Like everything else today, the acquittal of a white teenager who brought an assault rifle to a tense, racially-charged confrontation and wound up killing two people, and dismembering another, while arguably in fear for his life, is a fiercely tribal moment seen through reflexively tribal lenses. Though the injustice on trial in this particular case appears to many obscene, we would all benefit from taking a breath about this particular flashpoint of the long building war between the tribes, before logging it as merely another example of the other tribe’s intractability.
It is undeniably sickening that a white kid who goes to an understandably tense racial justice protest (Kenosha cop would face no charges for shooting an unarmed citizen seven times, four times in the back) with an AR-15, a weapon designed for mass killing in a war zone, (a gun perfectly legal to openly carry under Wisconsin law, if he’d been a year older) and winds up killing two people and destroying the arm of a third, is not accountable to the law in any way, tried in a state that also has a George Zimmerman law. It is an outrage that people like him are free, in many states, to do exactly what Rittenhouse did, fund raise off it and avoid legal consequences. Had he been Black, he would likely have been dead at the scene, a victim of “law and order”. Undeniable. That an unhinged president immediately hailed Rittenhouse as a hero, and the little working class killer’s $2,000,000 bond was quickly raised and paid, and he had an OJ-like team of lawyers who rehearsed and war-gamed his defense with consultants and jury experts, who put him through his paces before putting him on the stand — this white high school kid enjoyed privileges usually reserved for only the wealthiest criminal defendants — an outrageous pouring of salt in the wounds. Compare the outcome to someone who’d done exactly what Rittenhouse did, who hadn’t been able to post bail, had spent a year and a half locked up in prison and was represented by an overworked public defender. There’d be a plea deal and a sentence of years in prison, there is virtually never a trial in the case of someone unable to post bond and hire the best legal team a mountain of money can buy.
There is much to be legitimately outraged about, but there is also a point that has been mostly sliding by — under Wisconsin law, and based on the evidence the jury saw during the trial, their verdict was what the (unjust, racially biased) law provided for.
If we put the tribal lens aside for a moment, (which is a mighty task today, see, for example, the rest of this sentence) we can see that this case is a reflection of the larger injustice in courts bound by laws written by the NRA. These laws are an outrage and a reason to fight to change these gun-crazed laws, but in this particular case there was one killer on trial, not the systemically unjust legal system. The problem with talking about a public trial is that most of us know few of the legal details and the case stands as easy code for everything else. I will attempt to break some of this into smaller parts and look at the verdict beyond the tribal POV.
The kid’s crying on the stand was either the perfectly understandable reaction of a young criminal defendant, under tremendous stress, on international television, facing decades in prison, possibly traumatized by what he’d done (not every kid who supports Trump is automatically a cold blooded killer), the clever act of a well-coached murderer, or some combination of those things.
Multiple things may be true at the same time. Our justice system is the opposite of colorblind — again, a Black AR-15 wielding shooter at that same time and place would likely have been killed by police on the spot, and the shooting justified, forget about any kind of trial by his peers, or anyone else. This pleasant faced white kid, a big fan of cops, was not molested by police after he shot three people and was allowed to leave the scene of the killings with the weapon that did the killing. That by itself is pretty fucking maddening.
The other day I reflexively referred to the biased judge in the case as a Ku Klux Klansman, based on a few seemingly racist comments and decisions he made during the trial, which was not fair of me. I have no way of knowing if Judge Schroeder is a bigot or not. Another way of seeing the clearly biased jurist, with the eyes of the world suddenly fixed on his every word, is as a sympathetic older man, suddenly far beyond his depth, who felt compassion for a kid, already villainized by half the country, facing the full force of the justice system as punishment for America’s original, never addressed sin of slavery and the racism that justified it.
As a frame, systemic racism, as reflected in countless legal proceedings, is impossible to ignore in this case, unless you pretend, as the right does, that systemic racism, like Critical Race Theory (illuminated brightly by the polarizing Rittenhouse case, where a white killer was extended privileges usually reserved for the wealthy and given a fair trial) is bullshit and that making laws banning “CRT“ will make it — and all claims of racism — go away.
Think of the close to 1,000 enraged white rioters, including armed white nationalist militia members, allowed, by the too-late deployed National Guard, to peacefully go home the evening of January 6th after the sacking of the Capitol, another in-your-face moment for peaceful racial justice protesters locked up immediately, wrapped in a police net five minutes after curfew (in New York City, mind you), or gassed, charged by officers on horseback and shot with rubber bullets on instruction of Bill Barr so the president could be photographed awkwardly brandishing a bible in front of a famous church.
There is another issue in this case, though, a much more straightforward strictly legal issue, which is hard to see in the glare of this moment. It is a much less satisfying way of looking at the case, but no less important.
In light of the evidence presented to the jury did the prosecution overcome Rittenhouse’s self-defense argument?
That is separate from everything else, and really the only relevant consideration in evaluating the justness of the actual verdict.
I heard an analysis of the trial by Glenn Greenwald yesterday, a guy who sometimes annoys me with what seems like a trollishly contrarian view, who made several excellent points, including the one immediately above. The slightly left-leaning side of corporate mass media has framed this trial as a trial of White Supremacy vs. the rest of us who can see the dangers these fearful haters pose — the kid had crossed state lines with an illegally-possessed assault rifle to provocatively confront protesters and rioters because he’s a racist, like many of Trump’s most vocal supporters. Right-wing mass media framed it as spineless liberal puppet prosecutors using an innocent kid who went to protect property in a town near where he lived, shops threatened by BLM violence, to prove a point about their politically correct “wokeness”.
