Kyle Rittenhouse, who fatally shot two protesters and wounded a third during anti-police brutality demonstrations in Wisconsin last year, has been found not guilty of homicide — an outrageous yet unsurprising verdict in a trial marred by controversy.
Rittenhouse, who is white, was 17 when he traveled from his hometown in northeast Illinois to the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year armed with his semi-automatic rifle. On the night of Aug. 25, 2020, as he carried his gun through the streets, Rittenhouse shot dead Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, now 27.
Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all five charges he faced, which included first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree recklessly endangering safety and attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
The case had the makings of an acquittal before the trial even began. The outcome seemed clear even before an almost exclusively white jury pool was selected, even before Judge Bruce Schroeder created an uproar by ruling that the slain protesters could be referred to as “rioters” and “looters” but not “victims," even before Schroeder refused to punish Rittenhouse for what prosecutors said amounted to a violation of his bond conditions. Rittenhouse is a white teen who abides by white rules, and white people empathetic to those rules seemed poised to insulate him from repercussions.
The day he pleaded not guilty to felony homicide, Rittenhouse flashed a white supremacist symbol and was “loudly serenaded” by a group of men at a bar who belted out the anthem of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, according to prosecutors.
On the night of the shooting, minutes before Rittenhouse opened fire, police in Kenosha thanked the rifle-toting teen and offered him water as he walked the streets. “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” one officer told him.
Law enforcement — including a department known to cover up its own lawless acts of violence — seemed to give cover to Rittenhouse from the get-go.
With these endorsements, white conservatives felt all the more comfortable swaddling Rittenhouse in the protection they often give to police and vigilantes serving white conservative interests — from George Zimmerman to Mark and Patricia McCloskey. Rittenhouse is just their latest darling, pitifully seeing heroism in an armed teen who set out to patrol pro-Black protests as though he were police.
Pitiful as they are, we can’t dismiss his supporters as conservatives merely taking sides in a political squabble. Last year, then-President Donald Trump’s administration issued talking points to Homeland Security officials claiming Rittenhouse went to Kenosha to “defend small business owners.” Conservative media figures have eagerly repeated those claims. Their support for Rittenhouse isn’t a counterweight to progressive social policies like equitable policing — their support is a physical threat to people supporting those policies.
Conservatives are encouraging white vigilantes like Rittenhouse to police progressive spaces by all means. As one Slate article put it last year, “'Own the Libs' Is Gradually Morphing Into 'Kill the Libs.'”
The jury’s decision was a dangerous endorsement of that vision.
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