Kyle Rittenhouse – the name might not ring a bell to most now, but this young man had been in the spotlight of media attention in late 2020, and for all the wrong reasons. The then 17- year old had been reported to have gunned down 3 and killing two as a result with a semi-automatic rifle during the protest and ensuing chaos in the city of Kenosha in Wisconsin, US. The news erupted during the peak of another controversy involving alleged police brutality on Jacob Blake, a black African American individual, and the debate on guns, police and protests on national TV had found more fuel to burn on. After proceedings that lasted 3 months, Kyle was recently cleared of all charges brought on him by the prosecution and walking free on November 20. Even today this incident is a topic of fierce political debate in the US – is this a case of miscarriage of justice or the reiteration of the American right to use guns in self-defense?
Source – news.yahoo.com
The chain of events was set in motion on the 23rd of August after reports came of Jacob Blake, who was absconding from an arrest warrant then, had been shot 7 times following an altercation with two police officers. Following the incident, he was medically admitted with serious injuries and was later declared paralyzed from the waist down. The Kenosha Police backed its officers on the ground that Jacob was a criminal who was armed with a knife, and the officers acted prudently under this threat.
Following allegations of unjustified police brutality in a long line of racially motivated assaults, this news had reignited the Black Lives Matter movement that began in May of the same year, with hundreds of protesters flowing into the area. Soon matters escalated when protests turned to violence, with arson, theft, property damage, and run-ins with the police, all being reported across the state till early September.
The unstable situation was the urgent wake-up call for public vigilantism in the form of an active civilian militia, at least according to former alderman Kevin Mathewson who, along with other concerned right-wing activists, posted messages on Facebook and other platforms urging like-minded civics to take up arms. On the other hand, the Kenosha Mayor and County Sheriff both had expressed disproval of this countermovement of armed civilians patrolling the streets.
Until then, Kyle Rittenhouse was just another teenager, living with his divorced mother in an apartment in Antioch, a rural town along the Wisconsin border. Having idolized law enforcement from a young age and participated in local cadet training programs for at-risk youths, a lot about Kyle revolved around the ideals of bravery and servitude, according to people close to him. And unsurprisingly, in the wake of the raging protests, he and his friend.
Dominick Black jointly decided to join the vigilante efforts, when both met up at the latter’s house on 24th August. Kyle, who was underage at the time, had gotten his A-15 rifle as a gift from Dominick. The very next day, they left to patrol and arrived at Car Source, a car wash that, according to various disputed accounts, requested their assistance in protection during the riots. It was in this vicinity that the events of what would come to be known as the Kenosha Shooting incident would quickly unfold.
Source – Lightburst/Wikipedia
While leaving the establishment, an unarmed protester, Joseph Rosenbaum started to chase Kyle along with some other protestors into a parking lot. While Rosenbaum just threw a bag of cloth and deodorant during his pursuit towards Kyle, another protester allegedly fired a bullet, which prompted Kyle to turn back and confront his chasers. He aimed his firearm at Rosenbaum, who lunged forward for the teenager’s gun; a scuffle that finally resulted in Rosenbaum being fatally gunned down.
When Richie McGinnis, a reporter present in the area, rushed to administer first aid to a critically wounded Rosenbaum and asked him to call 911, the panicking youth fled into the nearby street. And in that flight, other protesters who mistook him for an assailant on the loose pursued him and tried to physically subdue him. One such protester, Anthony Huber, struck Kyle with his skateboard and struggled to take away the gun, only for him to be shot once in the heart, causing him to die on the spot. Another present protester, Gaige Grosskreutz, who had taken out his pistol, got shot in the arm. Soon afterward, Kyle walked to the nearby police with his arms in the air and confessed to his crimes.
Despite Kyle’s surrender, he was not arrested immediately. The explanation given by the County Sherriff David Beth was that their preoccupation with the entire high-stress situation had given them “tunnel-vision” and that officers might’ve not realized that he was involved in the shooting. Various recordings of the violent episode soon went viral garnering polarizing reactions from the public.
