By JOHN LESLIE
The Kyle Rittenhouse trial and verdict was not a surprise to many observers of the U.S. criminal injustice system. The trial was marked by a defense-friendly judge and a rudderless prosecution. The defense made the case that Rittenhouse, who arrived in Kenosha, Wis., armed with an illegally obtained AR-15 rifle to “protect” property from alleged rioters, acted in self-defense.
Protests in Kenosha came in the context of national mobilizations following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, as well as the police execution of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot in her Louisville, Ky., home by cops serving a no-knock warrant based on scant probable cause.
On Aug. 23, a Kenosha cop shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back during an alleged “domestic” call, sparking days of outraged protest in the community. Hundreds of demonstrators marched through downtown, calling for the arrest of the cop who shot Blake. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers sent members of the National Guard to Kenosha in response to alleged rioting and looting.
On the third night of protests, Aug. 25, a group of armed vigilantes, including Rittenhouse, surrounded a car dealership to “protect” it, in response to a “call to arms” by a militia group calling itself the “Kenosha Guard.” Police gave water to the armed men and thanked them for being there. Ryan Thomas Balch, an armed civilian affiliated with the rightist Boogaloo Bois, indicated that the police wanted the armed militia to “deal with” protesters, saying, “Do you know what the cops told us today? They were like, ‘We’re gonna push them down by you, because you can deal with them, and then we’re gonna leave.’”
Later that night, Rittenhouse, separated from other militia members, shot Joseph Rosenbaum and then fled up the street in the direction of the cops and National Guard, pursued by protesters who were shouting that he had just shot someone. Anthony Huber tried to disarm Rittenhouse, who fatally shot him at close range and then wounded street medic Gaige Grosskreutz. Rittenhouse walked up to the cops carrying the rifle. The cops drove past him and he left the scene.
After the shootings, Rittenhouse became a darling of the far right. In January 2021, Rittenhouse went out for beers with the far-right Proud Boys, posing for pictures, and flashing the white power hand sign.
The fix was in
The prosecution failed to convince the jury that the charges were proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and Rittenhouse walked. This verdict set off howls of delight on the far right and signals a green light for rightists to shoot protesters while claiming self-defense.
The fix was in from the beginning when Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge, Bruce Schroeder ruled that the prosecution could not call Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz “victims” but would allow the defense to label them rioters, looters, and arsonists. The judge stated, “Let the evidence show what the evidence shows. And if the evidence shows that any or more than one of these people were engaged in arson, rioting or looting—then I’m not going to tell the defense they can’t call them that.”
Called to the stand by the defense, Rittenhouse earned an Academy Award nomination for his “tearful” expression of fearing for his own life in a confrontation where he sustained no serious injuries but left carnage in his wake. Late in the trial, the judge dismissed the gun charge on a technicality.
Celebration on the right, frustration on the left
The “not guilty” verdict was met with celebration on the right, with accolades from ex-President Trump, an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s white nationalist propaganda broadcast on Fox News, and offers of Congressional internships from ultra-rightist Congress members Cauthern, Gosar and Gaetz. “Kyle, if you want an internship, reach out to me.” Cauthern (R-N.C.) said in his Instagram account. Cauthern also tweeted to followers that they should “be armed, be dangerous.”
Ann Coulter posted a meme on Twitter depicting Rittenhouse as a superhero. The far-right social media platform, GAB, exhorted followers to “buy firearms and form Christian militias…” A Proud Boys member posted on Telegram that “the left won’t stop until their bodies get stacked up like cordwood,” and the white nationalist VDARE website called Rittenhouse “the hero we’ve been waiting for.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund reached a far different assessment of the trial, stating, “While the actions of all parties during the trial will be scrutinized over time, the acquittal of Rittenhouse on all charges, and the lauding of him as a hero, by right-wing elected leaders and others will embolden would-be vigilantes who intimidate protesters demanding racial justice to believe that they can escape accountability for their violence.”
National Nurses United (NNU) President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, stated, “This verdict sends a chilling signal to the nation about the right of public protest, and an appalling acceptance of acts of right-wing vigilantism. … In a national environment in which we have seen a shocking rise in far-right hate crimes, militia-style assaults on the U.S. Capitol and state capitals, death threats against members of Congress and public election officials, and an all but open embrace of this violence by the Republican Party, this verdict should be viewed as especially troubling…”
Protests against the verdict were held in multiple locales, including Kenosha and Milwaukee, Wis.; Portland, Ore.; Columbus, Ohio; Chicago; Denver; Oakland; New York City; and Connecticut. Several protests were met with police repression. In Portland, protesters were attacked by rightist counter-protesters, and cops used this as a pretext to attack protesters. In Connecticut and Denver, there were violent “drive throughs” by hostile motorists, a tactic that became familiar during the George Floyd protest wave and that has been made legal in some states under right-wing control.
In Denver, three left-wing activists were arrested. The Denver Communists (DC) reports that the three were arrested after a right-winger drove into a protest march near the State Capitol. Two were taken to jail and, according to a source with the DC, “The third person’s arrest was really brutal. We think they were hospitalized after, as they weren’t processed by the jail on the same day as our comrades.” The driver was “assisted, not arrested. Cops intervened only after a small crowd surrounded his truck.”
In Manchester, Conn., a protest organized by the Power Up CT and the Self-Defense Brigade was attacked by a driver who injured several protesters with his car. As this is being written, no arrest of the driver has yet been reported
White supremacy at the core of the legal system.
To understand this case, we need to understand the white supremacist underpinnings of the system. The use of armed mobs of whites as vigilantes in the United States goes back to the legalized slave catchers of the 18th and 19th centuries. White-supremacist terrorists and lynch mobs were the main way that the Jim Crow segregation system was enforced. State-sanctioned vigilante groups also participated in the slaughter of the Native American population.
