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Conservatives’ reaction to Rittenhouse’s acquittal follows a familiar playbook

White conservatives have a history of rallying around their violent heroes once they avoid punishment for their actions.


In 2019, I went to Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, to visit the Sumner courthouse, where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s killers were tried and speedily acquitted in 1955. 

That year, two white men — Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam — lynched Till after Bryant’s sister falsely claimed that Till had sexually harassed her. The killers received pro bono representation from several white lawyers in Mississippi, and multiple local, white-owned businesses in Tallahatchie County put out Mason jars to help raise money for any expenses the two men might incur. That fall, an all-white jury returned a not guilty verdict after just an hour of deliberation, which included a soda break. A photo taken after the acquittal captured the two men and their wives in smiling embraces. 

In a largely deferential 1956 Look magazine article, Bryant and Milam confessed to the brutal killing. They were reportedly paid about $4,000 for the interview.

I see similarities in the hope and joy white conservatives expressed over the verdict in the trial of Till’s killers and the hope and joy white conservatives have expressed over the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot and killed two protesters and wounded another during a police brutality protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year. 

Photo Illustration: Emmett Till's killers, who were acquitted, and Kyle Rittenhouse, who was also acquitted after shooting two demonstrators
MSNBC / Getty Images

Rittenhouse has received ample praise from white conservatives who support his choice to travel across state lines to the protest with a semiautomatic rifle. He received $2 million in donations to help him post bond after he was arrested. And, like Till’s killers, he also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to his defense fund from other supporters, including several police officials

While he was out on bond, Rittenhouse was seen flashing a white supremacist symbol in a photo and posing with members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, prosecutors had said. (Rittenhouse claimed recently that he didn’t know they were Proud Boys members and that he wasn’t aware the hand gesture was offensive. His denial is dubious at best.)

White conservatives in Congress, including Reps. Paul Gosar of Arizona and Matt Gaetz of Florida — both of whom have faced backlash over their ties to white nationalists — have fallen over one another to offer Rittenhouse positions in their offices.

And in the days since a jury acquitted him, Rittenhouse — similar to Till’s killers — has welcomed softball interviews and encounters with sympathetic figures who’ve tried to launder his image. He recently sat for an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson and claimed he’s “not a racist person.” He also met with Donald Trump at the disgraced former president’s residence in Florida. Trump called him a “nice young man.” 

Those interactions tell you just about everything you need to know about Rittenhouse’s supporters. He’s a killer who’s being vaunted by a white conservative movement eager to swallow him whole and use the energy he provides to enact its violent vision for the country.

Related posts:

Kyle Rittenhouse trial was designed to protect white conservatives who kill

In a mixed verdict, white nationalists forced to pay millions in Unite the Right case

Ex-KKK leader David Duke takes credit for Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson

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