Protesters across the country battled as the nation’s election counts dragged on, with violence by left-wing agitators erupting in Democrat-run cities even while Joseph R. Biden was closing in on a presidential win.
The protesters have caused plenty of chaos since Election Day but lack a set of demands or an agenda. Unlike this summer’s demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality, the postelection protesters are charging ahead with chaos as their only goal.
In Chicago, protesters marched against both Mr. Biden and President Trump.
“F—- Trump, f—- Biden too. They don’t give a f—- about you,” members of the Democratic Socialists of America chanted as they walked through the city’s downtown.
Protesters in New York started chanting “Count the vote” in response to Mr. Trump’s demand that poll workers stop counting ballots in states where he was ahead. That quickly gave way to anti-police slogans and harassment of outdoor diners.
The protests may have started against Mr. Trump, but two people clad in black torched a Biden campaign sign, leading to cheers and applause, according to social media videos.
The uncertainty of the election’s outcome helps explain why the demonstrators are all over the map, said Lauren Duncan, a professor at Smith College who has written about the psychology of protesters.
“We all knew the election would not be decided on election night, so people are anxious and have this energy they want to direct towards some sort of behavior. That would explain why the protests are incoherent,” she said. “The uncertainty equals chaos.”
A lack of agenda isn’t stopping agitators from clashing with police across the country.
The Oregon National Guard was deployed in Portland, and a riot was declared there Wednesday night. At least 11 people were arrested and multiple businesses were vandalized amid the chaos.
Businesses damaged included a church that feeds the needy and a women-owned business that raises money for immigrants and women’s rights.
“Indiscriminate destruction solves nothing. These are acts of privilege,” said Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat.
Among those arrested was a man accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at officers. He was wearing a tactical vest and had a loaded rifle with additional magazines, an explosive device, a knife and cans of spray paint, police said.
In New York City, roughly 60 people were arrested on charges of trespassing or setting fires.
One of the protesters arrested was Devina Singh, 24, who was caught on video screaming profanities at a police sergeant before apparently spitting on him.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said officers seized powerful M-80s firecrackers, knives, a taser and spray paint from protesters.
In Minneapolis, police detained about 200 people after protesters blocked a highway.
“I think that chaos is the agenda of at least the most destructive and disruptive members of these protests are, at heart, anarchists. They are not interested in the institutions of a civil government,” said Randy Petersen, a former police officer and senior researcher for Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice advocacy group.
A handful of protests had discernable goals.
In Phoenix, about 150 Trump supporters demonstrated outside the Maricopa County government office where votes were being counted. Arizona, a key swing state, was called Tuesday for Mr. Biden by The Associated Press. But Republicans disputed the outcome and Mr. Biden’s thin lead was dwindling as the counting continued.
Demonstrators chanted “stop the steal,” a slogan that gained popularity among the right based on Mr. Trump’s claim that the election was being stolen from him.
Another pro-Trump demonstration erupted in Detroit as votes were being counted. Michigan, another swing state, was called for Mr. Biden on Wednesday, but protesters pounded on the windows and shouted, “Stop the count,” according to media reports.
No violence was reported at the pro-Trump demonstrations in Arizona.
Protesters in Minneapolis said they were demonstrating against Mr. Trump’s policies and his premature claim of election victory.
Although some clashes between police and protesters erupted, the postelection unrest marked a shift from this summer when violence, arson and looting broke out during demonstrations against police brutality.
Betsy Brantner Smith, an executive with the National Police Association, said police were more prepared for rioting this time.
Officials and businesses across the country braced for the postelection violence by boarding up stores, cutting off access to key areas of some cities and calling up off-duty officers to patrol streets.
“The police got ahead of what was going to happen,” she said. “When you have spontaneous protest after an officer-involved shooting, the police are playing catch-up. I think law enforcement was really prepared.”
Mr. Petersen said police shifted their tactics after learning from the experiences of dealing with this summer’s civil unrest. The protests erupted after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
“We are seeing less confrontations,” he said. “They are arresting lawbreakers but not having an overt presence when it is a genuinely peaceful protest.”
Questions about the election will likely head into the weekend, raising fears that the protests could ramp up as the uncertainty grows.
“I think it is likely to get worse,” Mr. Petersen said. “We are not any closer to having a president than we were on Tuesday morning. At some point, this will start to play out and one side or another will be very upset.”
Ms. Duncan cautioned that those who act out in response to the election results will be a small minority, especially if Mr. Biden wins.
“There is a subset of people on the extreme right who might protest, but the rank-and-file Trump supporter will be like, ‘I tried,’” she said. “That is true of the moderate Biden supporter. They have other things to do with their lives. It is the extremists that will continue.”