Photo Credit: Lightburst/Wikimedia Commons
I watched Kyle Rittenhouse’s testimony last week, and as he crumpled up in tears, I thought: what a sad, stupid story.
For anyone who has missed the background to the Rittenhouse trial: this is the guy who, at 17, decided to go to Kenosha, Wisconsin, from his home in Antioch, Illinois, armed with an AR-15. It was August 2020, and Kenosha, like many cities, was exploding with protests, some violent, after a police shooting. Believing that he was reaching into his car for a knife, police shot Jacob Blake seven times in front of his child after having first tasered him: Blake is now paralyzed. The Movement for Black Lives organized protests, and, as happened in nearly every city that summer, bad actors flocked to the protest route and beyond to burn, loot, and create mayhem.
Most 17-year-old kids, regardless of their politics, don’t think that demonstrations occurring in a city not their own are their problem to solve. Unfortunately, however, Rittenhouse was a consumer of right-wing media and a hero on his own mind. “After Kenosha’s march for George Floyd,” Paige Williams wrote in the New Yorker almost a year later:
on May 31st, Kevin Mathewson, a former city alderman who had sometimes brought a handgun to city-council meetings, decided that the police needed civilian reinforcements. He started the Kenosha Guard, which was less a militia than an impulse with a Facebook page. But on August 25th, as the city braced for a third night of protests in the wake of Blake’s shooting, Mathewson, who is a private investigator, posted a call for “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property.” He invited “patriots” to meet him at the courthouse at 6 p.m., to defend Kenosha from “evil thugs.”
Rittenhouse himself wasn’t quite sure what he was doing in Kenosha, except to help innocent people that he understood—mostly because of social media disinformation—to be under attack. Initially, Rittenhouse said he was a trained medic (which he wasn’t) and was on the scene to give medical support. He cleaned some graffiti. Other volunteers who showed up imagined themselves as replacements for the police who, in their minds, had had their hands tied by politicians.
Yet Rittenhouse consistently portrayed himself as someone who wanted to help, not hurt, people, a hero-in-waiting who would do brave and good things when called upon. “He explained that he planned to provide first aid to anyone needing it,” Williams wrote, “and said that his gun was for self-protection—`obviously.’ He wasn’t old enough to be a certified E.M.T., yet he shouted, `I am an E.M.T.!,’ and proclaimed, `If you are injured, come to me!’ Adopting the language of first responders, he told a streamer, `If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.’”
Instead, when threatened with violence, he fired his weapon and tried to run away. Instead, he helped no one. Instead, he initially looked for police to turn himself in, and they did nothing but hand him a bottle of water.
Kyle Rittenhouse was, at the very least, a confused person who did not have any of the tools he needed to be in the potential combat situation he believed himself to be in. Strutting around with an AR-15, Rittenhouse was completely untrained to carry the weapon slung across his chest in any situation, much less a fast-moving protest. When he ran into three white protesters, who themselves seem to have been a little unhinged, he panicked.
After a hostile confrontation and a physical tussle in which one protester pulled a gun, Rittenhouse killed two of his adversaries and severely wounded one. This series of events—if his breakdown on the witness stand is any indication—was unintended, and Rittenhouse is traumatized by what he did to this day. That is a far more normal response than not and suggests that he is not the hardened white supremacist that many on the left make him out to be, despite his media diet. In fact, psychologists argue that trained soldiers fear killing someone else more than they fear dying themselves.
I don’t think Kyle Rittenhouse meant to do it.
But here we are: he did. Yet, I think most knowledgeable people expect that Rittenhouse will at least be acquitted of murder under Wisconsin’s self-defense and gun laws. The prosecution clearly expects so as well: they have added lesser charges like “reckless homicide” and “second-degree intentional homicide” for the jury to consider.
