During the civil rights movement, protesters had to fear fire hoses, dogs and tear gas. Now, with the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, not only will protesters continue to fear excessive police force, but because a Wisconsin jury found Rittenhouse not guilty in the killing of two protesters and the wounding of another, random gun-toting vigilantes with their idea of “law and order” also present another very present danger.
Not only will protesters continue to fear excessive police force, but random gun-toting vigilantes also present another very present danger.
In this sobering moment for the American justice system, the Second Amendment has outweighed the First. Because of the unwillingness of politicians or the courts to deal with the proliferation of guns in America, despair, disdain and distrust continue to permeate our everyday lives. Vigilantism, not protesting, is the preferred form of dissent in America.
Rittenhouse’s acquittal is representative of the primacy of the Second Amendment. His killing of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber at a racial justice march in Kenosha and then his being found not guilty send a clear message: White lives who protest for Black lives matter don’t matter. Bringing a gun to a protest is OK, especially if you feel threatened by the protesters’ message. And if you say you feared for your life as you killed someone, you will be exonerated — if you are siding with the police and not those protesting the police.
The Rittenhouse case can’t be separated from race and racism. After Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty, he posed for a photo with the far-right group the Proud Boys. White evangelicals were among those raising money for his bail and his legal defense. Those groups’ support makes it pointedly clear that Rittenhouse is a hero in those circles. For the gun-toting, God-fearing masses, Rittenhouse’s tears on the stand were proof of his innocence.
The case also highlights how differently people who claim self-defense are treated. Chrystul Kizer, accused when she was 17 of killing a man in Kenosha who she says trafficked her for sex, had to fight to a Wisconsin appellate court to even be allowed to use what amounts to a self-defense claim. Her case has been compared to that of Cyntoia Brown, who was a teenager in Tennessee when she killed the man she said was sex-trafficking her. Brown, who, like Kizer, is Black, was sentenced to life before the governor commuted the sentence. Those two cases are among the many that give the context to a tweet that went viral after Rittenhouse’s acquittal: “Women rotting in prison for killing their abusers would like a word.”
To compound an already complicated situation, Rittenhouse now proclaims that he is for “Black Lives Matter.” One has to ask, what does that even mean? Does it mean that Black lives matter insofar as white men can continue to act as unlicensed police forces, militia men or enforcers when things don’t go their way? Or that Black lives matter to his right to bear arms and kill?
It is the right to bear arms that is key. While there is much to discuss about Judge Bruce Schroeder’s comments and behavior that favored the defense and much to discuss about the performance of the prosecution, nothing seems to matter as much as the interpretation that the right to bear arms means (if you’re white and male) the right to “police” and restore “law and order.” Over and over, we’ve seen police exonerated after suspicious shootings by claiming, “I was in fear for my life.” In acquitting Rittenhouse, the jury accepted the same claim from a teenage civilian.
Our Founding Fathers may have thought of the right to bear arms in the context of fighting a war for independence, but the well-regulated militia of the 1700s isn’t evident in individuals toting assault-style rifles loaded with hollow-point bullets.
Recent news reports have exposed the role the National Rifle Association has played since 1999's deadly Columbine school shooting in dictating how we talk about guns. Clearly the NRA’s taking charge of the conservation was successful, since assault weapons have become part of the landscape in a state like Wisconsin, which has an open-carry law. At the same time, mass shootings have increased.
The right to protest and dissent in America has been an important component of our democracy since the founding of our nation. But open carry, rather than open dissent, is the new norm. That is the dreadful reality facing us. We know that race relations are broken in this country. We know that the justice system doesn’t favor people of color in America. We know that some protests aren’t always peaceful. But when a 17-year-old takes the time to cross state lines, kills two people and wounds another and then proclaims he’s “not a racist" and believes in “peacefully demonstrating,” what can we call that but a PR stunt to counter the accusations that he is a racist?
It’s hard to picture racial relations in America getting better any time soon. It’s easier to imagine them getting worse. While Rittenhouse becomes the darling of right-wing media, those who want to make change in America with peaceful protests will have to think twice about going out into the streets to make their voices heard.
The right to dissent is as important as the right to bear arms, but in 2021 America, the gun has the last word.