Who is to blame for that fateful night in Kenosha?
Kyle Rittenhouse should not have been in Kenosha that night. He is no hero. That doesn’t make him a murderer, but it does mean that he bears some of the responsibility for what happened. Moral culpability for the deaths of the two people he killed and the one he shot and wounded doesn’t end with Rittenhouse, either. The rioters chose to create a dangerous, lawless situation.
The city and, in particular, Wisconsin governor Tony Evers chose not to enforce the law or use the National Guard to restore order. The adults in Rittenhouse’s life failed to stop him from inserting himself into the chaos. And the three people who attacked him made a foolhardy decision of their own to commit criminal violence against a man visibly armed with a powerful rifle. How did they think that was going to end?
The Rioters and Their Enablers
Start with the people who rioted following the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23, 2020. There is a time and a place when rioting is justified, and that time and place is when violent revolution to overthrow the government is justified. George Floyd’s murder was not legitimate grounds for overthrowing the government. Congress’s certifying Joe Biden’s election was not legitimate grounds for overthrowing the government. A questionable police shooting of a dangerous man with a knife is not legitimate grounds for overthrowing the government. In none of these cases was rioting justified. Riots are bad, and any legitimate government ought to put them down decisively.
Political commentators, especially progressive activists, love to paint individual criminal cases as pure political theater, with the people involved mere stand-ins for society-wide racial and political dynamics. They are rarely so cut and dried. Both the Blake case and the Rittenhouse case are more complicated than that. The facts matter.
Blake had a warrant out for his arrest for sexual assault when the complainant called 911 to report that he was at her house. Three cops showed up. They failed to subdue Blake after two of them fired Tasers at him. One of the officers, Rusten Sheskey, opened fire, shooting Blake seven times in the back while he was leaning into his car. Blake’s children were inside the car.
Governor Evers issued an incendiary statement on August 23 saying that Blake was “not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement,” and blamed “the racism in our state and our country” for “excessive use of force and immediate escalation when engaging with Black Wisconsinites.” Wisconsin police responded with a statement pleading with Evers
Previous remarks and statements made by each of you are premature, judgmental, inflammatory and only add to the anger and divisiveness of an already dangerous situation. A continued pattern of statements and press releases based on opinion and unsubstantiated claims puts people’s lives at risk.
The Washington Post and CNN prominently — and at least in CNN’s case, repeatedly — described Blake as “unarmed.” Professional sports teams and athletes fanned the flames, as baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and tennis all protested, presenting the Blake shooting as another instance of cops disregarding black lives.
Acting in the spirit of any lynch mob, the rioters also decided not to wait for the facts. They set at least 37 fires, burned down more than two dozen businesses, many of them family small businesses with long community roots, and spray-painted pro-Palestinian graffiti at a local synagogue. Rioters armed with rifles surrounded a police SWAT vehicle. A 71-year-old man was hit in the head with a concrete-filled plastic bottle, which fractured his jaw in two places. The riots caused nearly $2 million in damage to a city of 100,000 people. The destruction was worst in Kenosha’s mostly black Uptown area.
Of the 175 people arrested, 102 (58 percent) had addresses from outside Kenosha; people from 44 different cities were arrested. Many of the rioters — such as the three men Rittenhouse shot — were white, as are 79 percent of Kenosha’s residents. Moreover, of the four men involved in the fatal confrontation, only Anthony Huber was actually a settled resident of Kenosha.
He’s a trained paramedic, and his stated reason for being there was the same as Rittenhouse’s: to offer medical assistance. Like Rittenhouse, he was carrying a gun.
Where was law enforcement? On August 25, the third night of the riots — the night of the Rittenhouse shootings — “the only law enforcement presence was once again around the Kenosha County Courthouse, where an eight-foot-high fence was erected around the building.”
Governor Evers refused federal help, and waited days to accept National Guard help from other states, even as local officials in Kenosha pleaded with him to send in several hundred National Guardsmen to restore order. He belatedly declared a state of emergency and announced a doubling of the National Guard presence from 125 to 250 the night of August 25, a fraction of what local leaders wanted.
Three days later, there were 800 guards on the street, and things quieted down. As for his approach to the rioters, the best Evers could muster against them was to remind them to “wear your mask and keep social distance as best you can.”
CNN plastered a now-infamous chyron across its screen describing the protests as “Mostly Peaceful” while reporter Omar Jimenez literally stood in front of a series of car fires. Eric Litke of USAToday published a “fact-check” days after the riots informing readers that “Jacob Blake did not ‘brandish’ knife”; ratings are based on what is known at the time.” In the aftermath of the riots, the Associate Press changed its own stylebook to discourage use of the term “riot,” preferring instead to describe them as “protests.” Needless to say, no such approach was taken when “Stop the Steal” protesters rioted in January 2021.
