After the Verdict: Race, Gender, Violence, and "Social Justice" in Kenosha

Progressive commentary on the Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal elides the complexities of racial dynamics in self-defense cases while ignoring inconvenient gender issues

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After the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old from Illinois who shot three men (and killed two) during a riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin over a year ago, bad narratives of the case have continued to float around on the left. This from the American Civil Liberties Union is a particularly abysmal take:

The mendacity here is astonishing. Rittenhouse “traveled across state lines” to get to his job as a lifeguard in Kenosha, about a half-hour drive away from his home; he had arrived in town the previous day, and there is no evidence that when he drove down, he had any intent to get involved in the riot. Whatever one thinks of his actions in arming himself on August 25, he did it not in response to protesters exercising “their First Amendment rights to protest,” but to the looting and burning of businesses. What’s more, the black man whose shooting by the police triggered the riots (and the protests) was, the investigation found, armed with a knife while resisting arrest for felony assault on the children’s mother, and the police feared that he might have taken the children hostage.

In other words, the ACLU’s tweet is technically accurate, but so out of context as to be profoundly dishonest. It’s about as honest as saying that the January 6 pro-Trump rioters were Americans who gathered to express their concerns about possible election fraud and entered a public building to void those concerns. You could just as accurately sum up the Rittenhouse case as, “A teenager shot three white men with a record of violent felonies while trying to defend a minority-owned business from a mob of rioters and arsonists.”

And this profoundly dishonest take comes from the nation’s premier civil liberties organization, decrying the acquittal of a defendant in a criminal case.

Meanwhile, President Biden, after initially giving the only sensible response to the verdict—“I stand by what the jury has concluded. The justice system works”—found himself fielding intense criticism from progressives and did an awkward semi-about-face. His longer statement opened with, “While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.”

Later in the statement, Biden spoke of healing and of his “promise to bring Americans together.” But I’m not sure how well you can bring Americans together when you seem to dismiss the views of the plurality of Americans—43 to 37 percent—who approve of the verdict.

While everyone involved in this case was white, it was nevertheless cast in racial terms in several ways. The three men shot by Rittenhouse—Jacob Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, and Gaige Grosskreutz—have often been treated as honorary minorities of sorts, due to being “racial justice protesters.” (A number of people, including one Columbia Law School student on Twitter, have apparently been under the impression that they were black.) In a piece for The Guardian, American writer Michael Harriot mentions in passing that the people shot by Rittenhouse were white, but suggests they were readily viewed as a threat due to being seen as part of a mass of “scary” black protesters.

And so we get a bizarre situation in which two dead white guys and a wounded white guy are treated as honorary black victims while two actual young black teenagers, 18-year-old Lorenzo Anderson and 16-year-old Antonio Mays, shot dead in the “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest Zone” in the summer of 2020, are basically consigned to oblivion. (A suspect, Marcel Long, was finally arrested last July.)

Meanwhile, Rittenhouse has been depicted as a symbol of white privilege and of deep-seated inequalities in the justice system, with the implication that no black person in his situation could have been acquitted.

In fact, a number of people including Harriot have claimed that if Rittenhouse had been black, he wouldn’t have lived long enough to stand trial, presumably because the cops would have shot him dead when he walked toward them with a rifle. (It should be noted that the cops didn’t know he had shot anyone and that his hands were raised in surrender). Even Bulwark editor Charlie Sykes, an anti-Trump conservative (and someone I greatly admire), has written that “If Kyle were black, he’d be dead.”

Such counterfactuals have an emotional appeal for a simple reason: it’s a fact that for much of U.S. history, black Americans were targets of broadly sanctioned racist violence by both police and white civilians and had no meaningful right to self-defense against whites. A common progressive belief today is that these norms remain “baked into” the system despite all the strides in civil rights and dramatic changes in societal attitudes since the 1960s. This proposition is often treated as axiomatic. But the reality, as with issues of crime and race in general, is far more complex, and even in areas where racial bias clearly exists, it’s never as simple as “this happens to blacks/this happens to whites.” There are plenty of cases of white people with guns, including toy guns or air guns, being shot by police due to tragic error or negligence (usually with no consequences to the cops). There are plenty of cases of black people with guns surrendering to the police alive. (If there weren’t, prison demographics would be very different.) To suggest that a black teenager walking toward the cops in Kenosha with his hands in the air and a rifle at his side would have been shot dead on the spot is unwarranted and unhelpful.

