by Ron E. Turing
The jury in the Kenosha, Wisconsin trial of Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters found him not guilty on all counts on Nov. 19. The acquittal was in spite of the facts adduced at trial that he had no genuine claim of “self defense,” the legal fiction that exonerated him.
In Kenosha on August 23, 2020, Rittenhouse, a young white supremacist, shot three BLM protestors with a military-style rifle, killing Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum and severely wounding Gaige Grosskreutz. All of them were white, as were most of the protesters seen in the videos of that night. At the trial, Rittenhouse claimed self-defense, even though two of his three victims were not armed and there was scant evidence of any threat from anyone other than the defendant. The jury was not allowed to hear evidence of his association with racist groups.
The grossly racist application of the law—the judge exhibited bias throughout the trial—will serve as a warning to all who protest in support of Black lives. We can expect BLM to be further demonized, and killings by white supremacists and police to increase.
How Kenosha Became a Focal Point of Black Lives Matter
Credit: Google Maps
Kenosha is a small city south of Milwaukee. Many cities and towns throughout Wisconsin erupted in protests immediately following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Protests continued throughout the summer in bigger cities like Madison and Milwaukee, but also in smaller cities like Green Bay and La Crosse. Each city had their own local victims of police violence, and activists who were calling for justice for those victims, while at the same time demanding immediate policing reforms in solidarity with BLM protests across the country.
Kenosha became a focal point of the Wisconsin protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23, 2020. Blake, an unarmed Black man, was being taken into custody for an outstanding sexual assault warrant (these charges have since been dropped). While serving the warrant, police officer Rusten Shesky shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Videos show Blake was not resisting arrest or threatening the police. Blake miraculously survived the shooting and is facing two years parole for other charges, while the officer who nearly killed him has not been charged.
The night of the shooting, Kenosha broke out in protests demanding justice for Jacob Blake and calling for police reforms. During the protests, several buildings, stores, and vehicles were damaged in Kenosha’s downtown. A Department of Corrections building was also burned in the protests.
The protests continued for several nights. I participated on August 24, 2020, prior to the curfew of 8:00 p.m. From what I saw, the protests and marches were peaceful as they moved through downtown Kenosha and surrounding residential areas.
On August 25, 2020, protests continued for a third straight night. By this point, the National Guard had been called in by Governor Tony Evers to protect municipal buildings in downtown Kenosha. This is the night Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year old at the time, drove 30 minutes from his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, armed with an AR-15 rifle, to participate in the counter protests and “support” local businesses and police in their efforts to “restore” order.
Rittenhouse’s actions on the night have been well documented with the help of social media. In a shared recording, he was seen talking to sheriff’s deputies and receiving a water bottle from them. One of the officers on tape can be heard saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” No wonder that later that night, Rittenhouse felt justified in firing his rifle into protestors during an altercation. He killed two protestors, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and wounded a third, Gaige Grosskreutz. After shooting these men, Rittenhouse walked past police responding to the scene and was not taken into custody until the following day, when he surrendered himself to his local police station. The evidence of his supremacist associations was excluded from the trial.
Events since the Rittenhouse Shooting
Immediately following the shootings, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), local BLM groups, and many other organizations called on the Kenosha police chief Daniel Miskins and the Kenosha sherif David Beth to resign due to their mishandling of the vigilantism of Rittenhouse and the mishandling of the Blake case. Miskinis was quoted at a press conference following the Rittenhouse shooting as saying, “Had persons not been in violation of the curfew, perhaps the situation might not have happened,” implying it was the victims’ fault they got shot. Beth had made racist comments in 2018 that resurfaced, where he called a group of Black individuals involved in a car chase, “garbage people.” Beth would go on to apologize and then later recant that apology saying “he doesn’t see color.” These instances illustrate the systemic racism in the Kenosha police and sheriff’s departments.
Also following the shooting, it was found that Facebook had received reports about a Facebook group called the “Kenosha Guard,” who on the afternoon of August 25, 2020 (the day of the shootings by Rittenhouse) had posted a call for “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from the evil thugs? No doubt they are currently planning on the next part of the city to burn tonight.” Facebook took down the posts the day after the shooting, citing their “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” policy. If Facebook had taken quicker action to remove the post, which was in violation of their policies and should not have been allowed to spread, perhaps the situation might not have happened.
