Posted December 7, 2021
Readers of the Solidarity Webzine will know that on November 19, 2021, a nearly all-white jury in Kenosha, Wisconsin, found Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager, not guilty of homicide in the August 25, 2020, killing of two Black Lives Matter protesters and the wounding of another. The article below analyzes the verdict and its significance. As the article explains, Rittenhouse and his lawyers claimed absurdly that he acted in self-defense. Letting him off invites more rightwing vigilantes to provoke confrontations and then claim self-defense to justify killing their victims.
Readers of the Solidarity Webzine will also know that on November 24, 2021, another nearly all-white jury in Brunswick, Georgia, found three white men guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery on February 23, 2020. Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan had seen Arbery out jogging, Black and unarmed, and had chased and shot him. The Georgia killers also claimed self-defense, but the circumstances, captured on Bryan’s cellphone, led the jury to reject the claim. As Atlanta District Attorney Linda Dunikoski argued, “You can’t start something and claim self-defense.” But that’s exactly what Rittenhouse did. Here’s how it happened.
A nearly-all-white jury in Kenosha, WI found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of murder and attempted murder. The jury bought Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense when he used his AR-15 rifle to kill Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and maim Gaige Grosskreutz.
The right-wing response to the verdict was swift: Rittenhouse was hailed as a hero, offered internships by several Republican congresspeople, and booked a series of interviews with Fox News. He even got an audience with Donald Trump, who called him a “very nice boy.”
But let’s review some of the facts, some of which weren’t presented to the jury.
The three victims were among the thousands marching for justice for Jacob Blake, Jr. Blake was paralyzed in August 2020 after Kenosha cop Rusten Sheskey fired seven bullets into him. Kenosha exploded after a cell-phone video showed the shooting. Large demonstrations against police violence took place. When darkness arrived, some set buildings and vehicles on fire.
After two days of demonstrations, a Facebook page for a new militia, the “Kenosha Guard” called on white nationalists to come to Kenosha to help police defend private property from “evil thugs.” (See Kyle Rittenhouse Didn’t Act Alone: Law Enforcement Must Be Held Accountable on the website of the American Civil Liberties Union for more on the the militia and how the Kenosha police and sheriff’s department enabled and encouraged it.)
At the same time, the 17-year-old Rittenhouse decided to drive the 50 miles from his home in Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha. On the way, he picked up the AR-15 rifle his friend had recently bought for him.
Just two weeks prior to the Kenosha events, Rittenhouse made a video where he thinks he sees some shoplifters coming out of a CVS in Antioch. “Bro, I wish I had my fucking AR, I’d start shooting rounds at them,” he said. Judge Bruce Schroeder did not allow the jury to see the video.
Rittenhouse stationed himself at a used car lot some armed people were guarding. At some point, Kenosha police officers in armored personnel carrier passed out bottles of water to the volunteers, thanking them for being there.
Rittenhouse then roamed the street with the rifle strapped to him. Joseph Rosenbaum appeared, screaming at Rittenhouse. He lunged at the rifle, when Rittenhouse fired four shots, the last one in Rosenbaum’s back.
Soon afterward, Anthony Huber confronted Rittenhouse and hit him repeatedly with his skateboard. Rittenhouse didn’t attempt to grab Huber’s “weapon,” but instead fired his rifle.
This is when Rittenhouse started running away, with demonstrators calling out that he was killing people. Seeing an active shooter nearby, Grosskreutz, an actual Emergency Medical Technician, pulled out a pistol in fear for his own life. Instead Rittenhouse blew his bicep to shreds.
Rittenhouse continued to retreat. When he encountered a police van, the officers allowed him to leave the scene, despite demonstrators calling for his arrest. He went back home to Antioch.
Almost instantly, the right jumped into the case. They got to applaud this hero, salute the “understaffed” police, and attack the Democratic Party governor for not calling out the National Guard against the fighters for justice.
One right-wing lawyer, John Pierce, swooped in not long after Rittenhouse turned himself in to the Antioch Police Department to face extradition. Within days, he raised $2 million to bail the teen out of jail. Not long after that, Rittenhouse (wearing a “Free as Fuck” t-shirt) and his mother hung out with a few members of the white nationalist Proud Boys in a Kenosha bar after he was bailed out of jail. He later claimed he didn’t know the affiliations of the guys buying the drinks. Judge Schroeder didn’t allow that evidence in court either.
As the trial approached, it seemed that Pierce wanted to raise his own profile (and bank account) among the Trump crowd more than prepare a legal defense. Rittenhouse dumped Pierce and found a more traditional defense team, led by Mark Richards, who had a license to practice in the state.
After that, Richards built Rittenhouse’s defense out of the spotlight. He sought to portray the teenager with an assault weapon as a would-be first responder. He only brought the gun to defend himself. One might wonder: Against whom?
As the trial proceeded, it seemed to some observers that Judge Schroeder stacked the deck against the prosecution. Oh goodness, the judge has “God Bless the USA” as his phone ringtone!
His pre-trial declaration that calling those who were fired upon “victims” was prejudicial to the defendant seemed odd. Unless the “allegedly dead” were available to testify, clearly they were victims of an attack.
It’s important to remember that the role of courts in the United States is to preserve the status quo and settle disputes. Justice is at best a side benefit, when rendered at all.
Are there lessons here for the Black Lives Matter movement? Are we destined to see more armed militia-types showing up at demonstrations seeking “self-defense” in the Rittenhouse way?
There may be some would-be vigilantes ready for a fight today. Surely, gun sales will go up in the coming months. The movement can’t choose the next site of racist police violence.
Movement leaders will need to consider the possibility that those facts may combine in some horrible fashion again, and decide on a strategy to deal with it ahead of time.
What is even more worrisome is that the possibility of more vigilante violence could keep people away from demonstrating their anger and fury against systemic racism, or any other outrage that capitalism inflicts on us. If that happens, that’s a real problem.