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The Shooting Deaths in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Were Predictable and Avoidable

Last week, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was arrested in connection with the fatal shooting of two protesters and the maiming of a third on the night of Aug. 25 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Responses by local law enforcement and militia groups illustrate the disastrous assumptions that made this incident all but inevitable.

Authorities state that they have identified Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Antioch, Illinois, as the shooter in a video widely circulated on social media. In the video, a lone man carrying a rifle is seen jogging away from a crowd. Members of the crowd appear to be in pursuit and are shouting that “he just shot somebody.” The lone individual falls, is surrounded by members of the crowd, and begins firing at individuals in his immediate vicinity as he staggers to his feet.

“Kenosha police said a 26-year-old Silver Lake resident and a 36-year-old Kenosha resident were killed and a 26-year-old West Allis resident is injured,” according to ABC7 Chicago.

Kenosha protest
Men carry rifles as people protest outside the Kenosha County Courthouse after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot several times Aug. 25 by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Photo via Reuters/Stephen Maturen)

Rittenhouse was just one of many armed civilians who came out to the protests in Kenosha with an expressed intent of protecting the city. Many were answering a call to action by a newly formed militia group called Kenosha Guard, which issued an open invitation for people to come with their guns on Aug. 25. The event listing, posted to Facebook and later shared by Infowars, said, “Law enforcement is outnumbered and our Mayor has failed, take up arms and lets defend our CITY!"

Last weekend, protracted tensions in Portland, Oregon – a city that has seen more than its fair share of violence at protests in recent months and years – resulted in another death.

We saw it coming. In May, when the president tweeted a baleful endorsement of extrajudicial violence, the SPLC noted that militia groups would see his words as a call to action. Militia groups have been responding for months. Kenosha simply represents the first incident in which someone was killed.

Barring decisive action to curtail the co-opting of public protests by far-right actors who see themselves as de-facto law enforcement, and a de-escalation of law enforcement tactics nationwide, similar risks to those present in Kenosha will continue as we move into an increasingly contested election cycle.

Armed responses to the Movement for Black Lives are built on lies

Rittenhouse was charged Aug. 27 with first-degree intentional homicide. Rittenhouse’s extradition hearing to determine whether he will await trial in Wisconsin has been delayed until Sept. 25.

The incident occurred during ongoing protests over the shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, who was paralyzed after he was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha police.

Both Blake’s shooting and the armed response by far-right militia groups reflect the broader continuity of events that have occurred across the summer of 2020 amid a renewed national focus on the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition group formed in 2015 to address systemic extrajudicial violence against Black Americans by law enforcement.

The death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis, and similar incidents in Atlanta, Georgia, Louisville, Kentucky, and Tallahassee, Florida, have sparked sustained protests critical of police violence against communities of color nationwide.

Far-right patriot groups and armed militias, who spent the early weeks of the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic protesting public health lockdown measures, quickly shifted their focus with the news cycle. While some groups have expressed measured sympathy with victims of police violence, the overwhelming majority have expressed ambivalence or open hostility to the Movement for Black Lives, often conflating peaceful protests with concurrent incidents of rioting, looting and other property destruction.

As one man in front of a Minneapolis tobacco shop with an AR-15 told a reporter with the Minnesota Reformer, “ Bottom line, Justice for Floyd and I hope they stop looting at some point. If there were more of us we could go stop them from looting.”

The basic assumption underlying narratives around looting, particularly as they are applied to a movement prominently and predominately led by Black people, presupposes a latent criminality on the part of Black Americans. This pernicious lie has historically been used to justify slavery, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, and other white supremacist systems as a defensive response. More recently, a cottage industry has developed around twisting statistical data to reify those existing narratives of Black criminality. These flawed data models have been used to justify practices intended to keep black families in poverty, such as red-lining and discriminatory bank loans.

The truth behind why rioting occurs at some protests is much more complicated.

“Tough on crime” policies, systemic poverty in Black and Brown communities, mass incarceration and the militarization of American police are not monolithic phenomena. They are of a piece, and build on institutions geared toward the maintenance of white political and cultural hegemony.

Coupled with the rising unemployment and economic precarity communities across America have suffered during the COVID-19 crisis, these forces increase the likelihood of isolated acts of property destruction concurrently.

Common assumptions about the origins of a riot disregard these streams of human misery and baselessly conflate random destruction, opportunistic theft and righteous anger at police violence with groups that participate in protests over police killings but are separate and distinct from the Movement for Black Lives.

