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Saturday, March 6, 2021

MAGA’s favorite killer: How a kid who gunned down three people became a hero to the far right

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I. The Night Of

Kyle Rittenhouse raised his hands in the air as he stumbled toward the convoy of armored police vehicles, his AR-15 bouncing against his legs.

Behind him, three men who had chased him lay bleeding on the street. Two were dying, and the third was in agony, his right bicep blown off.

Kyle, a teenager from Illinois, had traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, with a semiautomatic rifle he’d bought illegally. He had inserted himself into the third straight night of rioting that erupted over the police shooting of a local resident named Jacob Blake. Then, when he found himself engulfed by the chaos and violence in the streets, he opened fire.

Now, as police arrived at the scene, Kyle tried to surrender. He approached the oncoming vehicles, hands above his head. Bystanders pointed and shouted that he was the gunman.

And then … nothing.

One after another, the police drove past Kyle, lights flashing. An officer screamed at him to get out of the way.

“Clearly,” Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis later explained, the officers at the scene were “not seeing him as a suspect or a threat of any kind.”

The moment was emblematic of the nationwide tensions that had sparked a summer of civil unrest. To supporters of Black Lives Matter, it was another glaring example of a racial double standard in policing. Just a few nights before, officers in Kenosha had shot Blake — a Black man who was armed with a knife and resisting arrest — seven times in the back, leaving him paralyzed for life. A white teenager who had gunned down three people with a far more dangerous weapon, meanwhile, couldn’t get arrested even when he tried.

But on the right, a movement sprang up to celebrate Kyle as an all-American hero. Fox News portrayed him as a patriot who stood his ground against an angry mob. His mother, Wendy, received a standing ovation at a conservative convention. The notorious far-right lawyer L. Lin Wood rushed to represent Kyle, raising millions of dollars in donations for his legal defense. Officials in the Department of Homeland Security were instructed to depict Kyle in a sympathetic light. Even President Donald Trump waded into the debate, speculating that Kyle “probably would have been killed” had he not pulled the trigger.

The right’s lockstep defense of Kyle Rittenhouse offered an ominous foreshadowing of the insurrection at the Capitol in January, when an armed and violent mob stormed the building and battered police officers. While Trump had appealed to millions of Americans, including Kyle, with his campaign mantra of “law and order,” the words actually endorsed a lawlessness as old as America itself. Many of his supporters have come to believe they should be free to do whatever they like, wherever they like — be it refusing to wear a mask in a grocery store, calling for the assassination of political opponents, or showing up to a riot with an illegal weapon. The siege on Congress was simply an extension of the principle established in Kenosha: The law, ultimately, is whatever “patriots” say it is.

Kyle, a boy who loved police and guns and the president, came to believe it was both his right and his duty to preserve law and order as he saw fit. A few hours before the shootings, he told a reporter why he had traveled to Kenosha, gun in hand. “People are getting injured,” he said, standing in front of a car dealership with other heavily armed vigilantes. “Our job is to protect this business. And part of my job is to also help people.”

II. An All-American Boyhood

Kyle spent much of his young life imagining himself as a savior.

He struggled in school but participated eagerly in cadet programs at his local police station and fire department. He was disqualified from joining the Marine Corps, but was hired as a part-time lifeguard at the Hastings Lake YMCA, a job that would teach him the basic first-aid skills he would later offer to protesters in Kenosha.

And when a relative attempted suicide, twice, it was Kyle who called 911 both times for help.

Kyle grew up in Lake County, Illinois, a cluster of quiet villages, suburban neighborhoods, and commuter towns. Though the county is one of the country’s wealthiest, Kyle’s family struggled to get by. His mother, Wendy, worked as a nurse’s assistant in a nursing home while raising Kyle and his two sisters on her own. Court records show she sued Kyle’s father, Michael, for child support in 2014, and filed for bankruptcy in 2018.

