Assumed Innocence and Guilt – A Matter of Race

Image credit: Stephen Maturen / Reuters

In 2014, in Cleveland, Ohio, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police for holding a toy gun – within moments of cops arriving on the scene. Most recently, 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by cops in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for allegedly having a knife. 

Contrast these instances to that of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who came to Kenosha armed with a semi-automatic rifle. He was seen shooting protesters, killing two and injuring another in the protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. In a video, Rittenhouse walks right past law enforcement without question, brandishing a massive weapon, despite the city imposing a curfew. In fact, one of the officers in Kenosha said in a loudspeaker to militia members, “We appreciate you guys. We really do.” The cops even fraternized and shared bottled water with Rittenhouse. 

Rittenhouse was ultimately arrested and has since become a hero for many on the far-right, with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for his legal defense. 

Kyle Rittenhouse was not unique. He was one of numerous armed right-wing, pro-cop activists who came to Kenosha, at least partly in response to social-media-like conspiracy theory website InfoWars.

While many people don’t want to see buildings burned down and windows smashed, the people of Kenosha were right to rebel against the brutal shooting of Jacob Blake! The far-right militias were called out to defend this society’s distorted sense of law and order – one in which property is valued more than life, particularly Black peoples’ lives. 

How is it that law enforcement finds 12-year-old Tamir Rice with a toy gun more threatening than 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse with a semi-automatic rifle? Why did Rittenhouse receive dramatically different treatment by cops than Tamir Rice, George Floyd, or Jacob Blake?

Could it be that Rittenhouse was white and the others were Black? 

Could it be that there has been a growing overlap between far-right, white nationalist forces within the ranks of police departments across the country? Racism has been part of policing in the U.S. from the very beginning. But documentation of far-right groups infiltrating police departments has been growing. And this reality has been underway for decades – it’s not unique to the Trump administration. 

In addition, the way events unfolded in Kenosha are not isolated. Far-right extremists have become emboldened with their violence, particularly with regard to the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. There has been a bomb plot against Black Lives Matter protesters in Nevada, the targeted killing of a federal court security officer with the intent to incite a civil war by a member of the Boogaloo Boys in Oakland, California, and a Ku Klux Klan leader driving his car into a crowd of police brutality protesters in Virginia.

What does it mean to talk about justice in this society? What does it mean to talk about justice when a Black 12-year-old’s toy gun is perceived as more threatening than the semi-automatic weapon of a white 17-year old? This system offers us no real justice.