On Tuesday night, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with an AR-15-style rifle, killing two. Videos of the event tell us an incomplete story of what, exactly, happened that night. But they appear to clearly show this much: Rittenhouse traveled to the protests in illegal possession of an assault weapon to act as a vigilante. He placed himself at the center of the violence, then escalated it by shooting a man in the head. Minutes later, he shot two more people who appeared to be trying to disarm him, then fled across state lines. For this bloody spree, prosecutors charged Rittenhouse with first-degree intentional homicide. In short, a teenager obsessed with law enforcement decided to play the role of a cop and wound up, according to law enforcement, committing murder.
Some on the right, however, see Rittenhouse differently. As footage of the incident emerged, conservative media figures began crafting a counternarrative in which the teenager is not a delusional vigilante but a well-intentioned if overzealous patriot who shot two violent assailants in self-defense. Rittenhouse, they suggest, is essentially a martyr who took action because Democrats would not let police do their jobs. This narrative rests on a racist belief, deeply rooted in American history, that white people must sometimes break the law to enforce it. The near-instant rehabilitation of Rittenhouse on the right should remind us that white Americans’ most heinous acts of violence can always be justified by their ideological allies.
Kenosha’s protests began on Sunday after Officer Rusten Sheskey, who is white, repeatedly shot Jacob Blake, who is Black, in the back in front of his children. Video indicates that Blake was walking away from Sheskey when the officer began shooting. He appeared to pose no threat. Blake is alive, but is reportedly paralyzed from the waist down. A mix of peaceful protests and riots broke out across the city, which is majority white but has a sizable Black community. By Tuesday, men carrying firearms who identified as members of a private militia stood outside local businesses, allegedly to protect them. A video shows Kenosha police handing water to these gunmen—including Rittenhouse—telling them: “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”
Rittenhouse, who traveled to Kenosha from Illinois, initially joined this putative militia but later peeled off. A video later in the evening showed him being chased by a group of Black and white protesters into a parking lot. Someone else fired a gun into the air, and Joseph Rosenbaum lunged at the armed teenager. Rittenhouse responded by firing four times, shooting Rosenbaum in the head and killing him. He then fled the scene. Protesters pursued him as one shouted, “That’s the shooter!” Rittenhouse tripped, and multiple people made an apparent attempt to disarm him. He fired four shots. One bullet hit Anthony Huber in the chest, killing him; he was wielding a skateboard, which he seemed to use to try to subdue Rittenhouse. The other bullet hit Gaige Grosskreutz in the arm; he was holding a handgun, though not aiming it at anyone. Rittenhouse then walked past a group of police officers—the beginning of his flight back to Illinois. They did not stop him.
It is almost dizzying to count all the ways Rittenhouse appears to have broken the law on Tuesday. He allegedly twice drove across state lines carrying a firearm he was not legally permitted to possess. He then illegally brandished this firearm in the streets. He violated the Kenosha curfew that provided the basis for police to arrest protesters. He fled out of state after shooting three people. And, most obviously, he killed two protesters. The footage indicates that two—and possibly all three—of Rittenhouse’s victims were trying to disarm him.
