Kyle Rittenhouse is now a free man after fatally shooting two men and wounding a third during anti-racism protests last year, but his trial has left behind a divided America and done little to ease tensions in the town of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the murders occurred.
Rittenhouse, 18, who was facing murder charges, was acquitted in full on grounds of self-defense. But the jury’s decision did not calm people outside the Kenosha County courthouse in the hours after word of the verdict spread throughout the city and the rest of the United States.
The shouting matches that erupted on the courthouse steps between supporters on opposing sides embodied the wildly different lenses through which a divided America viewed the case.
On the one hand, many saw the different treatment an armed white militia supporter received from law enforcement compared to anti-racist protesters. Meanwhile, conservatives hailed Rittenhouse as a hero defending a burning city and raised money for his legal defense.
Those different worldviews were manifested across the United States as Democratic and Republican politicians chimed in with statements that either condemned or supported the jury’s decision.
But on the streets of Kenosha the reaction was more immediate and visceral.
Drivers voiced their opinions from the open windows of passing vehicles. “Everyone home!” a man yelled from his car. A black woman raised her fist in solidarity with those protesting racial injustice, while a white man said nothing but yelled “Celebrate!” from the window of his truck. Meanwhile, a small group of men at the top of the stairs chanted “Come on, Brandon,” a coded hit to Joe Biden.
But aside from the teasing and heated debate, the reactions in Kenosha remained largely peaceful, in stark contrast to the smoke-filled chaos that erupted on nights of protest in August 2020 that left Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber dead. and mutilated Gaige Grosskreutz.
But what the jury found to be a justifiable case of self-defense was seen by many outside of court as the latest example of a system biased toward white defendants and a legal system indifferent to black deaths and injuries, after the violence had been sparked by the police shooting of a local black man.
“When this type of thing typically happens, we hope for the worst but we hope for the best. And today we saw the worst, ”said Johnathon McClellan, president of the Minnesota Coalition for Justice.
McClellan, who came from neighboring Minnesota on the case, pointed to Judge Bruce Schroeder, Wisconsin’s longest-serving circuit judge, whose controversial statements and rulings have attracted scrutiny and, at times, reprimands from viewers.
McClellan and the Minnesota Justice Coalition are asking the Wisconsin Attorney General to burden Rittenhouse with possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under the age of 18, a misdemeanor charge that seemed a likely conviction to prosecutors until Schroeder he dismissed the charge on Monday.
“I think we need more legal professionals to talk and talk because this is not what our system is supposed to be, regardless of the process,” McClellan said.
Alana Carmickle, a 17-year-old from Kenosha, said she came to court directly from the school after hearing the verdict because she wanted to represent the voices of teens who, she said, are not being heard.
“I’m not surprised, but I’m deeply, deeply upset by the verdict,” said Carmickle, who is Black. “It is very heartbreaking. It makes me question everything, including my own safety.
“If Kyle had been a boy or a black man, the verdict would be completely different. Everybody knows … The whole country is watching our city fall apart. Now he is known for setting a murderer free. “
Brook Love, a 63-year-old woman from Milwaukee, said the result was typical of the racial injustice she has seen throughout her life as a black woman.
“What happened today is not right,” he said. “Any reasonable person can see that. People call it the judicial system. I call it a non-system, because most systems work. This non-system does not work. It is a judicial error.
“If a person of color had shot those people, they would be in jail. There is a double standard. How dare anyone call this a judicial system? “
But Kevin Mathewson, a former Kenosha councilor who in August 2020 called on Facebook for civilians to take up arms and protect the city, had a very different take on the verdict and the events that led to the shooting.
“I am so relieved. I am overjoyed, ”said Mathewson, who had been criticized for calling for action that brought armed civilians like Rittenhouse to Kenosha.
Mathewson, who is white, like the Rittenhouse victims, said the case had nothing to do with race, but a “fundamental right to defend themselves from someone who wanted to kill you or, at the very least, do you great bodily harm.”
He described Kenosha as a dangerous and lawless place during the nights of protests in August 2020 and said the government demonstrated through inaction that it could not protect the citizens of the city. Fires were burned, street lamps were uprooted and policemen were attacked with bricks.
“We were alone. So I went on Facebook and said, ‘We need help. Arm yourself, protect your neighborhoods, your homes, your businesses. We need to do this because the government is not. ” That’s what I put in. And I keep it, ”Mathewson said.
For the city to move forward, everyone must accept the verdict and go back to living their “normal everyday life,” just as he had to do when Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, he said.
But the return to normal life, said Dayvin Hallmon, who served on the Kenosha County board for 10 years, is a continuation of the status quo that set the stage for the events of August 2020. Kenosha, in fact, it is a city that has suffered for a long time of the effects of a black community that feels vulnerable and marginalized.
“The important thing is not the verdict here,” Hallmon said. “Focusing only on the verdict is the scapegoat for the real problem, which is the fact that the opportunities for young black and brown residents of Kenosha are abysmal.”
Hallmon said that for years he lobbied his colleagues on the county board to rewrite the use of force policies for law enforcement officers and pass resolutions denouncing the violence. If Kenosha leaders were to take last year’s breakthrough seriously, they would focus on eradicating racism within the police department and listening to the youth of the city, who “feel that Kenosha is not for them and does not want them.” .
“If we focus only on the verdict here, all of this will happen again,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism