White supremacy on trial: From Rittenhouse in Kenosha to killers of Ahmaud Arbery, will they go free?

“What does justice even mean in a system that was established to strip Black people of their humanity and for the greater part of its history has never really held white people accountable for murdering Black people?”

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

Kyle Rittenhouse took to the stand on Wednesday before his defense team asked for a mistrial with prejudice in the case. If a mistrial is granted, Rittenhouse cannot be tried again, though the judge did not immediately rule on the request and said jury deliberations could begin on Monday. Now 18 years old, Rittenhouse was 17 when he fatally shot two men and injured one with a semiautomatic rifle during racial justice protests last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse is pleading not guilty to six charges, including homicide. While questioned, Rittenhouse broke down in tears, admitting to using deadly force but denying intent to kill his victims, and Judge Bruce Schroeder seemed to side with the defense at a handful of different points during Rittenhouse’s testimony. Meanwhile, the judge’s cellphone went off while the court was in session and played a ringtone for the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood, the opening song played at Donald Trump’s rallies. For more on the Rittenhouse trial, as well as the murder trial for the three men who killed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, we speak with Elie Mystal, justice correspondent for The Nation, and antiracist activist Bree Newsome Bass. Mystal says Judge Schroeder “has pre-judged the trial in favor of Rittenhouse,” and “that was obvious before the trial.” Newsome Bass says, irrespective of the trials’ outcomes, “the legal system itself is an affront to the notion of justice.” She adds, “What does justice even mean in a system that was established to strip Black people of their humanity and for the greater part of its history has never really held white people accountable for murdering Black people?”


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Kyle Rittenhouse’s defense team continued to make its case in court Wednesday, calling Rittenhouse himself to testify. Now 18 years old, Rittenhouse was 17 when he went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, during last summer’s racial justice protests with his AR-15-style rifle. He faces homicide and weapons charges for fatally shooting two people and wounding a third during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020. He has pleaded not guilty.

At one point, Kyle Rittenhouse broke down in tears while on the stand. He admitted to using deadly force but claimed self-defense and denied intending to kill his victims during cross-examination from prosecutor Thomas Binger.

THOMAS BINGER: I don’t understand. You said you were going to bring the gun to protect yourself. So you thought you were going to be in danger, right?

KYLE RITTENHOUSE: I didn’t think I would be put into a situation where I would have to defend myself.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, trial Judge Bruce Schroeder continued to make headlines after he repeatedly sided with the defense, while excoriating prosecutors. At one point, while the prosecutor questioned Rittenhouse, Judge Schroeder chastised Binger for asking about testimony he said was out of bounds.

MARK RICHARDS: Your Honor, Mr. Binger is either forgetting court’s rulings or attempting to provoke a mistrial in this matter. He knows he can’t go into this, and he’s asking the questions. I ask the court to strongly admonish him. And the next time it happens, I’ll be asking for a mistrial with prejudice. He’s an experienced attorney, and he knows better.


THOMAS BINGER: Personally, Your Honor, this was the subject of a motion. I’m well aware of that. And the court left the door open. This —

JUDGE BRUCE SCHROEDER: For me! Not for you!

AMY GOODMAN: When the prosecution tried to show video evidence of Rittenhouse fatally shooting his first victim, the judge appeared to support the defense’s attempt to stop him using him a pinch and zoom function, claiming it could insert additional pixels.

JUDGE BRUCE SCHROEDER: This is high risk. And, to me, if — to me, if you insert more data into an area of space — well, you’re, what, wagging your head no.

THOMAS BINGER: There’s no proof in —

JUDGE BRUCE SCHROEDER: Tell me where I’m wrong.

THOMAS BINGER: There’s no proof in this record that we’re doing that, Your Honor.

JUDGE BRUCE SCHROEDER: I didn’t say there was proof of it. I said you have the burden of proof. You’re the proponent of the exhibit, and you need to tell me that it’s reliable.

THOMAS BINGER: The exhibit is already in evidence, Your Honor.


AMY GOODMAN: The judge would not allow the pinch and zoom function of the iPad unless an expert testified that pixels weren’t being added. Meanwhile, the judge’s cellphone went off while the court was in session and played a ringtone for the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood, which is the opening song played at Donald Trump’s rallies.

COREY CHIRAFISI: And if the court makes a finding that the actions that I had talked about — [phone ringing] — were done in bad faith.