On January 5, 2021, Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Gravely announced that no charges would be filed against the police officers involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake. Also in early January 2021, Rittenhouse was photographed in a bar wearing a T-shirt reading “Free as F—” and flashing the “OK” sign which has been used by white supremacist groups as a symbol of white power.
Overview of the Trial
The trial has been extensively covered by the media and I will not cover all of that in this piece. The prosecution showed Rittenhouse did not belong at the scene and was actively looking for trouble, while the defense claimed Rittenhouse fired at protestors as self-defense, with their main argument that one of the victims shot by Rittenhouse did have a gun. However, the videos taken from many angles, including the sky, clearly show that any threat was provoked by Rittenhouse himself, and the law is supposed to bar the use of “self-defense” when the dangerous situation was created by the defendant.
The jury, only one member of which was Black, deliberated on five counts of manslaughter and lesser offenses for each shooting. The verdict will not erase the image of the defendant running around the streets with his long-gun that night, acting as if he were a big man, nor the fact that he has become a folk-hero to the white supremacist movement.
I do want to point to a few key moments that have occurred in the trial that illustrate some of the flaws in our justice system and also important steps forward for the movement as a whole.
At the onset of the trial, the judge, Bruce Schroeder, made news by preventing the prosecutors from referring to the people shot by defendant as “victims” in front of the jury, but he suggested the defense could describe them as “looters” or “rioters.” This has been a long standing rule in Schroeder’s court, and illustrates a double standard in using biased terms that might influence a juror. On Day 3 of the trial, related to the above ruling, Schroeder gave an “unusual soliloquy” discussing media and social media coverage of the trial. He eventually had to excuse himself from the bench after it seemed he got worked up and frustrated in his rant.
On Day 4 of the trial, a juror was dismissed for making an offensive joke about Jacob Blake to a police officer who was escorting him out of the court house. This is illustrative of the biases that jurors can have that are not revealed in the jury selection process, which for this trial took only one day. Also, this moment points to a potential crack in the “blue wall of silence,” as a police officer was the one who reported the incident to the judge.
My last key point is the use of FBI airplaine footage as evidence in the trial. Last summer, Buzzfeed had extensive reporting on this. However, its use is concrete evidence that the FBI was recording and tracking BLM protests with sophisticated technology. Why did the FBI feel it was necessary to so thoroughly document these largely peaceful protests? What other tools are the FBI using to track protestors that are speaking out and demanding reforms?
The BLM Movement in Kenosha and Surrounding Areas
Since the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Kenosha and south eastern WI have been an important part of the larger, national BLM movement. The organization Leaders of Kenosha was formed shortly after the events of August 2020 and has demanded broad, sweeping reforms. This group has a 10-point plan of initiatives that not only demand equity and an end to police brutality, but also reparations, educational opportunities, and housing to improve the material conditions of minorities in their city. They have also held community book clubs and food drives for the local community, as well as continued rallies demanding police reforms.
In Kenosha, BLM activists and community members called on the police chief, sheriff, and the cop involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake to resign. In April 2021, the police chief did retire, illustrating some forward momentum for the demands of the activists.
Also in nearby Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Conty budget did include small reforms that moved $1.6 million in funding away from the sheriff’s budget and into new parks, reopening swimming pools, and other community improvement measures, which is a small step in the right direction.
In response to the violence in Kenosha, the Milwaukee Bucks (an NBA team) walked out of their playoff game on August 26, 2020. This strike quickly spread to other NBA teams that were in the playoffs, and also jumped to other professional sports leagues across the country. The NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS (Major League Soccer), UCL (United Soccer League), National Independent Soccer Association, WNBA, and the Women’s Tennis Association all postponed games as their players joined the strike. A common complaint of these strikes was a lack of meaningful social or legislative change in response to the murder of George Floyd three months prior. Without the sustained effort of 3 months of BLM protests in the US and abroad, these strikes would likely not have occurred.
The message of the Kenosha verdict is clear: anyone who supports BLM, no matter their color or how peaceful is their protest activity, deserves to be treated like a criminal and shot.
Nonetheless, the BLM movement has shown its resiliency and is likely to continue to be a fountain of creativity and a powerful force in revolutionizing our existing world.
Author’s note: Another case of vigilantism is on trial in Georgia over the killing of Ahmed Arbery.