Within the current moment, the deeply ingrained cultural prejudices producing the myth of latent black criminality are helping animate leaders of antigovernment militias who call for armed “patriots” to show up with rifles and military kits to challenge protesters. This ill-defined threat is at times described simply as “rioters,” at others as “Black Lives Matters” itself, or increasingly, “antifa.” Antifa is a shorthand for “antifascist,” and in this context refers to a far-right preoccupation with what is often known as “black bloc,” a tactic used by antifascist protesters who eschew nonviolence in favor of physical altercations with those they perceive as racist opponents. While the threat of antifa has been a favorite stalking horse of white nationalist groups for years, the term and the specter it represents are relatively new in antigovernment spaces. The “threat” of antifa became front-page news when President Trump tweeted in June that “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization!”

Increasingly, antigovernment groups have begun to rely on the term as an umbrella to smear protests against police brutality.

In response, scores of heavily armed groups have begun attending protests against police violence across the country, loitering on the fringes of peaceful marches and claiming they are there to “keep the peace.”

Self-appointed law enforcement

The militias’ rationale relies on the idiom “an armed society is a polite society.” In their view, the threat of civilian gun violence, free of the legal restraints imposed on law enforcement, poses a sufficient deterrent to have a chilling effect on property destruction. While holistic data on gun violence in the U.S. is notoriously scarce, available statistics indicate that the militias’ argument that more guns means less crime is flawed.

Militia groups and their members often justify their participation in paramilitary activity by assuming a posture of authority, framing their actions through militaristic jargon to lend a veneer of credibility and agency that they are not granted through federal, state or local laws.

In a Facebook post identified by Hatewatch, Ryan Balch – a 31-year-old Wisconsin man who was photographed on armed patrol with Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha – discussed his participation in that event using a lexicon intended for a combat zone.

Balch’s post begins by describing his trip to the city as “infiltrating in Kenosha” and claims he “inserted [himself] into a tactical advisement role” to guide the militia’s actions on the ground.

Balch’s role in militia activity is especially alarming given his history of sharing racist, antisemitic material on social media. A Hatewatch investigation revealed Balch’s history of sharing Nazi propaganda, harassing victims of gun violence and amplifying white nationalist leaders.

In a response to a comment from another user asking, “Where were your limits on [lethal force] and ROE if needed?” Balch responds that “Lethal force was only authorized as a response to lethal force or grievous injury potential.

“ROE,” or “rules of engagement,” is a term used in combat settings to describe a military’s policies around the application of force. Whatever Balch and his compatriots may think, the “rules of engagement” in the U.S are defined by laws – not by their self-perception as vigilante muscle.

Nevertheless, far-right groups have flooded the streets to pose as an armed intimidating force on the periphery of peaceful protests. On June 1, the New Mexico Civil Guard stood near the perimeter of a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Like the Kenosha Guard in Wisconsin, prior to the protest, the group put out a call to action online for people to come and protect the city.

Members of the group went out again on June 15. They showed up armed and in uniform with the stated goal of deterring protesters at an Albuquerque protest against the La Jornada statue. Their presence at these protests led the Bernalillo County District Attorney to sue them, writing in his complaint, “There is no place in an ordered civil society for private armed groups that seek to impose their collective will on the people in place of the police or the military.”

Across the country, many unauthorized militias continue to assign themselves security tasks that are typically under the purview of private security or law enforcement.

In a 2018 report that was updated this July, the Georgetown University School of Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) outlines “a catalog of relevant state constitutional and statutory provisions” that bar the presence of private armies at public rallies.

The report was written following the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white nationalist protester killed one counterprotester and wounded over a dozen others in a vehicular attack. All morning prior to that incident, white nationalists repeatedly instigated violence against counterprotesters while law enforcement looked on. Local enforcement and the Governor of Virginia cited fears of armed militia groups lurking on the fringes to “keep the peace” as the reason law enforcement failed to intervene in the violence.

Among the findings in ICAP’s report is the fact that “each state has at least one constitutional or statutory provision that applies to the type of paramilitary and private militia activity that may arise at future rallies similar to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.”

In an email to officials in the City of Kenosha and Kenosha County following last week’s shooting, ICAP legal director Mary McCord cited state laws barring the presence of private militias in Wisconsin:

Several provisions of Wisconsin law prohibit private paramilitary and unauthorized law enforcement activity. In particular, the Wisconsin Constitution’s Subordination Clause forbids private military units from operating outside state authority, providing that “[t]he military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power.” Wis. Const. art. I, § 20. In addition, Wisconsin law makes it a felony to “[a]ssume to act in an official capacity or to perform an official function, knowing that he or she is not the public officer . . . that he or she assumes to be.” Wis. Stat. § 946.69(2)(a).

Other armed groups have sought official sanction for their actions. Sheriff David Beth of Kenosha County indicated that at least one group on the ground in recent days reached out to his office requesting he deputize them as a peacekeeping force.