AMY GOODMAN: Rittenhouse’s defense team has now asked for a mistrial with prejudice in the case, and if one is granted, Rittenhouse cannot be retried. But the judge did not immediately rule on the request and said jury deliberations could begin on Monday.

One other key point that came up this week during the trial, a pathologist testified that Kyle Rittenhouse’s victim Joseph Rosenbaum was shot four times by someone who was within four feet of him. He also testified Rosenbaum was first wounded in the groin and then in the hand and thigh as he faced Rittenhouse, and then was shot in the head and in the back.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Bree Newsome Bass is with us. She’s an artist and antiracist activist. In 2015, after the massacre of eight African American parishioners and their pastor by the white supremacist at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina state Capitol and removed the Confederate flag. Yesterday she was tweeting the trial nonstop. And with us in New York, Elie Mystal is with The Nation. He’s its justice correspondent, author of the magazine’s monthly column “Objection!” He wrote about this case in a piece headlined “I Hope Everyone Is Prepared for Kyle Rittenhouse to Go Free.”

You wrote that before the trial, Elie. Talk about why you think this is going to be the case.

ELIE MYSTAL: Yeah, Amy, I don’t have a crystal ball, all right? What I know is the law, and what I know is what white people are willing to do to defend white supremacy. If you look at this judge, if you look at his pretrial motions, if you look at his pretrial decisions in this case — remember, Rittenhouse has been in and around the jail since he shot those people in Wisconsin last summer. So, if you look at all the decisions that Bruce Schroeder has made, they have been heavily balanced and weighted towards Rittenhouse, towards his defense. I see very few neutral decisions in his history. What we have is a judge who, from my perspective, has pre-judged the trial in favor of Rittenhouse and has decided — again, even at the pretrial stage — to use every bit of his power to put his thumb on the scale towards Rittenhouse’s side. And that was obvious before the trial started.

I think now that the trial is going on, it’s a little even more obvious to people how hostile he is to the prosecution, how much he’s taking Rittenhouse’s side and how he is slanting the whole case. He’s basically not allowing the prosecution to put on its case against Rittenhouse. It’s almost like he wants the prosecution to put on a different case against Rittenhouse, and already has determined the man is — that the boy is not guilty. So, that’s why I said — that’s why I was able to say two weeks ago the boy was going to walk. And nothing that’s happened in the trial so far has changed my opinion on that.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of not being able to refer to the men who were killed and the other one who was repeatedly shot as “victims,” though they could be referred to as “looters” or “arsonists,” if the defense proved that?

ELIE MYSTAL: Yeah, so, here’s the thing, Amy. Any one of his decisions, you could defend, right? Any one of his decisions, if you take it in isolation, makes sense. But this is actually one of the things that racists do, right? It’s one of the fights that we always have trying to explain what racism is to people, because if you look at individual decisions, individual decisions, you can say, like, “Oh, well, that wasn’t racially biased,” or “That decision wasn’t racially biased,” but when you put them in — when you look at them all together, when you look at the totality of his decisions — right?

So, it’s not just saying that these people can’t be called victims. Look, legally speaking, they were victims of homicide. That’s just a fact. But fine, you want to say they can’t be called victims because of the nature of the self-defense? All right, you can kind of defend that decision. But then he says they can be called looters, rioters and arsonists, which is ridiculous. The surviving victim hasn’t been charged with looting, rioting or arson. So, calling him a victim is just factually inaccurate — so, calling him a rioter is just factually inaccurate. So, you see what I’m saying?

When you put the one and one together, you end up with two. When you put one plus one plus one plus one plus one together, you end up with five. And that’s what Schroeder is. He has made a series of decisions. Each one perhaps may be individually defensible, but, in totality, lead to the impression of a biased, racist judge, with his Trump rally cellphone, that is trying to get Rittenhouse a walk.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Bree Newsome Bass into this conversation. Bree, you were tweeting up a storm yesterday. On Wednesday, you tweeted, “Nothing says ‘safety & security’ in the USA like a teenage white boy roaming around with an assault rifle. Can’t imagine why folks in the street might react to that.” Talk about this broader context of why Rittenhouse was in Kenosha, where he doesn’t live — he lives in another state, in Illinois — and carrying this AR-15 at the age of 17.

