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Black Lives Matter protest in New York City

Black Lives Matter protest in New York City. Photo: The All-Nite Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The Rittenhouse acquittal is a symptom of a biased and racist system, which can only be challenged by mass action and solidarity, argues Kate O’Neil

The lights turned green for right-wing vigilantism in the US this Friday, when Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenage gunman who injured one and killed two people at an anti-racist protest in Kenosha last August, was acquitted of all criminal charges. Although all three victims were white, the shootings took place during the unrest following the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, and the decision is seen as a blow to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The jury concluded from the evidence presented that he had acted entirely in self-defence, but this doesn’t feel like justice for those looking at the case through a wider lens. Although Rittenhouse was not a member of one of the right-wing militias who had mobilised ‘any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from evil thugs’ on social media, his claim to be defending a car dealership with an AR-15 certainly suggests he had taken up their call. In this context, it is hard to imagine how protesters would not have perceived him as hostile and dangerous to begin with. Also, both victims who died were unarmed, one of them shot four times. The injured victim was carrying a pistol, but it was argued that both he and the second victim were pursuing Rittenhouse as an ‘active shooter’ after the first shooting, and were trying to prevent further violence. 

For this reason, many fear the ruling could have a chilling effect on social protest. As one expert explained, the verdict:

‘might be interpreted across the far right as a type of permission slip to do this kind of thing or to seek out altercations in this way, believing that there is a potential that they won't face serious consequences for it.’

A boost to racists

Ever since Rittenhouse was charged in the case, he has been a cause célèbre across much of the conservative political spectrum. His mother received a standing ovation at a local Republican Party meeting shortly following the killings, and in November his lawyers were able to raise $2 million in bail money for him. Right-wing media commentators such as Fox’s Tucker Carlson wholeheartedly endorsed Rittenhouse’s violence, asking: ‘Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?’ After his release on bail, Rittenhouse was spotted flashing white-power signs and singing the anthems of the far-right Proud Boys with others in public. 

Not surprisingly, these forces have viewed the ‘not guilty’ verdict as a vindication of both their racist politics and their vigilante tactics. Two Republican members of Congress have offered Rittenhouse internships in Washington, Carlson will host a prime-time interview of Rittenhouse this week on Fox, and extremist groups like QAnon are predicting a ‘massive energy shift’ towards right-wing organisations. 

To be sure, the verdict also sparked anti-racism protests around the US over the weekend, and the country remains very divided over any question related to policing and institutional racism. But its message is abundantly clear: neither Trump’s defeat in the 2020 elections, nor Derek Chauvin’s conviction for the murder of George Floyd last spring, have turned the page on the far right. Kenosha has set a dangerous legal precedent that is a boon to violent bigots of all stripes, and left-wing movements will need to respond urgently.

Pro-gun laws

As many in the mainstream media have pointed out, the trial showed just how successful the right-wing gun lobby has been in securing laws that favour protection of the right to bear arms over the right to live free from fear of gun violence. The horrific murders of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia last year, have brought to light the way in which ‘stand-your-ground’ laws, which exist in thirty states, permit racist aggressors to plead self-defence in court simply for feeling threatened by a Black man. Whether they actually are threatened is not necessary to prove. 

The Rittenhouse case has further demonstrated that even in a state like Wisconsin, which does not have a ‘stand-your-ground’ law, and requires proof that the aggressor was indeed in danger of violent assault, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, who must show ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the defendant provoked the attack. The prosecution attempted to do just this by arguing, quite logically, that Rittenhouse’s decision to carry an automatic weapon openly into a volatile situation was itself a provocation. 

Their case was undermined, though, by Wisconsin’s ‘open-carry’ law, which does not restrict such behaviour. The jury’s decision, therefore, could only hinge on the very immediate question of who was chasing whom in a set of testimonies and video footage. Claims that some of the victims were pursuing Rittenhouse to try to save innocent lives from an ‘active shooter’ were deemed irrelevant. Thus legal experts fear that in future, vigilantes will think they have a free pass to attack left-wing protests, simply by getting themselves into situations in which they could claim self-defence.

Commentators on the left have also been right to point out the role of bias in the case that should not be downplayed. The judge was roundly criticised for a number of decisions, including the dismissal of misdemeanour charges against Rittenhouse which might have resulted in some kind of conviction; his refusal to allow those killed to be referred to as ‘victims’; his apparent applause before a defence witness took the stand; and his admission to the jury of candidates who might show bias towards the defendant. In one case, he actually prevented a potential juror from excusing himself from jury duty because he believed his support for the right to bear arms would make him too partial.

Others have pointed out the nearly all white make-up of the jury and the racist double standards in broader society which allowed Rittenhouse to use his ‘male white tears’ in testimony in a way that a Black or Brown armed provocateur would never have been allowed to do. This is not to mention the police bias present at the time of the protests: their reluctance to question why Rittenhouse was carrying an assault weapon, to detain him after the shootings, or to fully interrogate him once he was finally taken into custody.

Change the political climate

However, as importantly, the political climate around the case was different than the one that surrounded the case of Derek Chauvin in April. While Chauvin’s victim, George Floyd, was the cause célèbre of the explosive Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020, which won the hearts and minds of the majority of Americans, and embarrassed the US internationally, it was Rittenhouse, the perpetrator, who became a cause célèbre for the right in the wake of the Kenosha protests. 

And, as much as Kenosha was a lightning rod for the Black Lives Matter movement in August of last year, activity ebbed as the country moved towards the November elections. In January, Kenosha’s top prosecutor quietly declined to press criminal charges against the police officer who shot Jacob Blake, Rusten Sheskey, with barely a peep of opposition or news coverage, and when the coast was clear, Sheskey even got his old job back on the force.

The reason given for not indicting Sheskey was that he, like Rittenhouse, used self-defence to justify firing seven shots into Jacob Blake’s back. Sheskey feared that Blake was attempting to get a knife out of his car, and the prosecutor did not think he could prove him wrong ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. If the local court system could get a brutal cop off so easily on that premise, they could be pretty confident of doing the same for an amateur thug a few months later.

To take on a legal establishment still entrenched with racism, and a potentially more dangerous right wing on the ground, the Black Lives Matter movement must now regroup with other left-wing movements and bring the masses back into the streets. Strategies to confront the far right successfully will be as critical as the development of multiracial solidarity that can circumvent the culture wars on which the right thrives. Thankfully, right now, the US is experiencing a resurgence in trade-union militancy. Hitching these wagons together will be key to blocking the growth of right-wing vigilantism, green light or not.

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