When Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murdering two men during anti-racism protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week, the verdict was upheld by far-right politicians and experts across the United States. Several Republican lawmakers offered Rittenhouse an internship, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson called him “a sweet boy.”
Kathleen Belew, historian of American white power movements and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, argues that the fact that the Rittenhouse trial is being interpreted as a victory by components of the right has the potential to serve as a rallying cry for more militant vigilantism against American protesters for racial justice in the future.
Belew spoke to The Guardian about how perpetrators of right-wing violent actions in the US have been empowered by verdicts like Rittenhouse’s. in the past, and how the outcome of the case should be interpreted in the context of the growing militant social movements.
On Friday, when Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of all charges, you tweeted: “It has never taken more than a whisper of approval to fan the flames of action from the militant right, and the acquittal of Kenosha is a cry.” What do you mean by that?
There have been many acquittals and partial verdicts that the white power movement and militant groups have taken as signs that they can continue their activities relentlessly. I’m thinking about the acquittals in the Greensboro lawsuits at the state, federal and civil levels. [when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party shot and killed five marchers in an anti-Klan rally organized by the Communist Workers Party in 1979], acquittals in the seditious conspiracy trial in 1987-88 [after an all-white jury acquitted 13 white supremacists who were charged with plotting to overthrow the US government and kill federal officials] and the partial prosecution of Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombing, where we saw the conviction of one of the few conspirators rather than a movement-oriented prosecution, which is what it was.
I think Kenosha is a much more significant moment. It is not for me to guess our judicial system. I believe in the rule of law. I believe in jury trial. But we know from the historical record that every time there is an incident like this, it has sparked renewed activity on the part of the white power movement, often with imminent casualties. Kenosha has not only been watched by extremists, but by a lot of right-wing people. It’s a moment that encourages not just the fringes, which is what we’ve seen before, but mainstream constituents as well.
On the subject of marginality and mainstream, I often find that I no longer want to use the word extremist because it seems that we are seeing marginal beliefs becoming more and more mainstream.
I am a historian. The period I study is the 1980s and 1990s and in that time period the white power movement didn’t really think it had any chance of making inroads into mainstream politics. But that is clearly no longer the case. There was only one story circulating about how at least 28 elected officials are current or former members of the Oath Keepers, which is a group of extrajudicial militias, a private army. The idea that we can have elected officials from a private army is deeply, deeply disturbing.
To make it clear to readers that they can get tangled up when we use the word militia: all legal militia activity was incorporated into state National Guard units in 1903 in the Dick Act. Everything else is extra-legal. There are laws on the books of all 50 states that limit the existence of private armies. And yet here they are. We have elected officials who report to these groups.
There are at least 10 people who participated in the January 6 insurrection and have now been elected to positions in the Republican Party. We are no longer talking about a person with questionable dating or a person who said something outrageous a long time ago. We are talking about a movement of people who perform in concert. This is something very different. We have to think not only about the threat of mass casualty events, which has been imminent in recent years, but also about the threat to our democratic system.
In 2019, there were mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, El Paso, Texas, and Poway, California. In each of these cases, the alleged shooter posted a manifesto on the 8Chan message board. In October 2018, prior to the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooter posted on the social media site Gab. Kyle Rittenhouse used social media to find community in his militant beliefs. The use of social networks it is a connecting piece between these shootings. As a historian, do you think these events are interconnected?
We tend to treat politically motivated acts of violence by people affiliated with the militant right wing and the white power movement as if they were carried out by individuals or the work of a few bad actors. You’ll often see the phrase “lone wolf terrorism”, although I haven’t seen it used that much in Kyle Rittenhouse. This is a more complex story, partly because I was a child at the time of the shooting and partly because the way the organization worked was somewhat different than usual. It was a kind of flash mob requested through Facebook rather than an action organized by a coherent group that met before. But that does not mean that it is not ideological.
What we have to remember is that the lone wolf idea came out of the white power movement in the 1980s in the first place with the express purpose of confusing everyone about what this movement was all about. It follows an action called “leaderless resistance” which is effectively cell-style terror, and both are intended to divert public attention from what it is, which is just an interconnected social movement.
So when we think of Charlottesville, Charleston, El Paso, and Pittsburgh and the other communities that have been affected by this violence, what we generally see is El Paso branded as anti-Latino violence, Charleston as anti-black violence, and Pittsburgh as Semitic violence. . But they are all acts of white power violence. And by putting these stories together, I believe these communities can be more effectively linked in efforts to combat this problem.
What is the role of social media platforms, both as news curators and meeting places for communities that can foster violence?
One thing to remember, which people often don’t, is that white power activists have been using social media activism since the early 1980s with pre-internet computer-to-computer message boards. They had a network called Liberty Net, which they established by distributing millions of dollars in stolen money to groups across the country and then instructing them to obtain Apple computers and then guiding them on how to set up and use this network. And the network, in 1983-84, not only had things like assignment goals and ideological content, it also had things like personal ads. This is small compared to the monster that social media is in all of our lives today, but it is important to remember that these activists have been using technology for decades, if not generations. They were the first to adopt, if not pioneers, this type of work.
It would be a mistake to think that they will not be able or willing to manipulate this type of space.
We have discussed how acquittal orf Rittenhouse creates a backdrop of permissiveness for people with hate beliefs, but how does that play out looking to the future?
I would say that there are two main components. One is what is happening with legislation and lawsuits around gun ownership, where we really see the needle moving further and further towards unrestricted access to guns with absolutely no barriers every time there are decisions that increase. permissiveness.
The other part has to do with white power and right-wing militant groups that are essentially opportunistic. They are looking for a window and this is a large window. Because what it does is it allows them not only to stage shootouts similar to the one that took place in Kenosha to see if they could do it elsewhere, it also allows them to mobilize in a sector of the right-wing mainstream that is sympathetic to the Rittenhouse story. . .
This is kind of a bonanza of case. And we should also be in tune with the verdicts that are coming out of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting and in Charlottesville with the Kessler civil action, which I am sure will read along the same lines.
Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, a jury found that key organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, were responsible for $ 25 million in damages to counter-protesters under state law. The jury remained deadlocked on whether the organizers violated federal civil rights law.