BREE NEWSOME BASS: Yeah, well, this kind of goes back to Elie’s point — right? — of who gets to assert victimhood, who gets to assert self-defense. So, we know that, I mean, even apart from the long history of collaboration between police forces, white supremacist organizations and white militias, we have a very recent history of this, as well. We’ve had situations where police kill someone, there is protesting, and then, in addition to the police presence in the street, which is a problem, we have white militia groups showing up, white supremacist organizations showing up. We saw that in Ferguson, we saw that in Minneapolis, and we saw that in Kenosha. And I think one of the things that is being kind of glossed over here is the fact that that is exactly the element that Kyle Rittenhouse belongs to. I know that it can’t be introduced as evidence in the court, but we all know that he was at a bar during this time that he was on release from jail, with Proud Boys buying him drinks as an underaged person, right? So, that is the larger reality.

The other thing that I think is important is that the history of judges who are sympathetic to white supremacists has a very long history, as well. One of the moments that really struck me yesterday was when the prosecutor was questioning Rittenhouse on his knowledge of ammunition and brought up the issue of hollow-point bullets, and the judge actually interrupted and testified. I mean, he — you know, Elie can maybe correct it for me if I’m incorrect — I’m not a legal expert — but it certainly seemed to me like the judge was testifying in Rittenhouse’s place and tried to make it seem like the prosecutor was incorrect in the way that he was discussing ammunition. The judge seemed to be trying to downplay the extra lethality of hollow-point bullets. So, that is the larger context.

And I also think that we can’t separate — even though the jury has to do so, we, as the public, we, as the larger society, cannot separate what is happening in Wisconsin from what is happening in Georgia with the Ahmaud Arbery case, what is happening in Charlottesville, where residents of Virginia are suing the Nazis and white supremacists who descended on their city in 2017, and doing so through a civil court because they feel like the larger legal system has not really done enough to address what happened there, as well. This is also happening as people storm school board meetings trying to strip Black texts and Black history from the school curriculum. This is happening as there’s the attack on voting rights. All of this is a context that is informing what’s happening in that courtroom.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Waldman writes in The Washington Post in an op-ed, “Conservatives quickly raised much of the $2 million for Rittenhouse’s bail. After he was released, Rittenhouse went to a bar wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Free as F—-,’ where he posed for pictures flashing a white power sign and was ‘serenaded’ with the anthem of the Proud Boys, the violent radical right-wing group.” Bree, this isn’t being raised in the trial.

BREE NEWSOME BASS: Exactly. And, I mean, again, I think — I’m not a legal expert, I will acknowledge that, but I completely agree, from my observation, that the judge is entirely biased. I don’t see how that is not relevant, because if the issue is his state of mind at the time that he is shooting at these people, then I feel like all of these things point to his state of mind. I think that if the jury is aware of that, that’s certainly going to place him, you know, breaking down on the stand — I don’t know if there were actually tears, but I think that places that in a separate context, because I think, you know, wearing a T-shirt like that, drinking at a bar with white supremacists doesn’t really reflect somebody who is remorseful or maybe even feeling trauma from these events. I think all of that is relevant.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about not only the Rittenhouse trial but the trial of the three white men who are accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery — father and son. The father in the case was a former police officer and investigator, this happening in Georgia. Elie Mystal, if you can talk about both trials?

ELIE MYSTAL: Yeah. So, that trial is going a little bit better, in part because the judge isn’t so clearly biased towards the white murderers in that case. Now, I don’t think the judge has done everything he could to advance the cause of justice in that case.

In the Arbery situation, there is a jury that is — you know, a jury, so 12 active members, four alternates. That’s 16 people. Only one of those jurors is Black. Now, that’s weird because in Brunswick, Georgia, where the trial is taking place, that county is 26% Black. The defense attorneys, while excluding — using their peremptory challenges to exclude Black jurors and exclude Black jurors, said that that jury — that what he needed to defend his clients, the people who lynched Ahmaud Arbery, was that his jury needed more bubbas. Bubbas. And he defined “bubbas” as white men over 40 with no college education.

The judge said that he saw evidence of intentional racial discrimination in the jury selection, but denied the plaintiff’s motion to — the prosecution’s motion to reseat the jury, which was in his power to do, because he said that he was bound to accept the disingenuous answers offered by the defense. He was not bound to do that. He could have — that’s why we had the challenge. He could have, in his discretion, resat the jury. But no, no, no, the judge decided that the 15-to-1 jury in a 26% Black county, that that was OK, and let the trial go forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final take, Bree Newsome Bass, on the Ahmaud Arbery case? You have the father in the case admitting that he saw Ahmaud Arbery, he did not see him commit a crime, and that he was like a, I think he called it, a trapped rat.

