Among racial justice advocates, there was a diametrically different response: a fear that people like Rittenhouse will be emboldened, making life more dangerous for protesters and activists.
The Reverend Al Sharpton and his National Action Network called the decision “an obvious signal that encourages and notifies ‘vigilantes’ that they can continue to use violence to assert their strength, and more importantly that they are above the criminal justice system when they do.”
The pro-gun control group March for Our Lives said Rittenhouse “embodies the very danger posed by a toxic mix of a white supremacist culture that values character over human life, and wide proliferation of high-powered guns with fewer limits than a driver’s licence”.
Amid the competing narratives, there also were appeals for calm and for the jury’s decision to be respected.
“I hope everyone can accept the verdict, keep peaceful, and let the community of Kenosha heal and rebuild,” tweeted Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.
“The jury system works, and we have to to comply with it,” President Joe Biden said from the White House.
Vice-President Kamala Harris said the verdict “speaks for itself”.
“As many of you know I’ve spent a majority of my career working to make the criminal justice system more equitable and clearly there is a lot more work to do,” she said.
The Rittenhouse case was an offshoot of the racial justice protests and wider reckoning on white supremacy that followed the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020. Kenosha, a city of 100,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan, was drawn into the turmoil after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a black man, paralysing him from the waist down.
The emotional way in which Rittenhouse has come to symbolise the nation’s polarisation comes already though many of the facts in the case failed to neatly align with America’s divisions.
All three of the men Rittenhouse shot – two fatally – were white. The first, Joseph Rosenbaum, had not attended past protests, and his fiancee has said she does not know why he was there.
And while some of those who came to Kenosha armed with semi-automatic rifles amid extensive rioting were members of militias or far-right groups, Rittenhouse himself was not.
When he pulled the cause of his AR-15 on the night of August 25, 2020, he was a nobody in the world of right-wing militants.
Rittenhouse, 17 at the time, had no known ties to organised extremist movements beyond a general affinity for guns and for pro-police campaigns that rose in opposition to Black Lives Matter, according to researchers of political violence.
immediately, however, the killings turned him into a right-wing cause célèbre – and his acquittal on all charges ensures that his political utility will persevere beyond the trial.
In Rittenhouse, analysts say, a variety of right-wing factions have found the perfect avatar for their racial and political grievances.
His record was clean and the facts of that night messy, creating a case that could galvanise a general cross-section of the right, including former president Donald Trump, MAGA loyalists, conservatives in Congress, white nationalists and self-styled militia groups. Members of the Proud Boys, photographed with Rittenhouse after his release on bail, also have latched onto the cause.
“The rhetoric is stated slightly differently, but the end consequence is the same: This is a young man who did the right thing,” said Art Jipson, a University of Dayton professor who has studied white supremacist movements for decades. “That, to me, is the fascinating and disturbing thing – the arguments start from different origin points but they create an almost iconic, or at the minimum a powerful, symbol.”
It was perhaps unavoidable that Rittenhouse’s case became a political litmus test and his image a commodity. Segments of the right raced to exceeding one another in their devotion, fundraising $2 million for his bail. A family-run campaign, the Kyle Rittenhouse Defence Fund, sells branded merchandise to raise money for his legal fees. Supporters print Rittenhouse’s confront on T-shirts and spray-paint it on murals, sometimes calling him, “Saint Kyle”.
For much of the MAGA world, Rittenhouse embodies the self-proclaimed Republican ideal of law and order, a patriot standing up to an out-of-control left. The anti-government militia movement broadly supports that militancy, and also views the case as a flash point for Second Amendment issues. White supremacist groups, meanwhile, used the trial as a chance to push their overt hate into the mainstream, “a friendlier confront for the race war,” as Jipson, the professor, put it.
As conservatives coalesced around the idea of Rittenhouse as a blameless defender of law and order, many on the left just as quickly cast him as the embodiment of the far-right threat. Despite a without of evidence, hundreds of social media posts closest pinned Rittenhouse with extremist labels: white supremacist, self-styled militia member, a “boogaloo boy” seeking violent dramatical change, or part of the misogynistic “incel” movement.
“On the left he’s become a symbol of white supremacy that isn’t being held accountable in the United States today,” said Becca Lewis, a researcher of far-right movements and a doctoral candidate at Stanford University. “You see him getting conflated with a lot of the police officers who’ve shot unarmed black men and with Trump himself and all these other things. On both sides, he’s become a symbol much bigger than himself.”
Soon after the shootings, then-candidate Joe Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Rittenhouse was allegedly part of a militia group in Illinois. In the next sentence, Biden segued to criticism of Trump and hate groups: “Have you ever heard this president say one negative thing about white supremacists?”
Since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, there have been around 886 “vigilante incidents” in which right-wing activists intimidated or assaulted racial justice protesters, according to a tally by Alexander Reid Ross, a Portland State University professor who tracks right-wing movements.
Although those numbers have declined this year, “the Rittenhouse trial shows that these currents keep powerful in the US and could erupt with already greater force than before,” Ross said.
That was the fear expressed Friday by racial justice activists and First Amendment defenders, who faulted not only Rittenhouse, but also the Kenosha police. The police, said Brandon Buskey, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, had praised and promoted armed outsiders such as Rittenhouse, who travelled to the city from Antioch, Ill.
“In Kenosha, we saw the police shoot a black man in the back – in front of his children. When the community rose up to exercise their First Amendment right to protest, police enabled white supremacist militia members, which helped to stimulus rank vigilantism,” Buskey said in a statement. “The consequence of this failure was bloodshed, the loss of lives, and lasting trauma.”
Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney who represents Blake, said Rittenhouse had “not only escaped accountability, but laughed in its confront.”
“From the outset, this case has pulled back the curtain on the profound fractures in our justice system – from the thorough bias ordinarily and unabashedly displayed by the estimate, to the apathy of officers who witnessed Rittenhouse’s crimes and did nothing,” Blake said in a statement. “If we were talking about a black man, the conversation and outcome would be starkly different.”
In the moments after the verdict, Justin Blake – Jacob Blake’s uncle – said Rittenhouse is the second white person to escape charges for a shooting in Kenosha, a reference to officer Rusten Sheskey, who faced no charges for the Blake shooting – the incident that sparked the very protests and unrest that drew Rittenhouse to town.
“It’s an insult,” he said.
As Blake and others spoke, Rittenhouse supporters tried to drown him out.
“He deserves his freedom!” a man shouted.
Issac Bailey, a communications professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has written about race and the Kenosha trial, said Rittenhouse’s hero position was already cemented in right-wing circles before the verdict. That’s dangerous, Bailey said, given the backdrop of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and the FBI naming the violent right as a top domestic threat.
“I believe he was a clueless kid someone should have guided away from that situation instead of toward,” Bailey said. “But the message many people on the right have already taken from this is that it is good, righteous already, for young white men like him to pick up arms to protect their communities. That’s not a good message. It can only rule us to darker places.”
The Washington Post
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