The Acquittal of Killer Kyle Rittenhouse and the Way Forward 

Protesters march in Chicago against the not guilty verdict in Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial. (AFP/Getty Images)

By Jeff Mackler

In sharp contrast to the estimated 15-26 million mostly young people, Black and white, who mobilized against U.S. systemic racism, police murder and for Black Lives Matter (BLM) in some 2,000 U.S. cities and towns in the summer of 2020 – the largest protests in U.S. history – teenage gun-toting racist bigot murderer Kyle Rittenhouse was among a tiny group of self-appointed vigilantes in Kenosha, Wisconsin in late August 2020. He shot three anti-racist protestors, killing two, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and wounding a third, Gaige Grosskreutz, during protests against the blatant police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed African-American man.

A neighbor’s video of the August 23 Blake shooting refuted initial police lies that he was armed with a knife. The video showed Blake being shot from behind seven times and hit four – in the back – in front of his horrified children as he tried to enter his car with his family inside. Blake was gearing up to celebrate his son’s eighth birthday. The shooting left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Blake’s killer cop exonerated

Four months after the Blake shooting, the Kenosha County district attorney, Michael Graveley, announced that the officers involved would not be charged. In October 2021, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) said it would not pursue federal civil rights charges against the killer cops. The DOJ cited the cop murder-vindicating “legal” refrain, “Prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an officer ‘willfully’ deprived an individual of a constitutional right, meaning that the officer acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids… This is the highest standard of intent imposed by the law.” That is, the “law” written into the statutes and court decisions that all but sanctifies police murder. The DOJ decision continues, “Neither accident, mistake, fear, negligence, nor bad judgment is sufficient to establish a willful federal criminal civil rights violation.” Over the decades and longer the application of this “willful” standard has resulted in a bare handful of convictions, effectively granting police, as we shall see, a license to kill.

Protests over Blake’s shooting played out in the streets of Kenosha and across the country. Athletes from the National Basketball Association, including from the Milwaukee Bucks, the Women’s National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer and at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament refused to play, seizing on the Blake shooting to take a stand against the systemic racism and police brutality in U.S. society that had suddenly come to mass consciousness, expressed in the near spontaneous and historic BLM mass protests.

In Kenosha, anger was palpable during the first nights of the overwhelmingly peaceful protests. A tiny minority engaged in looting, set fire to buildings and cars, and threw fireworks and water bottles at police officers in riot gear, who responded with the generalized use of tear gas and rubber bullets. Vigilante Rittenhouse came prepared to use more deadly force.

On August 25, 2020, during the protests, former Kenosha alderman Kevin Mathewson used the Facebook page of his Kenosha Guard militia group to issue a call to “patriots willing to take up arms and defend” Kenosha. Mathewson had established the “law and order”-posturing Kenosha Guard as a rightwing counter to the nationwide George Floyd protests.Mathewson’s post received national and international condemnation.Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian and County Sheriff David Beth expressed their disapproval of armed civilians patrolling the streets. Yet, some Wisconsin police officers were videoed giving the militia bigots water and were heard saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”

Rightwing call to “patriots willing to take up arms and defend” Kenosha 

Rittenhouse, one of these “armed civilians,” toting a semi-automaticAR-15 style rifle, claimed to be protecting private property. He was seen running through the streets yelling, “I just killed someone.” He was not immediately arrested despite several witnesses shouting that he was a killer. Video showed Rittenhouse walking past police vehicles with his AR-15 style rifle slung over his shoulder and his hands in the air. No one stopped him even though a number of protesters could be heard screaming that he had just shot people. Police later claimed that they didn’t arrest him because of the “chaos.” Rittenhouse went home. The following day, at his lawyer’s advice, he turned himself in to the police in neighboring Antioch, Illinois.

The American Civil Liberties Union called for the resignations of Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Muskiness and of Kenosha Sheriff David Beth, stating that Beth’s deputies fraternized with “white supremacist counter-protesters” during the day of the shooting and did not immediately arrest Rittenhouse.

Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty and was acquitted of multiple murder and related charges by an all-white Kenosha jury in mid-November 2021. Pleading “self-defense,” he told the jury that he went to the protest to protect a car dealership from being vandalized and to provide medical aid. Once there, he asserted in court, he faced “imminent danger,” serious enough, he insisted, to justify his use of deadly force. Following an earlier confrontation, Rittenhouse claimed that he was chased by unarmed protestor, Joseph Rosenbaum, who defense witnesses stated, threw a plastic bag at him. “I remember,” Rittenhouse testified, “his [Rosenbaum’s] hand on the barrel of my gun.” Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum at least five times – in the back, left hand, groin area, on the side of his left thigh and a grazed shot to his forehead. At the hospital, Rosenbaum’s pelvis was found to be fractured and his right lung and liver pierced.