Kyle’s family moved repeatedly, apparently unable to pay the rent. Liens and eviction records filed in the Lake County Circuit Court indicate that they owed money to several landlords. Their last known address was a small apartment complex tucked behind an industrial park in the town of Antioch.

On a recent visit, the family’s old apartment on the ground floor appeared empty, a small barbecue abandoned outside. Neighbors said Kyle’s family had lived there less than a year. One woman who chatted with Kyle while he was walking a dog last summer described him as “nice and sweet as could be.” But the family had left in a hurry, within days of the shootings, as protesters and reporters descended on the neighborhood.

Kyle had a tough time in school. In 2017, Wendy filed for an order of protection on Kyle’s behalf against a 13-year-old bully who was calling Kyle names and threatening to hurt him. The bully “comes to my apartment and yells at my apartment to my son Kyle calling him names and tell him that he is going to kick his butt,” Wendy wrote in the petition. “Last month in December they call me and telling me that I need to watch my son or he is going to get hurt.” Kyle ended up dropping out of school after only one semester.

Things weren’t any easier at home. According to police reports obtained by Insider, Kyle called 911 twice to report a relative’s suicide attempts — first in May 2018, when he was just 15, then again in May 2020, when he was 17. Both times, Kyle told dispatchers and police officers that the relative had swallowed large quantities of pills. Both times, the relative was rushed to a hospital by ambulance.

Kyle Rittenhouse

Kyle deeply admired police officers and joined a cadet program that gave him a uniform and hands-on training.

Grayslake-Lindenhurst-Hainesville Public Safety Program/Facebook


It’s no surprise, then, that Kyle spent his teenage years idolizing those charged with protecting the weak and standing up to bullies: the police. As a police cadet, Kyle was eligible to receive basic firearms training and to ride along with officers on patrol. He also joined the fire cadets, who met every other week for hands-on instruction and accompanied firefighters on calls. But when Kyle tried to join the Marines, he was turned away. Enlistment typically requires the equivalent of a high-school diploma.

It was as if Kyle was playing dress-up, auditioning for a role in law enforcement. Before Facebook removed his profile, it was filled with photos of him in uniform, sporting military-style camouflage, police bomber jackets, trooper hats, and even firefighter gear. In one picture he posed with a rifle — apparently the same one he would use in Kenosha — wearing American-flag-themed Crocs and a broad smile.

Kyle was also drawn to Trump, who warned that violent elements in society were waging war on the police. In January 2020, Kyle traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to attend a campaign rally for the president. Standing in the front row, just feet from Trump, he looked up at the stage in awe as the president railed against “crime, corruption, and chaos” and praised “the incredible heroes of law enforcement.”

Kyle did what he could to support the police. He frequently posted on his Facebook page about Blue Lives Matter, a pro-police countermovement created in response to Black Lives Matter. On his 16th birthday, he asked his friends to celebrate by donating to Humanizing the Badge, a pro-police nonprofit organization. His Instagram biography featured the slogans “Trump 2020” and “BLUE LIVES MATTER.”

“Bruh I’m just tryna be famous,” his profile read.

In a sense, it was Kyle’s childhood — his small-town roots, his hardscrabble upbringing, his reverence for anyone in uniform — that has made him an ideal symbol for the far right. Here was a boy who wanted to grow up to be a policeman, a boy willing to take up arms to defend a city beset by racial unrest. Twitter fan accounts have tracked every detail of his case and traded memes mocking Kyle’s victims, while his mother raised money for his defense by selling “Free Kyle” merchandise, including sports bras and bikinis. “He’s a national treasure and a hero,” one anonymous donor to Kyle’s defense fund told Insider. “An American hero.”

kyle rittenhouse patch

The MAGA crowd has deified Kyle, plastering his face on internet memes, T-shirts, and patches.

Jim Urquhart/Reuters


In the handful of interviews he has given, Kyle comes across as bold and self-assured. He is articulate when he speaks and was confident enough in Kenosha to bark friendly commands at police officers, journalists, protesters, and armed vigilantes more than twice his age.

