US: Right wing vigilante, Kyle Rittenhouse, acquittal by court provokes outrage

Image Credit: Ken Fager via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who shot three protestors and killed two during the Jacob Blake protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was acquitted of all charges yesterday. The police shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23rd, 2020 sparked protests in Kenosha. Just days later, the protests became the site of another shooting, this time by self-styled vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who traveled to the protests from his home in Illinois looking for an excuse to shoot people he saw as looters. Police thanked Rittenhouse for his armed presence and ignored his attempt to turn himself in following the shootings, even as protestors were shouting for him to be arrested. Jacob Blake, meanwhile, was shot almost to death by the exact same police department for the suspicion of carrying a knife. These deaths perfectly illustrate the racist capitalist system that produced the mass rallies after George Floyd’s murder, as well as other Black Lives Matter and anti-racist protests.

Rittenhouse’s acquittal mirrors the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, a similar vigilante figure who murdered teenager Trayvon Martin as he was walking home. Zimmerman also claimed self-defense, despite the fact that Zimmerman was following Martin home and Martin had no weapons, just a bag of Skittles. The precedent of using self-defense to excuse murder  was set by the 2013 acquittal, and no doubt played a part in Rittenhouse’s acquittal. Zimmerman’s case caused national outrage and helped spark the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests.

In 1992, following the acquittal of the officers who had beaten and hospitalized Rodney King a year earlier, riots erupted in Los Angeles. During the riots, as police blocked off middle-class white areas of the city and left Koreatown to be destroyed, some Korean shop owners stood armed on their rooftops to guard against rioters. Far-right reactionaries intoxicated with vigilante fantasies have often cited these “rooftop Koreans” as inspiration for their actions, considering it their duty to defend corporate property from broken windows and burning trash cans, on penalty of death. During the protests, a former Kenosha politician and militia leader put out a call for “patriots willing to take up arms and defend [Kenosha] from the evil thugs.” Later that day, Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha to join with “Kenosha Guard” members “defending” a local car dealership from protestors. Much of the trial focused on whether Rittenhouse could claim self-defense in his shootings. Yet, it’s clear that he anticipated violence from the very beginning and armed himself with the intention of shooting and possibly killing people whom he considered guilty of minor property crimes. Rittenhouse was wearing latex gloves throughout the night, so no fingerprints of his would be left at the scene of the crime. He can be heard on a video recording taken weeks before the shooting, witnessing what he believes to be a robbery from across the street. Illustrating his motives behind the Kenosha shooting, he says “Bro, I wish I had my fucking AR. I’d start shooting rounds at them.” The judge, however, ruled that the video was irrelevant to the case.

Putting yourself into a situation “looking for trouble” and anticipating violence removes any reasonable claim of “self-defense,” a position most U.S. legal precedent agrees with. Yet the exact framing of the case, what the jury is instructed to consider and disregard, and how they are told the law applies are almost entirely under the judge’s purview. Assisting in this farce was the capitalist media, pushing around-the-clock propaganda distorting the facts of the case, and the prosecution themselves, helping the defense through incompetence and their own pro-police bias. However, with the case ending in acquittal, the Fifth Amendment prevents an appeal, meaning the judge’s determinations—and any mistakes or biased decisions made in the case—are final.

Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, the capitalist class—primarily through the corporate media—has conducted a two-faced propaganda campaign. With one face, towards the left, they gave meaningless, “symbolic” gestures: renaming streets, painting murals, kneeling in Congress, integrating the aesthetics of the movement into corporate advertising campaigns, and including vague promises of reform in Democratic Party electoral campaigns. This tactic pushed some working people off the streets and into voting for the “blue” corporate political party, achieving none of the basic demands of the movement. The BLM movement quickly faded as the November 2020 election approached, all but disappearing after Trump’s electoral loss. Yet Biden is hardly a friend to the movement, ignoring BLM’s demands, giving millions more in police funding, and promising a “tough on crime” administration. During the election, Biden’s campaign described Rittenhouse as a white supremacist. Now in office, his reaction following the verdict was “the jury system works.” With Biden’s approval already tanking, and inflation putting workers in a financial bind, many of the factors that led to the demobilization of BLM last year are now fading. The capitalist class is gambling that the anti-racist movement lacks the weight it had even earlier this year, during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the cop who murdered George Floyd. Nevertheless, the military was brought into Wisconsin days before the verdict to suppress any protests that may arise. It remains to be seen whether the gamble pays off, or if the challenge will be met with pressure from below.

With the other face, towards the right, the capitalist class spewed—and continue to spew—violent, racist, pro-cop, anti-protestor “thin blue line” rhetoric. This tactic drew in disaffected layers of the middle class—small business owners and professionals—as well as some workers, playing on their dissatisfaction and directing their anger towards working-class movements, while turning them away from anti-capitalist conclusions. These layers provided ideological armor for the capitalist system against the approaching tide of the anti-racist movement. A small number of people loosely organized themselves into far-right militias and groups like the Proud Boys or the amorphous “Boogaloo movement” and joined the police and military to form the on-the-ground basis of capitalist retaliation against the George Floyd protests. Rittenhouse, a fervent “Blue Lives Matter” supporter who posed for photographs earlier this year with Proud Boys members, has become a symbol of these far-right forces, who celebrate his murder of “rioters” and “thugs.” With Rittenhouse now acquitted, future protests may see an increase of violence and killings from right-wing vigilantes emboldened by the verdict.