Everyone had a strong opinion when Rittenhouse was acquitted. Few of us had followed the trial in detail, viewing it instead through the glimpses provided by opinionated pundits, in newspaper articles and on “social media”. Greenwald said he watched the whole trial, saw everything that was presented to the jury. Like most other Americans, and citizens all over the world, I saw only selected excerpts, always framed by the presenters. Who is in a better position to evaluate the fairness of the verdict?
The judge, Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder, suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, may well have behaved like an asshole, I certainly saw several instances of him leaning over backwards to rule for the defense. In one instance he admitted he knew nothing about technology, but told the prosecutor it was his burden to prove the arguably self-evident proposition that enlarging things on a video screen is essentially the same as using a magnifying glass. The only person disputing that was the defense attorney trying to block introduction of the evidence, who also admitted he didn’t understand the technology or its “logarithms”. It was an asshole position for any judge to take — the two of us are uniquely ignorant about the issue so that is your problem, counselor.
But back to the facts and the law. To prove murder the prosecution must overcome a self-defense defense if it is raised. When you see the defense’s video that the jurors saw, the kid’s fear was understandable when you see that he was chased by at least one of the people he killed, a probably mentally ill man who clearly (and, to many, not unreasonably) wanted to stomp the shit out of Rittenhouse, if not kill him with his own assault rifle. You can say, as I would, that Rittenhouse had no business being there, provoked them by showing up with an AR-15, loaded and ready (and the lack of meaningful gun laws here is appalling), but what the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that when he killed those men he was not actually in reasonable fear for his life.
The gun charge was dismissed because under a Wisconsin law, probably drafted by the NRA and passed with the help of ALEC (the Stand Your Ground folks), an AR-15 loaded with 30 rounds does not fit the strict and restrictive legal definition of a gun that a 17 year-old can be prosecuted for bringing to a volatile street confrontation. Bruce Shroeder may well be an asshole, even a klansman, but the law is the law and in this case there is no avenue to appeal, based on the law, the judge’s dismissal of the gun charges against the kid who came to a scene of violence armed to take on thirty people. The same goes for most of the rest of the judge’s asshole rulings. The problems are with the law itself, annoying as Shroeder’s thumb on the scale for the defense was.
Predictably, Greenwald has been attacked from the left for his conclusion that the jury’s verdict, based on the evidence presented, in light of Wisconsin law, was correct. It is hard, in our angry, moronic times, to make that kind of distinction when half the country treats the kid as a hero and the other half thinks life in prison is fair punishment for what the smug little Trumper did.
I was reading comments under Greenwald’s video, most of them praising him for his honesty and integrity. This comment caught my eye, and for the first time ever, I responded to a Youtube comment:
I wrote asking the guy if he had a source for this. It changes the narrative drmtically, if true. But the comment above, and my reply, are buried in a haystack of thousands of comments and I have been unable to find a reply anywhere. I was hoping for an email notice, but so far, nada. This guy’s comment, a narrative game changer if true, is the perfect illustration of the problem with relying on unsourced (and thus unverifiable) “facts” gleaned from the internet.
As I was walking last night, taking what used to be called a “constitutional”, I had a thought about how productive it would be if we could all take a step back from the reflexive tribal reactions, isolate some of the larger problems and discuss them on a deeper level of understanding. In spite of the seeming impossibility of doing this in a culture of monetized misinformation, it is the best shot we have as a society on the brink of another bloody civil war. I pictured us all living in a more perfect union, a place of actual discussions focused on the real problems and solving them, instead of the zero-sum, adversarial, strictly profit-driven gotcha society we live in.
I thought of the many lessons members of a more advanced society could take from something like the Rittenhouse trial. I imagined an opportunity for real cross-tribal insights. I pictured people like him, instead of being simply judged a murderer or a victim/hero, required to perform public service after his trial, maybe on a panel with Jacob Blake, the man in a wheelchair for life after taking seven police-justified bullets from a Kenosha policeman and Rittenhouse’s surviving victim.
It would be much more instructive than what we have now, this kid as a vicious murderer who went free or a totally vindicated celebrity of MAGA-world, already publicly courted by several of the most angry, provocative and extremist members of Congress, who have already offered Rittenouse jobs he is as unqualified for as they are for their own jobs.
Imagine an alternative reality where the young man is required to spend a certain number of hours communicating to the public what he learned from his experience. His public service would start with help from skilled mediators who could ensure he listened to victims of vigilante violence, and understood the point of view of those at the protest where he wound up shooting three people. He could reflect on what he may have learned from the whole ordeal, how it feels to actually end the lives of random strangers (suppose he really does have regular nightmares about it, instead of the expressed desire to shoot BLM protesters and the smug posing he did right after– would that be a step in the right direction in talking about fucking guns?). Think of the discussion this kid’s court-mandated public speaking could open, in a more perfect union, where everything is not immediately weaponized to threaten and kill the other side with.
This messianic daydream scenario would only work, of course, in a society where honest reflection was encouraged, where truth and reconciliation are valued, where people are seen as capable of learning, evolving and becoming wiser, instead of a ruthlessly profit-obsessed casino where the only move for the people forced to gamble there is doubling down until you’re out of chips.