Waiting for the Rittenhouse verdict as the world falls apart

November 19, 2021 11:56 am

Protesters and the family of Jacob Blake hold a candle light vigil in Kenosha on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Isiah Holmes.) Courtesy of the Wisconsin Examiner.

While waiting for the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial, I stepped out to visit the principal at my kids’ high school — the same school I attended, Madison East. East has been in the local news a lot lately for a series of rowdy protests and fights, including a recent melee in which 100 kids — some fighting, some tagging along to watch — spilled into the street, where they were met by police with pepper spray.

I don’t mean to compare East’s troubles to the situation in Kenosha, which is much more serious and tragic. But like other scenes of strife around the country, the escalating chaos and violence so close to home makes it feel as though something broken in our society has shaken loose and is destabilizing everything.

At the same time the world was watching the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager from Illinois who brought an AR 15-style rifle to a Black Lives Matter protest and shot three people, killing two of them, my kids were watching the massive street fight from the upstairs windows at East. The school was locked down and police were chasing the students who were fighting, including a kid who brought a bedpost to school and swung it at another kid’s head.

Over the last week or so, community discussion of the fights at East has involved a debate about whether it was a mistake for the district to get rid of school police officers.

A white kid started a petition to bring back school resource officers, even as Black kids repeated their arguments for getting rid of the police officers, whom they said do not make them feel more safe.

The racial divide in our perceptions of police is back, as if the whole country had not been transfixed by the horror of the George Floyd murder just last year and, finally, united in a collective recognition of the hideous injustice of racist police brutality.

Then we went back to square one. Black Lives Matter protesters quickly morphed into “looters” and “rioters” in news coverage  and during the 2020 election campaigns Republicans played up the property damage even though the vast majority of protests of the  murder were peaceful. And then came the white nationalists and self-styled militia members, including Rittenhouse, with their semi-automatic weapons, to keep us (white people) “safe.”

Now we are caught in an endless loop in these arguments about safety, unable to get together around our obvious common community interests.

For example, everyone ought to be able to agree that arming teenagers with semi-automatic rifles and sending them out into public areas is a very bad idea. Yet the judge in the Rittenhouse case dropped the charge against him for unlawfully carrying a firearm as a minor — a mere misdemeanor anyway — because, under Wisconsin law, the defense argued, his gun was not short-barreled and therefore it was legal for him to carry it.

It’s hard for people outside the United States to wrap their minds around that.

My family and I happen to be hosting an exchange student from Mexico this year. Given the steady stream of news about school shootings her parents have imbibed from our country over the years, she decided not to tell them about East, where nearly half the school didn’t show up for class one day last week because one of the students involved in the big fight had threatened to bring a gun.

A sweet, quiet, studious girl, she claims not to be afraid. But I heard her whispering in the kitchen to my daughter, asking her if she feels safe at school.

How can any of us feel safe in this Wild West we’ve created? It’s bracing to remember that there are whole nations that don’t have the same militant commitment to unfettered access to firearms, and who don’t accept that, as a consequence of their “freedom,” their kids might be mowed down in their classrooms or in some other public place.

In the Rittenhouse case, the absurdity of the idea that more access to guns makes us safer is on full display. Not only did Rittenhouse argue that he was acting in self-defense when he shot the people who were trying to disarm him, as Farhad Manjoo points out in The New York Times, he was afraid of those people because he thought they might shoot him with his own gun. 

In the end, his self-defense argument rests on his credible fear of being shot with his own AR15.

That’s the same argument Travis McMichael made in the Arbery case in Georgia: He had to shoot jogger Ahmaud Arbery, after chasing him down, because Arbery had grabbed the shotgun he was pointing: “It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would’ve got the shotgun from me, then it was a life or death situation. And I’m gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”

This commentary was originally published by the Wisconsin Examiner, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Conniff is a frequent guest on All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990. The Wisconsin Examiner is part of the nonprofit States Newsroom and a sister media outlet to the Florida Phoenix.