down, then louder, Stop!!”  He does. Then moments later both antifa and militia disperse.  The two bearded men turn to Dan and say, “thank you, we are glad you are here.”  Dan replies, “Thank you for your help there.”  They elbow bump and part.

This scene played out repeatedly over the next 4 hours. There were no police, no barriers, no separation of the two groups. After a tense and exhausting day, in this context of intense political polarization, our peacekeeping group was thanked by both the Trump supporters and Biden supporters as we de-escalated another 6 to 8 situations.

The afternoon and evening were filled with both fear and hope. Even though it was sunny and warm we noticed several men with large jackets and overcoats, some with weighted pockets (weapons?).  They were tactically placed, observing, and talking into their phones and earpieces. At the same time, a few young black men were yelling at a few alt-right individuals who were yelling back.

Bob, Wendy, our faith-based leader, and Dan moved between them.  Walter, Laura, Monica, and Gini moved in as back up while reporting the situation to our leadership. Throughout this whole event, we were in constant contact with Frontline Election Defenders leadership, apprising them of our situation. They responded with constant support.

We asked the groups to bring it down a few decibels, they did, and the conflict became a discussion.  They started agreeing on what some of the problems are:  healthcare, jobs, never ending wars.  They did not agree on the solutions to those problems, but they agreed on the problems.  After a few minutes of open discussion, they all fist bumped and go their own ways.  Another remarkable and unexpected outcome.

It is essential that our nation immediately begin the process of healing divisions and restoring trust in our democratic institutions. You may ask why we are sharing this information:

  1.  To let others know what happened in Detroit on November 4th.
  2. To demonstrate what successful peacekeeping/de-escalation looks like and let everyone know that peacekeeping/de-escalation skills can be learned and are being taught.
  3. To plant a seed that such de-escalation efforts can have an important role in preventing a spiral of violence by promoting safe dialog.
  4. To suggest that veterans and faith-based leaders may be best positioned to lead national peacekeeping and de-escalation, allowing for safe dialog across political lines.
  5. To illustrate how strangers can come together in an hour of need and make a difference.
  6. To sound the alarm. Without such efforts on the streets, in meeting halls and places of worship, the very preservation of our democracy is in jeopardy.

Our A Team of de-escalators hold the hope that intermediaries such as veterans and faith-based leaders, with support from various diverse groups may be able to bridge the canyon that separates Americans. We promote that coming together in safety encourages discussion. We hope everyone can begin talking as well as listening about how we can heal this rift and solve the serious problems facing this nation and the world.

We would like to add a quote from an article by Graham, Renee, “America doesn’t want unity.  It wants absolution without restitution.” Boston Globe, November 16, 2020: Ta-Nehisi Coates said” I don’t know how you conduct research that says your very existence is rooted in a great crime and you just say, at best, ‘Sorry’, and walk away.  For it’s entire existence America has mostly walked away.  From 250 years of Black people in bondage to the genocidal “Trail of Tears” that forced thousands of Indigenous people from their lands in the 1800s: from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre during which white people killed hundreds and destroyed that Oklahoma’s city “Black Wall Street”………this nation opts for historical amnesia over atonement.

We need to bridge the gaps that divide us, but before we can truly heal and move forward, we need to understand and take responsibility for our past and start the difficult process of atoning for our wrongdoings.

We want to thank everyone on both sides that helped our “A-Team” keep the peace that day. Also, we owe a special thanks to the National Lawyers Guild and a Detroit based, all black, violence de-escalator group for their support. Lastly, we must recognize the inspirational Leadership and support of our L.J. Amsterdam from Frontline Election Defenders who has been a loving rock in all that we do. We cannot end without including our thanks to Election Defenders, Wayne County Captain, Brennan Dougherty.


Written by:

Rev.  Wendy von Courter, Mentor to the UU Community of Learning at Boston University School of Theology       Former Parish minister at Unitarian Universalist Church  2006 – 2020

Dan Luker, US Army, Vietnam 1969-1970, Coordinator, Veterans for Peace, Chapter 9, 2016-2018

Robert Master, US Army, Vietnam 1969-1970, Coordinator, Veterans for Peace, Chapter 9, 2018-2020