Photo Credit: Mike Von / Unsplash
After fatally shooting two men and wounding a third during anti-racism protests last year, Kyle Rittenhouse (18) has been acquitted on all homicide charges but his divisive trial has regenerated tensions in the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the killings took place.
The 12-person jury deliberated for more than 25 hours over the course of four days and on Friday, November 19, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on charges on the grounds of legal self-defense. Before the verdict was even released to the public, the courthouse steps were swarmed with supporters of the opposing sides thus embodying the polarising divide amongst Americans surrounding the case.
The acquittal has been widely condemned as a travesty that could dangerously encourage others to take similar vigilante-style approaches to anti-racism and political activism. President Biden responded to the outcome, saying that he “stands by” the Rittenhouse decision: “I stand by what the jury has concluded. The jury system works.”
Since then, more protests have erupted around the country criticising the decision. In New York about 300 people marched from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan on Friday. Across the country, officials in Oregon have declared a riot after protests in Portland turned violent towards the local police force. Protests in Chicago featured a 90-minute march through the city’s streets. Over 100 demonstrators in Oakland, California marched and rallied on Friday night as well.
Following the demonstrations at the courthouse, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers had kept 500 National Guard service members on standby but aside from the shouting and heated debate, reactions in Kenosha remained largely peaceful in stark contrast with the scenes of August 2020.
Despite the fact that the jury’s deliberations surrounded self-defense under Wisconsin law, the trial has larger implications for the US criminal justice system as a whole. The verdict has been deemed by most as the latest example of a legal system biased toward white defendants and uncaring to Black deaths. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemned the decision as an indictment of America’s justice system: “What we are witnessing is a system functioning as designed and protecting those it was designed for,” she tweeted.
What we are witnessing is a system functioning as designed and protecting those it was designed for.
My heart still breaks for the communities and families whose grief now compounds, and the countless others who will be denied and deprived in similar scenes across the country.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 19, 2021
The trial has also revived scrutiny into Second Amendment rights and American gun violence. This debate was fired up again after Gun Owners of America – a gun rights organisation – announced on Twitter they would be awarding Kyle Rittenhouse with an AR-15 for his defense of gun rights in America. This announcement was supported by Donald Trump via Twitter but condemned by Rittenhouse’s attorney, Mark Richards. Richards also spoke out after at least three members of Congress suggested offering Rittenhouse an internship, stating “They want to trade on his celebrity and I think it’s disgusting.”
Though the events continue to unfold, the trial has reinforced political divisions across the US. As those on the political Right celebrate Rittenhouse’s acquittal, prominent civil rights groups, racial justice activists, and gun reform advocates blame the polarised political atmosphere that prompted a teen enter a riotous scene with a dangerous weapon in the first place.