DOJ makes moves in Blake case as lawsuit filed against pro-Trump militas

    Protesters gather in Kenosha the second night of protests on August 24th, 2020. This was before the clashes with police later that night. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
    Protesters gather in Kenosha the second night of protests on August 24th, 2020. This was before the clashes with police later that night. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

    The fallout from the Jacob Blake shooting continues to affect the city of Kenosha. On Sept. 22, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced that former Madison Police Chief Nobel Wray will conduct a review of the investigative files, which will then go to Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Gravely. From there, Gravely will render a final decision on whether to charge the Kenosha officers who shot Blake last month.

    “DOJ aims to provide its reports of the incident to the prosecutor within 30 days,” Kaul stated. But the Justice Department will not make charging recommendations. That’s left up to the local district attorney who, Gravely noted, must make a decision beyond a reasonable doubt as to whether the officer who shot Blake broke any laws.

    Wisconsin state law has a framework mandating an outside agency investigate the case. For Blake’s shooting, Gravely has gone the extra mile by requesting a consultant review and analyze the investigative files compiled by the DOJ— in this case retired Madison Police Chief Nobel Wray. Kaul noted in his press release that Wray “has extensive experience in law enforcement including experience at the national level as a police reform specialist for the U.S. Department of Justice.”

    The day after Kaul’s office announced Wray’s involvement, a lawsuit was filed against members of militia groups that flooded Kenosha to confront protesters and people they believed were looting after the Blake shooting. Among those heavily armed self-styled “citizen soldiers” was 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who is charged with killing  two Black Lives Matter protesters and wounding a third.

    Rittenhouse is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit alongside former Kenosha Alderman Kevin Mathewson, a self-proclaimed “commander” of the Kenosha Guard militia, other individual militia members, Facebook and the loosely affiliated right-wing group known as the Boogaloo Bois.

    One of the plaintiffs is Hannah Gittings, partner of Anthony Huberone of the people killed by Rittenhouse. Another was in a group of protesters who were corralled into the area before the shooting occurred. Two other plaintiffs were either harassed or physically assaulted by militia groups as they patrolled the streets and set up checkpoints at the entrances of certain neighborhoods.

    One of the plaintiffs, Christopher McNeal, found that calling police for help was useless. “Mr. McNeal sought the help of the Kenosha police,” the complaint in the lawsuit states, “but was unable to distinguish between the police and the militias, as they appeared to him to be collaborating in their effort to deny the equal protection of the laws and the rights and privileges enumerated in our Constitution.”

    Video footage, apparently shot by milita members, surfaced on social media showing an armored police vehicle offering water bottles and thanks to Rittenhouse and his group. Shortly afterward, Rittenhouse fled to Illinois, where he was arrested and charged with killing  two protesters and wounding another with a rifle he had carried across state lines.

    The difference in how law enforcement reacted to protesters versus armed militias stirred outrage. Facebook has been in the hot seat for its failure to remove a page that issued a call to arms to militia groups. comments on the page, some of which are cited in the lawsuit, included threats to  kill protesters. “We have an army,” the complaint states. “We do not need people playing army—particularly when their targets are engaged in the expression of fundamental rights.”

    In an Aug. 26 press conference, DA Gravely said that a sea of societal imperfections and injustices have been laid bare by the Blake shooting. These include the reactions of protesters, who point to systemic racism and over-policing of Black Kenosha residents as well as questions around the relationship between pro-Trump armed milita groups and local police. Gravely noted, however, that none of those issues will be considered relevant to the final question of how to decide the Blake case.

    “Following review and analysis by the consultant, DA Graveley will confer with the consultant, review the reports of the investigation, and then make an independent determination about what charges, if any, are appropriate,” Kaul said in his press release. “If the prosecutor determines there is no basis for prosecution of the law enforcement officer, and no other circumstances prevent the release, DOJ will thereafter make the reports available to the public.”

    The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Tuesday, seeks redress for “incredibly irresponsible behavior that results in violence and chaos and, ultimately, death,” attorney Juan Flores-Williams told the Kenosha News.

    In an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Matthewson expressed no remorse for the shooting deaths in Kenosha, and said he believes the militia helped keep the city “safe.”

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.