Kamala Harris spoke to Blake in early September and told him she was proud of him. Joe Biden said of the Kenosha cops shortly thereafter, “At a minimum they need to be charged.”
Not until January did the full story come out. Blake admitted in an interview with Good Morning America that he was trying to pick up his knife: “I realized I had dropped my knife, had a little pocket knife. So I picked it up after I got off of him because they Tased me and I fell on top of him. . . . I shouldn’t have picked it up, only considering what was going on. At that time, I wasn’t thinking clearly.
As the DA concluded: Blake was “clearly armed with a knife as he approaches the driver’s door.” Officer Sheskey was close enough to be holding Blake’s shirt at the time, and Blake “twisted his body toward” Sheskey just before he opened fire.
In light of that evidence, the district attorney declined to charge Sheskey. The Biden Justice Department, just last month, determined it would not bring federal charges over the Blake shooting, concluding that “the evidence obtained is insufficient to prove that the KPD officer willfully used excessive force.” Officer Sheskey’s split-second judgment to shoot can fairly be questioned, but as Robert VerBruggen noted:
Public officials, athletes, and the media shouldn’t have misled the rioters as to the facts of the Blake case; if they had, maybe the streets of Kenosha would have been calmer. The rioters shouldn’t have rioted; if they had, the Rittenhouse shootings would not have happened.
Here’s the thing: The alternative to police is not social workers. It is not, in the long run, violence run wild, either. It is vigilantes and lynch mobs. Before we had professional police, there was always some form of state-sanctioned arm of the law. When the proper authorities fail to keep order, private citizens will one way or another take the law in their own hands.
That’s what happened in California in the 1850s with the first “Vigilance Committees.” It happened in the Wild West. It’s why Bernie Goetz carried a gun on the subway. It’s why Korean businessmen took up arms to defend their stores in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It will always happen when government fails at its first duty. If you don’t want more Kyle Rittenhouses taking it upon themselves to hold back the forces of anarchy and ruin, you have to have responsible law enforcement ready and willing to do it. The people most upset at Rittenhouse are the ones who would put more of him on the streets.
The Foolhardy Teenager
The political Left has demonized Rittenhouse relentlessly and has frequently just made stuff up. Joe Biden, in September 2020, lumped in Rittenhouse with “white supremacists,” a claim his White House to this day will neither substantiate nor retract. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D., Mass.) called Rittenhouse a “white supremacist domestic terrorist.” Senator Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) on Wednesday called the shooter a “deranged white nationalist Trump supporter.” None of these people had any basis whatsoever for any of this. Facebook “designated this shooting as a mass murder” and has been removing posts and users defending Rittenhouse’s (in America, presumed) innocence, including banning Rittenhouse’s lawyer. GoFundMe refused to allow funds to be raised for his defense.
The reality is that Rittenhouse was not just a random, roving vigilante looking for trouble. While he lived across the state line in Illinois, his job was in Kenosha and his father lived there. It was not unreasonable for him to see Kenosha as, in some sense, his own community. Before the shooting, Rittenhouse told Richie McGinniss of the Daily Caller, who captured the fatal confrontation in pictures: “So people are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business, and a part of my job is to also help people.” “If there’s somebody hurt,” Rittenhouse added, “I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle because I need to protect myself, obviously. But I also have my med kit.”
At the same time, Rittenhouse should not have been there. On the right, too many people are trying to turn Rittenhouse into some sort of folk hero. He seems to have felt he could play cop, fireman, and EMT all at once. In and of themselves, these are noble enough impulses.
If he had not done that, two men would not have died. And while he felt a connection to Kenosha, he didn’t need to be there. He was not defending his home, his family, his workplace, or his neighbors. He was out on the streets, “running into harm’s way,” and he found it.
The adults in Rittenhouse’s life should have told him in no uncertain terms to stay home. Do we put police on the streets without training them first? Do we expect them to stop riots alone without even a partner? Even the Revolutionary War–era militia drilled together and mixed men in with the boys.
The same thing happened to Andrew Jackson and his brother as teenagers, and Jackson’s brother died in prison.
Finally, yes, a significant share belongs with the victims, too. It was Rosenbaum who initiated the violence, having first dared another man to shoot him. Huber tried to bash Rittenhouse’s head in with a skateboard. Grosskreutz admitted on the stand that Rittenhouse shot him only after he had pointed his gun at Rittenhouse.
In the case of any of these three men, consider: Rittenhouse was carrying an AR-15. All guns are deadly, but we’re not talking about a guy who whips out a concealed .22 here.
Rittenhouse may be a baby-faced teenager, but anybody with the least bit of sense should have realized that he was taking his life in his hands by attacking Rittenhouse or — in the case of Grosskreutz — pointing a gun at him after seeing him shoot two people dead.
There are no heroes in this story, only a mixture of villains, fools, liars, and blunderers.