Lawsuit suggests police worked with militias in Kenosha

By: - October 19, 2021 12:04 pm
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)

The Kenosha Police Department’s tolerance of armed right-wing groups after the shooting of Jacob Blake triggered protests and civil unrest last year and is the subject of a newly filed lawsuit. The court filing, pushed by Attorney Kimberley Motley and other attorneys representing the sole survivor of the shooting which allegedly involved then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, called the shooting “a natural consequence of the actions of the Kenosha Police Department and Kenosha Sheriff’s Office in deputizing a roving militia to ‘protect property’ and ‘assist in maintaining order’.’’

The lawsuit is brought on behalf of Gaige Grosskreutz, who was one of three people allegedly shot by Rittenhouse last August. Kenosha had been engulfed in protest for days, which metastasized into clashes with law enforcement, civil unrest, and property destruction in the evenings. Rittenhouse arrived on the second night, alongside dozens of other armed citizens.

The role of the police in our society has been under a microscope since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May, 2021. Local Policing is an ongoing series analyzing the culture, tactics and actions of departments big and small across Wisconsin. If you have a story to share about your local police, reach out to reporters Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman at [email protected] and [email protected]

The militia groups were mobilized by the Kenosha Guard Facebook page. Many comments on the page openly discussed intentions to shoot people who were considered looters, rioters or protesters. The page was also saturated with references in support of former President Donald Trump. Although onlookers attempted to report the page, Kenosha Guard wasn’t shut down by Facebook in time.

Rittenhouse was filmed at several points during the evening on Aug. 25, carrying an AR-15 style rifle. He had traveled to Kenosha from a town in Illinois, allegedly to guard businesses and property. Video also shows armed groups receiving praise and water from law enforcement officers in a large armored vehicle. This exchange is noted in the lawsuit, as is officers saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” Meanwhile elsewhere in the city, groups of Black Lives Matter protesters were met with gas munitions, rubber bullets, and other aggressive tactics by officers. Some protest leaders also felt specifically targeted by what they called  “snatch teams” of law enforcement.

In July, the Wisconsin Examiner reported on documents obtained via open records requests which shed light on how law enforcement viewed the armed groups. Text messages sent between various officers referred to the groups as “very friendly.” Several updates sent by officers showed that even during the curfew, people associated with these groups were not arrested or told to disperse as suspected protesters were. Federal officers from the U.S. Marshals Service also communicated to one another about pickup trucks full of armed people roving the neighborhoods. These marshals, however, indicated that they did not intend to arrest those individuals.

A half-hour before the shooting allegedly involving Rittenhouse, law enforcement texted that, “a caller reported armed counter-protesters slashed tires.” Some of those law enforcement communications, first reported by the Examiner, are referenced in the lawsuit. It also points to separate reports that law enforcement had purposely herded protesters towards armed groups. The unrest resulted in more than $50 million of property damage to the City of Kenosha.

A display made in Civic Park, Kenosha, the site of recent protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A display made in Civic Park, Kenosha, the site of recent protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Grosskreutz lost nearly 90% of his right bicep to the rifle round which struck his arm. Two others, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, were fatally shot. Huber was struck after hitting Rittenhouse in the head with his skateboard as Rittenhouse struggled for control of his rifle. The lawsuit alleges that Huber and others had been attempting to disarm the teenager. Grosskreutz, who had training as an EMT, was able to direct others in tending to his wounds until medics arrived. Video of the shooting quickly went viral online.

Rittenhouse was filmed approaching a line of police officers and, despite stating what happened, was allowed to leave the scene. He traveled back to Illinois where he turned himself in and was charged for the shooting by the Kenosha County District Attorney’s Office. Rittenhouse was later released on $2 million bail, and has remained free pending further court proceedings. Following the shooting, former President Trump expressed sympathies for Rittenhouse. His mother later received a standing ovation at a GOP event. The lawsuit states that if  the presence of armed right-wing groups had not been tolerated by officers, the shootings might  not have occurred.


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Isiah Holmes
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, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.