But in his perpetual desire to help, Kyle sometimes seemed prone to intensifying rather than de-escalating conflicts. One widely circulated video taken early last summer appears to show him jumping into a brawl between several teenagers and repeatedly slugging a girl from behind.

In Kenosha, in an interview with Richie McGinniss of The Daily Caller just hours before the shootings, Kyle presented himself as a selfless, fearless protector. He knew danger was all around him, and he was ready for battle.

“If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way,” he said. “That’s why I have my rifle, because I need to protect myself, obviously.”

III. The Vigilantes

It’s easy to see how hero fantasies may have drawn Kyle to Kenosha, where yet another police shooting had sparked civil unrest. On August 23, a Kenosha police officer had fired seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake, who was resisting arrest. The shooting was filmed by a bystander with a cellphone, and the footage quickly went viral.

Kenosha erupted. During the days, the protests remained largely peaceful; in the evenings they devolved into mayhem and violence. For three nights in a row, rioters torched cars and razed buildings, leaving businesses in ruins and residents homeless. Police fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas, and Wisconsin’s governor activated the National Guard. All told, city officials estimated that the riots caused $50 million in damage.

On the evening of August 25, right-wing vigilantes began arriving in Kenosha, determined to confront Black Lives Matter protesters and rioters. Kevin Mathewson, a member of a group that called itself the Kenosha Guard, created a Facebook event calling for “patriots willing to take up arms and defend [our] City tonight from the evil thugs.” Facebook, which has since removed both the Kenosha Guard page and Kyle’s profile, has said there is no evidence Kyle was part of the online group or was even invited to the event.

Kyle, in fact, was already in Kenosha. The day before, he had come to the city, a half-hour drive from his home, to work a shift as a lifeguard at a local pool. After he was off duty, he and his sister spent the night at the home of his friend, 19-year-old Dominick Black, where they watched livestreams of the violence unfolding downtown. Kyle, as usual, was eager to make himself useful. The next morning, the trio headed out to help with the clean-up, scrubbing graffiti off the side of a school.

kyle rittenhouse graffiti

The morning of the shootings in Kenosha, Kyle went downtown to help clean up the damage from the riots.

Scott Olson/Getty Images


When his mother arrived to pick up Kyle and his sister, he decided to stay in Kenosha. He told Wendy he was going to hang out at Black’s house again. In reality, the pair headed to a car dealership they believed was hiring private guards for the night. The co-owner of the dealership has denied that he hired anyone to protect the business, nor did he want or endorse their help. But the promise of a “job” as an armed guard, even an unpaid one, seemed like just the sort of role Kyle had been dreaming of.

With his cowboy boots, AR-15, and military-style rifle sling he’d purchased earlier that day, Kyle fit in perfectly with the heavily armed groups in Kenosha that evening. It remains unclear how closely he was interacting with the vigilantes, but he spent much of the evening alongside a member of the Boogaloo Bois, an extremist antigovernment group known for wearing Hawaiian shirts and warning of an imminent civil war.

Kyle told The Washington Post he hadn’t known any of the armed insurgents he met in Kenosha that night, but they shared a common purpose. “I’m not part of any group,” Kyle said. “They were just complete strangers that were there to help protect the businesses with us. They just came with us to help, so they just tagged along with us.”

Throughout the night, Kyle was calm and assertive as he hollered out offers for medical aid and chatted with police officers and journalists. In numerous social-media videos, he could be seen asking protesters if they were injured, and misrepresenting himself as a certified EMT.

If the police were alarmed at the presence of so many right-wing vigilantes in their city, they didn’t show it. At one point, Kyle barked out an order at a cavalcade of passing police vehicles. “We need water,” he said.

An officer opened up the roof hatch and began tossing out bottles of water to the armed men surrounding Kyle.

“We appreciate you guys, we really do,” a voice from inside the vehicle said.

