Let’s be clear. If Kyle Rittenhouse were Black, he would never have gone to trial for murder— because the cops would have shot him dead on the spot on the streets of Kenosha.
Speculation? Maybe, but it’s speculation backed up by history.
Under Wisconsin law, and just by virtue of common sense, it’s not self-defense when you create the danger you’re in. You can’t set a fire and then complain that you got burned. The Rittenhouse jury didn’t see it that way, and reasonable people can agree or disagree. But we all know that a Black teenager who took an AR-15 to the scene of a violent protest and used it to shoot two people dead would never be acquitted in an American courtroom, let alone on grounds of self-defense. Even Tucker fucking Carlson knows that.
It is the height of irony that we should see this verdict at the exact same time when right wing reactionaries all across America, from school boards to barstools to the self-proclaimed world’s greatest deliberative body, are furiously insisting that our children not be taught that there is systemic racism in the DNA of this nation.
If there was ever more glaring proof of the racial double standard in the American justice system than what just happened in Kenosha, and of the correctness of so-called “critical race theory,” I’d like to see it.
The micro question of whether Rittenhouse was afraid that he was going to be disarmed and harmed by people who took exception to his action hero wannabe-ism is not the issue here. The issue is what the fuck was he doing on the streets of Kenosha with a combat-style bulletlauncher in the first place? What made him think he was entitled to do that, or that he could get away with it?
I guess the fact that he did get away with it provides us the answer. And why not? Everything in the culture in which Kyle Rittenhouse was raised told him in no certain terms that it was his God-given right to do so. And this jury just affirmed it.
A civilian vigilante wielding an AR can gun down two unarmed men and claim he was the one who feared for his life? If you’re white, I guess so.
But should we really be surprised? (Black folks sure aren’t.) Three weeks ago, the Nation’s justice correspondent Elie Mystal published a piece titled, “I Hope Everyone Is Prepared for Kyle Rittenhouse to Go Free.” He was spot on, of course. His new piece is called “Kyle Rittenhouse Has Gotten Away With Murder—As Predicted,” in which he sagely notes: “Rittenhouse’s acquittal is not a ‘miscarriage’ of justice, as some might claim. It is our white justice system working as intended.”
For that is the nauseating, fundamental fact at the core of all this.
It was clear that this trial was going to go down this way from the very beginning….and by “beginning,” I mean the whole idea that white boys cosplaying like they’re Navy SEALs in Fallujah are allowed to bring battlefield-type weapons onto the streets of American towns to enforce their own deluded notions of racial justice. That is white privilege at its most extreme. Yes, the prosecution did a poor job of proving its case. But it faced an uphill battle in a game stacked on the white boy’s behalf.
in The Atlantic, David French—formerly of National Review, now on the outs due to his Never Trumpism—writes:
(T)he nature of self-defense claims (is that they) are not assessed by means of sweeping inquiries into the wisdom of the actions that put the shooter into a dangerous place in a dangerous time. Instead, they produce a narrow inquiry into the events immediately preceding the shooting. The law allows even a foolish man to defend himself, even if his own foolishness put him in harm’s way.
The narrow nature of the self-defense inquiry is one reason people can escape responsibility for killings that are deeply wrongful in every moral sense.
On the night in question, Rittenhouse not only traveled to Kenosha from his hometown in Illinois and started patrolling the streets with an AR, but also falsely told people on the scene that he was an EMT. Did local law enforcement react with alarm? On the contrary. Before the killings, he was given a bottle of water by the cops and told that they “appreciated” what he and other right wing vigilantes were doing. After killing two people and wounding a third, he was allowed to walk away from the scene and go home unmolested. Not under arrest, not with his hands ziptied behind his back and his face pressed down on the blacktop, not with his torso riddled with bulletholes from police firearms.
Can you imagine a Black teenager with a smoking gun barrel getting the same treatment? In Cleveland in 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black child, was shot dead by a (white) policeman just for HOLDING a toy gun.
Can we also remember that the protests in Kenosha were occurring in the first place because, two days before, a white policeman had shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back, in front of his three children. (Both the Kenosha DA and US Justice Department later declined to prosecute the officer.)
Just a few of the other sideshows surrounding this circus:
Rittenhouse claimed he went to Kenosha to protect businesses, and stood in front of one called Car Source that he had no connection to, whose own owners didn’t even know him and certainly hadn’t asked for his help, and—wisely—were themselves nowhere around during the violence. As Trevor Noah said on “The Daily Show”:
Nobody drives into a city with guns because they love someone else’s business that much. That’s some bullshit. No one has ever thought, ‘Oh, it’s my solemn duty to pick up a rifle and protect that TJ Maxx.’ They do it because they’re hoping to shoot someone.