Like every other legal issue that has arisen since Donald Trump announced his campaign for president on June 16, 2015, the Rittenhouse trial has been nationalized and politicized well beyond the facts of the case. Whatever the outcome, one side will see it as a disaster and the other as a victory. No one really wants to talk about how this dumb kid ended up in Kenosha in the first place, armed with a box of Band-Aids on his belt and an AR-15 in his hands.
By “dumb kid,” I don’t mean I.Q. dumb or uneducated (although both of these are distinct possibilities): I mean that 17-year-old boys are dumb in very predictable ways, which is why no one should ever let them carry weapons in civilian spaces. Teenagers, and especially boys, make awful decisions, decisions that change their lives as well as other people’s. For example, of the 40,000 traffic fatalities that occur every year, in 1/5 of the cases, the driver is between 16 and 19. Seven to eight teenagers die every day in a car accident. In 60% of those cases, the driver is drunk, and boys are twice as likely as girls to make a bad decision, which results in a fatality.
We don’t know enough about Kyle Rittenhouse to know whether, now 18, he is a bad person. I suspect he isn’t: a fascination for guns doesn’t make you evil, nor does telling lies that make you out to be more accomplished than you are: it makes you shallow and immature. Like many Black and Brown youths who are doing long jail terms, Rittenhouse may also just be a typical boy, one who made a terrible decision to go and liberate his AR-15 from a neighbor’s lockbox where his mother did not know it lived.
The most interesting aspect of this whole story, to me at least, is the point I made earlier: that Rittenhouse imagined himself as a person who did good things. On the one hand, there is no real evidence that he actually volunteered to help anyone: all the “good things” happened in his fantasy life. He also lied to support his idea of himself as a good person—he wasn’t an EMT, he had just spent a little time in Police Explorers and a fire department cadet program, where he may well have learned a few first aid techniques and gone on ride-alongs.
But on the other hand, Rittenhouse did try to help his family. In real life, he was the child of a troubled, violent marriage; his father was an alcoholic; he and his sister were off and on homeless when his parents divorced, and Rittenhouse was bullied at school. So when his mother was felled by medical problems and went bankrupt in 2018, Rittenhouse dropped out of high school, attended classes online, and worked two minimum wage jobs to try to help.
In January 2020, Rittenhouse’s fantasies about, and perhaps real aspirations for, being a good person also led him to a Marine recruiting station. There, he was rejected for military service, and later that year, with the help of his sister’s boyfriend—since he wasn’t old enough—he bought the AR-15 that he took to Kenosha.
So—regardless of the outcome of this trial, what can we learn?
First, because he was not a militia member and only influenced by online vigilantes, we need to have more practical conversations about what it means for people like Kyle Rittenhouse to have access to weapons because they already do. In this vein, I wonder if, in all the efforts to get the millions of guns in private hands under control, as a country, we need to accept that they are there and conduct broad, public education programs about gun safety. I wonder if gun safety, and ethical gun ownership—like sex education—isn’t something we should be teaching in the schools: what the local, state, and federal laws are and why they exist; the legal and ethical responsibilities of gun ownership; and the psychology of violent encounters that include guns.
Second, it seems fairly clear that right-wing groups purposely send untrained kids into situations they are not equipped to cope with. People who know guns also know who is—and who is not—trained to use them responsibly. When Rittenhouse mustered in with the group called to Kenosha, someone should have asked for ID and then taken him home. At the very least, he should not have been left alone. And this, I think, speaks to a more calculating aspect of right-wing violence: having Rittenhouse in the dock, in prison, or even dead, would have been of great use to a grassroots movement eager to collect martyrs, much as Ashli Babbitt’s death at the hands of Capitol police has become a rallying point.
Finally, perhaps the worst aspect of this story is that, if acquitted, Kyle Rittenhouse will have to live the rest of his life with dueling realities: that he is, and always will be, a murderer—and that, by helping no one, he became the hero he always wanted to be, but to all the wrong people.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay is adapted from a post on her Substack, Political Junkie.