Kyle Rittenhouse and the Rise of Political Violence in the Twenty-First Century.
Almost everything was captured on camera – numerous cameras, on phones held aloft like candles in the face of tear gas and firework smoke, feeding pieces of footage and livestreams to the numerous platforms.
It began with video footage of a white police officer shooting a Black man named Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a tiny lakeside manufacturing city. Over the next few nights, Kenoshans found themselves immersed in a condensed version of the national experience following George Floyd’s assassination three months earlier. A rally at the shooting site got larger and more vehement, eventually erupting into broken police cruisers; one officer was struck unconscious by a brick. Within hours, officers in in riot gear were firing rubber bullets and pepper balls beneath a veil of smoke emanating from torched municipal trucks, while black-masked arsonists set fire to public buildings.
The following day, the mayor held a news conference but was forced to retire inside the public-safety building due to a violent throng that smashed the front doors’ glass. That evening, cops protecting the county courthouse deployed a sound cannon and tear gas to disperse protests. Numerous businesses and a parole office were destroyed in the fire. A guy in his 70s attempting to defend the Danish Brotherhood Lodge and a nearby store sprayed rioters in the face with a fire extinguisher until he was struck in the jaw by a man wielding a concrete-filled plastic bottle.
The film was broadcast on Fox News and Newsmax in scorching cycles. It fostered rumors and conspiracy theories, provoked heated monologues on talk radio, and spilled over into White House conversations, which then spilled over onto Fox News. It ricocheted around the online platforms themselves, among people who, by the third day, Aug. 25, were persuaded they needed to act — and who, when looking for an explanation of what they had done after the fact, frequently turned to video. When I inquired as to what prompted one local man to leave his home armed with a gun and focused on defending a pizza restaurant across town whose owner he did not know, he linked me to the video of the beating outside the Danish Brotherhood Lodge. “This,” he wrote to me in a Facebook message, “was the catalyst that day for us citizens!”
They referred to themselves as citizens or patriots, and demonstrators and the media frequently referred to them as militias, but it would have been more accurate to refer to them as paramilitaries: predominantly young to middle-aged white men armed with assault-style rifles and frequently dressed in tactical gear who appeared in town that evening arrayed purposefully around gas stations and used-car lots. Their numbers may have ranged from the high dozens to the low hundreds, based on video evidence and firsthand testimony, but no official figures were provided. Law enforcement authorities appeared to have allowed, and occasionally openly supported, their activities, despite the fact that many of them were in violation of the same emergency curfew order that resulted in the arrests of scores of demonstrators.
Kristan T. Harris, the Milwaukee-based host of a streaming talk show called “The Rundown Live” (“covering news and conspiracy that your local news won’t”), a sort of junior cousin to Alex Jones’ conspiracist Infowars media empire, kept one of the most detailed logs of their presence. Harris was also an avid livestreamer, a regular fixture at protests and other events in the Upper Midwest. Harris, an enthusiast for armed citizens’ groups (though not a gun owner himself), had attended numerous gatherings where military-style hardware was prominently displayed. “It’s a penis-measuring contest,” he explained. However, it was instantly apparent to him in Kenosha that something had changed: “When people yell, ‘Hey, take your places, they’re going our way,’ it sounds like battle to me.”
A few silhouetted men with weapons in hand were spotted on the roof of a car dealership. “We have militia on the roof here, which is really cool,” Harris explained to his viewers. “They claim to be here to safeguard the area and its structures.” Two young men stood sentry in front of a silver automobile, armed with weapons. “Get my best perspective,” one of them murmured casually as he leaned against the driver’s side door. He grinned. “By the way, my name is Kyle.”
Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Illinois, arrived in Kenosha the night before. He joined several other young men the following day in defending the dealership where Harris encountered him. He would shoot three men less than two hours later, killing two and wounding the third, instantly changing himself into a Rorschach test.