Opinion: the Rittenhouse trial shows division over the right to self defence

Innocent teenager defending his life or ‘murderous white supremacist’? The Rittenhouse trial has shown us a ‘troubling snapshot’ of the rising tensions of an ever more divided American society. Following the verdict, anger has broken out in protests and riots in Portland and New York. Why has this case become so politicised?

Let’s start from the beginning. On 25thAugust last year, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse went to Kenosha armed with an AR-15 to defend the community during the riots following the killing of a black man, Jacob Blake, by police a few days previous. In a Fox News interview, Rittenhouse explained that ‘Kenosha is my community and I was upset seeing my community up in flames’, and offered to protect a car lot from arson. 

Joseph Rosenbaum then came onto the scene, allegedly threatening to kill Rittenhouse when Rittenhouse offered to provide medical aid. According to Rittenhouse’s testimony and video footage, Rosenbaum threw what seemed to be a plastic bag at Rittenhouse, and proceeded to chase him down the street. Rittenhouse pointed his gun at Rosenbaum as an attempt to stop him, and when he did not stop, Rittenhouse lethally fired four times. Rittenhouse then tried to run to the police to turn himself in, but got caught in a forming mob calling to execute Rittenhouse. He was struck in the neck by Anthony Huber’s skateboard and was repeatedly beaten, leading to Rittenhouse firing a single fatal shot into Huber’s chest. Gaige Grosskreutz pointed a gun at Rittenhouse, and Rittenhouse fired a round into Grosskreutz’s bicep, wounding him. Rittenhouse pointed his gun at others but did not shoot when it was clear they would not attack him. He then turned himself into police, holding his hands in the air, and was arrested the following day.

Rittenhouse’s trial was held earlier this month, whereupon prosecutor Binger sought to have Rittenhouse convicted and sentenced to life in prison for having shot and killed two men and injuring a third. Rittenhouse testified, leading to a brutal three-hour long cross-examination by Binger, where he consistently accused Rittenhouse of wanting to kill, and suggesting that the first-person shooter games Rittenhouse played motivated him to cause trouble. Rittenhouse collapsed to the floor in tears during the announcement of the verdict, where he was found not guilty on all charges. 

The verdict has divided America. Rittenhouse has been painted as both a ‘hero’ and a ‘murderous white supremacist’, and protests have broken out on both sides. It is remarkable how politicised this trial has become, when Rittenhouse said himself ‘this wasn’t a political case, it shouldn’t have been a political case, it was made a political case’. 

For many, such as activist Colin Kaepernick, the trial has shown to them that the US legal system is ‘built on white supremacy’ that validates ‘the terroristic acts of a white supremacist’. Congresswoman Cori Bush claimed that it is ‘white supremacy in action. The system isn’t built to hold white supremacists accountable’.

However, race has nothing to do with the legal trial. Rittenhouse, Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz were all white. Even if an individual was black, it does not change the important details of the case. Many speculate that had Rittenhouse been a black individual, the verdict would have been different. Even so, Rittenhouse should still be found innocent regardless of his race – because he was.

Yet, many argue that the case was intricately connected with race. Writer Wajahat Ali said that ‘it’s fundamentally an […] expression of white supremacist power that this is our country and if you’re going to betray the white race and join those blacks and browns, you have it coming’. Rosenbaum and Huber were described as ‘race traitors’– that is, white individuals who stand with black individuals and are therefore ‘subjected to the same violence’.

The media has characterised Rittenhouse as a white supremacist teenager who crossed state lines, illegally bearing a rifle, looking for trouble and intentionally seeking to play ‘cowboy’ and incite violence under the guise of a riot. This portrayal overlooks important details. Firstly, Rittenhouse being a white supremacist is pure speculation, and nonetheless has nothing to do with the case. Secondly, Rittenhouse claimed to come to Kenosha, where his father lives, to protect property and act as an informal medic. Thirdly, under Wisconsin law, Rittenhouse was legally allowed to bear arms on the street. And fourthly – Rittenhouse only shot those he believed to be attacking him. To Fox News, Rittenhouse said ‘the lies [the media] can just get away with spreading is sickening and it’s a disgrace to this country’.

It is not just the media that labelled Rittenhouse as a white supremacist. In late September last year, Biden characterised Rittenhouse as a white supremacist in a tweet, which Rittenhouse said was ‘actual malice and defaming my character’. Following the Rittenhouse verdict, Biden released a statement that ‘the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included’. It seems that the President of the United States, along with many other groups and individuals, do not support the first amendment right to self-defence. Rittenhouse’s innocence is blatantly obvious when one listens to the testimony and watches the video footage. As Rittenhouse said, ‘it wasn’t Kyle Rittenhouse on trial in Wisconsin, it was the right to self-defence on trial and if I was convicted, no one would ever be privileged to defend their life against attackers’.

That is not to say that Rittenhouse should be praised as a ‘hero’ or become an icon for far-right groups. He made a foolish judgement coming to an area of high tension in the middle of a riot, and given the political atmosphere of the time, it is hardly surprising that violence broke out and lead to deaths and injuries. Rittenhouse put himself in an unwise position which led to him having to defend himself.

The Rittenhouse trial is just one example of how heated and polarised America is becoming. It is alarming that 17-year-olds consider it necessary to bear arms in order to protect a community from rioters. It is equally alarming that the media and government officials immediately paint a clearly innocent teenager as a ‘white supremacist’ in order to forward their own political agenda. It seems that conflict over a clear case of self-defence is just the beginning.

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