Followed by a group of protestors, Rittenhouse fled the scene, again, screaming, “I just killed someone.” Minutes later he was confronted by another protestor, well-known skateboarder and a friend of Jacob Blake, Anthony Huber, who tried to subdue Rittenhouse with his skateboard. Rittenhouse killed Huber and soon after wounded a third protestor, Gaige Grosskreutz.

Rittenhouse’s claim of “self-defense”

With the help of a complicit judge and a focused defense team, the Rittenhouse jury was pressed to decide what happened in the few seconds that Rittenhouse claimed he faced “imminent danger” sufficient to justify his murders. His defense team and the presiding judge aimed at obliterating the politics and circumstances of the day, including Rittenhouse’s political motives, background and history, his prior affiliations with and training in a local police-run youth group, the means he intended to employ to “take up arms and defend” local businesses, his attitude towards the “Kenosha Guard,” not to mention the circumstances that brought thousands of Kenosha residents into the streets to protest the blatant police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Months after his Kenosha murders, after posting $2 million in bail, Rittenhouse was captured on video accompanied by his mother at a local bar, being serenaded by a group of Proud Boys singing white supremacist songs. The video had him flashing their “white power” salute. All this and more was stricken from the record presented by Kenosha prosecutors to establish Rittenhouse’s motives during a pre-trial arraignment hearing. Rittenhouse claimed at the hearing that he had been “set up” with the Proud Boys by his then attorney, John Pierce, who planned to hire Proud Boys to defend his office. Rittenhouse claimed that he did not know the bar group were Proud Boys, that he did not know the nature of their white power salute and that he was not a member. The compliant judge, Bruce Schroeder, agreed to strike this and all other important prosecution evidence demonstrating Rittenhouse’s character and motivation.

Record of police murder of unarmed Blacks

Rittenhouse’s “self-defense” justification was undoubtedly a variant of the “self-defense” claims of killer police across the country. On average, one unarmed Black man is murdered by police every day of the year, based on the figures available in 2020. Subsequent tallies of police-slain unarmed Blacks that were not officially recorded have doubled that figure! Today’s data put the number unarmed Blacks slain annually by police at over 700, with less than a handful of police convicted! Such is “self-defense” in racist America today! Rittenhouse’s all-white jury verdict followed suit, sending a message of approval to future rightwing vigilante would-be killers that firing into a mass mobilization of unarmed anti-racist and social justice protesters is be to given a pass by the criminal “justice” system, provided only that the shooter demonstrate that they feared “imminent danger” from unarmed protestors who might seek to disarm them!

Trump attacks Black Lives Matter protests

Rittenhouse and his ilk were undoubtedly inspired by then-President Donald Trump, who during the Washington, D.C. Black Lives Matter protests called on his top general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and an entourage of government officials to personally accompany him in a “law and order” walk across Lafayette Square, adjacent to the White House, to St. John’s Church for a one-minute photo op, bible in hand. A few blocks away, his National Guard troops viciously beat, gassed and brutalized with rubber bullets thousands of peaceful anti-racist protestors, including several media reporters. Kenosha police used the same tactics, but unlike Rittenhouse, refrained from using live ammunition. Assembled on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. were federal troops awaiting Trump’s command, while Pentagon helicopters flew low overhead to intimidate the peaceful demonstrators.

Hours earlier a frightened and panicked Trump had ordered his security staff to escort him and his family to safety into the bunkers deep beneath the White House. No doubt the cowardly Trump felt a compulsion to counter his subterranean disappearance with an immediate display of “courage.” Milley and Esper soon after disassociated themselves from Trump’s mini parade as well as his stated intention to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy the already assembled armed federal troops to employ deadly force against the anti-racist protests. Martial Law was to be Trump’s prime proposed solution to the mass anti-racist protests that engulfed the nation. His generals, fearful of the spectacle of a multi-racial U.S. army raining death and destruction on civil rights protestors across the country, rejected Trump’s admonitions, along with a frightened U.S. ruling class that had more potent weapons at their disposal. These focused on the electoral arena – corralling the Black Lives Matter leadership into the Democratic Party campaign, where Joseph Biden, co-author of the racist Clinton-era Crime Bill, would be recast as a civil rights champion.

But Trump never retreated from his threats. Brute force remained embedded in his contemplated arsenal of repression, violence and hate. He couldn’t restrain himself in his initial comments on the 2017 murder of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and the associated neo-fascist Proud Boys and company “Unite the Right” violent torchlight mobilizations in Charlottesville, Virginia. “There were good people on both sides,” said Trump, adding, “Now antifa is a real problem…The problem is on the left.”

