Kyle Rittenhouse hopes to capitalize on white panic

Kyle Rittenhouse hopes to capitalize on white panic
Kyle Rittenhouse mugshot
Kenosha County Sheriff's Department / Wikimedia Commons

The summer of 2020 saw civil unrest and protests break out all over the country in response to the racist violence of police departments. It was sparked specifically by the murder of George Floyd. With little recourse against the systemic violence of police forces, many communities turned to marches and riots.

However, despite some property damage, only one killing during protests last summer, out of 25, has been confirmed to be committed by someone motivated by left-wing ideology.

Even though the data shows that 93 percent of Black Lives Matter marches are peaceful, the defense in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial this week is hoping to capitalize on the white panic that is scared of civil unrest to pretend that shooting three people, killing two who were unarmed, was self-defense.

On August 23, 2020, Jacob Blake, a Black man previously tasered, was shot multiple times in the back and paralyzed by a police officer responding to a 911 call in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Protests broke out almost immediately and a state of emergency was declared that night.

Police responded to the crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. Peaceful protests continued during the following days with more property damage and police confrontations at night with a curfew imposed at 8 pm on August 24.

On August 25, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse chose to travel across state lines from Illinois, break the state-imposed curfew and illegally carry an AR-15 style rifle to supposedly protect a car dealership and join a loosely organized local militia group formed in response to the unrest, though the Kenosha Guard militia group has denied any connection.

In the span of a few hours on the night of August 25, Rittenhouse shot three people after police expressed their appreciation for him and for other militia members "protecting" property. While the details of the shootings can be confusing in the midst of the chaos, it's indisputable that the two people Rittenhouse killed were unarmed and that the third person shot armed with a handgun thought Rittenhouse was an active shooter who needed to be disarmed.

Whatever Rittenhouse felt in the moment, if he felt scared or justified, or if just wanted to shoot people, he chose to break the law to go into a dangerous situation and was the only person that night to kill anyone.

He knew where police were, he knew where other militia members were and he knew how to leave the area but instead he killed two unarmed people.

No one should be allowed to participate in a dangerous situation and then use self-defense to justify their murderous response.

Rittenhouse's actions actually fit into a long history of state-supported vigilantism in the United States. Rittenhouse saw himself as justified to be in Kenosha with a rifle in part because police supported those actions. They had ample chances to impose the curfew on all the militia members or at least check to make sure the rifle Rittenhouse was toting was legal.

Instead they offered him water and encouraged militia participation in the evening. Police were harsher against people committing minor property damage or crowds refusing to go home than they were towards Rittenhouse carrying an illegal military-style weapon.

Vigilantes have always fit well into the American narrative of individualism and were particularly supported in frontier situations. Despite their obvious lawlessness, governmental institutions often supported them. Early vigilante movements during the revolutionary period to resist British control and protect frontier people from crime have become part of the founding myths of this country.

The terms "lynching" and "lynch law" are actually likely derived from Colonel Charles Lynch, who presided over an informal court in Virginia in the 1780s that punished loyalist supporters. In 1782, the Virginia General Assembly formally recognized the actions of his "court."

When addressing lynching in American history, some scholars have tried to claim Western frontier vigilantism was an example of "good lynching" that was necessary to keep order in places without formal courts.

The archetypal example of this supposedly good vigilante justice were the Montana Vigilantes who lynched 24 people in 1864, one of whom was their sheriff. While many of those lynched were likely criminals, most had committed only property crimes and could have been encouraged to leave the area instead of being killed.

Additionally there was little attempt by the lynchers to build a jail or employ a less extreme punishment. It's likely many of the lynchings were politically motivated. Despite this violence, many of the original members of the vigilance committee are honored as founders of the state.

The first governor and senator of Montana were both founders of the Montana Vigilantes as well as John Bozeman, the founder of Bozeman, Montana. The Montana Highway Patrol also has the numbers "3-7-77" on their arm patches which was a warning from the Vigilance Committee.

Contemporary white militias have also gotten slaps on the wrist for anti-governmental activities and violence while the racial justice protests of last summer faced violent police confrontation and dismissal as "looters." Five years ago, the anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy led a month-long forcible occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon but was acquitted and served no jail time. Four years before that, Ammon participated in a standoff with his father Clive Bundy against federal agents in Nevada. While there were federal charges against the Bundys they were ultimately dismissed with prejudice.

While Rittenhouse is being charged with murder, the entire trial seems like an exercise in continuing the history of supporting white vigilantism under a fig leaf of some kind of necessity.

Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand and cried about self defense after choosing to go into a dangerous situation with the justification that a car dealership needed his protection. The judge in the trial has already shown bias by ruling that the victims in the case couldn't be called victims but could be called rioters and looters, a decision that only bolsters claims of necessity.

One can't divorce Rittenhouse's claims of self-defense from his decisions before the moments he shot his rifle or from the good-faith attempts of people attempting to disarm who they saw as an active shooter.

We know that the presence of guns in a riot situation does not protect people but instead increases the likelihood of violence.

A white boy's desire to play vigilante and the state's bizarre focus on property over human lives cannot be more important than the people killed that day.

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