None of the cops questioned whether the baby-faced teenager was old enough to legally carry the semiautomatic rifle strapped to his torso. In fact, he wasn’t. Kyle had persuaded Black to purchase the AR-15 for him months earlier. Kyle told The Post he had paid for it with $1,200 he received in unemployment assistance after he was furloughed from the YMCA.

Kyle and Black had originally agreed to keep the rifle at the home of Black’s stepfather, who lived in Kenosha, and to use it only when they went hunting. But when the pair decided to go to the car dealership that night, Kyle insisted on picking up the gun and bringing it along.

Black later told police he knew Kyle wasn’t old enough to carry the rifle. But he decided not to speak up, fearing that Kyle would have “thrown a fit.” Black now faces two felony counts of intentionally providing a dangerous weapon to a minor resulting in death.

Kyle’s lawyers say he was “legally entitled to open-carry the firearm under Wisconsin law,” citing a provision that allows minors to carry rifles and shotguns for hunting. Prosecutors have brushed the argument aside, alleging that Kyle was “hunting humans, not deer.” State law, they argue, is clearly intended to bar minors from possessing dangerous weapons.

Kyle has said he has no regrets about bringing the AR-15 with him that night. “I feel I had to protect myself,” he told The Post. “I would have died that night if I didn’t.”

IV. The First Shooting

The notion that Kyle would have been killed had he not armed himself has become gospel among his right-wing supporters, many of whom have expansive views of their Second Amendment rights. John Pierce, a prominent conservative activist who served on Kyle’s defense team, called the teenager’s upcoming trial “the most important case in the history of self-defense in the Anglo-American legal system.” Kyle, he argued, is the modern embodiment of the “well-regulated militia” protected by the Constitution.

In reality, it’s impossible to know whether Kyle would have lost his life in Kenosha had he not been armed. The very presence of his weapon, after all, threw additional fuel on what was already a raging fire. Throughout the night, tensions had been mounting between the right-wing vigilantes and the protesters they had come to confront. According to CJ Halliburton, an independent journalist known as “CJTV” who livestreamed the evening on Facebook, many protesters were also armed. “They had ‘Justice for Jake’ written on their helmets,” he told Insider. “They were making it clear that they were there to defend Kenosha and the people from outside antagonists.”

Joseph Rosenbaum, a 36-year-old Kenosha man, seemed especially intent on taunting the vigilantes. In one video, he was captured daring armed civilians outside a gas station to “shoot me.” In another, he could be seen helping to push a flaming dumpster across a street. In yet another, he was naked from the waist up, his shirt wrapped around his head, swinging what appeared to be a chain.

Rosenbaum was not well. Just that morning, he had been released from a psychiatric hospital in Kenosha following a suicide attempt. His fiancée, Kariann Swart, told The Post that Rosenbaum had recently been charged with domestic violence, and had served three weeks in jail after violating a restraining order. As far as she knew, he was homeless.

Kyle, meanwhile, had decided to leave his post at the car dealership and offer medical assistance to protesters. By the time he tried to return to the dealership, police had barricaded the only route back. That’s when Kyle crossed paths with Rosenbaum, and the evening quickly descended into violence.

Several videos captured what happened next, from multiple angles. After a brief confrontation, Rosenbaum began chasing Kyle, who turned and fled. As Rosenbaum gained ground, he hurled the plastic bag he’d been carrying since his hospital discharge. It contained his underwear, socks, and a stick of deodorant.

The bag missed Kyle as he sprinted past a row of parked cars. Then, as Rosenbaum caught up to the teenager, a nearby protester fired a warning shot into the air. A video from the scene shows a muzzle flash just feet to the left of Kyle, who turned to face Rosenbaum.

According to an eyewitness, Rosenbaum tried to reach for Kyle’s gun. The teenager raised his rifle and opened fire, striking Rosenbaum four times.

Kyle ran behind the parked cars before circling back to Rosenbaum, who lay bleeding out on the pavement. Kyle put his cellphone to his ear — but instead of calling 911, he dialed Black.

