The Guardian Weekly - 2021-11-26


Kenosha’s divisions laid bare as Rittenhouse walks free

Spotlight North America


Kyle Rittenhouse is 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 Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the killings took place. Rittenhouse, 18, who faced charges of homicide, was acquitted in full on the grounds of self-defence. But the jury’s decision did not calm those outside the Kenosha county courthouse in the hours after the verdict last Friday. The shouting matches that flared on the steps outside between opposing sides embodied the wildly different lenses through which a divided country viewed the case. Many saw the treatment a white and armed man had received from law enforcement as different to that experienced by anti-racism protesters. Meanwhile, conservatives hailed Rittenhouse as a hero and had raised money for his defence. Across the US, Democratic and Republican politicians weighed in. But on the streets of Kenosha, the reaction was immediate and visceral. “Everyone go home!” shouted one man from his car. A Black woman raised her fist in solidarity with those protesting against racial injustice, while a white man said nothing, but blasted “Celebrate!” from the window of his truck. Meanwhile, a small group of men atop the stairs chanted “Let’s go Brandon” – a coded jab at Joe Biden. Aside from the jeers and heated debate, Kenosha was largely peaceful, in contrast to the smoke-filled chaos that erupted on the nights of protest in August 2020 that left Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber dead and Gaige Grosskreutz maimed. But what the jury determined to be a justifiable case of self-defence was viewed by many outside the courthouse as the latest example of a system biased in favour of white defendants and immune to Black deaths and injuries, after the violence had been sparked by the police shooting of a Black man. “When these types of things typically happen, we expect the worst but hope for the best. And today we saw the worst,” said Johnathon McClellan, the president of the Minnesota Justice Coalition. McClellan pointed to judge Bruce Schroeder, Wisconsin’s longest-serving circuit judge, whose controversial statements have drawn scrutiny. McClellan and the Minnesota Justice Coalition are calling on Wisconsin’s attorney general to recharge Rittenhouse with possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, which seemed a likely conviction for prosecutors until Schroeder dismissed the charge. Alana Carmickle, 17, from Kenosha, said she had come to the courthouse because she wanted to represent teenagers who were not being heard. “I’m not surprised, but I’m deeply, deeply upset by the verdict,” Carmickle, who is Black, said. “It makes me question everything, including my own safety. Had Kyle been a Black boy or man, the verdict would be completely different. Everybody knows it.” Brook Love, 63, from Milwaukee, said the outcome was typical of the racial injustice she had seen throughout her life as a Black woman. “What happened today is not right,” she said. “Any reasonable person can see that.” Kevin Mathewson, a former Kenosha alderman who in August 2020 put out a call on Facebook for civilians to take up arms and protect the city, had a different view. “I am filled with joy,” said Mathewson, who had been criticised for an action that brought armed civilians like Rittenhouse to Kenosha. Mathewson, who is white, like Rittenhouse’s victims, said the case had nothing to do with race, but the “fundamental right to defend oneself ”. He described Kenosha as a lawless, dangerous place during the nights of protests in August 2020 and said the government showed through inaction it could not protect the city’s citizens. Fires burned, streetlights were torn out and police officers were attacked with bricks. “We were on our own. So I went on Facebook and I said, ‘We need help. Arm yourselves, protect your neighbourhoods, your homes, your businesses,” Mathewson said. Everyone needed to accept the verdict and go back to living their “normal, everyday lives” – just like he had had to do when Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, he said. But a return to normal living, 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. “The real problem … is the fact [that] the opportunities for the young Black and brown residents of Kenosha are dismal as shit … If we focus only on the verdict here, this will all happen again,” he said.


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