Rittenhouse and Institutional Racism

A jury in Kenosha, Wisconsin, found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of all charges against him. On Aug. 25, 2020, Rittenhouse killed two people and wounded another during a demonstration against police brutality in that Midwest U.S. city. Anticipating that acquittal would inflame a community already impacted by judicial protection of those who act in the name of racism, Gov. Tony Evers said, “We must move forward, together,” and President Joe Biden encouraged protesters to “express their views peacefully, consistent with the rule of law.”

The Rittenhouse case rekindles the debate around two of the biggest flashpoints in U.S. society: racism and the cult of firearms. It is on track to becoming an example of how U.S. institutions are unable to deal with these problems.

To get a complete idea of the profound implications of yesterday’s verdict, we have to go back to the beginning. On Aug. 23, 2020, a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Blake, an African American, was trying to get in his car during the course of a domestic dispute. The incident occurred at a time when indignation over the murder of George Floyd was running very high. Floyd, also an African American, was killed after being choked to death by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer. Floyd’s death triggered a series of protests, including violence and the burning of businesses. In response to these demonstrations against racism and police brutality, ultra-right groups assembled to “protect” citizens and private property. Rittenhouse joined up with one of the armed contingents that came forward to intimidate those who were protesting for a third night in a row.

In the end, the overt affinity of many law enforcement officials with these groups, which often combine white supremacism with the cult of firearms, set the scene for the tragedy on Aug. 25. Law enforcement officers saw Rittenhouse and other men walking through the streets of Kenosha with high-powered weapons during curfew. Not only did the officers refrain from detaining them, they offered them water and even thanked them for being there, action that was all documented on video. Although Rittenhouse was only 17 years old at the time of the attack and was therefore too young to be carrying the AR-15 semiautomatic that took two lives, he had participated in the Public Safety Cadet program of the Grayslake, Illinois Police Department, which offers the opportunity to ride along in patrol cars and provides firearms training to minors.

This is a story of violence engendering violence. The institutions charged with preventing crime are becoming participants or accomplices in these crimes. By the way, it should be remembered that in 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed its grave concern at “a disturbing pattern of excessive force on the part of police officers toward African Americans and other persons of color.” The Rittenhouse case represents the extension of this mantle of impunity not just to those who kill African Americans, but to those who shoot at white people — as Rittenhouse’s three victims were — who raise their voice to end the institutional racism that plagues the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest democracy.”

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