“I just killed somebody,” he told his friend.

V. The Pursuit

The sound of gunfire alerted everyone nearby to Kyle’s presence. Halliburton, the journalist, began running toward the noise, his camera rolling. He made it only half a block before he saw a wide-eyed, terrified teenager clutching a rifle and running down the street. He was being chased by a mob of people screaming “He shot somebody! He shot somebody!”

Kyle passed within 10 feet of Halliburton. “I didn’t shoot anybody,” he told the journalist.

“He looked scared,” Halliburton recalled. “He looked like a little kid carrying a huge gun.”

As Kyle ran, the crowd pursuing him grew.

“What’d he do?” someone shouted.

“Just shot someone!” a response came.

“Get his ass!” another person yelled.

At that moment, Kyle tripped, slamming to the ground in the middle of the street. Rolling over to face his pursuers, he raised his rifle. Some slowed as they approached, jerking away at the sight of the gun. One protester appeared to kick Kyle in the head.

Anthony Huber, a 26-year-old skateboarder from Kenosha who had joined the pursuit, was undeterred. Running up to Kyle, he bashed the teenager with his skateboard. Then, as he reached for Kyle’s rifle, Huber appeared to lose his balance. Kyle fired one shot into his chest.

Gaige Grosskreutz, a 26-year-old activist from Milwaukee, was a few feet from Huber when he fell. Like Kyle, Grosskreutz had arrived in Kenosha with a gun and a medical kit, hoping to help the injured. Unlike Kyle, he had experience working as a paramedic, and he had a concealed-carry permit for his handgun.

Now, as Huber lay dying in the street, Grosskreutz paused. Holding his own gun, he put his hands in the air. Then he darted toward Kyle, who fired a shot into his right arm.

kyle rittenhouse

Kyle had tripped and fallen to the ground just before he shot Anthony Huber, right, and Gaige Grosskreutz, left.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


Grosskreutz doubled over. “I need a fucking medic!” he screamed as blood gushed from his arm. A nearby photojournalist moved in closer to Grosskreutz, to get a better angle.

“There is no way — if you’d have seen the wound that I saw — you would’ve thought that that arm was going to stay on his body,” said Halliburton, who was feet from Kyle when he opened fire. “It was a scary, scary moment, just watching the blood pumping out of his body.”

Screaming in pain, Grosskreutz yelled that he had a tourniquet in his medic bag. Halliburton pulled it out and tried to save Grosskreutz’s mangled arm. “There was just enough of his arm left above the bicep to get the tourniquet on, which was another miracle,” Halliburton said.

As Halliburton fumbled with the tourniquet, Grosskreutz guided him through the process.

“You’re doing it wrong,” the medic told him.

“Help me,” Halliburton said.

“I don’t know if I was talking to him or talking to God,” the journalist later recalled.

VI. The Standing Ovation

Hours after the shooting, Kyle turned himself in to the police station in his hometown of Antioch. Between bouts of crying and vomiting, he told officers he had “ended a man’s life” and “shot two white kids.” He faces five felony charges, including murder, attempted murder, and possession of a dangerous weapon while under the age of 18.

Footage from inside the police station shows Kyle and his mother sobbing together, their arms wrapped around each other. At one point Kyle asks an officer if he can go home and receive counseling for PTSD. At another, he can be seen hyperventilating.

Kyle has maintained that the shootings were in self-defense. He and his lawyers declined to respond to questions from Insider, as did his family and friends.

It didn’t take long before conservatives began lionizing Kyle — and blaming protesters for the violence. “Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” Tucker Carlson said on Fox News less than 24 hours after the shootings. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”

Michelle Malkin, the far-right commentator, brought Kyle’s mother to an event for Republican women in Wisconsin, where she received a standing ovation. Afterward, Malkin proudly tweeted a photo of her and Wendy at the event. “I was able to talk to Kyle by phone & THANK HIM for his courage!” Malkin wrote. She ended the tweet with “#fightback.”

michelle malkin wendy rittenhouse

The conservative firebrand Michelle Malkin, left, posed with Kyle’s mother, Wendy, and his attorney, John Pierce, at a GOP event in Wisconsin.

