Kyle Rittenhouse is unfortunately a name we’ve seen plenty of in our newsfeeds these past weeks. Last year, Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, fatally shot two men and injured another at a racial justice protest in Kenosha, WI, following the death of a local Black man at the hands of the police. Although he went to the protest armed with an AR-15 style rifle, he maintained in his testimony that his objective that night was to act as a medic and protect private property. Rittenhouse has since been acquitted by an almost entirely white jury of all five charges, which could have amounted to a life sentence had he been convicted.
Watching this spectacle take place in a system meant for delivering justice, I find it difficult to not feel deeply disturbed. The facts stand that Rittenhouse went to an antiracism protest as a Blue Lives Matter supporter, pretended to be a medic, was armed with an illegally procured military-style rifle and caused the very type of violence he claimed to be preventing. It feels that for Rittenhouse to be acquitted, there had to be a certain amount of reasonable doubt and sympathy extended to him from the jury. Beyond the judgment of this overwhelmingly white jury, Judge Bruce Schroeder also showed favorability towards the defendant at moments. However, if it had been a Black defendant in the courtroom that day, it’s difficult to imagine the same treatment and level of belief being given to them. The racial disparities in sentencing were never more clear than when the jury delivered their decision.
Even more so, the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse has become a reason for right-wing celebration as it sets a possibly exploitable legal precedent. In a nation that is brawling severely over racial issues, the Rittenhouse verdict is clemency not just for him but for all white vigilantes. This acquittal is especially worrying because of how conservative Americans and right-wing extremists are currently viewing it. The legions have taken their celebrations to social media, posting messages such as “open season on lib trash commies!” and “BLMKKK gotta be shitting. We have permission to defend ourselves now.” For them, Rittenhouse v. State provides the big legal OK to “protect their country” from the “villainous Blacks, Jews, Asians and liberals” without having to worry over the consequences of the law.
This case is much larger than just Rittenhouse and his victims. This criminal trial has stepped on some of America’s most divisive fault lines: gun rights, self-defense, violence at antiracism protests and the justice system’s difference in treatment of white people compared to people of color. The acquittal of Rittenhouse sends a frightening message about America’s future best said by the parents of victim Anthony Huber, “Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son. It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”