Some, particularly conservative factions praised the youth for promptly acting in self-defense, while others questioned the teenager’s reckless act of vigilantism and the police’s racial double standards at making arrests. Media was also divided in their coverage of the news, with terms like ‘terrorist’, ‘vigilante’, and ‘volunteer’ being used to describe the teenager. Within an hour of the incident, Kyle turned himself to the police in his hometown of Antioch where he was detained until he was transferred to Wisconsin on the 30th.
The very next day the then-President Donald Trump expressed his support for Kyle’s actions stating that “I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed“. With a $2 million bail being paid with the help of an online fundraiser that rapidly found supporters, Kyle was released from detention until the trial began almost a year later.
Source – azcentral.com
The prosecution had brought six charges against Kyle including dangerous possession of a firearm by a person under 18, first-degree intentional homicide, and reckless endangerment of others, with maximum years punishable counting to about 60 years. Before the trial even began, the unlawful possession charge was quashed by the judge on purely technical grounds – the age limit for carrying a rifle was 16 and not 18 and that the Wisconsin law only restricted minors from carrying rifles if they are short-barreled.
The trial arguments and testimonies lasted from November 2 to 19 of 2021, at one point at which Kyle broke down while explaining his side of the ordeal. Attorneys spent the first week of the trial sparring over who provoked whom, with prosecutors portraying the teenager as the aggressor and the defense working to show that the men he shot had threatened him. Judge Bruce Schroeder- a still-controversial figure relating to the trial– had sparred with the prosecutor during the proceedings, while the defense made multiple requests for a mistrial. Finally, on November 19, the 12 member jury pronounced its verdict after 25 hours of deliberation spanning 4 days– Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all 5 counts.
Kyle’s acquittal was met with much celebration from the conservative aisle of the political spectrum. Former President Donald Trump, Republican senators Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson among others declared that the judgment reaffirmed their faith in the American justice system. On the other hand, Democrat politicians expressed their disappointment at the verdict, with Wisconsin governor Anthony Evers summarizing – “No verdict will be able to bring back the lives of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, or heal Gaige Grosskreutz’s injuries, just as no verdict can heal the wounds or trauma experienced by Jacob Blake and his family.
No ruling today changes our reality in Wisconsin that we have work to do toward equity, accountability, and justice that communities across our state are demanding and deserve.” President Joe Biden requested the jury’s decision be respected and stated that the system has clearly shown itself to work. Joseph Ruben’s parents remarked that there was no accountability for their son’s killer, while protests against the verdict erupted in different parts of the country. About one month after the trial concluded, Kyle has become something of a celebrity in right-wing circles.
An ardent fan of Donald Trump, Kyle got to fulfill his dream of meeting his idol and one of his most vocal supporters just five days after his release. Three Republican representatives offered Kyle internships at their office and one of them reportedly remarked about him: “You have a right to defend yourself, so be armed, be dangerous and be moral”.
Kyle is now reportedly busy with publicity tours and made a number of public appearances in conservative political events like AmericaFest 2021. But putting all speculations about his foray into politics to bed, Kyle stated “I don’t want to get involved in politics at all. I know nothing about it, and thank everybody for their support. But I’m good, thank you”. And accordingly, Kyle now plans to study nursing at Arizona State University.
Given the very sensationalizing nature of this piece of news, it’s never been a very hard task to pick sides and instantly decide who the true culprit of the Kenosha shooting incident was. But as we deal with the specifics of the case and confront the bigger set of problems the incident represents, it becomes less easy to point fingers in the most obvious direction; rather the entire case becomes more of a thought-provoking instance of how the system is yet to reform positively and transcend prejudices. But that observation, unfortunately, does not change the most controversial depiction Kyle has garnered– that of a national hero.
Written by- Hisham Shajahan
Edited by- Krish Sharma