As I sit here on a dark November night, I ask myself: Does the world need yet another article on the Kyle Rittenhouse killings and his subsequent acquittal Friday afternoon? As a criminal justice matter, likely not. There are far better experts than I to analyze such things. But as a window onto the society that produced this result, a political observer cannot sit idly by without taking notice of the absurdities and structural injustices that led us here. The legal technicalities that produced the verdict are almost irrelevant set next to the social and broader legal conditions that made it possible.
One of the great moral outrages of the case is that the jury was asked to consider only the acts of immediate violence on that fateful night, without being informed of the actions Rittenhouse took leading up to them. Rittenhouse intentionally travelled from his home in Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, as a counter-protester to a fraught demonstration over the police shooting of Jakob Blake, a Black man. He came armed with an AR-15 style rifle—one guaranteed to increase the likelihood of deadly violence—while ostensibly there to defend local businesses from alleged looting. It takes quite a leap to argue that he wasn’t there as an act of provocation to the protesters that night, if not in the hopes of shooting someone. The protesters clearly took his armed presence there as a threat and provocation, and reacted accordingly. What followed was a tragedy.
Beyond the obvious issues of race and racial justice (while on bail, Rittenhouse was seen flashing white power signs and chanting Proud Boy anthems), much of the battle between the right and left has been over whether Rittenhouse should be judged on the technicality of self-defense in the moment of the conflagrations, or on his intent in being there in the first place.
When viewed solely in the context of those few moments in time, Rittenhouse’s defense made a case that clearly persuaded the jury. The first victim did approach Rittenhouse to grab his gun; the second did hit him with a skateboard; the third did point a gun at him. All the defense needed do was prove a reasonable doubt about Rittenhouse’s own perception that he needed to defend himself; that seemed to be enough.
That said, the broader context of the case makes a mockery of the verdict’s technicalities. None of the things that led up to the event should have been possible or legal in a decent society.
No one at a social justice protest should be carrying a firearm. It should definitely be illegal for a private citizen to be carrying an AR-15 style rifle openly in public, much less as a direct menace. It should doubly be illegal for private citizens to make themselves self-appointed armed vigilante guards, particularly to defend property that is not only not theirs, but not even residential property. It should triply be illegal for a minor to do so.
The fact that it was perfectly legal for 17-year-old boy to drive himself more than 20 miles to stand as a self-appointed vigilante guard in front of private businesses with a near-military-grade rifle in opposition to a racial justice protest is itself a mind-boggling miscarriage of law and order. Any normal person would reasonably see him as threat, his actions amounting to a clear provocation.
A country that accepts this behavior as a normal and accepted legal baseline is guaranteed to spiral into a legal morass of brutal and needless violence, as it did on the night of August 25, 2020. If two or more individuals draw a gun in that situation, or one person tries to disarm the other, who exactly is acting in self-defense?
As Eric Levitz points out, the Rittenhouse episode created a perverse situation in which the person with the more powerful gun and quicker trigger finger had the right to claim self-defense, not through any moral virtue or act of de-escalation, but by the mere act of having walked out of the encounter alive. After all, his going to a racial justice protest brandishing an automatic weapon essentially guarantees “kill or be killed” situations, since both parties can reasonably claim to feel threatened and require the need to act in self-defense, entirely under the law. In short, self-defense laws in a country deluged with high-powered guns are a broken disaster.
Of course, it’s not just the law that needs a reckoning. The social context of “self-defense” in America heavily tilted toward empowering patriarchy and white supremacy. Hundreds of women across the country are sitting in jail for daring to defend themselves against their abusers, with no such grace or understanding under the law as Rittenhouse received. Whites are far more likely to get off on “self-defense” when the victim is Black than when the victim is white. As hundreds of people on Twitter have said in various ways, consider the notion that a Black person could have gone with an AR-15 rifle to a MAGA protest, shot three people when confronted—two of them fatally—and then not only walked away alive but have a jury fully acquit them? It’s a fantasy worthy of guffaws.
Simply put, armed self-defense works out quite differently for conservative white men than it does for anyone else. There are both written and unwritten rules that govern this sort of violence. The written rules of the law are broken, allowing guns to be brought where they don’t belong. The unwritten rule is that only certain kinds of (usually white) men are allowed to bring them, use them, live to tell about whatever incidents unfold, and walk free. Moreover, these rules take place in mostly conservative and, yes, racist culture of policing in America. The consequences of these confluence of circumstances are disturbing: The pervasive threat of gun violence that reinforces white supremacy, protected both by formal and informal state sanction.
As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “What we are witnessing is a system functioning as designed and protecting those it was designed for.” It is all a dismal picture. America’s culture of guns and its notions of self-defense must change. Otherwise, the grief, trauma, and broken bodies in Kenosha will only be a preview of worse things to come.