And there was proof of that. Just weeks before the murders, Rittenhouse had been recorded expressing his desire to shoot looters—video that his jury was not allowed to see or hear. (In the footage, which people leaving a CVS pharmacy clutching goods, Rittenhouse is heard to say, “Bro, I wish I had my fucking AR. I’d start shooting rounds at them.”)
After the killings, and after being bailed out of jail (with $2 million raised from conservative donors and “Free Kyle” t-shirts sold online), Rittenhouse was photographed at a Wisconsin bar wearing a “Free as Fuck” t-shirt and flashing a “white power” sign while posing with members of the Proud Boys.
The right has sneered at the claims that Rittenhouse brought the murder weapon across state lines, and that it was not lawful for him to own it, which they label as liberal misinformation. The whole debate betrays what a farce this is. Rittenhouse’s weapon was a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, one of many variants of the standard American semiautomatic rifle commonly referred to—even by Rittenhouse himself—as an “AR.” (He bought it with his $1200 COVID stimulus check.) It had been purchased for him in Wisconsin and stored there on his behalf by a friend, as Rittenhouse was too young to buy it himself, and it was illegal for him to possess it in Illinois where he lives. If that’s what the right thinks absolves him of the sketchy circumstances of his ownership, and the weapon’s presence in Kenosha, it’s the flimsiest of semantics, but indicative of the dishonesty of the right wing argument.
What else? Oh yeah: The Missouri couple who waved an AR and a handgun at BLM protestors from the steps of their home visited the trial in support of Rittenhouse. A former cop from Ferguson, MO toting his own AR was there on Kyle’s behalf too. Birds of a feather, amirite?
Then there was the judge, who refused to allow the two men Rittenhouse killed, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, to be referred to as “victims.” (By that logic, I guess they’re not dead either, just “un-alive.”) The judge’s cellphone also went off in court, its ringtone country singer Lee Greenwood’s maudlin patriotic anthem “God Bless the USA,” a staple at Trump rallies.
The judge’s other flaws, from mere eccentricities, to a bad case of “judge brain” acquired during 38 years on the bench, to ill-advised ethnic jokes in open court (or the use of the term “a Black”), have been well-documented. But as Elie Mystal notes, “a sympathetic judge and a predominately white jury are just standard gifts the criminal justice system gives to white boys accused of criminal violence.”
The jury apparently accepted the defense’s brazen argument that Rittenhouse’s victims (I’m allowed to call them that, right?) were the actual provocateurs of the killings. But after he shot his first victim, Kyle Rittenhouse was by all rights himself an “active shooter.” If people on the scene charged him, whether with skateboards like Mr. Huber or a pistol like Gaige Grosskreutz, a genuine EMT, whom Rittenhouse also shot and wounded but didn’t kill, were they not themselves acting in self-defense on behalf of the entire crowd?
Rittenhouse’s sobbing breakdowns in court—when recounting how he feared for his life, and again when he was acquited—inevitably recalled Brett Kavanaugh, whose tears worked similar magic. For a bunch of people in thrall to machismo, right wingers sure are suckers for crybabies. More to the point, it was notable that Rittenhouse’s pain only came out on his own behalf, not in grief for his victims.
Of course, this case is yet another Rorschach test. Right wing America—mostly ivory colored, it’s fair to say—sees Rittenhouse as a hero, a patriot, as someone who stood up to “lawless” violence (by taking the law into his own hands) to “protect the community.” Needless to say, they don’t see it that way when Black people turn to violence in legitimate self-defense, which this wasn’t.
Aside from being the latest and most stomach-turning example of the racism that is baked into American society, perhaps the most chilling aspect of this verdict, as many have noted, is that affirms the reactionary view that they (and they alone) are justified in turning to deadly force whenever the fuck they feel like it.
People of color, and liberals, and everyone else? Not so much.
That is a very dangerous precept at a time when we’re still trying to reckon with a violent right wing attempt to overturn an election on the same deluded grounds.
Even as this verdict came down, we are also watching the trial of three white men in Brunswick, GA for the murder in cold blood of Ahmaud Arbery—defendants who are making the same specious self-defense claim as Rittenhouse—and a civil trial in the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, the event that gave us Trump’s “very fine people on both sides.” I am not optimistic about the outcome of either. But I do fully expect to see Rittenhouse feted in person on Fox News, trotted around at GOP campaign rallies, and selling merch on his website. Matt Gaetz has already suggested he might hire him as an intern. Hell, come January 2025, he’s probably in line for a Cabinet position in Trump Administration 2.0.
I suspect there will be more on the Rittenhouse verdict and all that it says about America to come in these pages. For now, let us just behold white privilege on display in its most sickening and unjust form.
Photo: Kyle Rittenhouse (left), in Kenosha, WI, August 25, 2020. Credit: Adam Rogan / The Journal Times/AP