The Memo: Rittenhouse trial exposes deep US divide

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is once again exposing the deep fissures in American life — divides so deep that the people on each side seem to see two entirely different realities.

Rittenhouse is on trial for murder after fatally shooting two people, and wounding a third, last year. 

Rittenhouse, who was then 17, traveled from his home in Antioch, Ill., to Kenosha, Wis., when protests erupted after police shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back. Rittenhouse had previously expressed support for cops amid uproar over police killings of Black people. In Kenosha, he was armed with an assault-style rifle.

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Those facts are just about the only ones on which everyone agrees.

To progressives, and particularly to Black activists, Rittenhouse’s case is the embodiment of a fundamentally biased policing and justice system.

They look at every step of the path Rittenhouse has traveled and ask what would have happened had a Black teen done exactly the same things.

“All these things form a composite picture of a criminal justice system,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a radio host, commentator and the author of several books about Black life. “That’s why you see so many African Americans on social media, where the one theme that comes through over and over again is — ‘double-standard,’ ‘double standard,’ 'double standard.’ ”

On the night of the shootings, Rittenhouse had strolled the streets of Kenosha armed with an assault-style rifle that he was too young to legally possess. No police officer appears to have confronted him. In fact, he and other conservative protesters were handed water bottles and thanked by police.

Even after the shootings took place, Rittenhouse was not immediately arrested, and walked past police vehicles freely. 

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Once he was charged and had bail set at $2 million, a huge fundraising effort was launched, successfully, to meet the bond. As his trial began, the judge — in one of many contested rulings and interventions — said that the word “victims” was not to be used about the people whom Rittenhouse had shot.

Meanwhile, the teen has found support among conservative politicians and media figures.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.) has called him an “innocent child.” Former President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE once sympathized that Rittenhouse had found himself in “very big trouble” and “probably would have been killed.” Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieThe Memo: Rittenhouse trial exposes deep US divide GOP Rep. Clyde racks up ,500 in mask fines Industry pushes back on federal, congressional cybersecurity mandate efforts MORE (R-Ky.) said he had shown “incredible restraint.”

Rittenhouse’s mother once received a standing ovation at a Republican Party gathering.

Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonRittenhouse says he's destroying gun used in fatal Kenosha shootings NBA's Enes Kanter: Americans criticizing their country should 'keep their mouth shut' The serious and growing danger of vigilantism MORE of Fox News has portrayed Rittenhouse as a patriot who has been left exposed to legal peril because “legitimate authority refuses to do its sworn duty.”

That idea was echoed on the same network by Greg Gutfeld this week.

“Kyle’s victims, the two dead guys, deserved better from the government. But they didn’t deserve better from Kyle,” he said. “He did the right thing. He did what the government should have done.”

The controversy has migrated outside the political arena into a broader cultural furor. NBA star LeBron James accused Rittenhouse of faking when the defendant appeared to break down while offering testimony in his own defense. 

“Man, knock it off,” James tweeted. “That boy ate some lemon heads before walking into court.”

That, in turn, sparked a fierce, if predictable, conservative counter-reaction. J.D. Vance, the conservative author seeking a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, jabbed James as “a wealthy grown man making fun of a kid.”

Rittenhouse, in short, has been turned into a canvas upon which people project their feelings about any number of visceral issues roiling the nation: policing, racial justice, Black Lives Matter, Trump, gun control and more. 

Progressive figures blast Rittenhouse’s defenders as part of a conservative backlash.

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“It’s people of the mindset that ‘America is pretty darn good, what are you complaining about?' " said civil rights attorney William O. Wagstaff III. “They saw people who were outraged about a Black man being shot in the back as crybabies or looters and rioters.”

But Rittenhouse’s status as an emblem of bigger issues has made the complexities of the evidence presented at his trial all the more divisive.

For example, the one person who survived being shot by Rittenhouse, Gaige Grosskreutz, ostensibly a prosecution witness, may have ultimately helped the defense. Grosskreutz acknowledged that he himself was armed, and that Ritttenhouse did not fire at him even when he could see his gun — until Grosskreutz pointed the gun directly at the defendant from a short distance away.

Another witness said he had recalled one of the men killed by Rittenhouse shouting, “If I catch any of you guys alone tonight I’m going to f---ing kill you.”

That has left many people doubtful that Rittenhouse will be convicted — and has invigorated conservative criticism of much of the mainstream media coverage of the Rittenhouse case.

Closing arguments in the case are expected Monday. 

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Whatever way the verdict goes, it’s clear the battle over Rittenhouse’s fate is part of a much bigger war.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Updated 10:44 a.m.