And yet, almost as soon as video of the shootings emerged, conservative media began to defend Rittenhouse. They mocked Huber for using a skateboard to “attack a man packing a rifle.” Erick Erickson said Rittenhouse was “not the bad guy” because he “was firing on people who were attacking him.” Fox News guests asserted that Rittenhouse effected “vigilante justice” because he filled “a void” left by police. And all these claims built toward the inevitable conclusion: Rittenhouse didn’t commit first-degree intentional homicide; he didn’t even commit murder at all. He was merely defending himself against a pack of thugs hellbent on beating him, possibly to death, because he tried to keep the peace. In Tucker Carlson’s words: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
This narrative transforms Rittenhouse from an unstable killer to a Second Amendment hero. And you need only accept a few fictions to buy into it. First, you must believe that the protesters chasing down Rittenhouse and attempting to wrest his gun away were not trying to prevent further bloodshed, but simply to brutalize him. Second, you must agree that even if these protesters were trying to confiscate Rittenhouse’s gun, they were wrong to do so, because they were the vicious lawbreakers and he was the vulnerable peacekeeper. Third, you must embrace a definition of self-defense so capacious that it allows a gunman to legally shoot a civilian dead when that civilian is trying to seize a weapon the gunman has used to kill someone. Or, as the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie put it, “if someone is trying to stop you after you killed someone, you can continue shooting and killing in ‘self-defense.’ ”
It is much easier to accept the first two propositions if you are predisposed to believe that white people are more likely to uphold the law and Black people are more likely to break it. Like many protesters in Kenosha, Rittenhouse’s victims were white. But they were part of a diverse group that pursued the 17-year-old in an apparent effort to stop him from shooting more people. That group included many Black people, who were also imperiled when Rittenhouse tripped and fired his weapon indiscriminately. The claim that these protesters had a malign plan to assault or kill Rittenhouse, rather than disarm him, rests on the racist assumption that a white vigilante’s motives must be purer than a racially diverse group of demonstrators.
The third proposition—that the gunman was merely defending himself—rests on a chilling vision of self-defense that would excuse homicide and limit civilians’ ability to forestall future shootings. Wisconsin law only licensed Rittenhouse to shoot his pursuers to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. The video of the second shooting makes it quite clear this did not happen. While the circumstances surrounding the first shooting remain murky, it is evident from the footage that Rittenhouse ran away carrying his rifle, pursued by protesters who rightly believed he might shoot more people. When he tripped, his pursuers immediately tried to seize his gun. These are not the actions of thugs eager to inflict bodily harm, but of good Samaritans trying to stop what looked like the beginning of a mass shooting.
Indeed, the argument for self-defense boils down to this: If civilians try to seize a weapon from a gunman who just shot somebody in the head, that gunman has a right to shoot them. If this theory were legally correct—thankfully, it isn’t—then a person who tries to grab a mass shooter’s gun may be legally killed by the shooter himself. Rittenhouse ultimately proved to be a mass shooter, one in illegal possession of a firearm, a gun that police allowed him to carry even after he had apparently shot three people a block in front of their squad cars. The cops who ordered protesters to disperse for violating curfew did not order an obviously underage teen to put down his assault weapon. Tucker Carlson got it backward; the question here is why anyone is shocked that protesters tried to disarm a vigilante when law enforcement refused.
After all, as University of Washington professor Dan Berger pointed out after the Charlottesville, Virginia, catastrophe, police have a lengthy history of complicity with right-wing insurgents. American law enforcement have viewed far-right paramilitary groups as allies in the fight against true subversives and radicals, such as the civil rights demonstrators of the 1960s. They assume that white gunmen toting assault weapons who speak favorably of law enforcement are more trustworthy and peaceable than racially diverse protesters who criticize the cops.
When officers thanked Kenosha’s militia while threatening to arrest protesters—even though the militia and the protesters were both violating curfew—they carried on this tradition. When Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis blamed protesters for their own deaths because they broke curfew, he carried on this tradition. When officers let Rittenhouse walk past them, illegally armed with a gun he had just used to kill two men and injure another, and drive back to Illinois, they carried on this tradition, too. These officers perceived a racially diverse group of demonstrators to be more of a threat than a cadre of heavily armed white men. It is not difficult to guess why.
After Jacob Blake’s shooting, conservative media hunted for evidence that might exonerate the officer, fixating on the presence of a knife in Blake’s car. After Rittenhouse shot three protesters, the right hunted for evidence that might exonerate the shooter, settling on the fantasy that those protesters were the real vigilantes who got what was coming to them. The lesson here is simple: A white man with a gun is innocent until proved guilty; his victims are guilty until proved innocent. It is a lesson tragically embedded in American history, and one that racist far-right militias around the country will surely take to heart this week.
For more of Slate’s political coverage, subscribe to the Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.