Terror in Kenosha

On Sunday, August 23, 2020, police were called to the scene at 5:11 pm in the Wilson Heights neighborhood of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The caller’s name remains unknown. During this time, a 29-year-old black man named Jacob Blake was trying to break up a “verbal altercation” between 2 women. He was unarmed and wearing a white tank top and black shorts. In the video, Blake walks in front of a gray van coming from the passenger’s side and heading toward the driver’s side. There are four officers visible and two closely follow behind him, their guns aiming Blake’s back. Many people are heard yelling. As Blake opens the driver’s side door, one officer snatches his tank top by the end, stretching out as he tries getting in. At least seven shots are fired in Blake’s back, that will eventually paralyze him from the waist down for life. The van’s horn blares. The officer keeps holding Blake’s shirt. A woman screams and is pushed away.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the officers tried to arrest Blake and attempted deploying a taser to stop him. But the taser “was not successful at stopping Blake” before he walked around the vehicle and opened the driver’s side door. The report says the officer named Shesky fired those seven shots and no one else. But since the Kenosha Police Department doesn’t wear body cameras, we can’t be 100% sure. Yet, according to the police, Blake has received immediate aid and has been airlifted to a Milwaukee hospital. According to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, Blake claimed to have a knife in his possession when the shooting occurred, which officials recovered from the floorboards of Blake’s van. But his three young sons were also inside and also witnessed the shooting. As civil rights attorney George Crump said in a statement, “We all watched the horrific video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back several times by Kenosha police. Even worse, his three sons witnessed their father collapse after being riddled with bullets. Their irresponsible, reckless, and inhumane actions nearly cost the life of a man who was simply trying to do the right thing by intervening in a domestic incident. It’s a miracle he’s still alive.”

As with the shooting of George Floyd back in May, crowds soon arrived to protest. Videos on social media showed demonstrations that included garbage trucks being set on fire, building windows near the courthouse smashed, and crowds clashing with police dressed in riot gear. Other accounts show an entire building and parking lot being burned during the night. Such activities led to county officials instituting a curfew until Monday at 7 am and the governor to deploy 125 National Guard troops to Kenosha. The scene intensified that Monday evening as organized marches outside the Kenosha County Courthouse gave way to rioting after the 8 pm curfew. According to Reuters, fires decimated much of the city’s black business district while protestors used bats to break traffic signs and signals. When the crowd reached 1,000 at a nearby park, police shot small beanbags and used “ear deafening audio” to disperse anyone refusing to move. Unrest spread to other cities including Madison, Portland, Minneapolis, New York City, and Seattle.

Unrest intensified after curfew again on Tuesday night. Protestors clashed with police officers outside the courthouse, which a metal barricade had blocked off. Tensions also rose at a nearby gas station where a group of armed men claiming to protect the property clashed with protestors. Online video footage shows people chasing after an armed 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse in an attempt to seize him and snatch his AR-15 style rifle he shouldn’t have been allowed to obtain. During the chase, Rittenhouse tripped and fell to the ground where he shoots a few of the people following him. Afterwards, he gets up, walks toward law enforcement officials, who don’t detain him, despite bystanders screaming he had just shot people. Two of the three were fatally hit while the third was admitted to the hospital with “serious, but non-life threatening injuries,” according to the Kenosha Police Department.

Rittenhouse is a self-proclaimed militia member with ties to law enforcement as a member of various law enforcement youth training programs. In January, he was front row at a Trump rally. His no longer publicly accessible Facebook profile show he’s a committed Blue Lives Matter supporter. A 2018 post on Rittenhouse’s page shows him asking to donate to the police advocacy nonprofit organization Humanizing the Badge on his birthday, writing “I’ve chosen this nonprofit because their mission means a lot to me, and I hope you’ll consider contributing as a way to celebrate with me.” Nonetheless, his affinity for the police didn’t stop him from committing any ill-advised right-wing vigilantism.

During a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Kenosha Police Chief Dan Miskinis tried shifting the blame of the shootings onto the protestors and the victims, stating that if they stayed inside, the shootings wouldn’t have taken place. “Everybody involved was out after the curfew. I’m not going to make a great deal of it, but the point is that the curfew is in place to protect. Had persons not been out in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened,” he said. Sure, trying to wrestle a gun out of someone’s hands was stupid. But blaming protestors for what happened is deeply irresponsible akin to blaming a rape victim for drinking too much or wearing provocative clothes instead of the rapist. Kenosha Sheriff David Beth responded to the concern that police didn’t arrest Rittenhouse when he walked past them. “I’ve been in a shooting before. In situations that are high-stress, you have such incredible tunnel vision. You have no idea what’s outside right here if you’re looking right here,” Beth said holding his hands up to gesture. Indeed, but this was the same department that didn’t hesitate to shoot Jacob Blake at the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing. Also, it was clear Rittenhouse shot those three people.

But Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian claimed he doesn’t want militia members to show up, saying, “I don’t need more guns on the street, in the community when we are trying to make sure we keep people safe. Law enforcement is trained. They’re the ones who are responsible. They’re the ones we have faith will do their job and make sure it gets done. That is why the curfews are there.” Compared to other Kenosha officials, he sounds rather reasonable. Unless you forget the fact that these protests are happening because at least one police officer acted the most unreasonably as shown by the bullet holes in Jacob Blake’s back. And despite a bystander yelling, “Hey, he just shot them,” law enforcement officials drove right past Rittenhouse instead of madly chasing him and arresting him.

Meanwhile, Rittenhouse left Wisconsin after the shooting and was arrested in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, which is 30 minutes away from Kenosha. To venture from your hometown to guard a gas station is highly suspicious and it’s likely he was there to shoot people. Even worse, video footage 15 minutes prior to the shootings show Rittenhouse walk up to an armored police car and chat with officers. A police officer pops out of one vehicle’s hatch and tosses bottles to Rittenhouse’s fellow militia mates, saying “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” before driving off. Since underage firearm ownership is a misdemeanor in Wisconsin, that cop didn’t even ask for ID. Unlike what you’d expect that same police officer to do when seeing a group of teenagers trying to buy booze at a liquor store.

Meanwhile, Rittenhouse left Wisconsin after the shooting and was arrested in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, which is 30 minutes away from Kenosha. To venture from your hometown to guard a gas station is highly suspicious and it’s likely he was there to shoot people. Even worse, video footage 15 minutes prior to the shootings show Rittenhouse walk up to an armored police car and chat with officers. A police officer pops out of one vehicle’s hatch and tosses bottles to Rittenhouse’s fellow militia mates, saying “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” before driving off. Since underage firearm ownership is a misdemeanor in Wisconsin, that cop didn’t even ask for ID. Unlike what you’d expect that same police officer to do when seeing a group of teenagers trying to buy booze at a liquor store.

Now these police shootings of unarmed people color like Jacob Blake are way too common occurrence in the US that I can already blurt out a whole list of victims like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Antwon Rose, Stephon Clark, and more. And it’s a shame that a lot of the police involved in these shootings are still patrolling their local streets to this day. It should be clear that while police departments may contain a few bad apples, these bad apples are spoiling the criminal justice system because their departments and/or unions are protecting them from receiving any form of accountability. But while the police shooting of Jacob Blake angers me as it reflects the systematic racism at work in our criminal justice system, it’s not what truly pisses me off in this case. No, it’s the Kenosha police’s leniency toward Rittenhouse whom they let go home and sleep before arresting him the next morning. Letting a guy go home after someone screaming he shot people seems highly irresponsible to law enforcement regardless of circumstance.

Look, I am not a person who has a high view of gun ownership. In fact, I loathe guns and support reasonable gun control measures like permits, registration, and banning assault weapons. But even if I don’t approve of owning a gun for protection against an armed home invasion, I think it’s well within your rights to do so. Even if I’d more likely see your gun as a security blanket. On the other hand, I don’t have those same reservations for armed militias which I liken to irresponsible vigilantism. As John Oliver said, “Let’s be clear, a 17-year-old vigilante with a rifle cannot maintain order because a 17-year-old with a rifle trying to maintain order is himself the definition of disorder.” It’s bad enough when police misbehave when they shoot unarmed black and brown people on the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing. Or crackdown on anti-police protestors, even if they act out of hand. But letting armed civilians patrol locales with guns that I wouldn’t consider street legal just seems beyond the pale, especially if that’s a 17-year-old boy who shot 3 people. Given that we don’t live in the Old West, condemning vigilante-style violence should be easy for anyone.

