In August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse, who was 17 years old at the time, joined counter-protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin at a Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality. Days before, a Black resident, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times and left partially paralyzed by a white police officer. The shooting led to unrest in Kenosha, as blocks of businesses were burned down and looted, and police used tear gas on demonstrators. Some vigilantes watching from outside of Kenosha organized on Facebook and vowed to help the police and National Guard. Rittenhouse, hailing from Illinois, was among the group of men who traveled across state lines on the third night of protests, ready to allegedly protect the city’s businesses from rioters.
By the end of the night, Rittenhouse had fatally shot two men — Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26 — and wounded another, Gaige Grosskreutz, with his assault rifle. Viral video footage from the night shows Rittenhouse casually talking to police with his rifle in hand minutes before the shootings. Six minutes later, the footage shows a group of protesters, including Rosenbaum, chasing after Rittenhouse when an unknown gunman fired into the air. Rosenbaum is seen lunging at Rittenhouse, who turned toward the gunman and shot Rosenbaum four times, including a shot to the head. As Rittenhouse fled the scene, a crowd chased after him, shouting, “That’s the shooter!” At one point, Rittenhouse falls to the ground and fires three shots into the crowd, shooting Huber in the chest and Grosskreutz in the arm.
Rittenhouse was arrested in Illinois and charged with five criminal counts, including first-degree intentional homicide. As his trial was broadcasted live, the case was being closely followed. Ultimately, a jury decided that Rittenhouse acted reasonably in self-defense and is not guilty of all five charges on Nov. 19, 2021.
Reactions to the verdict have been mixed. Many see it as justice for someone exercising their gun rights, which isn’t a surprise, since pro-gun organizations and conservatives raised nearly half a million dollars for Rittenhouse’s legal expenses and $2 million for his bail before the trial even started. On the other side, there are those outraged by the lack of accountability for violent gun use, as well as those who found the verdict inevitable. In response to the verdict, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin tweeted, “I wonder what the verdict would be in the #RittenhouseTrial if the defendant were a Black 17-year-old from another state who killed two people with an illegal assault weapon?” Toobin’s remark sums up many frustrations with the jury’s verdict, as Rittenhouse’s open support for Blue Lives Matter on social media seems to offer him protection, and research continues to prove racial disparities in criminal convictions. While the trial of Rittenhouse casts doubt on the criminal justice system’s ability to uphold an alternative definition of justice, for many such as Toobin, it also highlights the latent hypocrisy of politicians in their reactions to the verdict.
People following the trial have criticized U.S. Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder over seemingly sympathizing with Rittenhouse after he called for a break due to Rittenhouse’s emotional breakdown on the stand and for questioning the legitimacy of the prosecution’s video evidence. Yet, not much attention has been shed on sympathy in Rittenhouse’s jury. Rittenhouse was able to randomly select 12 final jurors out of 18 to determine his fate at the direction of Schroeder. The jurors’ numbers were written on pieces of paper and placed into a raffle drum for Rittenhouse to pull out six jurors’ numbers and eliminate them from deliberation. While this method is unconventional, it’s random and doesn’t give reason to discount the jury as biased. However, this doesn’t mean the jury’s verdict was completely free of bias.
In a proceeding about the rules of the trial, Schroeder ruled that prosecutors would not be able to refer to the men fatally shot by Rittenhouse as victims, calling it a “loaded, loaded word.” However, Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys were given permission to refer to the men shot as “looters” and “arsonists” so long as these actions were consistent with the evidence.
The decision isn’t uncommon among judges who feel that using the word “victim” can sway the jury into assuming a defendant’s guilt. However, “looters” and “arsonists” are also loaded words that presuppose Rittenhouse’s innocence in his self-defense claim. The nationwide unrest that ensued last summer following the death of George Floyd led to 42 percent of poll respondents believing that Black Lives Matter protesters intended to cause violence or destroy property, despite 93 percent of demonstrations in connection with Black Lives Matter from May to August 2020 being peaceful. The disparity is influenced by media that disproportionately and repeatedly cover past instances of violence in protests. Ultimately, the framing of the Black Lives Matter movement as violent has racial undertones. Regardless of whether or not the men shot by Rittenhouse were engaging in violence, the terms “looting” and “arsonists” may incite misconceptions in the jury that Rittenhouse would have inevitably been harmed at the Kenosha Black Lives Matter protest, thus necessitating that Rittenhouse bring his assault rifle for protection.
In deciding to prohibit the use of the term “victims,” Schroeder presupposes that “looters” and “arsonists” who were shot or wounded cannot also be victims of Rittenhouse’s irresponsibility. Establishing mutual exclusivity supports the idea that those who are tired of political games and turn to protests to demand civil protection can not only be killed with impunity but also are undeserving of the jury’s sympathy. Ironically, Rittenhouse was able to victimize and gather sympathy for himself from the jury on national television, as he described fears of his life being in danger while crying on the stand. While an impartial jury is almost impossible to achieve, referring to protestors as looters and arsonists strengthens Rittenhouse’s image as a victim.
Despite the advantage in language for Rittenhouse’s defense, President Joe Biden maintains that the public must respect the verdict, even in disapproval. Biden issued a statement claiming that “the jury has spoken” and, more importantly, the public should “express their views peacefully, consistent with the rule of law.”
However, looking past the white boy tears, Rittenhouse had no respect for the rule of law himself. Even if shooting two men was a case of self-defense, Rittenhouse drove many miles from Illinois to “protect private property” and create order, assuming the role of law enforcement. White vigilantism was also encouraged by law enforcement present at the Kenosha protests, with an unidentified officer telling armed men, “We appreciate you guys. We really do,” after handing them some water.
White vigilantism resulting in the death of innocents isn’t unheard of in mainstream media. It appeared in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, who was running unarmed in Georgia before three white men chased him down the street in their trucks and fatally shot him in 2020. It also appeared in the case of Trayvon Martin, who was returning home from a convenience store in Florida — also unarmed — and was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012. While Zimmerman was the captain of the neighborhood patrol, he ignored police instructions to not follow Martin and proceeded to plead self-defense in court.
Rittenhouse, Zimmerman and all three of Arbery’s killers were valorized by the right as heroes acting in the best interest of public safety, despite Arbery and Martin not having committed a crime before their deaths. While all three of Arbery’s murderers were recently convicted on Nov. 24, the plea of self-defense or misidentifying crime while a Black man attempts to leave the situation happens too often and can again. For Biden to ask the public to blindly trust the rule of law after it has failed many communities conveniently protects the right’s heroes and sets a dangerous precedent that only people like Rittenhouse and Zimmerman have the authority to doubt it and assume its power.
At the Kenosha protests, armed men like Rittenhouse and Black Lives Matter protesters who resorted to violence had all taken matters into their own hands. For violent Black Lives Matter protesters, it was looting and committing arson to send a message of rage and impatience. For Rittenhouse, it was taking on the role of the police and National Guard as a civilian with an assault rifle. Yet, Rittenhouse’s victims were held at different standards of the law than he was, and Biden’s tone-deaf statement proves it. With Rittenhouse’s victims being painted as having lack of respect for American institutions and Rittenhouse being painted as a hero, it is no wonder that social movements such as Black Lives Matter are losing faith in political strategies. Unless politicians fix the way the rule of law applies to different populations — in court, policing, prisons, etc. — they need to express the same disdain for white vigilantism as they do for violent protests.
Julie Ha is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.