In its opening week, the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen who shot three people, killing two of them, during protests of police violence in Kenosha, has stirred questions, angst and frustration among some of the city’s Black residents.
Kyle Johnson, a Kenosha native and organizer with Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), says the trial comes as many who were continuing to process the chaotic events following the shooting of Jacob Blake last year by Kenosha officer Rusten Sheskey were stung by Sheskey’s return to duty. No charges were issued by the Kenosha County District Attorney’s Office, and the Justice Department closed a review of the shooting in October. Blake was shot seven times in the back and although he survived, was left paralyzed.
Rittenhouse was 17 when he traveled from Illinois to Wisconsin during the first nights of unrest in Kenosha. He arrived armed with an allegedly illegally obtained rifle, joining groups of armed individuals who had descended on the city. Many had organized themselves on the Kenosha Guard Facebook page, with some saying they wanted to protect property or confront protesters. Whereas law enforcement spent several days surveilling, arresting and tear-gassing Black Lives Matter protesters, the right-wing armed groups were left alone.
Video from the night of the shooting shows police in an armored vehicle thanking Rittenhouse and others for being there, and offering them water. Internal Kenosha Police Department text messages and reports, obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner, also showed that officers regarded the armed groups as “friendly.” Half an hour prior to the confrontation which would leave two dead and at least one person wounded in the street, officers received reports of the same armed groups patrolling neighborhoods and slashing the tires of suspected protesters.
Much of the evidence suggesting that law enforcement tolerated and even worked with these groups, has not come up in the Rittenhouse trial. Additionally, Judge Bruce Schroeder ruled early on that the people Rittenhouse shot cannot be referred to as “victims” but, as long as the defense offers evidence, can be referred to as rioters, looters or arsonists.
Schroeder said, “the word ‘victim’ is a loaded, loaded word. And I think ‘alleged victim’ is a cousin to it.” The judge later said that Mark Richards, one of Rittenhouse’s attorneys, may “demonize them [those who were shot] if he wants, if he thinks it will win points with the jury.” Both 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber were killed during the shooting. Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, survived but lost most of his right bicep after being shot in the arm. Rittenhouse was filmed walking up to police vehicles without being detained or arrested. He was able to travel back to Illinois, where he was brought into custody.
After Rosenbaum was shot. Huber was shot as he struck Rittenhouse with a skateboard, in what the prosecutor and others argue was an attempt to disarm an active shooter. After each of them was shot, people in the crowd sought medical attention for the wounded. Rosenbaum was shot four times, and sustained a wound to the head. Rittenhouse later raised $2 million bail, and received the sympathies of then-President Donald Trump.
During the trial, Schroeder has called for breaks in the middle of testimony including, on Nov. 3, during the testimony of Kenosha PD Detective Martin Howard who helped investigate the shooting. Howard stated that initially, police were under the impression that there were four homicide victims. The presence of an additional person wounded during the shooting was also mentioned in police records obtained from other agencies. Howard testified that an individual who appears to attempt to kick Rittenhouse was shot at twice. In a video, the individual who kicked Rittenhouse can be seen limping away as Huber is shot. Law enforcement were unsuccessful in identifying this individual.
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During this particular part of the shooting, Howard stated that the fifth and sixth shots fired by Rittenhouse were directed at this additional individual. Huber took the seventh shot, while Grosskreutz sustained the eighth and final shot. In April the KPD publicly denounced independent journalist Kevin Glowicki of Never Stop Media, who reported on the possibility of an additional victim. Glowicki’s reports used police reports from multiple agencies, as well as police scanner traffic from the night of the Rittenhouse shooting. The police condemned Glowicki’s reports as inaccurate conspiracy theories.
One minute and 24 seconds after Howard first mentioned the fourth victim, Schroeder called for a lunch break for the jurors. Once the break ended Howard’s testimony continued, with prosecutors attempting to play a video depicting Rittenhouse and other armed individuals standing near a local car shop. The person taking the video describes the group as “militia” guarding the car shop. However, Rittenhouse’s lawyers objected to the video being played with audio describing the scene. Schroeder eventually allowed the video to be played partly without sound.
