On Tuesday, prosecutors revealed that they had lost track of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident accused of killing two people at anti-racist protests in Wisconsin last August.
Rittenhouse, who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of homicide and a felony count of attempted homicide, was seen recently partying with Proud Boys and flashing White power hand signs while out on bail. His legal team now says he is in a "safe house" after receiving death threats and that they need to keep his location secret. In the meantime, he has become a folk hero in some conservative circles, with his name appearing on T-shirts declaring "Rittenhouse did nothing wrong." Right-wing activists have raised more than $2 million in donations for a legal-defense fund.
The glorification of Rittenhouse, who apparently believed himself to be in Kenosha as part of a militia and whose lawyers have said was acting in self-defense, is part of a rising cult of the vigilante, one that has found an eager following in the past five years.
Former President Donald Trump helped fuel that rise: he personally suggested Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense, and his Department of Homeland Security reportedly sent around an internal memo directing federal officials how to respond to any questions about Rittenhouse. Trump also welcomed other vigilantes into his circle, giving a prime speaking slot at the Republican convention to Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis couple facing charges (to which they pleaded not guilty) for brandishing guns at protesters who walked down the private street in front of their house.
The embrace of these armed suspects might seem to contradict the right's "law and order" message. But vigilante violence has often been part of law enforcement in the United States, a complement to state power rather than a threat to it. Both have been required to uphold America's racial order, and both will need to be radically re-imagined -- or dismantled -- if the country is to have a fair and equitable justice system.
Though we tend to think that the state has a monopoly on legal violence, that has seldom been the case. White vigilantes have long acted as an extension of state violence against Black people and other people of color, and their allies, often with the tacit approval of police, prosecutors, and juries in a spectrum of legal and illegal acts that together create the political idea of "law and order" that has been the backbone of right-wing politics for more than 50 years.