The meaning of the Rittenhouse verdict in America

The meaning of the Rittenhouse verdict in America
A screengrab of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2021

Kyle Rittenhouse has been acquitted. It's not surprising. I don't know if he should've been convicted on all counts against him. He killed two people, though. It wasn't in self-defense. That he wasn't found guilty of anything is incredible. If there's justice in this world, this isn't it.

Our discourse is dominated by concern about the lack of trust in democratic institutions. This is usually with reference to the former president. His constant carping about being a victim is legit reason to worry. Everything feels unstable when the president is a big baby.

But this attention to trust rarely includes the outgroup. Those are the people with the most reason to lose faith. I'm not the first or last to say if Rittenhouse had been Black or brown, the trial's outcome would have been different, almost certainly. The judge in his trial almost certainly would not have tied himself in knots to influence the jury.

That distrust reflects a broken system of justice. It's not equal. I wish more respectable white people understood and internalized that. For the ingroup, the law protects and liberates. For the outgroup, the law punishes and dominates. Separate and unequal did not end with Brown v. the Board of Education. If I were Black or brown, knowing the trial's outcome hinged on the color of Rittenhouse's skin, I might distrust democratic institutions, too. I might burn myself up with rage.

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When the former president throws a fit, the opinion pages of the Times and the Post light up with consternation by the country's elites over the fate of the American republic. But rarely are these same elites as vexed by miscarriages of justice as blatant as the one we saw last week. Rarely — if ever — are we asked to consider the out-group's misgivings. Such indifference only deepens reasons to lose faith.

My father-in-law died two Sundays ago. In such moments, I often turn to poetry. It's one thing that makes sense when nothing else does. I was leafing through my old Norton Anthology when I happened on a poem by Audre Lorde. Published in 1978, "Power" came after a white cop was acquitted of murder after shooting a Black child in the back.

The policeman who shot down a 10-year-old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said "Die you little motherfucker" and
there are tapes to prove that. At his trial
this policeman and in his own defense
"I didn't notice the size or nothing else
only the color." and
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37-year-old white man with 13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
"They convinced me" meaning
they had dragged her 4'10″ black woman's frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

Lorde was driving when she heard the news. "I had to pull over," she recalled for Mari Evans in her book Black Women Writers (1950-1980). "A kind of fury rose up in me; the sky turned red. I felt so sick. I felt as if I would drive this car into a wall, into the next person I saw. So I pulled over. I took out my journal just to air some of my fury, to get it out of my fingertips. Those expressed feelings are in the poem."

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Lorde never gave up on democracy. She'd have surrendered the best means of holding the ingroup responsible if she had. That's the point, after all, of separate and unequal, of two-tiered law. While the ingroup gets all the power but none of the responsibility, the outgroup gets none of the power but all the responsibility. "Power" gives voice not only to the pain of injustice. It gives voice to the rage of righteousness.

Freedom for the ingroup means freedom from accountability. Freedom for the outgroup means freedom from those holding morality and decency in contempt. For Lorde, I'd say, bearing witness to the outcomes of such moral perversion is "the first real power she ever had" in a much longer process of achieving democratic responsibility.

We're going to need more of that. Rittenhouse's trial took place amid a larger pattern in which democracy is seen as a threat to the "natural order of things," a social hierarchy with white men on top. The young man's acquittal is being taken to mean violence is OK — that it's fine and dandy to meet freedom to protest with a semiautomatic rifle. The First Amendment is hardly a shield against people prepared to murder.

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