The Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict Exposes America’s Divide Over Who Gets to Carry a Gun

The Kyle Rittenhouse case, while not openly about race, exposed imbalances and imperfections in the judicial system. But it also did something else, jurists say: it fundamentally changed the culture of protest.

Rittenhouse’s acquittal, academics say, sends a signal to those who want to take up arms to defend property or attend politically or racially charged events: There is a legal basis for you to use your gun. Just claim fear.

However, those protections may not extend to everyone.

“I don’t have to tell you this, there is no set of circumstances, no reading of the law, no representation of the imagination, in which a black person can get away with it,” said Cornell William Brooks, former president and CEO of the NAACP. , who now teaches at Harvard University.

“What this case says legally may be good for Kyle Rittenhouse. What he says culturally is dangerous in terms of racial violence. “

Social media sparked with reactions divided along family partisan divisions: Those who viewed the 18-year-old Rittenhouse as a patriot and an advocate for Second Amendment rights rejoiced. Others pointed to the case as yet another example of guns and vigilantism further eroding our public and political discourse.

A Wisconsin jury spent two weeks listening to testimony and viewing dozens of video evidence surrounding the night in August 2020 in which Rittenhouse, who is white, shot dead two white men, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, with a rifle. style AR-15. He also shot a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, who survived. (Grosskreutz, who is also white, testified that he was pointing his gun at Rittenhouse when the teen shot him.)

The shootings took place as chaos and violence took over the streets of Kenosha last summer after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a black man, several times at point-blank range. Blake survived, but was paralyzed.

The Rittenhouse case became a flash point in the national discussion about guns, who go so far as to proclaim themselves agents of law and racial justice in the US.

The verdict, legal experts say, can be seen as a license for others to emulate Rittenhouse and become makeshift law enforcement officers.

“One concern about this verdict is that it will authorize other anti-protesters to attend marches and act as vigilante police,” said Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor and former federal prosecutor.

Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the shooting, claimed to have left his home in nearby Antioch, Ill., Crossing state lines to defend businesses and property in Kenosha that were being destroyed in demonstrations. He also claimed to be a doctor, although he had no formal training and was carrying a weapon that authorities said was illegally obtained.

In the end, none of that mattered. A jury acquitted him of all five charges, including the most serious, first degree murder, which could have resulted in a life sentence.

Butler says there is a direct line from the presence of armed vigilantes in the Kenosha riots to the January 6 attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who, at his behest, attempted to stop the certification of victory in the electoral college of now president Joe Biden.

“We saw that in Kenosha, and we saw it in the United States Capitol on January 6. There are reasons to be concerned that violence is infecting political discourse, ”said Butler, a former federal prosecutor.

From the beginning, the case also exposed the deep partisan divide over guns and the Second Amendment.

As a presidential candidate last year, Biden equated Rittenhouse with a white supremacist. Now the current occupant of the White House, acknowledging his frustration with the verdict, tried to project calm.

“While the verdict in Kenosha will make many Americans angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken,” Biden said in a statement Friday, urging Americans to “express their views peacefully. “.

Hours later, Trump issued a much more festive statement.

“Congratulations to Kyle Rittenhouse for being found INNOCENT to all charges. It’s called being found NOT GUILTY, and by the way, if that’s not self-defense, nothing is! “

Jerry Nadler (DN.Y.), chair of the judicial committee, on Twitter he denounced the verdict, saying it created a “dangerous precedent justifying federal review by the Justice Department.”

“Justice cannot tolerate armed people crossing state lines in search of trouble while people participate in protests protected by the First Amendment,” he tweeted.

House Republicans Matt Gaetz of Florida and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina praised Rittenhouse and offered him internships in their offices. Arizona Representative Paul Gosar, who was censored and stripped of his committee assignments this week by House leadership for posting an animated video of him committing violence against a fellow Democrat, said he too wants Rittenhouse to work in his office. .

“I will fight @mattgaetz to get dibs for Kyle as an intern,” Gosar tweeted.

Perhaps not surprisingly, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Blake family, described the verdict in much harsher terms.

“If you need another example of the two justice systems at work in America, look no further than the delayed arrest, the spectacle of a trial and the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse,” Crump said in a statement.

He also referred to Rittenhouse as “a racist and murderous vigilante.”

Wisconsin politicians also weighed in on the verdict.

Republican Senator Ron Jonhnson, who is white, he tweeted that “justice has been served.”

The lieutenant governor of the state, Mandela Barnes (D), who is black and looking replace Johnson in the Senate fought back, “The empowerment and empowerment of vigilantism, plus the mere effort to defend death, is not something we should be comfortable with.”

This trial, and the ongoing trial in Brunswick, Georgia, are seen as litmus tests for the nation’s divergent attitudes toward armed white men who substitute themselves as informal law enforcement officers.

In the Georgia case, three white men are on trial for the murder of a black runner, Ahmaud Arbery. The men suspected that Arbery had robbed houses in their neighborhood. Final arguments in that case are scheduled for Monday.

Others see the Rittenhouse verdict as further proof that cultural and political civility has fallen to new lows.

“There’s no getting around … the intimidation factor of white men in paramilitary garb with automatic weapons,” said Steven Wright, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The presence of Joseph Rosenbaum in demonstrations that initially began as protests against police brutality complicates the racial narrative, he adds. It is not clear that Rosenbaum had allegiance to either the pro-Blake protesters, or the right-wing groups that converged on Kenosha to defend the property against destruction.

At trial, defense attorneys described Rosenbaum as an assailant who attempted to take Rittenhouse’s gun, adding that their client, fearing for his safety, acted swiftly, perhaps even avoiding further bloodshed.

Wright, who previously worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, says there is a possibility that the Biden administration will at some point bring federal charges against Rittenhouse, possibly claiming he violated someone’s constitutional rights.

He also anticipates that the verdict, and the politicized reaction to it, will stimulate debate in public powers about legal considerations around self-defense and provocation.

“I suspect that in many states, this will invite people to rethink what self-defense is, in the same way that after Trayvon Martin, we had big discussions about ‘Stand up for yourself,'” Wright said.

“Obviously, that will invite a lot of conversation [and] that conversation is generally very polarized. “

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