‘Vigilante hero’: Rittenhouse verdict ricochets across divided America

Washington: Ever since the early morning hours that day in August 2020, when video footage of a teenager opening fire on the streets of Kenosha started to circulate, Kyle Rittenhouse has been a human canvas onto which the nation’s political divisions were mapped.

Kyle Rittenhouse, left, with the backwards cap, in Kenosha. Jurors found Rittenhouse, 18, not guilty of homicide for killing two men and attempted homicide for wounding a third man.Credit:The Journal Times/AP

To many on the right – including gun rights groups, Trump loyalists and white supremacists – he was a folk hero, a vigilante for justice who had stood up to a rampaging mob.

Americans on the left, including racial justice activists, gun control advocates and police reformers, saw something quite different: a trigger-happy youth who had recklessly brought his illegally possessed AR-15 across state lines and escalated an already-chaotic situation into the realm of deadly violence.

Those irreconcilable depictions played out vividly as news of Rittenhouse’s acquittal on Saturday AEDT on all counts in a Wisconsin courtroom ricocheted from coast to coast. Although the question before the jury had been relatively narrow – was Rittenhouse acting in self-defence, or not? – the jury’s decision was imbued with far greater resonance on both sides.

Rittenhouse’s defenders saw justice at work. His critics recorded one more count against a fundamentally unfair legal system.

Within seconds of the verdict, far-right forums were ablaze with celebratory messages and memes depicting Rittenhouse as a hero. In the Proud Boys public channel on Telegram, supporters mocked how upset “the left” would be once authorities release the gun used in the shootings, as is customary after an acquittal.

Luna Hernandez holds up a sign in Los Angeles, following the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha.Credit:AP

“NOT GUILTY!” tweeted Florida’s Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who had suggested earlier in the week he would offer Rittenhouse a congressional internship if he was acquitted.

“May Kyle and his family now live in peace,” added US Representative for Georgia Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had urged her followers to donate to Rittenhouse’s legal defence. “Those who help, protect, and defend are the good guys.”

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.

Demonstrators march through Oakland, California, to protest the acquittal of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse.Credit:AP

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 power, 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 property 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, remain peaceful, and let the community of Kenosha heal and rebuild,” tweeted Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.

Kyle Rittenhouse breaks down on the stand as he testifies about his encounter with the late Joseph Rosenbaum during his trial.Credit:Zuma Press

“The jury system works, and we have to abide by 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 dramatic way in which Rittenhouse has come to symbolise the nation’s polarisation comes even 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 previous 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 widespread rioting were members of militias or far-right groups, Rittenhouse himself was not.

When he pulled the trigger 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.

Demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, following the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse.Credit:AP

Instantly, however, the killings turned him into a right-wing cause célèbre – and his acquittal on all charges ensures that his political utility will endure 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 broad 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 result 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 least a powerful, symbol.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Rittenhouse’s case became a political litmus test and his image a commodity. Segments of the right raced to outdo 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 face 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 face 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 lack of evidence, hundreds of social media posts immediately pinned Rittenhouse with extremist labels: white supremacist, self-styled militia member, a “boogaloo boy” seeking violent revolution, 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.”

Protesters argue outside the Kenosha court house. The Rittenhouse case has become a flashpoint in the nation’s debate over guns, vigilantism and racial injustice. Credit:AP

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 remain powerful in the US and could erupt with even 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 encouraged 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 spur rank vigilantism,” Buskey said in a statement. “The result of this failure was bloodshed, the loss of lives, and enduring trauma.”

Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney who represents Blake, said Rittenhouse had “not only escaped accountability, but laughed in its face.”

“From the outset, this case has pulled back the curtain on the profound cracks in our justice system – from the deep bias routinely and unabashedly displayed by the judge, 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 status 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 even, for young white men like him to pick up arms to protect their communities. That’s not a good message. It can only lead us to darker places.”

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