In other cases, militias let law enforcement know they’ll be on the ground, wanted or not. Prior to an armed response to a hoaxer who claimed that “antifa” was going to attack a 4th of July celebration at Gettysburg National Cemetery, militia members informed law enforcement of their plans to police the event. Local militiaman Skip Shaffer told Kim Strong of York Daily Record: “We called law enforcement before we went: We’d like you to know, if the shit hits the fan, we'll have your backs,” he said.

Maladapted attitudes in law enforcement and media

On Aug. 26, Sheriff David Beth of Kenosha County, Wisconsin, held a press conference to respond to the shooting deaths that occurred in the county’s seat the night before. Beth was critical of armed attendants, stating, “Showing up with firearms doesn’t help.”

Beth said he responded, “Oh Hell no!” to the prospect of deputizing one armed group.

Beyond this, the bulk of Beth’s remarks offered little hope that his office is prepared to address the root causes of violence in the city.

While Beth’s recognition that guns tend to escalate tensions more than they de-escalate is heartening, other comments made during the press conference betrayed a misunderstanding of the motives that lead militias to patrol Black Lives Matter protests.

Kenosha Police Chief Dan Miskinis further encouraged the participation of armed groups who have congregated on the fringes of protests by regurgitating the talking points militia groups use to undergird actions that resulted in Tuesday’s shooting.

“Across this nation there have been armed civilians who have come out to exercise their constitutional right and to potentially protect property,” Slate quoted Miskinis as saying.

Miskinis’s comments typify a troubling nationwide trend where law enforcement agencies have been shown to have behaved much more favorably to far-right groups than to antiracist protesters.

In June, a Salem, Oregon, police officer was recorded while the officer was speaking with a group affiliated with the hate group Proud Boys during protests over police violence. In the video the officer appears to instruct the armed group on avoiding arrest for curfew violations.

“We’re going to really enforce the citywide curfew shutdown so we can arrest anybody walking around,” the unidentified officer tells the men. “My command wanted me to come talk to you guys and request that you guys secrete [sic] people inside the businesses or in your vehicles somewhere where it’s not a violation ... so we don’t look like we’re playing favorites.”

In Kenosha, police driving an armored personnel carrier were filmed distributing water bottles to the group Rittenhouse marched with the evening of the shooting. One officer told the group: “We appreciate you guys. We really do.”

These incidents occur amid a history of law enforcement infiltration by members of hate groups and woeful responses by departments when their employees are found to have extremist ties, as detailed in a new report by former FBI special agent Michael German writing for the Brennan Center for Justice. Beth has previously made alarming comments centered around his proposed solution to the problem of violent crime in America.

“I think society has to come to a threshold where there’s some people that aren’t worth saving,” Beth said in a 2018 press conference. “We need to build warehouses to put these people into it, and lock them away for the rest of their lives.”

Mass incarceration has been repeatedly shown to be an ineffective, if not counterproductive deterrent to crime, and one that disproportionately affects communities of color, caused in large part by prejudice. Beth’s proposed “solution,” namely to double down, would only result in more of the same in the long term, and have little effect on armed groups descending on protests in the short term.

During the Aug. 26 press conference, while discussing the arrayed weaponry of law enforcement – including body armor, armored vehicles, and assault rifles – Beth spoke glowingly, and praised other departments who brought their own arsenals to Kenosha: “We had sheriff’s departments coming from all over the state of Wisconsin. … They brought technology. They brought equipment, too.”

As Cassie Miller wrote for Hatewatch, “What’s happening night after night is a truly American phenomenon – a product of the country’s hyper-militarized culture that has, for decades, outfitted police with surplus military equipment and charged members of law enforcement with forcefully controlling social unrest.”

Miller notes that such responses not only “disproportionately expos[e] communities of color to police violence … the heavy-handed deployment of militarized federal troops has another, very disturbing byproduct: It inflames the paranoia of the far right.”

Rather than allaying far-right concerns about antifa violence landing on their doorstep, draconian police responses reify the far right’s belief that violence is the only remedy for their political grievances, while also inflaming their own fears of persecution from the state, which they view with hostility and suspicion.

Unfortunately the mistaken notions informing Sheriff Beth’s views on policing are not contained to Kenosha County. These have been routinely aired by law enforcement nationwide and increasingly amplified by pundits such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who defended the alleged actions of accused shooter Rittenhouse.

In a televised segment – interspersed with clips depicting chaos on the streets of Kenosha – Carlson asked viewers: “So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”

In Kenosha and elsewhere, if authorities wish to maintain order, more guns, whether in the hands of law enforcement or militias, will only make matters worse.

Comments, suggestions or tips? Send them to HWeditor@splcenter.org and follow us on Twitter @Hatewatch.