August 23, 2020, not even three months after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis that had sparked the largest protest in modern U.S. history in support of Black lives and against white supremacy, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey.
The Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association boycotted a playoff game in the afternoon and protests began in Kenosha that night. Two days later, 17-year-old white supremacist and wannabe-cop Kyle Rittenhouse showed up from the neighboring state of Illinois with an automatic weapon and shot three protesters, killing two.
He was charged with two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide, two counts of reckless endangerment, one count of unlawful possession of a firearm, and one count of curfew violation. The last two charges were dismissed by Judge Bruce Schroeder during the trial and a unanimous jury found him not guilty on all of the remaining charges.
Tempest Collective members from our People of Color caucus Doreen Opinya, Haley Pessin, and Brian Young, Jr. share their thoughts on what the verdict means for the movement for Black liberation and why it matters for all of us that we do not back down from this fight.
On Friday, November 19, the news dropped that far-right terrorist Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty for the murders of Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, WI. His victims—Joseph Rosenbaum (36) and Anthony Huber (27)—had been protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was seriously wounded by those other domestic terrorists, the police, who ultimately faced no charges for his injuries.
Some of us, mostly Black folks, were not surprised by the outcome of this case, having already faced much of the violence created by the injustice systems. This case reaffirms the precedent set throughout American history from the beginning—that white racist vigilantes are granted a license to kill anyone who challenges injustice, racism, and policing. Because if you are white, you will be acquitted of these crimes.
The day before Rittenhouse’s acquittal a Black man in Oklahoma named Julius Jones was set to be executed based on a wrongful conviction. This week, there was a widespread online movement demanding that Governor Stitt grant clemency to Jones before his execution date, which was set for Thursday, November 18. A documentary explored his case more acutely, while presenting compelling evidence of his innocence. It was/is a nationwide call for his freedom by organizers, athletes, and celebrities. Even the Oklahoma Board of Pardon and Parole twice recommended that Jones be granted clemency. On Thursday, Stitt halted Jones’ execution and commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Compare this to Rittenhouse, who, in the same week was on trial for murder, and was still portrayed as the victim. Through his crocodile tears, Rittenhouse admitted no fault or remorse for his actions. During the trial, Republicans were fighting over who would be the first to offer Rittenhouse a job as a congressional intern. Rittenhouse will be rewarded for his acts of white supremacist violence by the same system(s) that reinforce it. However outrageous, no one should be surprised by the verdict.
We knew that a guilty verdict for Rittenhouse would not have upended the white supremacy that’s baked into the criminal legal system and every institution of this racist country. And well prior to the verdict, there were ample signs that the outcome was set in Rittenhouse’s favor.
Nevertheless, the acquittal of an open white supremacist for murder puts a target on our backs, and sends the message that the system will provide Black people no more protection than it already has against state or vigilante violence, not even of the fascist variety. It is a green light for racial terror on a new scale. In the powerful words of Anthony Huber’s parents, Karen Bloom & John Huber:
“Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son. It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street. We hope that decent people will join us in forcefully rejecting that message and demanding more of our laws, our officials, and our justice system.”
Already, some mainstream analyses of the verdict have shifted to citing the alleged mistakes of the prosecution or the “difficulty” of winning against self-defense claims in court, suggesting the trial was fair and unbiased. When asked about the verdict, Biden intoned against those protesting the result, urging against “violence and destruction of property” and claiming that “the jury system works”. This is an exercise in willful ignorance of what is obvious to anyone: had Rittenhouse not been a white teenager, he would almost certainly be behind bars having traveled across state lines with an automatic weapon, shooting and killing two unarmed people and injuring a third—Gaige Grosskreutz—only to be allowed by police to walk away from the scene.
By contrast, neither Marissa Alexander, nor CeCe McDonald, nor any Black person whose mere presence prompted a police officer to “fear for their life” has been granted such a right to self-defense by the criminal legal system in the U.S., not even when faced with actual danger. Instead, the courts have repeatedly sanctioned violence against Black people, while refusing to vindicate their own acts of resistance and survival. Likewise, the effect of Rittenhouse’s acquittal—like that of George Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin before him—is to sanction far-right racist violence against Black people and all who defend them.
As Anthony’s parents rightly point out, “[our son] sacrificed his own life to protect other innocent civilians.” Huber (who was white) was killed while attempting to disarm Rittenhouse, carrying only a skateboard. One would be hard-pressed to find a greater act of solidarity than risking one’s life along with others fighting for their own liberation. It should not be forgotten that protesters in Kenosha—including Rittenhouse’s victims—came out night after night, despite the threat from police as well as far-right militias. The verdict in Rittenhouse’s trial makes it all the more likely that racist vigilantes will, once again, be emboldened to enact random violence against Black people and to target those protesting police brutality.
But we can’t afford to allow fear or anguish to paralyze us into inaction. It’s more urgent now than ever that we mobilize across the country to denounce white supremacy, to protect our comrades, and to defend the movement, which brought millions into the streets to demand that Black Lives Matter. We need to take the brilliant words of Mariame Kaba to heart: “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.”
Already, protests have been called in response to the Rittenhouse verdict. But the whole damn system is guilty. How can we organize and build countervailing structures that not only fight against white supremacy, but affirm our goal of living in an actually just, democratic system? There’s no simple answer or quick solution. But we do know that the protests and uprisings of last year are proof of our collective change in consciousness and ability to mobilize.
Find an organization, organize your communities, and prepare to defend our streets from far-right bigots who will be further emboldened by this verdict, but who we still vastly outnumber. Let us continue to fight like hell for ourselves, and each other, until the pillars of this unjust system come crashing down. The only way forward is abolition.
Doreen Opinya is a graduate student at North Carolina A&T State University.
Haley Pessin is a socialist activist based in New York. She is a member of the DSA Afrosocialist Caucus and of the Tempest Collective.
Brian Young Jr. is a Black, non-binary, Chicago-based writer and artist.
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