Commentary

Waiting for the Rittenhouse verdict as the world falls apart

November 19, 2021 9:05 am
Protesters and the family of Jacob Blake hold a candle light vigil in Kenosha on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Protesters and the family of Jacob Blake hold a candle light vigil in Kenosha on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

While waiting for the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial, I stepped out to visit the principal at my kids’ high school — the same school I attended, Madison East. East has been in the local news a lot lately for a series of rowdy protests and fights, including a recent melee in which 100 kids — some fighting, some tagging along to watch — spilled into the street, where they were met by police with pepper spray. 

I don’t mean to compare East’s troubles to the situation in Kenosha, which is much more serious and tragic. But like other scenes of strife around the country, the escalating chaos and violence so close to home makes it feel as though something broken in our society has shaken loose and is destabilizing everything.

At the same time the world was watching the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager from Illinois who brought an AR 15-style rifle to a Black Lives Matter protest and shot three people, killing two of them, my kids were watching the massive street fight from the upstairs windows at East. The school was locked down and police were chasing the students who were fighting, including a kid who brought a bedpost to school and swung it at another kid’s head.

Over the last week or so, community discussion of the fights at East has involved a debate about whether it was a mistake for the district to get rid of school police officers. 

A white kid started a petition to bring back school resource officers, even as Black kids repeated their arguments for getting rid of the police officers, whom they said do not make them feel more safe.

The racial divide in our perceptions of police is back, as if the whole country had not been transfixed by the horror of the George Floyd murder just last year and, finally, united in a collective recognition of the hideous injustice of racist police brutality. 

Then we went back to square one. Black Lives Matter protesters quickly morphed into “looters” and “rioters” in news coverage  and during the 2020 election campaigns Republicans played up the property damage even though the vast majority of protests of the  murder were peaceful. And then came the white nationalists and self-styled militia members, including Rittenhouse, with their semi-automatic weapons, to keep us (white people) “safe.”

Now we are caught in an endless loop in these arguments about safety, unable to get together around our obvious common community interests.

For example, everyone ought to be able to agree that arming teenagers with semi-automatic rifles and sending them out into public areas is a very bad idea. Yet the judge in the Rittenhouse case dropped the charge against him for unlawfully carrying a firearm as a minor — a mere misdemeanor anyway — because, under Wisconsin law, the defense argued, his gun was not short-barreled and therefore it was legal for him to carry it.

It’s hard for people outside the United States to wrap their minds around that.

My family and I happen to be hosting an exchange student from Mexico this year. Given the steady stream of news about school shootings her parents have imbibed from our country over the years, she decided not to tell them about East, where nearly half the school didn’t show up for class one day last week because one of the students involved in the big fight had threatened to bring a gun.

A sweet, quiet, studious girl, she claims not to be afraid. But I heard her whispering in the kitchen to my daughter, asking her if she feels safe at school.

How can any of us feel safe in this Wild West we’ve created? It’s bracing to remember that there are whole nations that don’t have the same militant commitment to unfettered access to firearms, and who don’t accept that, as a consequence of their “freedom,” their kids might be mowed down in their classrooms or in some other public place.

In the Rittenhouse case, the absurdity of the idea that more access to guns makes us safer is on full display. Not only did Rittenhouse argue that he was acting in self-defense when he shot the people who were trying to disarm him, as Farhad Manjoo points out in The New York Times, he was afraid of those people because he thought they might shoot him with his own gun. 

In the end, his self-defense argument rests on his credible fear of being shot with his own AR15.

That’s the same argument Travis McMichael made in the Arbery case in Georgia: He had to shoot jogger Ahmaud Arbery, after chasing him down, because Arbery had grabbed the shotgun he was pointing: “It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would’ve got the shotgun from me, then it was a life or death situation. And I’m gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”

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Guns are our worst enemy when it comes to public safety. But guns combined with the road rage mentality that has seized our culture, fueled by the pandemic, increasingly violent white nationalist rhetoric, and a toxic social media environment are a total disaster.

The only antidote to all of this is to restore our sense of community and mutual humanity. 

On that front, I was slightly encouraged by my conversation with the principal at East. After getting a tip from a parent about another brewing fight this week, a group of staff and parents showed up and prevented the conflict — along with police who stayed in their cars and kept their distance,.

The sense of community embodied in our public schools, which keeps us safe, is exactly what we stand to lose with our increasing sense of alienation and separation into warring camps. It takes a village to raise our kids, and to keep their world from falling apart.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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