Kyle Rittenhouse trial: sense of unease amid wait for verdict in Wisconsin
After the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who as a 17-year-old fatally shot two men and wounded a third, finally closed and the jury was sent out to deliberate its verdict, a crowd of supporters stood outside the Kenosha county courthouse volleying chants in the cold November dark.
“Self-defense is not a crime!” the other responded.
The dueling chants crystallize what the trial has come to represent for the millions of people watching the case in Wisconsin and across America. To some, it’s a case of a gun-wielding teenager who responded to racial unrest by taking justice into his own hands and shooting three anti-racist protesters – two fatally. To others, Rittenhouse used his weapon in self-defense after he was attacked by members of a violent crowd.
As the sun rose on Tuesday above nearby Lake Michigan, the case headed to the 12 jurors who will determine what it represents in the eyes of the law. It has not unfolded smoothly, as the prosecution seems to have botched some of its witnesses and arguments and the presiding judge’s behavior has been erratic and at times betrayed an apparent sympathy to the defense.
Rittenhouse is charged with reckless homicide, intentional homicide and attempted intentional homicide. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Meanwhile, the city of Kenosha remains on standby hoping to avoid the violence that erupted in August 2020. Last week, Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, mobilized 500 national guard members to assist local law enforcement should they be needed.
“There’s a sense of unease out here as we wait for the verdict. We’ve been waiting on a verdict ever since [Rittenhouse] did the shootings,” said a man outside the courthouse who identified as Xavier S and traveled from nearby Racine to show solidarity with Jacob Blake.
Blake was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha police officer and left paralyzed from the waist down. Blake’s uncle, Justin, told the Guardian earlier this month that the past year had been a “living hell” for his family.
Kristan T Harris, an independent citizen-journalist whose footage of last year’s deadly protest was used as evidence at Rittenhouse’s trial, said as he left the courthouse on Monday that regardless of the verdict he did not expect to see anything like the scenes he witnessed filming the protests that played out in August 2020.
“How many people want to go out and protest in 30-degree weather?” he said. “There might be demonstrations, but I don’t think they will be as big. People are back to work. Last year, everyone was furloughed.”
In an earlier interview, Harris described the chaos that unfolded a year ago, detailing crowds of roving protesters who uprooted street lights and a “handful of cops up against what looked like a huge rock concert’s worth of people decked out in riot gear”.
Harris caught on film the moment a police officer collapsed after a thrown brick appeared to hit him on the head and knock him unconscious. Harris was also on scene nights later, when he said police pushed protesters toward a crowd of armed and agitated citizens who claimed they were standing guard to protect property.
It was that police decision, he said, that set in motion the violence that followed.
“That was the first choice which kind of dominoed and led to the tragedy of August 25,” Harris said. “Nobody had to die that night.”
Harris has covered demonstrations in various cities, including the protests in Minneapolis that followed George Floyd’s murder, but said he never “thought Kenosha would be the city that would capture America”.
But the outcome was less surprising to Dayvin Hallmon, who for 10 years served on the Kenosha county board of supervisors.
For years, Hallmon said, he warned other board members that Kenosha, which is 80% white, was moving toward a racial reckoning after meeting with frustrated young people to hear their concerns.
“I issued a number of warnings to them about where they were headed if they didn’t address the needs of people of color. They were asked to pass a resolution against hate and violence and said no. They were asked to rewrite the rules for police and sheriff engagement. They said no,” said Hallmon.
“Nobody on the county board cared. Everything that happened with Rittenhouse and Jacob Blake was totally foreseeable and preventable,” he added.
Omar Flores, a member of the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression who met Hallmon when he started organizing, backs the former county board member’s statements.
“He predicted Kenosha would be the hub of an uprising one day. We all made fun of him for it, but he was right,” Flores said.
Flores, who identifies as Latino and who grew up in Kenosha, describes the city as a conservative place where police target people of color, who in turn think twice before vocalizing the need for change.
He recalls people throwing trash at him – and one man brandishing a Confederate flag – the day in 2014 when he hosted a rally to express solidarity with Ferguson.
“We sort of adopt this mentality that if you just sort of put your head down and try and act like the rest, you’re going to be left alone,” Flores said.
Flores worries that mentality will keep young people of color from organizing in Kenosha and challenging the status quo. Still, he has noticed more people of color becoming bolder and more vocal over the past year – an encouraging sign, he said.
“I do think that seeds are being planted. I think people’s perspectives are changing because of what’s happened with the trial,” he said.