Madison, Wisconsin. – From the moment Kyle Rittenhouse shot dead three people on the streets of Kenosha during protests against police shooting at a black man, he personified America’s polarization.
The 17-year-old from Illinois who carried an AR-style rifle and idolized the police was acclaimed by those who scorned the Black Lives Matter movement and the sometimes destructive protests that followed George Floyd’s death. He was defended by pro-gun conservatives who said he was exercising his Second Amendment rights and defending cities against “antifa,” a generic term for left-wing activists.
Others saw him as the most disturbing example to date of vigilant citizens taking to the streets with guns, often with the tacit backing of the police – a “tourist of chaos,” in the words of the senior prosecutor, who came to Kenosha looking for trouble.
Although Rittenhouse and the three men he shot were white, many saw racism in the heart of Kenosha – an armed white teenager, greeted by police in a town where activists were rallying against gunfire. white officer on a black man, and allowed to walk past a police line immediately after shooting three people.
This division will likely be on display at the Rittenhouse trial, which opens Monday with jury selection. Rittenhouse, now 18, faces multiple charges, including homicide, and could face a life sentence if convicted.
“This is another battle in what has become the central story of our time – the culture wars,” said John Baick, who teaches modern American history at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In many ways, the key question at trial is simple: Was Rittenhouse acting in self-defense? There are numerous videos of the events in question, and legal experts see strong arguments in them. The judge overseeing the trial, Bruce Schroeder, has emphatically stated that it “will not be a political trial”.
But it has been exactly that, almost from the time the shootings took place – led by powerful interest groups, extremists, politicians and others using it to advance their own agendas.
Rittenhouse’s advocates, including his family, have looked at some of the symbolism. A website devoted to his defense – and fundraising for it – greets visitors with a quote attributed to James Monroe: “The right to self-defense never ceases. The site denounces “Big Tech, corrupt media and dishonest politicians” for “ruining the life of Kyle Rittenhouse”. The site briefly sold “Free Kyle” branded merchandise before sellers backed off.
Ryan Busse, a former gun industry executive who is now a senior advisor to gun safety organization Giffords, founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, said he was concerned Rittenhouse was become “a heroic martyr”.
“I worry about giving more power to more actors like him who think it’s glamorous to go and kill someone with a gun,” Busse said.
Rittenhouse made the 20-mile journey from his home in Antioch, Ill., North to Kenosha as the town plagued several nights of chaotic protests after an officer shot Jacob Blake in the back as a result of a household disturbance. At least one call has been made on social media for armed citizens to respond, although lawyers for Rittenhouse say that’s not what brought Rittenhouse to the city.
Videos taken that night show him with a first aid kit by his side, along with his rifle, bragging about his medical abilities. The video also shows police officers appearing to welcome Rittenhouse and other armed citizens, including handing them bottles of water.
Later that evening, a video shows a man named Joseph Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse in the parking lot of a used car dealership; seconds later, Rittenhouse shoots and kills him. Within minutes, Rittenhouse – pursued by other protesters – shot dead Anthony Huber, who threw a skateboard at him, and shot and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, who had advanced towards Rittenhouse with a handgun. hand.
Video then shows Rittenhouse marching towards police with his hands in the air, his rifle slung, as protesters shout that he has just shot people. Rittenhouse returned home, transforming into a cop the next day.
On the day Rittenhouse was arrested, United States Democratic Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts tweeted that the shots had been carried out by a “white supremacist national terrorist.”
The Rittenhouse Defense Team objected to this, saying Rittenhouse is not a white supremacist and was unaware of the “hate rhetoric” on social media about the Kenosha protests that preceded it. the shots. The Anti-Defamation League found no evidence of extremism in its social media accounts.
But Rittenhouse was adopted by the Proud Boys, a far-right group that typically indulges in white nationalism, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Band president Enrique Tarrio and other members were shown wearing t-shirts that read “Kyle Rittenhouse didn’t do anything wrong!” And shortly after being released on bail, Rittenhouse was pictured at a Wisconsin bar with people who waved associated with the Proud Boys and sang a song that became an anthem for the band. Rittenhouse also waved his hand.
Whether Rittenhouse was not a member of any extremist group before the shooting doesn’t matter now given how he was embraced by them, said Alex Friedfeld, investigative researcher for the Center on Extremism with the Anti-Defamation League.
He said the extremists would seek to take advantage of the trial. Some see the mere fact that Rittenhouse was indicted as proof that the courts and the system are against the Tories, or that the system is biased against whites, Friedfeld said.
“It’s kind of starting to lay the groundwork for the idea that people have to tear down these institutions and that the system is down and needs to be changed, which requires action,” he said.
Baick, the historian, called Rittenhouse’s trial a “moment for reality TV” and said the whole case is taking its place amid one of the country’s most turbulent times in decades. generations.
“We have to make a link on January 6,” he said. “We need to link military groups across the country, anti-mask protests, school council protests. Whether it’s Kenosha, Minneapolis, or the whole state of Florida, these debates about the role of government, the role of law and order – they are deeply disturbed in America in this regard. moment in a way that they haven’t been since the 1960s. “