White LiesHow Democrats React to Kyle Rittenhouse's Acquittal Matters

Kyle Rittenhouse with two white men in blue suits in a courtroom

Photo credit: Sean Krajacic-Pool/Getty Images

The United States’s political landscape is largely dominated by two forces: there are those who want me dead and there are those who are unwilling or unable to meaningfully intervene. The responses of some elected officials to last Friday’s verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse case underscore how even well-meaning leaders can be grimly ill-equipped to challenge white supremacy. If we are to achieve a multiracial democracy, it’s urgent for these ostensible allies to stop making excuses and offering platitudes about “the system working” without interrogating how it works—and for whom.

In early August 2020, white Illinois teenager Kyle Rittenhouse was caught on camera expressing his wish that he had his assault rifle so that he could shoot at people he believed to be shoplifting at a CVS. Two weeks later, Rittenhouse found an opportunity to play an armed vigilante in neighboring Wisconsin. On August 23, 2020, Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey repeatedly shot 29-year old Jacob Blake, Jr. in the back, paralyzing Blake from the waist down. Still raw from the murder of George Floyd, people took to the streets to protest another instance of police brutality and exhort the government to affirm that Black lives matter. As a state of emergency was declared, the National Guard and armed civilians alike descended on Kenosha. Rittenhouse got his semi-automatic rifle, traveled to Wisconsin, and shot three protesters, killing two.

Shockingly, if not surprisingly, neither Sheskey nor Rittenhouse have faced any accountability for the shootings. State and federal prosecutors both declined to even file charges against Officer Sheskey. Rittenhouse was charged with homicide and recklessly endangering safety, but quickly became a cause célèbre among right-wing pundits who can excuse police brutality in Black communities but draw the line at those communities protesting for freedom from brutalization. After a trial with more than a few bizarre procedural and editorialized moments, Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts: Though the teenager quite literally went out of his way to shoot Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, and Gaige Grosskreutz, he successfully argued that he acted in self-defense, and his acquittal has established a frightening, racialized precedent for those attending political protests. If you protest racial injustice, any white vigilante with a gun can seek you out, say you threatened or scared him, and shoot you—without consequence. Rittenhouse’s acquittal is a warning to white allies: the typical benefits of whiteness can be revoked from traitors who challenge white supremacy.

Black people and those in solidarity with us are not afforded the protection of law. It is cruelly ironic, then, that lawmakers’ advice is to put more faith in that very system.

For instance, President Joe Biden, in the wake of the verdict, “urge[d] everyone to express their views peacefully, consistent with the rule of law”—seemingly ignoring that, according to the Rittenhouse judge and jurors, killing us is consistent with the rule of law. “The jury system works,” Biden said. A more accurate statement would have been that the jury system worked for Kyle: It worked to enforce a social hierarchy with white men on the highest rung. There is no comfort to be gained from hearing that the system works when the results it produces entrench inequality and endanger lives. Biden’s unquestioning faith in the jury system also elides the fact that juries themselves have historically been a site of legal discrimination; it was a mere 35 years ago that the Supreme Court held that prosecutors may not exclude potential jurors solely because of their race. And even so, of the twelve jurors and eight alternates selected for the Rittenhouse trial, only one was a person of color. The jury in the ongoing trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers also has only one Black juror, and the judge in that case has acknowledged that there “appears to be” intentional racial discrimination in the jury-selection process. Nevertheless, he allowed the trial to move forward. This is how the system “works.”

On Twitter, congressman and former presidential candidate Eric Swalwell supported Biden’s statement and sought to offer a strategy to progress: “We have more peaceful marching to do. To where? Every ballot box across our land. Lace up.” He continued, “Be pissed about the laws/bias that led to Rittenhouse verdict. And we can partly blame the filibuster for allowing rigged legislatures to write those laws. BUT celebrate the progress YOUR vote helped make today. House Democrats passed Build Back Better to lower your major costs.” Like statements made by Biden and others, Swalwell’s remarks are presumably well-intentioned, but insultingly insufficient. Other would-be vigilantes will surely be emboldened by Rittenhouse’s acquittal. More peaceful marches will be met with more guns. Ballots have yet to block bullets. Dead people will not benefit from the Build Back Better bill, and mourners are not eager to celebrate.

Encouragements to just vote harder effectively tell a grieving country that we can be saved by continuing to do something that hasn’t saved us yet—and is increasingly inaccessible. Even assuming it’s possible to outvote white supremacy, people first have to be able to vote. The Senate’s failure to lift archaic filibuster rules has allowed Senators representing a small minority of the country to block democracy reform legislation, leaving millions vulnerable to disenfranchisement. At least 19 states have enacted at least 33 laws so far this year that make it harder for people to vote. Rampant, racially discriminatory gerrymandering further dilutes the voting power of communities of color. And as a last-ditch effort to sabotage the democratic process, state legislatures have introduced at least 10 bills this year that would directly empower partisan officials to change or overturn election results. It cannot be that the way to fix a legal system that doesn’t work for us is by using an electoral system that also doesn’t work for us. If Congress is just going to tell us to vote, they must at minimum establish clear and enforceable national standards that would enable us to meaningfully do so.

It cannot be that the way to fix a legal system that doesn’t work for us is by using an electoral system that also doesn’t work for us.

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Advising us to recommit ourselves to voting in the future also fails to take into account the present need for safety. We can’t wait until the next election; some of us will be dead by then. And voting alone is a poor recommendation when the officials we voted in have not fully protected us. The Kenosha County District Attorney who decided not to prosecute Officer Rusten Sheskey is a Democrat. The judge who oversaw the Rittenhouse trial was first appointed to the bench by a Democrat. The mayor of Kenosha and the governor of Wisconsin are both Democrats. At the federal level, Democrats hold the White House and have a slim majority in Congress. And though organized white-supremacist violence has finally been named as a clear and present danger by the likes of the Department of Homeland Security, it is still sanctioned—and even encouraged—by the state.

Disturbingly, Democrats’ colleagues across the aisle revel in this violence. Multiple Republicans in the House of Representatives have already offered Kyle Rittenhouse a congressional internship, a position for which his sole qualification appears to be his homicide acquittal. For Republicans, killing people at Black Lives Matter protests should be rewarded with proximity to federal lawmaking power. The danger white supremacy poses to disfavored groups—and to democracy itself—cannot be overstated. Feeble assurances about the system working and chipper reminders to vote send a clear message that political leaders are not treating this existential threat with sufficient seriousness. If we’re ever going to have solutions, we have to at least be honest with ourselves about the scope of the problems. Until then, while a court may have acquitted Rittenhouse, the whole damn system is guilty as hell.