by Ashley Seldon ’24
During a series of protests in Kenosha, WI following the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Illinois shot and killed two protestors in what he alleged to be an act of self-defense.
While a 1994 Wisconsin law allowed Rittenhouse to carry a semi-automatic AR-15 style rifle as a minor, the fact is that no one so young should be able to own an assault weapon and openly carry it to a protest. While Rittenhouse claimed to be helping protect local businesses from protestors, he knew the climate he was walking into and the message he was sending by going into such a highly emotional and violent moment of civil unrest with an AR-15 rifle. He wanted conflict, and that is exactly what he got.
Several people approached Rittenhouse to disarm him. One person, Joseph Rosenbaum, lunged at Rittenhouse and was fatally shot by him. Anthony Huber, another victim of Rittenhouse’s violence and a friend of Jacob Blake, tried to stop Rittenhouse by hitting him with a skateboard. When Gaige Grosskreutz approached Rittenhouse with a handgun pointed at him, Rittenhouse shot and wounded him.
Rittenhouse’s intention was never to protect businesses, but instead, was to incite more violence and threaten protestors with his weapon. He caused two deaths and one injury because he chose to attend the protests that day.
In initial statements, Rittenhouse had claimed he was an EMT. During his trial, which took place throughout November, however, he admitted this was a lie as he was questioned about why he did not medically assist the people he shot.
The trial itself was generally a farce. While the defense was speaking, the judge’s phone rang twice with Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA” as his ringtone. Could it be a mere coincidence that this is the same song which was often used in Donald Trump’s rallies to get the crowd excited? Or, was this an indication of something different?
Kevin Gough, Rittenhouse’s defense attorney, also felt that the presence of “high-profile members of the African-American community” put pressure on the courtroom despite the lack of disruption made by such observers. Gough continued, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” arguing against Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton being present. Gough’s comments further play into the racist stereotype that black men are threatening, apparently even just by their presence in a courtroom.
Despite these instances, it was a shock to many when Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges. Even though he killed two people, he will face no consequences. The judge ruled that Rittenhouse had acted in self-defense, and his actions were just because he felt that his life was on the line. Following the verdict, Rittenhouse was praised by many Republican politicians, who invited him to take internships with them. How comforting that America’s politicians feel that a murderer is a strong candidate for a future career in politics.
Many do not like to confront the fact that Rittenhouse was an avid Trump supporter and that he supported the Blue Lives Matter movement. It is wrong to make the sweeping generalization that all Republicans are racist.
Looking through a lens of race, there are more issues within the Rittenhouse decision, because his privilege as a white person likely afforded him advantages. This case further proves the danger of a party that promotes gun ownership, white innocence, and racism. The precedence of self-defense, if it applies to this 18-year-old white boy, should be equally considered in cases with Black defendants. But our justice system often does not work that way. If self-defense is the precedent being set, it needs to apply to all cases, not just a now 18-year-old white boy.
For example, women who go to jail for protecting themselves against men who rape and beat them—like Cyntoia Brown, who was given a life sentence at sixteen—should be treated the same. In another case during the summer of 2020, Marc Wilson and his girlfriend were parked near a pickup truck full of white teenagers that began yelling racial slurs. The teenagers swerved in front of them and tried to knock Wilson’s sedan off the highway; they also threw an object at the car. Wilson shot at their vehicle and killed Haley Hutcheson sitting in the backseat. He tried to argue self-defense, saying that he and his girlfriend feared for their lives, yet the judge denied Wilson’s bail and ruled last week that he felt Wilson was a “significant threat” to the community.
If self-defense is the precedent being set, the justice system needs to ensure this right applies to Black individuals as well.