Terry Schwadron

Nov 22, 2021

4 min read

Celebrating Vigilantes

Terry H. Schwadron

Nov. 22, 2021

As The Atlantic magazine noted, it is one thing to argue that the jury acquitting Kyle Rittenhouse reached a reasonable verdict based on the law, and another entirely to celebrate the actions.

Even as the various legal analyses kept pouring in about apparently porous aspects of expanding state self-defense and stand-your-ground laws, what resounds in the days after the verdict are distinctly non-legal matters. Yes, the prosecution seems to have made mistakes, especially in not pursuing lesser alternative charges, the judge seemed at times to favor the defense, and the defendant’s case triggered reasonable doubt. Still, it seems evident from the dead bodies and acknowledged display of an assault-style weapon that something here must have been criminally wrong, even if this trial didn’t capture it using these charges.
With our national divide teetering daily now on the edge of violent threats and court decisions authorizing more guns on the street in the name of a vibrant Second Amendment, it is certain that we are inviting more vigilantism at more protests, rallies and public events of all sort.

There’s always room for anger, and there apparently is always a reason to carry — and use — a gun, and then claim afterwards that it was all in self-defense.

Columnist Eugene Robinson noted in The Washington Post that “By the time the jury heard this narrative told coherently, it was probably too late. The issue had become whether, in the split-seconds before firing, Rittenhouse genuinely felt he was in mortal danger — rather than how Rittenhouse had created danger in the first place by needlessly inserting himself, and his loaded rifle, into an already tense situation.”

Yet from internet traffic, public speeches from the political Right, including from Republican leaders, there was little hesitation in the encouragement from the trial outcome to do it again, everywhere.

Jubilation, not Thoughtfulness

Within minutes of the verdict, jubilation lit up on social media spaces where far-right extremists gather, NPR noted. On Telegram, a channel for the far-right Proud Boys, some noted “There’s still a chance for this country” and “The left won’t stop until their bodies get stacked up like cord wood.”

Rittenhouse himself is not known to be a member of an extremist group but did pose after his arrest wearing a shirt that said, “Free as F — -,” serenaded with the anthem of the Proud Boys — an incident the trial judge barred the jury from hearing.

Two Rightist congress members even sparred good-naturedly over hiring Rittenhouse as his next intern, certainly sending a message aimed at pouring more gasoline on the fires of Divide. Biden seemed to grudgingly accept the verdict while warning about violence, while Donald Trump, naturally, just took credit for sending federal forces to Kenosha in the first place.

From the Left came calls for immediate and continuing protest about ever-present concerns about race, policing and Black inequality in our society, the originating motivation for the Kenosha protest that drew Rittenhouse across state lines to carry an AR-15 style weapon and a first-aid kit as a vigilante.

Even before the verdict, the trial drew attention as a test of race, politics, and the Divide from all quarters. After the verdict, the public commentary just confirmed it.

As The New Yorker noted, “If the right saw the verdict as an affirmation of vigilantism, so, too, did their opponents.”

Rittenhouse “had no idea what he was doing. He had no idea how to keep himself and others safe while wielding a military-style weapon. Rather than play any kind of constructive role, he made the situation far more dangerous for everyone concerned,” argued columnist Robinson, who added, “My fear is that the verdict will encourage like-minded yahoos to take it upon themselves to act as guardians of law and order. In a nation where there are more firearms than people, no good can come of such vigilantism.”

Vigilantes Unleashed

What we’re left with as a country is the case for vigilantism, whether literally on the street and without reference to why this guy had a serious weapon and no plan, or in court lawsuit enforcement of issues like abortion and vaccine mandates, or in increasingly threatening confrontations with lawmakers and local school and elections officials.

In the name of conflicting liberties over guns, racial injustice, personal choice, challenge to medical and government rules, we’re reaching the point where anything goes.

At Slate.com, Dahlia Lithwick, who covers courts, asked, “Indeed, once everyone in public spaces is armed and operating under a sprawling regime of ‘stand your ground’ and citizen’s arrest statutes plus a mushrooming mistrust of law enforcement, how will courts ever sort out who instigated and who responded?”

Accept the idea that Wisconsin law elevates self-defense to a level too high for prosecutors to reach with this jury, at least. But let’s not treat Rittenhouse like a hero.

What was he doing with a semi-automated rifle that he could not even legally buy? Where was his family, so present in trial, when it mattered? If it was so dangerous on the streets, why were the only deaths from Rittenhouse’s gun? Why won’t more Rittenhouse knockoffs show up at the next protest, knowing that their intent doesn’t matter as they shoot, so long as it looks as there was a legally defined threat in the moment? Why were police in Kenosha so accommodating to Rittenhouse even after he had shot his rifle? And, inevitably, would this be the outcome had the shooter turned out to be a Black Lives Matter protester?

Forget Rittenhouse himself. Something was very dissatisfying about what this trial has to say about protecting the public into the future.

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