Kenosha Protest Shootings

Kyle Rittenhouse puts his hand over his face after he is found not guilt on all counts at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. The jury came back with its verdict afer close to 3 1/2 days of deliberation.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

On Friday, a Kenosha courtroom was the focal point of a national debate about how to achieve justice in these times. The message that came from that courtroom was a chilling one for the families of the victims of Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing spree, and for America.

The decision to acquit Rittenhouse — the 18-year-old white gunman from Illinois who shot and killed two racial justice protesters and severely wounded another during demonstrations following the August 2020 shooting of a 29-year-old Black man, Jacob Blake, by Kenosha police — affected Rittenhouse and the families of his victims directly.

But it will have direct and indirect repercussions for all Americans.

“Today’s verdict — searing, shocking, but painfully unsurprising — has sent a wave of heartbreak and grief through our state and country,” explained Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Ben Wikler. “If a Black person had done what Kyle Rittenhouse did, it almost goes without saying, they would be far more likely to have been killed by police that night than to be walking free today. This verdict, and the trial and other events that preceded it, are a gut-wrenching illustration of a society with two systems of justice, two ways lives are valued, two sets of rules. A year ago, the movement for Black lives sustained the biggest demonstrations on any topic in the history of our country. Today, far-right and white supremacist militias are cheering and lifting up a teenager — who killed two human beings and almost killed another — as a hero.”

The verdict that was delivered in the courtroom of controversial Judge Bruce Schroeder spoke to far broader issues, as former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold observed:

“We must remember that this trial occurred because two people were shot and killed, and a third was injured. Today’s not guilty verdict is a troubling symptom of deeply rooted issues within our nation’s legal system,” explained Feingold, who now serves as president of the American Constitution Society. “Firearms, particularly assault-type firearms like the one involved in this case, have no place on our streets. As this case demonstrates, they lead to violence, rather than prevent it. There were 611 mass shootings in 2020, and already more than that in 2021. In the context of a country beset by mass shootings, when present and brandished in public — particularly during protests against anti-Black racism, which are frequently the target of violent rhetoric, incitement to violence, and actual violence — guns are inherently provocative and threatening; attempting to disarm a gunman is a rational response. “

Feingold, who for many years sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and chaired its subcommittee on the Constitution, knows Kenosha, and he knows the law. On Friday, he put things in perspective when he said, “In this context, a gunman’s successful self-defense claim prioritizes the interests of white power structures to maintain historic racial hierarchies through armed intimidation and the threat of unaccountable physical violence. Allowing these weapons to be publicly brandished — let alone used without penalty against those with whom one disagrees — chills and thereby undermines civil liberties, including freedom of speech and assembly.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.