Or take this rhetorical question from Jamil Smith in Vox:

Is it reasonable to think that a Black person similarly outfitted with a weapon of war during a civil rights protest in Kenosha would not have been arrested or potentially harmed by the police swarming the streets?

That’s a good question. And apparently the answer is: Yes, it is.

An October 26 New York Times feature by Charles Homans on Rittenhouse and the violence in Kenosha notes that at least some of the armed volunteers who answered a former alderman’s call to defend the city from rioters were black. It also notes that a video stream of the protests showed “a Black man walking alongside a loose column of marchers with an assault-style rifle, raising his fist.”

Meanwhile, this past Sunday in Kenosha, a black father-daughter duo armed with AR-15s, Eric and Jade Jordan, walked with anti-Rittenhouse demonstrators to provide protection. (It’s unclear whether they shared the protesters’ views.) No cops bothered them. Incidentally, Eric Jordan said that he and Jade—who is 16, i.e., a year younger than Rittenhouse was last year—were also patrolling Kenosha in defense of businesses on the night of the Rittenhouse shooting.

As for race and self-defense, there are no solid data on racial patterns in cases involving a self-defense claim. White-on-black homicides are far more likely to be ruled justified than the reverse, but those numbers tell us little about the circumstances of the homicides. A 2013 analysis of 200 “stand your ground” cases in Florida found that whites and blacks who actually used such a defense fared very similarly—including in the small number of interracial homicide cases. Five of the six white defendants who had killed a black person were acquitted; so were four of the five black defendants who had killed a white person.

Rittenhouse’s tears on the stand prompted a lot of talk (including the Jamil Smith piece in Vox) about how white male tears get a sympathetic response that would never be accorded to a nonwhite 17-year-old.

That made me think of the time, in 2013, when the social justice hive mind exploded in outrage because some people showed sympathy for a teenage defendant who broke down crying in court—and who happened to be black.

That teenager’s name was Ma’lik Richmond, and he was one of the two high school football players convicted of sexually assaulting a severely intoxicated teenage girl in the Steubenville, Ohio case that became a focal point for the outcry about “rape culture” in America.

As a post-trial New Yorker article by Ariel Levy makes clear, Richmond’s actions were far less egregious than those of his co-defendant, who, among other things, passed around photos of the naked and unconscious victim. (What Richmond did, in plain English, was put the tip of his finger in the girl’s vagina while they were making out at a party, when the girl was extremely intoxicated—like Richmond himself—but still conscious. She was judged too incapacitated to consent, and under Ohio law even minimal non-consensual penetration qualifies as rape.)

At the sentencing, Richmond broke down and sobbed as he began to make his statement and apologized to the victim and her family. Then, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow, who was covering the trial, and host Candy Crowley, became targets of a baying internet mob because they discussed how “emotional” and “difficult to watch” that moment was. There was a Change.org petition with over 250,000 signatures demanding that CNN apologize for its “disgusting coverage of the Steubenville rapists,” falsely claiming that Harlow and Crowley never mentioned the victim in the segment (they did). Meanwhile, according to Levy, the (white) court officer who comforted Richmond and patted him on the back to help him compose himself and finish his statement “later got threatening phone calls and e-mails, attacking him for showing compassion to a rapist.”

This schizophrenic disconnect between decrying the sympathy shown to Richmond and decrying the lack of sympathy for teenage black offenders is a stark example of why “intersectionality” as practiced by the social justice movement is 99 percent a sham. It’s almost never actually about examining the complicated dynamics of different aspects of a person’s identity, and almost always about figuring out which identity trumps the others in any given situation—and who qualifies as “privileged” or “oppressed.” The Steubenville case was about “rape culture”; therefore, gender trumped race, Richmond was a wielder of “male privilege” and a perpetrator of male terrorism against women, and his race was irrelevant. On the other hand, Jacob Blake, who was also charged with felony sexual assault for allegedly inserting his finger into a woman’s vagina under much more egregious circumstances (his on-and-off-girlfriend, Laquisha Booker, told the police that he assaulted her while drunk and accused her of having been with other men), is defined primarily as a black victim of white police violence; therefore, race not only trumps gender but pretty much erases it.

Many accounts of the Kenosha events that mention Blake’s shooting—which happened after Booker called the police on him again and an attempt was made to arrest him on the prior warrant—completely omit the domestic violence angle. Smith’s Vox piece sums up the incident as, “a Kenosha police officer shot Black motorist Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of three of his children.” A Washington Post opinion piece at least describes Blake as “knife-wielding” at the time of the shooting, but says nothing about domestic violence. A New York Times story about Blake’s recovery mentions “an outstanding warrant for a sexual assault charge that was eventually dropped,” without mentioning that it was dropped because Booker would not cooperate (a frequent situation in domestic abuse cases) and in exchange for a guilty plea to two counts of disorderly conduct.