On Nov. 4, a juror was excused by Schroeder after telling an offensive joke about the police shooting of Jacob Blake to a sheriff’s deputy. The joke was reported by the deputy to the judge. The juror argued that the joke didn’t involve “Kyle,” using Rittenhouse’s first name, but he declined to publicly repeat the joke to the judge. Another juror was excused the following day for heath reasons arising from her pregnancy. Just one person of color was selected for the original jury set.
Schroeder interrupted the testimony of Huber’s great-aunt Susan Hughes. An elderly woman, Hughes walked up to the stand with a cane. She testified to Huber’s love for skateboarding and described the last conversations they shared. She noted that Huber was inseparable from his skateboard, and had dreams of opening an indoor skate park in Kenosha. According to Hughes, Huber expressed that he knew Blake personally. As Hughes began to recount the last time she spoke to Huber, Schroeder ruled in favor of objections by the defense and called for a lunch break. “They’re different rules,” Schroeder told the prosecutor. “And we’ve been talking about this all along. There are different rules. Let’s take a break.” Hughes re-appeared to complete her testimony after the break.
As the court dispersed, Rittenhouse’s lawyers could be seen smiling and laughing. In the back of the courtroom, Huber’s girlfriend and loved ones looked on with unhappy expressions. The break did not immediately occur, however, as the prosecutor continued to argue Huber’s character evidence should be allowed. “Our theory as we’ve laid out is that these people were going to stop an active shooter, that they were provoked by Kyle Rittenhouse,” said prosecutor James Kraus, adding that Huber and others were reacting to Rittenhouse having already killed Rosenbaum. “His [Rittenhouse’s] actions there were of such provocation that he was an active shooter, he was a danger to all of them. The state frankly moves that Mr. Huber is a hero and we can present evidence of conduct to rebut this claim that he is aggressively pursuing Kyle Rittenhouse with no basis.” Schroeder countered that character evidence for Huber doesn’t rebut his striking of Rittenhouse with the skateboard, as video provided to the jury shows.
“It doesn’t seem like he is impartial,” Johnson says of Schroeder, “and I don’t really think he’s taking it seriously either. He’s playing Jeopardy with the potential jurors. He’s not allowing the prosecution to do certain things that don’t seem like they violate … like there’s no good reason to disallow that.”
“I think that it just shows that he’s not capable of doing the job that needs to be done in a case with such gravity that means so much to this community,” Johnson adds. “And, honestly, I would love to see a different judge step in and take this case over because I think we really need someone who is going to do their due diligence and make sure that this process is carried out to its full capacity and justice.”
Further heightening the unease is a growing right-wing presence in the Kenosha area. Johnson and other organizers have seen loosely affiliated groups standing in Civic Park, expressing support for Rittenhouse. Talk of armed networks of residents ready to mobilize armed patrols at a moment’s notice linger in the city. “Even this week we’ve seen folks at various hotels with certain flags that denote themselves as belonging to the far right, or the conservative movement, or whatever you want to refer to it as,” Johnson said. “It hasn’t been huge numbers, but I think it’s worrisome enough whether it’s one person or 15 people. Because we’ve seen what one person with a rifle can do to a community.”
“Southeastern Wisconsin, in my view, is the most racist place in the country,” Johnson added. “I think that affects the state, I think it makes the state the most racist place in the country. You have Racine, which was ranked as one of the worst cities for African Americans. You have Milwaukee, which is ranked as the worst city for African Americans, North Side of Milwaukee is the most incarcerated zip code for Black men in America. And now you see what’s transpired here in Kenosha. So I don’t think it can be argued at this point that the tint of racism that is embedded in this community is not an issue. But I also hope folks take away the fact that there’s people that are going to continue to fight against the injustices that happen.”
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