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Since footage came out last week of a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer shooting Jacob Blake in the back seven times while his children were in the car, protesters have taken to the streets in the lakeside city. Tensions flared as armed so-called militia members joined the scene. They say they’re trying to protect life and property in Kenosha, but on Tuesday, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot three protesters, killing two of them. For Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Gina Barton, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about what’s really going on in Kenosha and how things got to this point. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ray Suarez: What has it been like in Kenosha since the footage of Jacob Blake’s shooting came out?
Gina Barton: The response was almost immediate. People in Kenosha started taking to the streets. During the day, things have been pretty calm. Families are out there. Younger people are out there. All different races, ages. But then when the sun goes down, you start getting different groups of people who seem to be interested in causing conflict and chaos.
These so-called militia members seem to be a big part of that conflict and chaos. How did they get involved?
A former Kenosha alderman is one of the leaders of a militia-type group that is called the Kenosha Guard. The Kenosha Guard on Tuesday put out an event on Facebook saying people need to come out and defend life and property. They had 3,000 people say they were interested. I don’t think nearly that many came, but that was on Facebook and it also got picked up by Infowars.
The sheriff, David Beth, has said that armed militia groups on the street are “not helping.” But law enforcement in Kenosha, at least early on, didn’t seem to be making an effort to move them on or get them out of town either.
The armed so-called citizen militias have reached out to both the police chief and the sheriff and asked them to deputize them. Sheriff David Beth, in one of my favorite quotes from him all week, said his reaction to that was, “Oh, hell no.” The Kenosha city police chief, though, is the one who hasn’t commented. I emailed and asked, “Did you cooperate with them?” because they sent him a personal message. He won’t answer that question. And from everything that transpired on Tuesday, it sure seemed like no one was telling them to go home.
There’s a lot more that we’re going to end up finding out about Kyle Rittenhouse. He’s been arrested. He’s been charged with intentional homicide. And since that moment, the rumor mill has been on overdrive about this kid. What he did in Kenosha after his mother brought him from Antioch, Illinois, how he moved around the city with an assault-style rifle slung on his shoulder, was not stopped by police. Is the dust settling? Is there a clear picture emerging not only of the events of Aug. 25, but of who this kid is and what his motivations were?
As far as I can tell, it’s unconfirmed whether his mother brought him to Kenosha or how he got there. But he says through his attorney that he was there to try and protect some of the local property of a man who owns a car dealership and a couple of auto shops. You can also see him in videos saying that his job is to protect people and he’s also there to provide first aid. However, I talked in depth to two people who were out there on Tuesday night and saw these events unfold. And they said that Tuesday night was different because there were so many more white guys with guns out there than there had been the previous evenings. And when they saw Rittenhouse, he gave them an uneasy feeling because he looked so young and didn’t seem like he was necessarily handling that weapon correctly.
There were a lot of stories on social media early on about a kind of chumminess between Rittenhouse and police. They gave him water. They talked to him. They let him pass, even though he was armed. Has any of that been able to be nailed down?
A lot of those examples that you just mentioned have been confirmed. David Beth, the sheriff in Kenosha, said we would give water or Gatorade to anyone who asked us, so he’s not denying that law enforcement was giving water to these men with guns. Earlier on Tuesday night, there were civilians taking sniper-style stances on the roofs of buildings. They were clearly out past curfew with guns. We do know that the Kenosha Guard here and Kyle Rittenhouse idolized police and considered themselves sort of supplemental law enforcement officers who were there to help the police.
How was Kyle Rittenhouse able to pass through a line of law enforcement and go home after allegedly having shot three people with plenty of witnesses around?
I talked to a street medic the other day. And she was trying to walk through that very same area to get to her car that evening and was not allowed to pass. She is Native American and Japanese. And she said the exact place where Kyle Rittenhouse, a white man with a large gun, walked, she had tried to go and was turned away. So I do think that at least some in law enforcement saw these men as their allies or at least as not a threat. After the shootings on Tuesday, the following day, the Kenosha police chief came out and essentially said if people would have obeyed the curfew, this shooting wouldn’t have happened.
It sounded as if he was blaming the two men who died for their own deaths and blaming the man who is in danger of losing his arm for the fact that he was shot with an AR-15. So the ACLU has called for the Kenosha police chief to resign. And it really has fed into the idea that he, in fact, was sympathizing with the white armed civilians, self-styled militiamen.
There’s a degree to which the tumult on the streets of Kenosha is sort of taking our gaze away from Jacob Blake himself. What’s going on there? He’s been in the hospital since he was shot. He’s said to be paralyzed from the waist down. It’s been reported he’s handcuffed to his bed. Why? Is he a suspect? Has he been charged with a crime?
My experience from covering police for the past 20 years is that if they have somebody who is injured while they’re being arrested, then it is pretty much standard operating procedure to handcuff them to the bed. I have even heard stories of pregnant women being forced to go into labor and give birth while being shackled to a bed. There was a lot of outcry about this, and on Saturday, Gov. Tony Evers intervened and I’m told Jacob Blake is now no longer handcuffed to his hospital bed.
Wisconsin has an unusual law. It was one of the first in the country, passed after a previous killing by the Kenosha police. When people are killed by police in Wisconsin, an outside agency reviews the case, but Jacob Blake was not killed. Is there going to be an outside investigation triggered in a case like this one?
I think it’s really interesting that our law, which was in fact the first in the nation, was passed largely due to the efforts of a man named Michael Bell, whose son was fatally shot in the head by Kenosha police all the way back in 2004. Michael Bell’s son, whose name was also Michael Bell, was shot point-blank in the head in front of his mother and sister in their driveway. Kenosha Police Internal Affairs did their own investigation and within 48 hours cleared those officers of any wrongdoing. So that is when Bell’s father said, This is ridiculous. How can anybody be expected to do a thorough investigation of their own department? That law is only, as you stated, for fatal shootings. In other events, where somebody is wounded or there’s a serious use of police deadly force, if it isn’t fatal, the department involved can ask an outside agency to come in. So in this case, the Wisconsin Department of Justice is leading the investigation. And the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department was in charge of the scene of Jacob Blake’s shooting that night. So I do think that that is one thing that Kenosha police did right in these circumstances: As soon as that shooting happened, they decided we’re not investigating ourselves. And they called in the sheriff’s department and the state Justice Department.
Kenosha is a city that’s, according to the Census Bureau, about 77 percent white, about 10 percent Black. It’s not one of these places that has a very large minority presence that’s created the kind of tensions that you see in nearby cities in Illinois and in Wisconsin itself.
That’s absolutely true. And I think one thing that people need to know about the shooting of Jacob Blake, and people need to know about what’s going on with policing in Kenosha, is that since 2004, the police have not had a great relationship with basically anyone in Kenosha. Michael Bell, who was shot in the head and killed in 2004, was white. And our review of fatal police shootings in Kenosha since then shows that the majority of the people that police have fatally shot are white also. We know of one Black man who’s been fatally shot in Kenosha since 2003. But it seems to me that the police in Kenosha don’t have a great relationship with people of any race.
Is it too early to tell where we are in the life cycle of this story? Are things calming down?
What some of us are concerned about is that President Trump has said he is planning to come to Kenosha this week on Tuesday. And I think if he actually does choose to make that visit, that could incite things again. And we could see this cycle continuing and repeating itself.