There has also been no mention of the fact that the three men shot by Rittenhouse all had a history of domestic violence. Rosenbaum (who had previously served time for sexually abusing boys, though it is worth noting that he was convicted of that offense at the age of 18) had been charged with domestic abuse and battery in July 2020, about a month before he was killed. Huber had pled guilty in 2012 to felony domestic abuse charges that included “strangulation” (for choking his brother during a dispute) and to misdemeanor domestic abuse in 2018 (for kicking his sister). The survivor, 28-year-old Grosskreutz, has a record that includes not only felony burglary and carrying a loaded firearm while intoxicated but charges of threatening an ex-girlfriend and smashing her window in 2013, as well as a 2010 arrest for assaulting his grandmother; the police report said that he hit her in the face and smashed a lamp into the wall. (The Daily Mail, which first made Grosskreutz’s record public, does not mention how the two domestic violence cases were resolved.)

To top it off, the fourth “racial justice protester” involved in the incident, Anthony Ziminski—the one who may have triggered the shooting by firing a “warning shot” while Rosenbaum was chasing Rittenhouse—has a pending criminal case involving domestic battery, as well as prior charges involving misdemeanor hit and run and robbery with use of force (from 2002, pled down to a misdemeanor).

A Washington Post column mentions none of that—but argues that a video from June 2020 which showed Rittenhouse hitting a teenage girl who was attacking his sister at that moment should have been allowed into evidence as proof of Rittenhouse’s violent tendencies.

Now, suppose this was an ambiguous confrontation that involved a black protester and four white guys patrolling the city streets, and it turned out that each one of the four had a history of abusing women (or at least being accused of abusing women). Wouldn’t we have heard about that history a gazillion times? The think pieces explaining how misogyny and racism are part of the same system of white supremacist patriarchy practically write themselves.

Now, here’s the thing: I am not saying that this story should be viewed through the lens of gender rather than race. In fact, I think progressive dogma on gender is even more blinkered than progressive dogma on race. As I have written before, domestic violence situations are often a lot more complex than the male brute/innocent female victim paradigm. The typical feminist narrative erases female aggression and “mutual combat” and demonizes male offenders while discounting the role of substance abuse (which seems to have been the main factor in Blake’s history of domestic violence) and mental illness (which had been an ongoing issue for Rosenbaum as well as Huber).

I will even venture to say that the Blake shooting may have been a tragic result of the overcriminalization of low-level domestic violence, driven by years of feminist activism. Blake seems to have been a genuinely devoted dad trying to get his life together; Booker told the police that the violent episodes were very rare and related to drinking. This is the kind of case in which joint counseling and substance abuse treatment could have helped; but current policies often discourage such solutions.

I certainly don’t want to demonize Blake, or the men shot by Rittenhouse (though I think their records do raise the question of whether last summer’s riots were a magnet for troubled people). But if they deserve grace, so do other men whose involvement in domestic violence or sexual misconduct stems not from cruelty but from mental health issues or dysfunctional relationships.

But that’s a topic for another day. My point is that the “gender blindness” of progressive discourse on the Kenosha events exposes how unconcerned with actual justice “social justice” is. Yesterday’s righteous victims—abused women or young black males in trouble with the law—will be thrown under the bus as soon as they find themselves in the wrong slot in the oppression hierarchy. (The same goes for the “brown” immigrants whose businesses—such as Car Source, the dealership Rittenhouse had volunteered to defend—got torched in the Kenosha riots.)

None of this, of course, is to excuse all the deplorable rhetoric on the right—from Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s (R-N.C.) offer of an internship to Rittenhouse with the comment, “Be armed, be dangerous, and be moral” to conservative pundit Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry insisting he’d be proud to have Rittenhouse for a son to Kurt Schlichter’s macho fantasies of killing leftists.

The right’s Rittenhouse cheerleading is its own form of ideological tribalism and identity politics, which have turned the conservative movement into a parody of itself. The reason I focus on progressive tribalism and identity politics right now is that they have more mainstream presence.

Two points seem particularly worth emphasizing. The Rittenhouse case, and the events surrounding it, should serve as a reminder of the danger of seeing everything through a racial lens. There is a reminder here as well of how easily progressive intentions can lead to a Trumpian-level detachment from facts.