Kyle Rittenhouse does not seem like a sympathetic figure. The teenager, who has been accused of fatally shooting two protesters in Kenosha on Tuesday, then fleeing the state of Wisconsin to avoid arrest, was taken into custody in Antioch, Illinois. He now faces a charge of first-degree intentional homicide. But since his arrest, right-wing commentators have tried to justify his behavior. Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense, or at least didn’t deserve a charge of first-degree murder. Protesters chased him; he must have felt threatened. And really, shouldn’t we blame Kenosha officials for letting everything get out of hand? There was property to protect, and protests to repress.
“How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would? Everyone can see what was happening in Kenosha. It was getting crazier by the hour,” Tucker Carlson said during his Wednesday night broadcast.
On Twitter, others made excuses for the teen. Here’s the vice-president of government affairs for the Club for Growth:
Video of the moments leading up to the first shooting does appear to show an object being thrown in Rittenhouse’s direction. But it doesn’t resemble a Molotov cocktail; it doesn’t appear to be on fire at all. In fact, it looks like a white plastic bag with a bottle of water or soda inside. That matters quite a lot if the argument is that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense:
Others pointed out that protesters had pursued Rittenhouse. We still don’t know why they were following him. Barring evidence that they’d actually tried to harm him, all we can tell from the video is that they appeared to consider him a threat, and that they’d tried to take his firearm (which he may have been carrying illegally).
Here are the facts as they stand on Thursday: The aspiring police officer and Trump supporter drove to Kenosha from his home in Illinois, after a local militia, the Kenosha Guard, put out a public call to arms on its Facebook page. The Kenosha Guard says that Rittenhouse didn’t belong to their group, but the teenager certainly seemed to think he did, or that he’d joined another organization like it. In a video taken before the shootings, he identified himself as a militia member and said, “People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business. And part of my job is to also help people.”
Then, the shootings. The Times video analysis referenced by Parkinson is indeed helpful, though the details don’t necessarily support his conclusions. This is what it appears to show: A group of protesters pursued the teenager when someone (it’s not clear who, or whether he was even part of the original group) fired a handgun into the air some distance away. When someone reached out, either to tackle him or take his weapon, Rittenhouse fired multiple times, shot the man in the head, and killed him. He ran away a second time, followed by more protesters; then he killed another man and injured someone else.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about the incident. But based on what we’ve got, we can reach a reasonable explanation: A teenage vigilante with a gun he wasn’t legally allowed to possess sought out confrontation. He found it, and killed two people. He walked right past the Kenosha police after the killings, and they didn’t arrest him; as a result, he was able to flee back to Illinois.
Obscured, of course, by all the right-wing concern for Rittenhouse is the incident that drew him to Kenosha in the first place. Protests are rocking the city because a police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back, in front of his children. He may never walk again. While conservatives started developing Rittenhouse’s self-defense plea, they seized on another item of news from Kenosha. Wisconsin’s attorney general says that Blake had a knife.
Nobody knows whether he tried to use it. Only that the knife allegedly existed, and belonged to Blake — so maybe he deserved those seven shots in the back and a life in a wheelchair. Maybe those protesters left Rittenhouse no other choice; maybe they invited a shooting. These emerging lines of argument bear a revealing similarity to each other. The right wing is treating Rittenhouse the way it already treats cops. A gun is all the authority a white man needs. He doesn’t even need to be sworn law enforcement. After all, someone’s got to put down the rabble.