Normalizing vigilantism? The American right’s reaction to the Rittenhouse verdict

“This might be interpreted across the far right as a type of permission slip to do this kind of thing or to seek out altercations in this way.”

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For more than a decade now there’s been a growing criminalization of protest throughout the representative democracies of the English speaking world. This trend has been most pronounced in the United States, where police in urban areas riding in armored vehicles during demonstrations or civil unrest often look and act more like soldiers than the beat cops of an earlier era. At the same time, numerous state laws have been passed targeting activism and demonstrations; laws that often seem to be exclusively applied to movements for social justice and the left.

With the reaction on the right to Kyle Rittenhouse being found not guilty on five separate felony counts at his trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week, it’s quickly becoming clear that armed vigilantism in reaction to protests is also becoming normalized by so-called patriots, with the 18 year old portrayed as a hero for his actions on August 25th of last year. Arguably worse, the verdict is likely to encourage more armed people to show up in opposition to protests in American states with permissive gun laws.

“Oftentimes guns can kind of play a role with just increasing tensions. They’re used as intimidation and kind of makes a tense environment even more tense,” Roudabeh Kishi of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which studied 30,000 protests between January, 2020 and June 2021, explained to USA Today, “And so sometimes we’ll see other types of violence breakout, not necessarily always a shooting, So it’s like an indirect way arms can actually contribute to violence and destruction.”

The Rittenhouse case has been widely discussed in the press, with the attitude of the judge, who seemed intent on basking in the media spotlight and insisted that those killed and wounded by the 18 year old could notbe called ‘victims’ but could be referred to by defense attorneys as ‘rioters’, ‘arsonists’ and ‘looters’, receiving a good deal of coverage in both the corporate and alternative press. 

The prosecutors, who failed to convince the jury at the trial that the claim of self defense was contradicted by the fact Rittenhouse made the choice to insert himself into a volatile situation and was accused by several protesters of pointing his rifle at them before the shootings, made a number of mistakes that helped the defense.

Regardless, as Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s, Digital Forensic Research Lab related the possible consequences of the verdict to NPR, “This might be interpreted across the far right as a type of permission slip to do this kind of thing or to seek out altercations in this way, believing that there is a potential that they won’t face serious consequences for it, I worry that that might end up being interpreted by some people as a proof of concept of this idea that you can actually go out and seek a ‘self-defense situation,’ and you’ll be cheered as a hero for it.” 

Offering some proof for Holt’s take, a new verb has already been created on far right social media platforms like Gab, ‘Rittenhoused’, which is said to apply when so-called patriots shoot left wing protesters, who are deemed unworthy by the pro-vigilante right of the legal protections against violence provided for all American citizens under law. 

As is often the case with the right, many commentators passed along vapid, uncreative ‘memes’ to celebrate the not guilty verdicts. As reported in the article cited above, anti-immigrant firebrand and all around ghoul Ann Coulter circulated a typical example of this phenomenon, posting an image of an armed Rittenhouse with a number of comic book heroes bowing to him. Whoever created it didn’t even bother to remove the nurses in the background, who the original meme, created early on in the pandemic last year, celebrated.

Not to be outdone by rightwing media pundits, members of the U.S. Congress jockeyed to embrace Rittenhouse as a hero, with three members, Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.), Paul Gosar (R-Az) and Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) offering the 18 year internships in their offices in Washington, D.C.

Cawthorne may win the prize for the most empty headed response to news of the not guilty verdicts, recording a Twitter video saying, “Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty, my friends. You have a right to defend yourself. Be armed, be dangerous, and be moral.” 

It is amazing that a representative in the U.S. Congress would tell his supporters to be “dangerous” but this is the direction the American right and its imitators abroad are going in, with few seeming to think about the possible consequences of such rhetoric.

Perhaps the most unhinged reaction I saw to the verdict came from former Real World: San Francisco star and current Fox News host, Rachel Campos-Duffy, who told her viewers, “There’s another thing about this as well, when communists, when anarchists, and when, you know, racial agitators come to your town, they loot, they burn your businesses, umm… they ruin your dreams are you supposed to, because there’s a racial angle, supposedly, in this case because of Jacob Blake; are you supposed to hide in your house? I personally think that I, my husband, we would defend our town. I think a lot of people in Kenosha did, Kyle Rittenhouse was not the only person carrying a weapon there were people with bats and rifles and guns, some people sleeping with them, other people with them outside of their businesses because there weren’t enough police officers to keep that town safe and that’s what happens when government fails.”

While there were some incidents of property damage in Kenosha and elsewhere during the Black Lives Matter uprisings in the summer of 2020, the hysteria on the right about cities being ‘burned to the ground’ simply doesn’t square with the fact that in most places the protests were limited to a few city blocks and 93% of them were entirely non-violent and couldn’t be described as riots.  In fact, as reported by Paul Street, those killed during these mostly spontaneous BLM demonstrations during the summer of 2020 were overwhelmingly protesters who died at the hands of police and vigilantes like Rittenhouse, most of whom were not charged. 

Even prior to Rittenhouse’s actions during the Kenosha uprising last summer, lawmakers in at least 6 states had introduced laws making it legal for drivers to run down protesters, seemingly for the crime of inconveniencing them, with Florida and Oklahoma passing similar laws this year. 

It’s important to remember that in the states that have passed these laws the murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist in Charlottesville in 2017 using his car would have been legal.

There were at least two cases of people murdered with cars during the BLM protests last summer, One was in Bakersfield, California where Robert Forbes, 55, was run down on June 3rd while kneeling on the sidewalk in that city by a car that was said to accelerate towards him with its lights out. 

Another victim of this kind of vigilante attack was 24 year old Summer Taylor who was killed by a car while protesting with others on U.S Interstate Highway I-5 in Seattle, a month and a day after Forbes.  An unamed friend of Taylor and Diaz Love, who was also injured in the attack told the New York Times shortly after, “They were always the first ones to call people out for being sexist, racist — standing up for queer and trans people, basically anyone who needed to be stood up for, they were the ones there that were so vocal,”

As these cases and the broad reaction of the American right to the Rittenhouse verdict show, the idea that incitement, one of the few aspects of speech not protected under the country’s First Amendment, is now acceptable to large numbers of people with few compunctions about violence could have a chilling impact on protest in the future

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