What a seismic difference a trial has made to public and media perceptions of Kyle Rittenhouse.
When he was charged at age 17 with shooting three men, two fatally, during racial unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, various media accounts described him as a rifle-toting white supremacist who drove across the border to shoot Black Lives Matters protesters in the racial unrest that followed the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake.
Even then-presidential candidate Joe Biden included young Kyle among the “white supremacists and militia groups” that he wanted then-President Donald Trump to denounce.
But when Rittenhouse, now 18, faced his charges in court this month in a nice suit and tie, the “white supremacist” allegation died for lack of exposure. Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder barred photos and video evidence of Rittenhouse’s association with Proud Boys, a far-right, neo-fascist group associated with such political violence as the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“This is not a political trial,” Schroeder said. “This is not going to be a political trial.”
Nice try, judge. But, of course, as much as politics should be kept away from influencing the jury inside the court, politics saturates the court of public opinion outside.
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After the verdict, for example, Proud Boys openly celebrated the decision not only as a breakthrough for gun rights but also as evidence of growing opportunities for their violence-fueled messaging against the left.
Nevertheless, with his defense team’s help, a far more innocent, if naively reckless, image of Rittenhouse emerged in court: a selfless teenager and aspiring law enforcement officer (or paramedic) who volunteered to help guard property, provide first aid and help defend the troubled city.
Which image is right in this case? That, theoretically, is why we have trials. Alas, the issues in this case are too politically wide, historically deep and emotionally volatile to be contained by a single judge in one Wisconsin court of law. While the nation watched the trial inside the courtroom, a larger, vastly more sweeping trial roiled outside, making villains or heroes out of the victims and witnesses involved in the proceedings.
Nonetheless, the hero image is dangerously inappropriate, except for those whose reverence for gun rights leaves an undernourished respect for public safety, including gun safety.
Fundamentally, Rittenhouse was a youngster who went off allegedly to support law and order in a misadventure that resulted in the only two deaths connected to the Kenosha unrest.
To gun groups, Trump loyalists, Blue Lives Matter activists and others on the right, Rittenhouse was a hero, brave enough to stand his ground against violent left-wing radicals, minorities and antifa sympathizers destroying private property and taking over America’s streets.
To Americans on the left, including gun control advocates, police reformers and many civil libertarians, Rittenhouse sparked the sort of nightmare that is inevitable in a country that has too many guns. Now it was up to the trial inside the Kenosha courtroom to apply the law to this disorder, particularly the critical question of what constitutes self-defense in a country that defines self-defense in its various states in very different ways.
Rittenhouse and his defense team argued that he was not the initial aggressor. He only shot the three men — whom Judge Bruce Schroeder decreed could be described as “rioters” but not “victims” — in self-defense, after they attacked him on the street in various ways. There was evidence of those attacks, given the presence of cameras capturing the encounters, and admissions of same even during the prosecutors’ own case. For this reason, and others, most lawyers familiar with the self-defense law in Wisconsin were not surprised by the verdict.
The prosecutors disagreed. They said Rittenhouse was asking for trouble when he recklessly inserted himself into a dangerously volatile situation, thus negating his claims.
“When the defendant provokes this incident, he loses the right to self-defense,” prosecutor Thomas Binger said in his unsuccessful closing argument. “You cannot claim self-defense against a danger you create.”
Those not blinded by politics could see Binger had a logical, if maybe not a legal, point. But the jurors, after deliberating more than 26 hours, agreed with Team Rittenhouse. They acquitted him of all charges and reopened a long-standing hornet’s nest of arguments over vigilantism, gun rights and the right to self-defense that already divides the nation along political and racial lines.
The trial of George Zimmerman involved a Latino Florida man who was charged with killing Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who Zimmerman had identified as suspicious and followed in his car and on foot. Martin knocked Zimmerman to the ground, they tussled for his gun, and Zimmerman fatally shot Martin.
The prosecution argued that Zimmerman was the initial aggressor, but the jury disagreed and Zimmerman was acquitted, a decision that ignited nationwide protests and inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.
Unlike Wisconsin, Florida is one of at least 30 states that have “stand your ground” laws that allow people to defend themselves with a gun when threatened.
Wisconsin has its own version, which similarly relieves people of any duty to retreat, even if they can, if they believe they are threatened.
Illinois also has no “stand your ground” statute but instead recognizes the “Castle Doctrine” allowing people to defend themselves in their own home and to prevent a forcible felony, including burglary of unoccupied vehicles.
Although these laws vary from state to state, high violent crime rates have encouraged a nationwide trend in the direction of loosening more restrictions. Unfortunately the experience in states like Florida has shown an increase in shootings since that loosening, as critics expected.
Trials must follow the law and this jury’s considered verdict must be respected. But the Rittenhouse acquittal must not become an open invitation to other adventurous or fanatical gunmen and -women to dangerously volunteer themselves as amateur militiamen or, as Rittenhouse’s prosecutors tagged him, “chaos tourists,” looking for violent trouble either until they find it — or become its cause.