Nonetheless, given that most of the US police forces are heavily white, male, and politically conservative, we shouldn’t be surprised that police leaders often see armed civilians as allies, maybe even informal deputies. As University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson writes, “Police chiefs articulated a position of gun populism based on a presumption of racial respectability. Good guys with guns’ were marked off as responsible in ways that reflected white, middle-class respectability.” This helps understand why armed anti-lockdown protestors can menace the Michigan State Capitol without incident while anti-police violence demonstrators have been met with crackdowns. Indeed, police see guns as a scourge when they’re in the wrong hands, which usually tend to be black and brown ones. And unfortunately, this gun populism isn’t a new phenomenon at all given the long history of deeply racialized gun politics in America. Officers have significant discretion in how they choose to react to different situations, which is often used in a racist and violent fashion. And the way police seemingly encouraged Rittenhouse’s vigilantism is a microcosm of some of the fundamental problems in American policing and gun politics.

Unfortunately, instead of unequivocally condemning Rittenhouse’s heinous actions and other incidents of right-wing violence, Donald Trump has defended him stating, “That was an interesting situation. You saw the same tape that I saw, and he was trying to get away [from protesters], I guess, it looks like, and he fell, and then they very violently attacked him,” Trump said. “I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would’ve been killed.” Except that Rittenhouse shot his first victim in the back. Yet, Trump casts the boy’s actions as justifiable self-defense, which it certainly wasn’t.

On Saturday, August 29, 2020, a pro-Trump convoy opened fire on counter-protestors in Portland, Oregon with paintball guns and pepper spray that got one pro-Trump demonstrator killed. Donald Trump tweeted a video of their behavior that all-but-openly cheered them on. Two days later, he claimed, “Paint is a defensive mechanism; paint is not bullets. These people, they protested peacefully.” While video from that scene shows Trump supporters literally shooting at people with paintball guns, macing people, and driving through crowds in a way that could’ve created the next Heather Heyer. When Laura Ingraham asked Trump whether he wants his supporters to confront protestors, he replied, “I want to leave it to law enforcement, but my supporters are wonderful, hardworking, tremendous people, and they turn on their televisions and they look at a Portland or a Kenosha … they can’t believe it.” Apparently, in Trumpworld, Trump supporters can do no wrong. And when they do, there’s always an adequate justification.

Yet, whenever the protests over police shootings initially break out, Donald Trump and his allies are quick to exploit any looting, violence, or property destruction going on there. For instance, despite Portland police stating they have no suspect, this hasn’t stopped Trump from accusing left-wing protestors who “killed a lot of people,” and announcing that Homeland Security and Justice Department are forming a joint operations center to “investigate violent left-wing civil unrest.” Besides, early arrest data shows that the looters and vandals in these demonstrations aren’t activists but people with criminal records exploiting the situation. Even left-wing groups engaging in violence aren’t Democratic Party supporters but anarchists and far-leftist with disdain for the liberal establishment. In fact, former Vice President and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden forcefully condemned the violence erupting amid largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, saying, “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness — plain and simple.”

By contrast, many far-right militia groups taking to the streets either support Donald Trump openly or share at least some of his ideas. They don’t exactly act on Trump’s orders since he’s not that overt. Nor do they directly report to Trump. Instead, there are loose coalitions of right-leaning armed groups who take Trump’s decision to dilly dally with right-wing militia violence as permission to keep it up or even escalate. This is called “generalized incitement” and it has significant potential to make things worse. As violent extremism expert J. M. Berger told Vox, “It’s not necessarily a situation where he has a very cohesive cadre of followers who will be violent in a strategic way, but his words land in a variety of communities that are primed for violence. Some who act may not necessarily be supporters of Trump per se, but may be more inclined to act in an atmosphere of chaos. Some of them will be supporters, though, and that could be very problematic depending on the numbers.”

As president, Donald Trump has the world’s biggest megaphone. And unlike the incel and white supremacist online communities on message boards and chat rooms that can lionize mass killers, his not-so-subtle support for political violence goes out to hundreds of millions. Even if a much smaller percentage of Trump’s audience has any inclination for violence, the huge numbers at work make the risks unacceptably high. In fact, since Trump took office, a lot of far-right political violence has already happened. Remember what happened in Charlottesville and how Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides?” Even after Heather Heyer got hit by that car. And as we speak, it’s said that 2/3 of terrorists in the US are connected to right-wing and white supremacist extremism. The fact Trump incites violence as president is one of the many reasons why he’s so dangerous. It is one thing to tout oneself as a law and order candidate. But if that person is an incumbent president who not so subtly encourages diehard supporters to commit violent acts against anyone disagreeing with him, then the words “law and order” are rendered meaningless.

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