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A "Kenosha Strong" sign in downtown bears the slogan used after anti-racism protests turned violent last summer culminating in two protesters shot to death and a third wounded. The teenager accused in the shootings, Kyle Rittenhouse, has become a cause célèbre for militia leaders and other far-right activists.

Far Right Leaders See Rittenhouse Case As Bellwether

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By Heath Druzin


KENOSHA, Wis. — At one point during jury selection for Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial, a potential juror started a soliloquy on the Second Amendment.

Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder stopped him.

“This is not a political trial,” he admonished. The potential juror was dismissed.

That may be, but for militia leaders and far-right activists around the country it’s certainly a politically-charged trial. Opening statements are set for Tuesday.

Rittenhouse, of Antioch, Ill. is the teenager accused of killing two protesters and shooting another. He faces life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges, first-degree intentional homicide.

Rittenhouse was 17 years old when he came from a nearby town in Illinois with a semi-automatic rifle to patrol the streets of Kenosha during a protest against police brutality that turned violent in August 2020.

Those protests were sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, one of many such shootings that have caused outrage in cities around the country.

Rittenhouse, now 18, has become a cause célèbre among some militia leaders, members of the Proud Boys and others in the so-called Patriot Movement, who have called on people to travel to Kenosha to show support for Rittenhouse.

The scene outside the Kenosha County Courthouse on a raw fall morning Monday was fairly quiet as the first day of jury selection began in Rittenhouse’s trial, but there already were few Rittenhouse supporters and detractors.

“Being armed in a situation like that makes sense,” said Margaret Warichak, who heeded the call to come support Rittenhouse. “Because if there’s no police presence, which there wasn’t, I understand that. And I think it’s important that we stand up and we say, ‘This is our home, and we’re not gonna let that happen here.’”

As far away as Idaho, there were calls for Rittenhouse supporters to show up in Kenosha.

If you can you should go!” Real 3%ers of Idaho militia leader Eric Parker Tweeted. “Self Defense is on the line. The second amendment [sic] is on the line.

 It’s yet to be seen how many people will heed that call, but the case resonates with the militia movement because many see it as a bellwether for both gun rights and the right to use self-defense, said Amy Cooter, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has spent years studying and embedding with militias.

Cooter said Rittenhouse’s actions also fit into what many in the militia movement see as their role in community defense.

“They feel like police have been knee-capped and they’re not given enough resources,” she said. “The idea is that it’s their patriotic duty to defend America and that they need to fill the gaps.” 

Outside the courthouse, there was also a group of protesters calling for Rittenhouse to face justice. Many of his critics see the stakes of the case in equally stark terms as the Rittenhouse supporters.

“I question why he came to Kenosha in the first place,” said Veronica King, secretary and past president of the Kenosha NAACP. “He was a weapon of mass destruction walking down the street.”

As for the militia members and far-right activists who may descend on a town still recovering from last summer’s unrest, King wants them to stay home. 

“That will only add more fuel to an already tense situation,” she said. “So I would hope they would not [come], because that would just make matters even worse.”

 

As far away as Idaho, there were calls for Rittenhouse supporters to show up in Kenosha.

If you can you should go!” Real 3%ers of Idaho militia leader Eric Parker Tweeted. “Self Defense is on the line. The second amendment [sic] is on the line.

 It’s yet to be seen how many people will heed that call, but the case resonates with the militia movement because many see it as a bellwether for both gun rights and the right to use self-defense, said Amy Cooter, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has spent years studying and embedding with militias.

Cooter said Rittenhouse’s actions also fit into what many in the militia movement see as their role in community defense.

“They feel like police have been knee-capped and they’re not given enough resources,” she said. “The idea is that it’s their patriotic duty to defend America and that they need to fill the gaps.” 

Outside the courthouse, there was also a group of protesters calling for Rittenhouse to face justice. Many of his critics see the stakes of the case in equally stark terms as the Rittenhouse supporters.

“I question why he came to Kenosha in the first place,” said Veronica King, secretary and past president of the Kenosha NAACP. “He was a weapon of mass destruction walking down the street.”

As for the militia members and far-right activists who may descend on a town still recovering from last summer’s unrest, King wants them to stay home. 

“That will only add more fuel to an already tense situation,” she said. “So I would hope they would not [come], because that would just make matters even worse.

Heath Druzin is host and creator of the forthcoming podcast Extremely American, a podcast produced in partnership with Postindustrial, which examines how militias and other far-right groups are trying to remake America in their absolutist image.

Druzin covers the nexus of politics and the Patriot movement for Postindustrial.

From 2018-20, Druzin was the Idaho-based reporter for Guns & America, a national collaboration between 10 NPR affiliates that looked at the role of firearms in American life. Before that, he covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for Stars and Stripes newspaper.

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