Twitter/@michellemalkin


The hashtag was a direct plug for the conservative lawyer and conspiracy theorist L. Lin Wood, who had rushed to represent Kyle within 48 hours of the shootings. An organization Wood helped create, #FightBack Foundation, raised millions to cover Kyle’s bail. But according to prosecutors it was also used as “an unregulated and unreported slush fund” to underwrite lawsuits that Wood was filing on behalf of Trump to try to overturn the election of Joe Biden. Given the fund’s competing priorities, some of the money raised to defend Kyle may have been used to spread misinformation on behalf of the president he idolized.

The fund’s dubious uses surprised even some of its biggest donors. In November, Wood announced on Twitter that Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and prominent Trump ally, had helped raise money for Kyle’s bail. But Lindell quickly issued a statement insisting that the headlines about the donation had surprised him: He had contributed $50,000 to the foundation to support its election-fraud litigation, not specifically for Kyle.

Eventually, the defense fund run by Kyle’s family announced the firing of both Wood and John Pierce, the other conservative activist who had been representing Kyle. The family, who said it had never “received an accurate accounting” for the money #FightBack raised in Kyle’s name, has created an independent trust to oversee all funds raised for Kyle’s defense. Pierce has said he had no affiliation with #FightBack since taking Kyle’s case, and Wood has denied allegations of mismanaging the funds and said his foundation keeps detailed financial records.

Other organizations — including one that supports gun rights and another that backs right-wing vigilantes across the country — have reportedly given $100,000 to Kyle’s family to help with personal expenses. Another crowdfunding campaign raised nearly $600,000.

But some donors who contributed to Kyle’s legal defense freely admitted to Insider that their support doesn’t have much to do with Kyle at all. In their eyes, Kyle is simply a convenient way to give a middle finger to Black Lives Matter and anyone else they consider enemies of America.

A man wears a shirt calling for freedom for Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, the man who allegedly shot protesters in Wisconsin, during a US President Donald Trump Campaign Rally, the day after the end of the Republican National Convention, at Manchester airport in Londonderry, New Hampshire, on August 28.

Kyle’s donors and supporters believe the teenager has been unfairly smeared by the left.

Joseph Prezioso / AFP


In explaining their support for Kyle, many donors ticked off long lists of conservatives who they feel have been unfairly maligned by the media and the left. Among those cited most frequently were Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high-school student who was filmed standing face to face with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial, and Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis lawyers charged with felonies after brandishing guns at protesters who were marching down their private street outside their home.

Ronnie Thomas, a donor from Texas, said he lives paycheck to paycheck and can’t usually afford to aid political causes. But when he learned that major crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe and Fundly had shut down campaigns for Kyle, citing violations of terms of service, something in Thomas snapped.

“They made it political,” he said. “This kid needed support. Nobody was willing to stand up for him. That was my way of saying ‘enough.’ Someone’s got to step up and say we’re tired of the peer pressure, we’re tired of being pushed around. I’m going to do what I can to support this kid.”

Roughly $20 was all Thomas could afford to give. So he, along with 13,000 other donors, sent his money to a campaign hosted on the Christian crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo.

Another Wyoming donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Kyle’s case rekindled a frustration he’d felt when a friend called him racist for criticizing Obamacare. “You cannot have a reasoned, rational, logical discussion right now, and it’s because of the left,” he said. “These leftists believe Kyle is some kind of white supremacist Nazi. From what I’ve seen and read, there is nothing to indicate that whatsoever.”

