Kyle Rittenhouse is an AmericanRoundup
tags: guns, racism, violence, vigilantism, Kyle Rittenhouse
Patrick Blanchfield is a freelance writer and Associate Faculty Member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. His book, Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence is forthcoming from Verso.
In 1816, Andrew Jackson, then a general in the Army, took it upon himself to unilaterally invade Spanish Florida. His target was a fortified community of Choctaws, escaped slaves, and Black former British Royal Marines. Dubbed the “Negro Fort,” this community drew runaways from as far away as Virginia, infuriating Southern planters and inspiring fears of broader slave revolts. Jackson’s force of soldiers, Creek allies, and opportunistic settler militia accordingly leveled the place and sold the surviving Black people — regardless of their prior national citizenship or legal status — into slavery. When press and congressional critics of President James Madison questioned U.S. operations in Spanish territory, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams cited a letter from a Georgia plantation owner decrying “brigand negroes — a set of desperate and bloody dogs” who make “this neighborhood extremely dangerous to a population like ours” and proclaimed Jackson’s campaign an act of “national self-defense.”
Two centuries and change later, Americans watch the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old from Illinois who last year took it upon himself to cross a border and patrol the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during the unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. Responding to a 911 call about a “domestic incident,” a white police officer shot Blake seven times in the back. As the community erupted and Gov. Tony Evers declared a State of Emergency, the Kenosha Police Department dug in. For his part, Rittenhouse, an avowed supporter of Blue Lives Matter and a would-be police cadet, self-deployed in his capacity as a private citizen armed with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15.
Walking with other militia through the streets of Kenosha on the night of Aug. 25, Rittenhouse & co. received a warm welcome from police, who tossed them water bottles and told the group, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” At some point, Rittenhouse and one protester, Joseph Rosenbaum, had a heated confrontation that culminated in Rosenbaum chasing and throwing a plastic bag at him; Rittenhouse shot and killed him in a used car lot. A crowd chased Rittenhouse as he fled the scene; he shot again, killing a second protester, Anthony Huber, and wounding another. His lawyers insist he acted in “self-defense” after the first protester reached for his gun.
Contemplating events like these during a trial, the aperture inevitably tightens to microseconds. Who was where when, who moved how, and who “reasonably” thought who was going to do what? The jury of Rittenhouse’s peers — 11 white people and one person of color — will presumably bring these and other questions to bear as they scrutinize that night’s events. Meanwhile, observers are free to speculate and judge in light of their own hypotheticals, projections, fantasies, and fears. What choice could Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, have had in those frenetic instants? What would you have done? But the impulse to debate these questions, like the impulse to litigate the idiosyncrasies of Wisconsin’s self-defense laws, or the impulse to reconstruct that night’s chaos as though watching a 21st century Rashomon, is a trap.
Instead of indulging those impulses, we must widen the aperture. We must interrogate what made Rittenhouse’s decision to insert himself and his gun into the situation imaginable in the first place. And not just imaginable narrowly as a choice for him, but as a story that’s legible for the rest of us, one way or another. Rather than fixating on the case’s narrow specifics or elevating its outcome into a singularly decisive referendum, we need to ask what makes the entire nightmarish story feel so uncannily familiar, even inevitable.