November 10, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Whiteness is working hard to vindicate Kyle Rittenhouse
Please don’t pity him.
Suspected white supremacist Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial, facing two counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide.
While the fate of Rittenhouse is yet to be determined, his trial, much like the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, is about much more than one individual. About more than Kyle Rittenhouse.
Had Rittenhouse been Black and armed in Kenosha, having shot three people, killing two of them, we all know his trial would have taken place right there, in the streets.
America is on trial, under the spotlight since 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, on the cusp of a seminal moment, with potential for change, yet still careening on the shaky path of injustice.
Whatever the outcome, such trials will be looked back on as a turning point in years ahead, for better or worse. Either justice will be done or injustice will. And judging by events, things could go either way.
For a start, the very fact that there were so many doubts as to whether or not Rittenhouse would even face accountability reminds us of where we are — and the true state of play. It was the same with Derek Chauvin and is the case with Ahmaud Arbery’s killers. There’s an acute cynicism and lack of faith in the system to deliver racial justice.
Because, while justice is a reality for some, it’s evasive for others. America is the land in which George Zimmerman walked free after stalking and killing a Black child. It is the land in which Breonna Taylor was shot dead in her own bed by police, sleeping while Black. And so, while the public and the world are watching the Rittenhouse trial, they are aware of America’s internal battle with white supremacy.
So far, the signs in the trial of Rittenhouse are alarming. First came the rather unprecedented decision from the judge that lawyers for Rittenhouse can refer to the men he shot as “looters” and “rioters.” The prosecutors, the judge decided, must not refer to them as “victims.”
Describing those crowds as rioters and looters is something that Donald Trump and the right-wing media have reveled in.
The obvious fallacy of this doesn’t need unpacking. But given this is the demand of the judge in a highly significant trial, the language used to frame the discourse will play a major role. Alarm bells should therefore be ringing. Whatever the judge’s reasoning is behind the decision about language used in the trial, it’ll be and has been applauded by racists.
The majority of those protesting in Kenosha were protesting anti-Black police brutality. Previously, unarmed Black man Jacob Blake had been shot several times by police causing paralysis, leading to protests.
Describing those crowds as rioters and looters is something that Donald Trump and the right-wing media have reveled in. The same playbook pathologizes young Black men as “thugs,” Mexicans as “rapists,” Muslims as “terrorists.” It paints a false equivalence between fascists and anti-fascists. It’s a dishonest and dangerous game.
If we surmised how the Rittenhouse trial might play out based on the chronology of events leading up to it, there is further cause for alarm.
Video footage seems to suggest that the police actively welcomed vigilantes like Rittenhouse into the city, offering them bottles of water, aware they were armed, and also that such individuals were answering the call from white supremacists to come and “defend” Kenosha.
Further video hints that police, aware that Rittenhouse had shot three people, allowed him to cross a police line and head home. He was arrested the following day, having voluntarily presented himself to the police. And a further clip reveals Rittenhouse fantasizing about shooting shoplifters just 15 days before it all went down in Kenosha.
And then of course, there is the flooding of support Rittenhouse received from those hailing him as a white supremacist hero. Conservatives, police, serving and former military members, and of course the Proud Boys, and many other sympathizers, were all said to have been among those who dug deep into their pockets to cough up the money to pay the $2 million bail bond for Rittenhouse.
Following the release of Rittenhouse on bond, he was pictured in a bar posing with Proud Boys while flashing the notorious white supremacist “OK” power sign — while also donning a T-shirt that read “Free as Fuck.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Rittenhouse’s bond conditions initially placed no restrictions on him meeting with white supremacist groups. There was, apparently, no evidence linking Rittenhouse to any white supremacist militia group.
And yet, following the release of Rittenhouse on bond, he was pictured in a bar posing with Proud Boys while flashing the notorious white supremacist “OK” power sign — while also donning a T-shirt that read “Free as Fuck.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Regardless of the history in the lead up to the trial, lawyers for Rittenhouse will do everything they can to paint and humanize him as a teen who was simply defending himself.
But the reality here is Rittenhouse is a product of a much wider culture and system that cultivated and produced him. That same system will now punish him or vindicate him while every detail about events in Kenosha is forensically picked apart by Rittenhouse’s lawyers and the prosecutors. And of course the evidence should be looked at, because everyone deserves a fair trial, right?
Had Rittenhouse been Black and armed in Kenosha, having shot three people, killing two of them, we all know his trial would have taken place right there, in the streets. The police would have shot him dead.
Rittenhouse may well yet receive the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. He could still walk.
Really, it’s America that’s on trial.
Richard Sudan covers human rights and American foreign affairs for the Editorial Board. Based in London, his reporting has appeared in The Guardian, Independent and others. Find him @richardsudan.