The use of white vigilantes persists today as more and more communities demonstrate in the streets against racist policing and the regime of mass incarceration, and as the right feels emboldened by the rhetoric of populist and demagogic political figures to counteract these protests. Vigilante groups, armed with baseball bats and ax handles as well as firearms, took to the streets in many cities during the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests last year.
Armed whites often assume that they have the right to act as an adjunct to the police. The police themselves see no threat from groups of armed whites who profess to be upholding “law and order,” and either look the other way or join in when the rightists act against left-wing forces, striking workers, or oppressed nationality protesters.
The NAACP statement points out that “Rittenhouse’s conduct must be understood within an environment in which armed militias and vigilantes are acting to silence protesters, and where state legislatures have advanced anti-protest bills in the aftermath of demonstrations calling for racial justice.” And the NNU statement notes, “At least two states, Florida and Oklahoma, have granted civil immunity for drivers to ram into protesters. There’s no way to read those laws as anything other than an encouragement of vigilantism.”
The presumption of white people’s right to act as a police force was made clear in the trial of the killers of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery, when defendant Travis McMichael took the stand to invoke his training while in the Coast Guard. The defense tried to portray the actions of the three-man lynch mob that pursued Arbery through the streets as trying to effect a citizen’s arrest. “I shot him. He had my gun,” McMichael said, because Arbery had allegedly tried to wrest his shotgun away. Arbery, who was acting in self-defense against his pursuers, was portrayed as the aggressor.
Self-defense is a right (for some)
Socialists support the right of workers and oppressed peoples to self-defense. However, this right is not likely to be supported by the capitalist courts, cops, and politicians when people attempt to defend themselves against far-right thugs, company goons, and the armed forces of the state.
This point is illustrated by the extra-judicial murder of anti-fascist activist Michael Reinoehl by federal agents. Reinoehl had been charged with second-degree murder in the killing of a far-right activist in Portland, Ore., in what appeared to be self-defense. However, unlike in the case of Rittenhouse, there was no due process or trial for Reinoehl—no opportunity for him to defend himself before a jury or to bring witnesses on his behalf. Instead, the Feds fired 40 shots at Reinoehl, killing him as he tried to run away. According to witnesses, the agents didn’t bother to identify themselves; they simply opened fire. Agents later claimed that Reinoehl had fired a shot at them, but could not explain why Reinoehl’s gun was in his pocket after the shooting. Agents also waited several minutes before administering any first aid.
Additionally, an alarming percentage of women in prison for murder are there for killing an abuser in self-defense. “In California, a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. That study found that 67 percent of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children when they wound up killing their partner. In New York state, 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them were abused by that person.
Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother of three was arrested after firing a warning shot to dissuade her abusive spouse from assaulting her. In 2012, Alexander was found guilty of aggravated assault and was given a 20-year sentence. This sentence was reversed, and Alexander was granted the right to a new trial. In a 2015 plea bargain, Alexander was released in exchange for three years’ time served and agreed to two more years of house arrest.
Police do not protect and serve
Socialist leader Farrell Dobbs stated that “the line of the police is to defend the exercise of the formal democratic rights of the fascists, on the one hand, and not to “see” the violations of the democratic rights of the fascists’ victims. Meanwhile, the cops take full advantage of any violation of bourgeois-democratic law that the antifascists may commit. In any kind of confrontation between antifascist and fascist forces, the basic line of the cops is to protect the fascists in any way they can and to join in the victimization of the antifascists.”
Dobbs noted that the ruling class “tactic is to protect the rights of the fascists while at the same time using fascist forces to try to keep others from exercising those rights. One of the forces used to implement this is that most malevolent of all the repressive instruments of capitalist rule, the police forces. The police structure is of a character that makes it a breeding ground for fascists.
“You don’t only have an army of capitalist cops that represses opponents of capitalism, you have a ripe recruiting ground for fascism itself. You not only have cops implementing ruling class orders in aiding the fascists, you have a police force that is honeycombed with fascists.”
The capitalist state is not neutral and cannot be relied upon to protect our rights. The police are the armed wing of that state and exist to protect the power and property of the ruling class.
Mass action, organization, and independence
Fighting back against an emboldened far right, which has vocal political support in the halls of Congress and the highest echelons of the ruling class, will require organization, class independence, and a strategy of mass mobilization. We cannot for a minute suffer from the illusion that voting for one capitalist party to stop the other will forestall the march of fascists. Mass action, along with strikes, are the best proletarian methods of struggle and stand in stark contrast to the electoralism and reformist pleading of housebroken socialists and liberals. Mass action is a dress rehearsal for larger struggles and a key element in the realization of the potential revolutionary consciousness of workers and the oppressed.
The mass movement has to exert the right to self-defense, but this self-defense must be organized through the mass organizations of the working class and oppressed communities. Isolated individuals and small groups will be cut off by the forces of reaction. Union and community defense guards are the embryonic form of the workers’ militia that will spring forward in any revolutionary situation.
One task of the revolutionary party is the unconditional defense of democratic rights and of class-war prisoners. As the struggle deepens, we can presume that the state will target activists for prosecution or worse. The history of the left is filled with examples of state repression and frame-ups. A revolutionary party must be prepared to build the broadest possible defense of all victims of capitalist state repression.
Fighting back against capitalist reaction requires the construction of an independent revolutionary socialist instrument—a Leninist combat party. Such a party cannot substitute for the mass movements, but is an essential ingredient in building a fightback—much like yeast is essential to making bread.