VII. ‘Proud of Your Boy’

Whatever his political beliefs, Kyle doesn’t fit easily into well-established categories of deadly shootings. He is unlike the mass killers who have terrorized American schools, churches, and businesses in recent years. His actions in Kenosha, though deadly, were not indicative of a bloodthirsty rampage. He opened fire only on those who chased him, a point his attorneys intend to make the centerpiece of his defense.

His case more closely resembles that of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch volunteer who followed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin through a Florida neighborhood in 2012 despite a 911 dispatcher’s advice to stand down. Like Zimmerman, Kyle dreamed of becoming a cop. Like Zimmerman, he was lionized by the right for enforcing his own version of law and order. And like Zimmerman he stands a good chance at being acquitted at trial.

From a legal standpoint, it may not matter whether Kyle was right or wrong to be in Kenosha after curfew with a gun he didn’t legally own. Legal experts told Insider that the case against Kyle will come down to one key factor: whether the jury believes he had a reasonable fear for his own life when he pulled the trigger.

Under Wisconsin law, Kyle can claim self-defense if he reasonably perceived a threat to his life, and responded with an appropriate amount of force. Since Rosenbaum and Huber are dead, it’s impossible to know whether they intended to kill Kyle that night, or if they simply hoped to disarm him. And since both men, along with Grosskreutz, were chasing Kyle — Huber wielding a skateboard and Grosskreutz a handgun — a jury could rule in Kyle’s favor.

“The jury is required to acquit him if there’s any reasonable doubt,” said Anthony Cotton, the former president of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “If the prosecution hasn’t met that burden, which is so insanely high, they have to find this kid not guilty.”

In arguing that Kyle acted in self-defense, his lawyers have repeatedly denied that he is affiliated with extremist or white supremacist groups. In the aftermath of the shooting, even the armed vigilantes who fraternized with Kyle in Kenosha initially distanced themselves from him. Kevin Mathewson, the Kenosha Guard organizer who issued the call for “patriots willing to take up arms,” told reporters that Kyle “had no business carrying a gun.” Ryan Balch, the Boogaloo Boi seen walking with Kyle that night, called him “a kid who lied to the people he was with.”

But prosecutors in Kenosha remain skeptical. In January, they obtained damning footage of Kyle, who was released from a Kenosha jail in November on a $2 million bond, flashing white-power signs at a bar with a group of Proud Boys. In the footage, captured by the bar’s security cameras, Kyle is clad in a T-shirt that reads “Free as Fuck,” posing with his fingers in the “OK” sign commonly used by white supremacists. Prosecutors alleged that Kyle was “loudly serenaded by five of the adult males in his group with the song ‘Proud of Your Boy,’ the anthem for the Proud Boys.” Kyle’s lawyers insisted that he didn’t know the men and has no ties to the group.

kyle rittenhouse

Kyle even drew support from the government’s main law-enforcement arm: the Department of Homeland Security.

Nam Y. Huh/Pool via Reuters


Like George Zimmerman before him, Kyle Rittenhouse has become more an icon than an individual. His actions in Kenosha were the result of two intertwining motifs of the Trump era: a distorted ideal of personal freedom beyond restraint or consequences, and a conviction that “law and order” is something that applies only to one’s enemies, never to oneself. Together, those threads of twisted logic gave Kyle the audacity to show up in a city that wasn’t his, with a rifle he couldn’t legally own, believing he was the one with the law on his side. In picking up a weapon, he himself became weaponized — not just by the far right, but by the highest reaches of the federal government.

Perhaps the greatest irony has been the support he’s received from those responsible for protecting America’s cities. In an internal document leaked to the media last fall, officials at the Department for Homeland Security were instructed to cast Kyle not as a threat to public safety but as a symptom of the widespread unrest over police violence. The message was clear: Black Lives Matter — not Kyle Rittenhouse nor the right-wing vigilantes he sided with — was responsible for the bloodshed in Kenosha.

“This is why we need to stop the violence in our cities,” the talking points said. “Chaotic and violent situations lead to chaotic, violent outcomes. Everyone needs law and order.”


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