Kyle Rittenhouse puts his hand over his face as he is found not guilty on all counts.
When running for the US presidency Democrat Joe Biden vowed to heal the deep divisions which plague his country. He was elected and entered the White House with a moderate approval rating of 53 per cent. Today, opinion polls report his popularity has sunk to an average rating of 41 per cent. While rival Republicans have always disliked Biden, the slippage has been among independents and fellow Democrats.
Writing in The Guardian, former US Labour Secretary Robert Reich pointed out that Biden has managed to secure the passage of key legislation, tackle covid, and turn-round the sinking economy but has received little credit. Reich defined the cause of Biden’s plunge in the polls in two words, “dashed hopes.” Disappointment over his failure to meet their too high expectations has made people angry.
In a commentary in the Atlantic, David Graham listed the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a major factor although foreign policy rarely intrudes on US attitudes toward the government. After months of covid containment, the rise in infections is a second factor, inflation a third and squabbling between progressive and relatively conservative Democrats a fourth.
While these assessments identify specific contributors to the slump in Biden’s ratings, th overarching cause is the politico-economic-cultural divide in the US which Biden has been unable to bridge and, to tell the truth, Biden cannot be expected to tackle.
To make matters worse, the situation is bound to deteriorate further. Politicians, media, organisations and individuals who cultivate the divide are set to exploit last Friday’s acquittal by a Wisconsin court of Kyle Rittenhouse who was charged with double homicide, wounding, and illegal possession of a military-type rifle, the AR-15.
Rittenhouse, 17, drove 30 kilometres from his home in the adjacent state of Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 24, 2020, with the intention of joining right-wing vigilantes seeking to protect private properties from rioters protesting the shooting of a black man by a white police officer a day earlier. The court did not take into account that the youth did not
have a drivers license or the right to possess and carry a weapon. Since he was below 18, had asked a friend to buy and store an Ak-15 at his home in Kenosha. Rittenhouse spent the night there before he and his friend collected their weapons and went to the demonstrations on the 25th.
While his friend took up position on a roof overlooking the action, Rittenhouse, who was also carrying a first aid kit, entered the melee where he shot dead two unarmed men, Jospeh Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26. They thought he was an “active shooter” and sought to disarm him. Rittenhouse also wounded Gaige Grosskruetz, a paramedic who was present to provide aid to injured but had a handgun.
Rittenhouse faced five felony counts for the shootings, first degree intentional homicide being the most serious and carries a life sentence. His defenders argued that was acting in selfdefence when he shot his victims. His detractors contended that if he had arrived only with his first aid kit there would have been no dead and wounded. He was the only armed man in the streets of Kenosha to harm anyone by firing his weapon that night. After the shootings he went home to Illinois, where his mother insisted he turn himself into the police.
His cause was promptly taken up by conservative lawyers, individuals, and groups, which raised funds to post bail set at $2 million demanded by an illinois court. High profile expensive attorneys took on his case and Fox news embedded a team with the defence with the aim of making a documentary on the case. It was expected that he would not only be acquitted because of Wisconsin’s lax law on self-defence but would also become a hero to the right-wing’s violent fringe. It seeks to exploit his victory for the benefit gun owners and make him a poster-boy for would-be vigilantes.
This expectation was not far-fetched. The prosecution had to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that he did not believe his life was in danger when confronted by his three victims. This was an uphill battle in which the prosecution did not succeed while the well-funded defence prevailed. Commentators are critical of the massive investment in his legal team and argue that if he did not have this sort of support he could have been sentenced to prison time on lesser charges if not for homicide. Biden responded by saying the decision of the jury in the case had to be respected.
Black critics pointed out that all those involved in the shootings were white and observed if the shooter had been black and without millions of dollars in funding he would have been treated very differently. Young black men are routinely arrested and jailed or imprisoned for minor of censes such as driving without a license or possessing a weapon while underage. Rittenhouse’s back-story is, ironically, strikingly similar to the experiences of many troubled lower middle-class black youths around his age.
According to Paige Williams writing in the New Yorker last June, Rittenhouse was born to a struggling couple and has two sisters. His father never settled into a steady job, became an alcoholic and, occasionally, took drugs. Rittenhouse’s parents separated. His mother trained to be a nursing assistant but the family was repeatedly evicted from their homes because she could not afford the rent. The family stayed twice in shelters. The boy worked as a cook, a janitor, and a lifeguard. He aimed to finish high school and join the police or become a paramedic.
He falsely claimed to be a trained medical technician although he is too young and to have enrolled in Arizona State University’s nursing school although he has not graduated from high school. Once identified as the Kenosha shooter, he was quickly revealed as a gun fancier, a follower of Donald Trump, and a participant in a Police Explorers programme for teenagers who come from broken homes.
It is feared that his acquittal on all charges will encourage vigilantism among teenagers and other young men who will arm themselves ahead of attending demonstrations, open fire on opponents, and, if and when arrested, plead self-defence. A spike in Rittenhouse-type events is the nightmare of the weak Biden administration which is in no position to ban the sale to civilians of offensive weapons of war, impose controls on owners of such guns, or define the limits of “self-defence.”