By Andy Yorke
The 19 November acquittal of right wing vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin has led to an outburst of controversy, not only between white supremacists and anti-racists but also within the antiracist camp.
Videos show Rittenhouse shooting dead two protesters and wounding at least one other, during a 25 August 2020 protest against the police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, leaving him paralysed. After the acquittal was announced, Colin Kaepernik, who initiated ‘taking the knee’ in 2016, tweeted: ‘We just witnessed a system built on white supremacy validate the terroristic acts of a white supremacist.’
What is surprising is that some on the left have responded to the verdict by arguing Rittenhouse was not a racist (his victims were white) or a fascist but was simply defending himself. But if we put the case in the wider context of racism in the US, it is clear that the killings and the acquittal are part and parcel of a racist, right wing judicial system.
Rittenhouse and reality
The Black Lives Matter movement has been protesting police killings since 2012 and police often attack them with batons, tasers and teargas. On the streets protesters often face armed counter-mobilisations, intimidation and violence from the right populist Trump movement, particularly the white supremacist, heavily armed vigilante groups and fascistic ‘militias’ that operate openly and freely within it.
The latter are backed by the entire apparatus of the capitalist state, along with Fox News, Breitbart and evangelical churches. Various armed federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, reinforce powerful, militarised local and state police forces. Then there is the Republican Party, particularly where it controls the governor’s office and state legislature, as well as many right wing Democrats.
In this context, seventeen-year-old Rittenhouse was just another vigilante who took an AR-15 rifle and stood guard in front of a petrol station alongside members of the Kenosha Guard, a far right militia; whether he had connections with them before or not, he certainly took their side that day. Police officers gave them water and thanked them for coming.
The cops attacked protesters with teargas and rubber bullets, provoking an angry response with some trashing buildings or setting them on fire. Joseph Rosenbaum, a completely unarmed man, saw Rittenhouse and ‘attacked’ him, possibly trying to disarm him. Rittenhouse shot him in the head, despite admitting he knew Rosenbaum was unarmed.
Others seeing the killing identified Rittenhouse as a far right ‘active shooter’ and tried to disarm him. Anthony Huber was shot dead after hitting Rittenhouse with his skateboard – hardly a lethal weapon. Gaige Grosskreutz, a paramedic and legal observer for the protest, was carrying a handgun. Grosskreutz approached Rittenhouse with his gun held up in the air to show that he wasn’t pointing it at him. But as Rittenhouse reloaded, Grosskreutz’s gun came down as he tried to push the rifle aside. Afterwards, he said he couldn’t bring himself to shoot Rittenhouse. Instead Rittenhouse blew off part of his arm.
Bystanders then pointed out Rittenhouse, still in possession of his AR-15 but with his hands up in surrender, to the police. But officers drove by without arresting him. Rittenhouse handed himself in the next day.
The trial, presided over by a known right wing judge, showed that the same racist bias continues straight into heart of the American ‘justice’ system. The judge barred prosecutors from calling the three shot men ‘victims’ or from mentioning anything from Rittenhouse’s social media posts before the killings. This would have shown that he was fervently pro-Trump and pro-police, an online activist who’d organised a fundraiser for police and promoted ‘blue lives matter’, the police pushback against Black Lives Matter. Neither were they allowed to submit a video where he said of Black people outside a drugstore that he assumes were shoplifters, ‘Bro, I wish I had my fucking AR. I’d start shooting rounds at them.’
His defence team on the other hand was freely allowed to label the protesters – and by extension Rittenhouse’s victims – as looters and rioters, though there is no evidence that Huber or Grosskreutz at least were doing anything of the sort. It is contested whether Rosenbaum had been trashing things, but Rittenhouse certainly did not see him do so.
The fact that Rittenhouse got off was partly related to the judge’s bias, partly to the all-bar-one white jury and partly to his $2million defence team fundraised by the far right and individual police officers. He showed no remorse for his victims in the trial. Out on bail during the trial, he was photographed in a pub with members of the fascist Proud Boys, giving the white-supremacist OK sign – again, the judge barred mention of this in court.
Trump called Rittenhouse a ‘hero’ and Fox newscaster Tucker Carlson defended his actions, saying: ‘How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?’
‘Facts’ always have a social meaning, as reversing these roles would show. Tragically we have proof of this. On the 28 August 2020 in Portland, Oregon – three days after the much-publicised Kenosha killings – antifascist activist Michael Reinoehl shot and killed far right counter-demonstrator Aaron Danielson.
Danielson at the time was armed with vicious anti-bear pepper-spray, an extendable police baton and a gun. After taking part in a provocative pro-Trump convoy during the day and drinking, Danielson had deliberately walked into an anti-police demo with another tooled-up friend, both members of the far right Patriot Prayer group.
Reinoehl had just as much ‘right’ to defend himself as Rittenhouse. He stated that he was trying to provide security against far right shooters. After Kenosha it would have been completely reasonable to believe Danielson was there to attack protesters.
The police manhunt for Reinoehl ended with federal marshalls gunning him down a few days later without any attempt to arrest him. According to witnesses he had not pulled, let alone fired his weapon. Trump, who had previously called Reinoehl a ‘cold-blooded killer’, gloated: ‘This guy was a violent criminal, and the US Marshals killed him. And I’ll tell you something – that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.’
Trump has repeatedly hammered away at the trope of ‘far left fascism’ and antifa violence, while refusing to condemn the real organised violence of the right and the police. Indeed his comments were designed to incite it.
But Danielson’s death was the first recorded killing by an antifascist, compared to 329 killed by white supremacists and other right wing extremists over the past 25 years. In 2020 the right was responsible for 67 per cent of domestic terror attacks and plots, with half of that violence targeting protesters.
Trump, Fox News and the right turn that reality on its head, whipping up an ideological bubble of ‘racial threat’ and ‘left wing conspiracy’, to excuse the murders of anti-racist protests by the police and militias. Ultimately they are partly responsible for the deaths.
Self-defence – no offence
The lesson we have to learn is that the far right can police, intimidate and repress our demos with impunity, while the system will defend them if we fight back. Both outcomes analysed above will embolden the racist right who will see them as a licence to step up their armed ‘security’ on our protests.
The only answer is organised self-defence. The Black Lives Matter movement has to defend its protests and its communities from both far right and police violence. This requires organised and disciplined self-defence groups, armed to the degree required by the situation and answerable to councils of delegates elected from neighbourhood committees. Only such a movement, rooted in working class neighbourhoods but coordinated nationally, will be able to sustain the mass struggle for equality and justice.
We need to win support for this from all the communities of people of colour, from union branches and workplaces, from colleges and schools, as well as from left and anti-racist organisations. Necessarily such a movement would help reorganise the working class and build the forces needed to abolish capitalism itself, the only way to rid the world of racism and police.