BREE NEWSOME BASS: Again, I think that the overall question here is: Who is entitled to justice? What does justice even mean in a system that was established to strip Black people of their humanity and for the greater part of its history has never really held white people accountable for murdering Black people? Who is entitled to self-defense? I mean, again, was Ahmaud entitled to self-defense? Was he entitled to freedom of movement?

And the fact that we have cases of people being killed on camera or in broad daylight and we’re not sure if justice can be carried out because the race of the defendant, because of the dynamics in the legal system, speaks to the larger issue that I think a lot of times people don’t want to touch on, because whether the outcome — whether both people are convicted in these cases, Rittenhouse or the McMichaels and Bryan in Georgia, we have not addressed this larger issue of justice. And I think that’s the point that myself, that the larger abolitionist movement is constantly raising, that the legal system itself is the affront to the notion of justice, from the policing to the judge to the jury process to the way that the prison system is carried out.

AMY GOODMAN: And also, Elie Mystal, in the Ahmaud Arbery case — and, we have to say, in both cases, you only have one person of color, in both the Georgia case, the Ahmaud Arbery case — he is not on trial, he is the one who was murdered — and in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, one person of color on the jury, and the revelation in Georgia that while the father and son said they were making a so-called citizen’s arrest, the police at the scene at the time said they never mentioned anything like that.

ELIE MYSTAL: Yeah. Look, well, first, partially because citizen’s arrests aren’t a thing. Like, that’s somebody who’s watched too many movies. There’s no such — that’s a kidnapping, is what that was called. And so, yeah, when the police actually showed up, they didn’t say, like, “Well, we were trying to kidnap the boy, and he ran.” Like, because that would — right? But the police let them go, let’s not forget, in both of these cases. In both of these cases, the murderers stood over the dead bodies, and the police were like, “Yeah, go home. Good job.”

As Bree is saying, the rot goes deep. It’s not just these two murderers. It’s not just these two lynchers. It’s not just these two judges. It’s not just these few defense attorneys. It is the entire system that is rotted to its core. And when you try to get people to lock in on that, when you try to get people to dial in and think about real systemic changes to this system to bring justice to more people in the country, they say, “Oh my god! But Toni Morrison’s Beloved is, like, in the school. Like, oh my god, I don’t want to vote for that.” That’s where we’re at.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think will happen if there are not guilty verdicts?

ELIE MYSTAL: People will be angry for a while, and Black people will protest, and white people will tell us we’re protesting the wrong way and hurting our own cause. Sorry, I mean, like that, it’s frustrating. What will happen is that there will be protests. There will be anger. We will be told that we’re doing it wrong. Nobody will come — no laws will change. Nothing will change. Nothing will happen. And then, later down the line, somebody — after Democrats get curb-stomped in a midterm election, someone will say, like, “Well, it was just those Black Lives Matter protests. That’s really what got us.” And the cycle will continue.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, let’s remember that in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, he was there and killed the anti-police brutality protesters who were protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. In this final response, Elie, if you can talk about what has happened to the police officer who shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times?

ELIE MYSTAL: Absolutely nothing has happened to the police officer. He wasn’t disciplined by his department. He wasn’t charged by the state of Wisconsin. So, the same prosecutors that are — I don’t want to say “fumbling,” but the same prosecutors that are having a little bit of difficulty convicting Kyle Rittenhouse didn’t even try to convict the police officer.

Then, it was — then, the case was reviewed by the Department of Justice, under Merrick Garland — not Bill Barr, not Jeff Sessions, not John Ashcroft; Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s pick to be attorney general — and Merrick Garland decided that no charges should be pressed, there was nothing — no civil rights charges should be pressed against the officer who shot Jacob Blake in the back. So, that man just got away with it. That man is just free — he’s back on the force, with his gun, just free to shoot other people in the back that he finds.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jacob Blake is paralyzed. Elie Mystal, I want to thank you for being with us, writes for The Nation. We’ll link to your piece — your pieces. We’ll link to the one, “I Hope Everyone Is Prepared for Kyle Rittenhouse to Go Free.” And Bree Newsome Bass, artist and antiracist activist.

Coming up, we go to the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow to speak with British journalist George Monbiot and British climate scientist Kevin Anderson. Stay with us.


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