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The Memo: Rittenhouse verdict reverberates across polarized nation

Many Americans reacted with rage — and many others with delight — on Friday after 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts relating to the shooting deaths of two men during protests in Kenosha, Wis., last year.

The verdict, and the split-screen reaction to it, served as the latest example of how deeply the nation is cleaved along ideological and racial lines.

For liberals and many people of color, Rittenhouse’s acquittal was an outrage — and a dangerous license for others to engage in violent vigilantism in the future. 

To conservatives, the jury’s decision was an act of courage — an example of citizens applying the law dispassionately even amid media uproar and broader social tumult.

For those Americans who are not committed members of either ideological camp, the verdict was something more complicated — a legally defensible decision, yet a queasiness-inducing reminder of how differently the actions of white and Black Americans continue to be judged.

To many, it was a jolting demonstration of the fact that what is just and what is legal are not always the same thing.

Rittenhouse had traveled to Kenosha from his home in Antioch, Ill., amid protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in August 2020. Police, answering a call about a domestic disturbance, had shot Blake in the back seven times. 

Rittenhouse went to Kenosha motivated by general pro-police sentiments and, he claimed, a desire to protect property. He also said he was there to offer medical assistance, though he overstated his medical training.

Rittenhouse walked the streets armed with an assault-style rifle, despite being only 17 at the time. He and other pro-police demonstrators were thanked by cops in Kenosha and in some cases handed bottles of water.

A short time later, amid disorder, Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26. He also shot and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27.

Friday’s verdicts cleared him of the murders of Rosenbaum and Huber, the attempted murder of Grosskreutz, and two other charges.

Rittenhouse’s case centered on his claims of self-defense. 

Those claims were bolstered even by some prosecution witnesses. The court heard Rosenbaum had threatened to kill Rittenhouse and had grabbed for his gun; that Huber had hit him with a skateboard; and that Grosskreutz, by his own admission, had been shot only after pointing his own gun at Rittenhouse.

That was enough to convince the jury that Rittenhouse had indeed been acting out of fear of losing his life or being seriously injured.

The prosecution’s central counter-argument — that Rittenhouse’s claim to self-defense was invalid because he had provoked the confrontations in the first place by strutting around with a rifle — failed to carry the day.

“The verdict speaks to the dramatic differences in perspective people have, based on racial background, about justice in our country,” civil rights attorney Shavar Jeffries told this column. “For many people of color, the idea that they could show up with an assault rifle at the site of a rally, kill people, and find themselves exonerated is something beyond comprehension.”

President Biden, in a statement soon after the verdict, emphasized the need to accept the jury’s decision.

The verdict, he conceded, “will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, [but] we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.” Biden added an admonition to all Americans “to express their views peacefully.”

But while Biden’s sought to apply some kind of balm to a fractious nation, others eagerly took a different tack.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) offered Rittenhouse an internship, saying that people have a right to “be armed, be dangerous and be moral.” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who earlier this week became the first member of Congress in more than a decade to be censured, also offered Rittenhouse an internship.

Former President Trump’s main political action committee sent an email showcasing remarks Trump had made while in office, when he told a reporter that Rittenhouse was “trying to get away from them, I guess … they very violently attacked him.” 

“Looks like President Trump was right!” the email said.

Although all the people Rittenhouse shot were white, the case has inevitably been tugged into the nation’s ongoing reckoning with race because it had the Jacob Blake shooting as its backdrop.

The racial tensions strained by the Rittenhouse verdict will be stretched even more taut in the coming days. 

On Monday, closing arguments are expected in the trial of three white men in Georgia who stand accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man.

The Rittenhouse verdict is in. 

But many of the deeper issues it raises lie raw and unresolved.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

 

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Paul Gosar rittenhouse trial

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