The Dumb and the Restless: Why the Conservative Defense of Kenosha Shooter is Ridiculous
According to University of Washington professor Dan Berger, police have a lengthy history of complicity with right-wing insurgents. American law enforcement have viewed far-right paramilitary groups as allies in the fight against true subversives and radicals (just as they did with civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s). They assume that white gunmen toting assault weapons who speak favorably of law enforcement are more trustworthy and peaceable than racially diverse protesters who criticize them. Which brings us to this past Tuesday night when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse purportedly shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with an AR-15 style rifle, killing two and wounding another.
So far videos of the event provide us with an incomplete story of what, exactly, happened. But they appear to clearly show this much: Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha while in possession of an illegal assault weapon to act out some confused teenagers idea of Taxi Driver. He placed himself at the center of the violence, which he then promptly escalated by shooting a man in the head. Minutes later, he shot two more people who appeared to be trying to disarm him, before finally fleeing across state lines. And due to his bloody circus, prosecutors have now charged Rittenhouse with first-degree intentional homicide. In short, a kid, obsessed with law enforcement, decided to play cops and robbers and wound up, according to law enforcement, committing actual murder. Videos and eyewitness testimony both have the police passing over the armed teen gunman as they responded to reports of gunfire, even as protesters pointed to Rittenhouse as the one responsible. (The police, it seems, already had an image of the killer in their heads; a white kid with a semi-automatic rifle apparently wasn’t it).
Some (ok, damn near everyone) on the right however, sees Rittenhouse differently. As footage of the incident emerged, conservative media figures immediately began to craft a counter-narrative in which the teenager is not some delusional vigilante but instead a well-intentioned, if overzealous, patriot who shot two violent assailants in self-defense. Rittenhouse, they suggest, is a martyr who took action because Democrats would not let police do their jobs.
This narrative rests on several beliefs, all of them racist, and deeply rooted in American history: that white people must sometimes break the law in order to enforce it. This near-instant rehabilitation of Rittenhouse by the right should remind us that white Americans’ most heinous acts of violence can always be justified by their ideological allies.
Kenosha’s protests began the Sunday before after Officer Rusten Sheskey, repeatedly shot Jacob Blake, in the back in front of his children. Video footage indicates that Blake was walking away from Sheskey when the officer began shooting. And he appeared to pose no threat. Blake is alive, but is reportedly paralyzed from the waist down. As a result a mix of peaceful protests and riots broke out across the city, which is majority white but also has a sizable Black community. By Tuesday, men carrying firearms who identified themselves as members of a private militia group stood outside local businesses, allegedly to protect them. A video shows Kenosha police handing water to these gunmen—including Rittenhouse—telling them: “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”
It is almost too dizzying to count all the ways Rittenhouse appears to have broken the law. He allegedly twice drove across state lines carrying a firearm he was not legally permitted to possess. (It’s being reported now that last week, Rittenhouse also received a speeding ticket and citation for driving without a license while in Kenosha). He then illegally brandished this firearm in the streets. He violated the Kenosha curfew that provided the basis for police to arrest protesters. He fled out of state after shooting three people. And, most obviously, he killed two protesters. The footage indicates that two—and possibly all three—of Rittenhouse’s victims were trying to disarm him.
And yet, almost as soon as video of the shootings began to emerge, conservative media began to defend Rittenhouse. They mocked Huber for using a skateboard to “attack a man packing a rifle.” (Despite the fact that they continually urge school age children and educators to do the same thing with active shooters). Erick Erickson said Rittenhouse was “not the bad guy” because he “was firing on people who were attacking him.” Fox News guests asserted that Rittenhouse effected “vigilante justice” because he filled “a void” left by police. All these claims built toward their one inevitable and predictable conclusion: Rittenhouse didn’t commit first-degree intentional homicide; he didn’t even commit murder at all. He was merely defending himself against a pack of thugs hellbent on beating him, possibly to death, because he tried to keep the peace. In Tucker Carlson’s words: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” This narrative transforms Rittenhouse from an unstable killer to a Second Amendment hero. And you need only accept a few fictions to buy into it.
First, you must believe that the protesters chasing down Rittenhouse and attempting to wrest his gun away from him were not trying to prevent further bloodshed, but simply to brutalize him. Second, you must agree that even if these protesters were trying to confiscate Rittenhouse’s gun, they were wrong to do so, because they were the vicious lawbreakers and he was the vulnerable peacekeeper. Third, you must embrace a definition of self-defense so capacious that it allows a gunman to legally shoot a civilian dead when that civilian is trying to seize a weapon the gunman has used to kill someone. Or, as the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie put it: “if someone is trying to stop you after you killed someone, you can continue shooting and killing in ‘self-defense.’”
It is much easier to accept the first two propositions if you are predisposed to believe that white people are more likely to uphold the law and Black people are more likely to break it. Like many protesters in Kenosha, Rittenhouse’s victims were white. But they were part of a diverse group that pursued the 17-year-old in an apparent effort to stop him from shooting and injuring more people. That group included many Black people, who were also imperiled when Rittenhouse tripped and fired his weapon indiscriminately. The claim that these protesters had a malign plan to assault or kill Rittenhouse, rather than disarm him, rests on the racist assumption that a white vigilante’s motives must somehow be purer than a racially diverse group of demonstrators.
The third proposition—that the gunman was merely defending himself—rests on a chilling vision of self-defense that would excuse homicide and limit any civilians’ ability to forestall future shootings. Wisconsin law only licensed Rittenhouse to shoot his pursuers to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The video of the second shooting makes it quite clear this did not happen. While the circumstances surrounding the first shooting remain murky, it is evident from the footage that Rittenhouse ran away carrying his rifle, pursued by protesters who rightly believed he might shoot more people. When he tripped, his pursuers immediately tried to seize his gun. These are not the actions of thugs eager to inflict bodily harm, but of good Samaritans trying to stop what to them looked like the beginning of a mass shooting.
Naturally, the argument for self-defense boils down to this: If civilians try to seize a weapon from a gunman who just shot somebody in the head, that gunman has a right to shoot them. If this theory were legally correct (thankfully, it isn’t) then a person who tries to grab a mass shooter’s gun may be legally killed by the shooter himself. Rittenhouse ultimately proved to be a mass shooter, one in illegal possession of a firearm, a gun that police allowed him to carry even after he had apparently shot three people a block in front of them. The cops who ordered protesters to disperse for violating curfew did not order an obviously underage teen to put down his assault weapon. Tucker Carlson (the crown prince of stupidity) got it backward; the question here is why anyone is shocked that protesters would try to disarm an armed vigilante when law enforcement refused to.
As Mark Joseph Stern writes: “After Jacob Blake’s shooting, conservative media hunted for evidence that might exonerate the officer, fixating on the presence of a knife in Blake’s car. After Rittenhouse shot three protesters, the right hunted for evidence that might exonerate the shooter, settling on the fantasy that those protesters were the real vigilantes who got what was coming to them. The lesson here is simple: A white man with a gun is innocent until proven guilty; his victims are guilty until proven innocent. It is a lesson tragically embedded in American history, and one that racist far-right militias around the country will surely take to heart this week.”
We still only know fragments about what exactly motivated a teenager to get hold of an assault rifle and hang around with armed militias. And the scariest thing about it, is that he may be just the first. "The fundamental unfairness of [the Blake and Rittenhouse] tragedies in one Wisconsin city... should be enough for even the most stubborn of white Americans to understand why people are marching to assert and rightfully demand that Black lives matter," writes Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke. "The clear-as-glass unfairness of it all should be enough." But, and as he concludes: "it won't be."