During a 2020 presidential debate, Trump urged the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Facing a firestorm of denunciation, a day later, the lying Trump clarified, “I don’t know who the Proud Boys are. But whoever they are they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”

Trump repeated his threats to call in federal troops to repress anti-racist supporters of Black Lives Matter in Portland, Oregon, Wisconsin and elsewhere, not to mention his giving the high sign to overtly racist, neo-fascist groups who thrilled to his lending them legitimacy. The latter, including some dozen off-duty police, were part of the January 6, 2021 Trump-inspired thousand-plus mob of fanatics who believed they could negate the presidential elections and keep Trump in office by taking over the U.S. Capitol.

Deeping political and social divide in U.S. society

The recent Rittenhouse acquittal is a sign of the times – an indication of the deep political and social divide wherein tens of millions of working people find themselves deeply alienated from a U.S. society increasingly incapable of meeting the basic requirements of a decent life. The 15-26 million who took to the streets in the summer of 2020 to decry racist intolerance and to champion Black Live Matter are among the same mass forces that mobilized some five million strong nationally to defend women’s rights following Trump’s 2016 election. They are among the youth who polls repeatedly show in their majority prefer socialism over capitalism. They are the majority who oppose the endless U.S. wars and interventions around the world. They are working people of every race and creed for whom capitalist neoliberalism, social cutbacks, plant closures, low wage jobs—if any—massive debt, inadequate or zero heath care, persecution and deportation of immigrants, home foreclosures, environmental destruction, climate catastrophe and increasingly hopeless future prospects, have led to a major loss of confidence in the capacity of the system itself to significantly improve their lives.

But today, these same angry forces have yet to forge stable independent fighting organizations to champion their interests and future. Their ever-increasing flashpoints of largely spontaneous mass mobilizations, like Black Lives Matter, have yet to escape the control of institutions aimed at preserving capitalist stability – from the Democratic Party and its “progressive” wing of posturing politicians, to the myriad corporate-faith-based entities, corporate-funded NGOs and the craven trade union bureaucracy that defends the status quo – all under the spurious aegis of “lesser evil” politics.

On the other side of the class divide stand an angry minority of largely alienated small business owners, de-classed former middle-class elements, but also a smaller layer of workers who have seen their jobs disappeared or relocated to low-wage nations, bereft of unions, government regulation and taxes. Trump played to these forces while Democratic Party President Obama’s eight years in office oversaw the intensification of this job offshoring, de-industrialization process, coupled with unprecedented and scapegoating mass deportation of immigrants. and conducting seven U.S. wars of international slaughter and conquest. Indeed, warmongering-but-opportunist Trump played to this antiwar sentiment, promising the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan, only to be pilloried by Democrats who never tired of upping Trump’s proposed war budgets to new heights. When increasingly monopolized behemoth corporations effectively drove small-scale business owners and layers of workers to ruin, populist-posing Trump, along with rightwing and neo-fascist demagogues, posed as their champion, while simultaneously blasting Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street backers and her multiple $100,000-plus corporate paid honoraria.

The net result has been growing polarization in U.S. society, wherein a large majority of angry workers and young people see the system itself – systemic racism, the racist prison-industrial complex, sexist and LGBTQI discrimination, capitalist profiteering, giant fossil fuel corporations that threaten life on earth itself and the base corruption of the billionaire-run electoral system as the source of their plight. On the other side of the social equation stand a significantly smaller layer of alienated largely middle-class individuals, including hate group scapegoaters who see Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, immigrants and radicals of every sort as the “enemy.” Tiny clusters of these increasingly armed thugs have appeared at anti-racist and antiwar protests across the country, usually rendered impotent by the sheer size of the unfolding angry social mobilizations. Trump’s 2020 election campaign did mobilize a number of large rallies organized by local Republican Party officials that included a layer of alienated workers and middle-class forces as well as small clusters of hate groups. But none came close to matching the mass social forces of the emerging movements that increasingly challenge capitalism’s core assaults aimed at all working people.

Forging a united independent class struggle leadership

The fundamental challenge before the socialist left today is the forging of a united independent class struggle leadership to challenge the twin corporate billionaire-controlled parties of war, racism and social repression. This unity will be expressed in the political arena with the formation of a mass independent fighting labor party based on a qualitative expansion and democratization of the trade union movement in alliance with all the oppressed and exploited. It will include the formation of mass action democratic united front-type mobilizations aimed at demonstrating the power of millions of working people in action. In time it will include coordinated strike actions that extract major victories for working people while building their confidence that we are, in fact, the only serious force capable of implementing critical social change.

In the course of these battles the vast majority will come to understand that fighting capitalist exploitation at the point of production and replacing minority capitalist rule in the political and economic arena with a workers’ government that fights for socialism is the way forward.

For socialism!  For a new world of solidarity, freedom and equality, where the fulfillment of human needs and the highest aspirations for a secure and productive life are the operative principles not capitalist greed and profit, racism, sexism, LGBTQI discrimination, deadly pandemics, fossil-fuel induced climate catastrophe and endless war.

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