As the trial opened in late October, Judge Bruce Schroeder prohibited the prosecution from referring to Rittenhouse’s murder victims as “victims”. At the same time, he allowed the defense to refer to them as “looters” and “arsonists.” He refused to allow evidence showing Rittenhouse’s far-right ties, prevented the prosecution from enlarging video evidence, and barred them from probing Rittenhouse on his violent intentions in coming to Kenosha. The choice of which jurors will deliberate a case and which alternates will be sent home is generally selected at random by the city clerk, taking pieces of paper out of a hat or a tumbler. Schroeder allowed Rittenhouse to pick out the pieces of paper instead, an incredibly unusual decision that Schroeder hasn’t made in previous cases. Schroeder’s partisan interpretation of the law may be more explicit in this case, but it’s not out of character for the longest-serving current judge in Wisconsin. He first gained attention in the late ‘80s when he began ordering convicted sex workers to submit to AIDS tests out of paranoia that they may be spreading the virus. Courts ruled that this judge violated a defendant’s constitutional rights. He allowed the prosecution to enter key evidence in the 2008 murder trial of Mark Jensen that led to his conviction; several courts have since overturned the ruling. Yet he has remained in a position of power, making life-or-death decisions for others with no accountability and no consequences for his choices.

Nobody should be able to lodge themselves in these powerful positions for decades, unaccountable to working people. Wisconsin elects judges for six-year terms, but judges run unopposed in almost every election, without any alternative for voters to choose from. Recall elections are technically possible, but the bar is so high that there’s only ever been a single successful judicial recall in Wisconsin history over forty years ago. Workers’ movements have always demanded that all representatives, including judges, be regularly elected and subject to the right of recall. The constant renewal of elected leadership, where all capable people should serve for a time, is also necessary to prevent a single person from monopolizing the position, as Judge Schroeder and many other judges across the country have.

The Rittenhouse case reminds us that the court system is not an impartial judge of right and wrong; it has always defended the interests of the ruling class at any given point in time. Where the conviction of Derek Chauvin was decided in the interest of undermining and defusing the now-dormant Black Lives Matter movement, the Rittenhouse verdict is part of a counter-offensive to regain the legitimacy and support for the capitalist police lost during last year’s protests. Yet the single conviction of a racist murderer wouldn’t change the lives of working people, nor would it bring any systemic change. We condemn the acquittal of this murderer not because of a desire for revenge but because it exposes the hypocrisy of a system that claims to uphold “law and order.” Black men are regularly sent to prison for years or decades on minor, non-violent charges, yet nothing is done when agents of the law and those who worship them commit cold-blooded murder. No court case will end the far-right threat; only addressing its causes can.

Some have reacted to this trial with calls for a harsher crackdown on “extremism” from the capitalist government. However, calls for increased government repression will strike at the left far harder than the right, as right-wing beliefs ultimately preserve capitalism. Biden’s White House lists “anarchist violent extremists, who violently oppose all forms of capitalism” as one of today’s main domestic terror threats. The FBI considers “black identity extremists” to be a counterterrorism priority. A U.S. Navy counterterrorism training document leaked earlier this year asks, “Anarchists, socialists, and neo-nazis represent which terrorist ideological category?” The same is true when capitalist social media attempts to censor “extremist” ideology; for years, Facebook has courted conservatives and promoted their content while banning socialist pages and pushing left-wing content into the margins. Much as the court system works in the interests of the capitalist class, so does political repression from the state.

While the vast majority of protests were peaceful, in a few places protests against racism and police brutality became riots. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” The ruling class has ignored the victims of violent police tactics to enforce a racist capitalist system. It has ignored the suffering of millions left high and dry during the COVID pandemic. As the rich get richer and richer and the poor sink deeper into desperation, a riot can seem like the only way for workers and oppressed communities to express their anger. Nevertheless, socialists would argue riots are not an effective tactic for the working class. We aim to help build the power and organization of the working class, to show workers that collective, coordinated action is necessary to make themselves heard. With the right ideas, tactics, and organization, the same collective power demonstrated in riots can be organized into mass actions like strikes, occupations, and building a political party for working people that can win real reforms that improve the lives of all. The working class can end the thoroughly racist capitalist system that the police serve to protect.

As the capitalist need for profit pushes the super-rich to drive the lower classes harder, working people look in search of ideas that can offer an alternative. The small business owners and professionals, who in times of stability often stand with the rich, find themselves facing the same fate as the working class when profiteering capitalists drive them out of business to secure a greater share of the market. Far-right and fascist ideas are marketed to this group and some layers of workers looking for an alternative, muddling their understanding of their exploitation under capitalism and transforming it into a misguided hatred of oppressed groups. There is a clear need for socialist ideas to cut across these views and point the finger at capitalists, the real puppet masters behind the scenes. Capitalism cannot fight the threat of far-right ideas; only socialist ideas and actions can draw in these disaffected layers and end the threat of the far-right. Only a mass movement working towards a socialist transformation of society to end exploitation once and for all can prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

  • For mass protests against the acquittal of racist killers! The anti-racist movement must return to the streets. Mass demonstrations and work stoppages will hit the capitalists, their politicians, and their judges where it hurts—in their profits.
  • The anti-racist movement must get organized. For democratic structures to discuss and debate strategy and tactics, including protest defense against threats from the far-right. Anti-racist anger needs to be coordinated into a sustainable movement that can stay in the streets and win real gains. Unions, progressive, and anti-racist organizations should get involved and mobilize their members and resources, calling work stoppages, occupations, and organizing towards a general strike.
  • For a multi-racial struggle against racism and poverty! 
  • Build a mass, diverse workers’ party with a socialist program to put forward an alternative to racism, austerity, and capitalism. 

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November 2021