(AP) – Kyle Rittenhouse, the aspiring police officer who gunned down three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during a protest against racism and police brutality, is white. So were those he shot. But for many, his trial next week will be watched closely as the latest referendum on race and the American legal system.
“Make the connection,” said Justin Blake, a Black man whose nephew Jacob was a key part of the backstory of the case. “This is clearly Black and white.”
Rittenhouse was 17 when he used an AR-style semiautomatic rifle to kill two people and wound a third during the summer of 2020. He had gone to Kenosha, he said, to protect property from protesters who took to the streets in anger days after Jacob Blake was shot in the back by a white Kenosha officer.
Rittenhouse faces the equivalent of murder and attempted murder charges and could get life in prison. He has said he fired in self-defense after being attacked by protesters.
After the shooting, he drew sizable support from opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement and supporters of gun rights. Pro-gun conservatives helped raise $2 million for his bail and legal defense. After he got out of jail, he was photographed with apparent members of the far-right Proud Boys.
If Rittenhouse gets off, that would send an ominous message to Black America, Justin Blake said.
“If our country shows that you can shoot Caucasians who support us, then this country can never stand up in any international or global hearing and talk about human rights,” the uncle said. He said if Rittenhouse goes free, white people will be able to “ride down every African American community and just have fun, like you’re going hunting or something.”
Rittenhouse’s lawyers have said he is not a white supremacist, and his defense fund has said he was not part of a militia group.
Some activists also see a racial double standard in the way the Blake and Rittenhouse cases were handled.
Blake was shot seven times and paralyzed at the door of his SUV as his children sat in the back seat. Police say Rusten Sheskey and two other officers responding to a domestic disturbance had tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant and, during a scuffle, a pocketknife fell from Blake’s pants.
Blake has said he picked the knife up and was prepared to surrender once he put it in the vehicle.
After he was rushed to a hospital, police briefly handcuffed him to his bed. State prosecutors declined to charge the officer, saying the knife justified Sheskey’s claim of self-defense. Federal prosecutors also declined to file charges.
Rittenhouse experienced a seemingly different response from law enforcement.
He and others were armed and professed to be there protecting the city’s businesses and homes after protesters set fires and vandalized property on two previous nights of unrest in Kenosha, and after weeks of sometimes-violent demonstrations around the U.S. over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Law enforcement officers saw Rittenhouse and other armed people on the streets that night despite a citywide curfew and passed them bottles of water. One officer was heard over a loudspeaker saying, “We appreciate you guys.”
Later that night, Rittenhouse was chased through a used car lot by Joseph Rosenbaum, a participant in the protests, before he fatally shot the man. Rittenhouse was then seen running onto a street with protesters after him.
A man named Anthony Huber struck Rittenhouse with a skateboard, and the teenager shot and killed him. Seconds later, Gaige Grosskreutz stepped toward Rittenhouse with a pistol, and Rittenhouse shot him in the arm.
Even as people on the street tried to flag Rittenhouse to police officers as the person responsible for the shootings, he was not stopped. With his weapon slung over his shoulder, he put his hands in the air and was waved past a police line.
Hours later, he turned himself in to police in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois.
“What looms above this trial is this whole notion that we have two justice systems, one for Black America and another for white America,” said Blake family attorney Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer who has also represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, both killed in what prosecutors portrayed as acts of vigilantism.
“I just think that right now in America, there is this notion that certain people have the right to solve every disagreement with a gun,” Crump said. “And especially, when we see people protesting for justice for the killing of Black people, that we don’t have to respect their rights to the First Amendment.”
A week before trial, the judge in Rittenhouse’s case ruled that prosecutors and the defense cannot refer to the men killed as “victims,” but can call them “rioters” or “looters” if the evidence supports that. The ruling outraged Black activists, who pointed to it as another racial double standard in the judicial system.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center and a leader of the Movement for Black Lives, said Rittenhouse left home with the intention of dispensing “vigilante justice, for the sake of so-called protecting buildings and businesses, at the expense of human life.”
“To not call the people that are directly impacted by that ‘victims’ is nothing but the tenets of white supremacy masked in unjust laws,” Henderson said.