As a matter of justice, Kyle Rittenhouse deserved to be acquitted. Despite the jury taking three-and-a-half agonising days to deliberate, his case was relatively straightforward and none of the facts were seriously in dispute.
He went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, last August to protect property during a Black Lives Matter protest after widespread arson and vandalism the night before. He ended up shooting three men that night, killing two, in what he claimed were acts of self-defence. All of the shootings were captured on video, some from multiple angles. He tried to retreat from everyone he shot that night, resorting to deadly force only when he was cornered, physically attacked, or threatened with a gun. At no point did he continue shooting after ending the immediate threat.
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Although prosecutors attempted to argue that, merely by being present with a gun, Rittenhouse, now 18, had “provoked” the protesters, they were unable to provide any convincing evidence that Rittenhouse had done anything to threaten anyone or initiate conflict in any way. The defence, by contrast, was able to show that Rittenhouse, far from picking fights, attempted throughout the night to avoid or defuse conflicts with protesters.
The trial confirmed that the real villain of the night was the first man Rittenhouse shot, 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum. This was the most important shooting, because it set in motion the events that led a crowd to assault a fleeing Rittenhouse, allegedly in the belief that he was an “active shooter”, and which led to Rittenhouse shooting and killing Anthony Huber, who was attacking him with a skateboard, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, who advanced on Rittenhouse with a drawn pistol.
Rosenbaum, a convicted child-rapist and domestic abuser, had no connection to the protesters. He was a disturbed man who had been released from a psychiatric ward earlier in the day and who, according to video evidence and multiple eyewitness testimony, had been belligerent and threatening all night.
According to both Rittenhouse and one of his companions, the Army veteran Ryan Balch, Rosenbaum told members of their group: “If I catch any of you guys alone tonight, I’m going to fucking kill you.” Later in the evening, he found Rittenhouse alone and began chasing him across a parking lot. After first attempting to run away, Rittenhouse wheeled around and shot the advancing Rosenbaum. The closest eyewitness to the shooting testified that as Rosenbaum approached the defendant, he yelled “fuck you!” and lunged for the barrel of Rittenhouse’s gun. The other main clarification at trial came from Grosskreutz, who admitted that Rittenhouse only shot him after he pointed his own gun at the teenager.
Many of the initial media reports that painted Rittenhouse in a sinister light turned out to be false — for instance, Grosskreutz’s claim, which he repeated in multiple interviews, that he had been shot with his hands up in a position of surrender. Rittenhouse did, as was reported early on, “cross state lines” to get to the protest, but only from Antioch, Illinois, a border town that is a suburb of Kenosha, which is where Rittenhouse worked and where many of his family live. He did not transport the gun across the border, and although it is legally murky whether he was allowed to be carrying it — he was 17 at the time — the judge threw out the charge because of ambiguities in the law.
Yes, he was a supporter of Trump and Blue Lives Matter, but there is no evidence that he was a “white supremacist,” as alleged by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, or a “domestic terrorist,” as alleged by Pressley and Ilhan Omar. He was not a member of any militia group, despite the misguided representations of his initial defence team. He was not out “hunting” anyone.
The most damning evidence against him, which was not admitted at trial, was a video from a few weeks prior in which he joked about shooting looters. But again, there was no credible evidence that he initiated or escalated conflict with anyone that night. He lied about being an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), when in fact he had only received CPR training, but this was hardly relevant to the shootings. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been there, but the same was true of nearly everyone there that night. They were all defying a curfew. Many of the protesters were also from out of town. Some, like Grosskreutz, were also carrying illegal guns.
From the beginning, the case against Rittenhouse relied on obfuscating the actual events of the night in favour of mythmaking: easily debunked misinformation, moral and emotional appeals to the justice of the protester’s cause, the racial identity and political sympathies of Rittenhouse, the far-Right politics of some of his most vocal supporters, rhetorical flights against “white male tears” or “fascism”, and arguments about the United States’s gun laws or the biases of its criminal justice system. One index of the confusion surrounding the case is the number of Twitter users who appear to have only recently learned that Rittenhouse’s assailants were white.
Indeed, even on the Left, those reporting on the case or following it closely have tended to conclude that Rittenhouse was not the monster he was initially painted as. Long pieces in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, while drawing attention to the extremism of some of the militia members who showed up to protests, to the general atmosphere of chaos, violence, and racial tension that summer, and to the role of Right-wing media in stoking outrage over rioting and property destruction, concluded that Rittenhouse himself was more or less a foolish kid with conventional politics who got in over his head. Last week, Ryan Grim of The Intercept tweeted: “People should be prepared for Rittenhouse to be acquitted on all the major charges”.
Emotional reactions, not to say irresponsible tantrums, are to be expected after a divisive trial such as this one. Commentators on both sides will say stupid things, and there will be no shortage of people on Twitter making triumphant racist memes about Rittenhouse or declaring that the verdict gives licence to MAGA wingnuts to hunt down liberals and shoot them for sport. Today, nearly every national issue in the United States is what the blogger Scott Alexander has called a “scissor” issue — one that is not merely divisive but in which the opposing sides seem to be operating in different planes of reality. The Rittenhouse verdict is no different, even if in this case, unlike in the Brett Kavanaugh or Covington Catholic controversies, we can know with reasonable certainty what actually happened.
What happens next will be a litmus test for the country. Despite the uncertainties inherent in jury trials, the two main trials to come out of last summer’s unrest, this one and the murder trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, reached the correct verdict, though this is cold comfort in a country where the two main factions are defined by their mutual mistrust and loathing. Already, Republicans have begun pouring salt into the wound, and it looks as if the verdict will cement Rittenhouse’s reputation as a conservative folk hero — an innocent man smeared by corrupt politicians, a partisan media, and biased Big Tech companies.
Democrats, meanwhile, are convinced against all evidence that a cold-blooded murderer has been set free due to the colour of his skin, with leading politicians declaring the verdict a “miscarriage of justice” and asking the Justice Department to pursue what could only be described as a political prosecution of the Wisconsin teen. These are signs that the scars opened over the past few years will not be quick to heal.
Yet some on the Left have already begun to signal that things got out of hand last summer. They are admitting, for instance, that “defund the police” was a stupid and politically toxic idea, that riots and arson lead predictably to violent chaos and should therefore be discouraged rather than cheered, and that some of the police shootings that initially sparked outrage — including the one that set off the riots in Kenosha — were based on initial reporting that, had it come from Fox News or the Right-wing Twittersphere, would have been clearly labelled as disinformation.
Many of these things were obvious at the time, and it can be frustrating now to observe those who only found the courage to say the obvious after Joe Biden won the presidency. But it is better than the alternative, which is to continue denying the reality in front of their faces. In this case, the reality is that Rittenhouse was found innocent of murder, and correctly so. Biden, to his credit, has already stated that “the jury system works and we have to abide by it”. One hopes that his allies will listen. To refuse to do so is only to court more tragedies.