Vigilantes are not patriots

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On Nov. 19, a jury in Kenosha, Wis., acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of intentional and reckless homicide. Acknowledging that the verdict “will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, including myself” President Biden maintained that “the jury system works and we have to abide by it.”

The Rittenhouse case was complicated. Rittenhouse drove to Kenosha from his home in Antioch, Ill., and injected himself into civil unrest ignited by the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Dressed provocatively, in an Army green T-shirt, sporting patriot-style Ariat boots (part camouflage, part American flag), and armed with an AR-15, purchased for him by a friend because he thought it “looked cool,” and, at age 17, could not legally buy himself, Rittenhouse killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz.

A compelling witness, Rittenhouse testified that he went to Kenosha to use his skills as a fire department EMT cadet and student in an Arizona State University nursing program to provide first aid, after he saw online pleas for people to help protect the city from violent protesters. That he was chased, threatened, hit by a skateboard, had a gun pointed at him, and feared for his life, defense attorneys claimed, justified his plea of self-defense.

In a ruling he admitted “very few judges, I guess, share with me,” Judge Bruce Schroeder prohibited prosecutors from using the words “victims” or “alleged victims” to describe the men Rittenhouse shot. Schroeder allowed the defense to refer to “rioters,” “looters,” and “arsonists.” He excluded evidence that two weeks before Rittenhouse went to Kenosha, he watched looters running from a CVS pharmacy on television and said if he had an AR-15 “I’d start shooting at them.”

Definitions of self-defense, it’s also worth noting, vary significantly from state to state. In some jurisdictions, individuals forfeit pleas of self-defense if they insert themselves “in a foreseeably dangerous situation.” In Wisconsin, the law favors someone who “in good faith withdraws from a fight,” but does not mandate “a duty to retreat.” In his final instructions, Judge Schroeder told members of the jury to find the defendant not guilty if they concluded he “reasonably believed it was necessary to prevent his own death.” That belief, Schroeder added, “may be reasonable even if mistaken.”

More disturbing than the Rittenhouse verdict, it seems clear, is the hyper-partisan, polarized political culture that has convinced tens of millions of people (30 percent of Republicans, 11 percent of Democrats, and 17 percent of independents) to tell pollsters that “Because things have gone so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Apparently, many of them also give a green light to armed vigilantes to show up at protests with rights usually reserved for police officers, including expectations that “suspects” should submit to the authority of individuals making citizen’s arrests and that judges and juries will have their backs if things go bad.

Before Kyle Rittenhouse arrived in Kenosha, former alderman Kevin Matthewson called for “patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city from the evil thugs.” Five thousand people responded to his post, which Facebook did not remove, despite hundreds of complaints about the comment “kill looters and rioters.” On Aug. 25, the eve of a third night of sometimes violent protests, Matthewson summoned “Armed Citizens to Protect Our Lives and Property” to meet him at the courthouse. He warned Kenosha’s police chief: “Do not have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest.”

“How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided that they had to maintain order when no one else would?” said Tucker Carlson on Fox TV. T-shirts with a photograph of Rittenhouse and the slogan “F— Around and Find Out” were sold online and in shops.

During the trial, Brandon Lesco stood outside the courthouse with a “Free Kyle” sign. “Someone needs to be there to defend the American towns that people try to burn,” Lesco said. “I respect that he was there, I respect he carried a weapon, he used it properly, he used it legally.”

Minutes after the Rittenhouse verdict, the National Rifle Association tweeted the text of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Former president Trump declared “if that’s not self-defense nothing is.” A Florida legislator called for a national “Kyle Rittenhouse Day;” an Arizona state senator advocated building statues of him. Republican Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance said the trial “was child abuse masquerading as justice.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) announced they would try to recruit him as an intern in the United States House of Representatives.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) introduced a bill to award Rittenhouse the Congressional Gold Medal, the legislative branch’s highest honor.

Tucker Carlson hailed Rittenhouse as “a sweet kid … bright, honest, sincere, dutiful and hard-working, exactly the kind of person you’d want more of in your country,” who tried “to do the right thing at a time when almost no one else in the community is trying to do the right thing.” A host for Newsmax announced plans to offer Rittenhouse a position with the cable channel. Fox’s Sean Hannity encouraged Rittenhouse to sue Democrats and mainstream media reporters who criticized him for patrolling the streets of Kenosha.

People of good will can disagree about whether Kyle Rittenhouse should have been convicted or acquitted. But he is not a hero.

Also, Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. — convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man jogging through their suburban neighborhood, because they thought he might have committed a crime — are not martyrs.

And vigilantes on the right or left — and demagogues who incite or exploit them — are not patriots.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

Tags Ahmaud Arbery trial Arbery verdict coded racism Donald Trump Far-right politics Joe Biden Kyle Rittenhouse Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial Marjorie Taylor Greene Matt Gaetz Paul Gosar racism in America racist right Radical Right Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States Rittenhouse verdict Sean Hannity Tucker Carlson United States racial unrest Vigilante

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