The trial and acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse has once again shown how deeply racism is imbued in the so-called “justice system” of the United States. The trial has driven the racist wedge in our society even deeper: the far right is hailing him as a hero, and the left is criticizing the justice system for letting a white supremacist get away with murder. Our opinions on this trial really depend on how we view racism, the role of the police, the judicial system, protests and “riots,” and gun control.
There was no question that Rittenhouse killed two protesters and injured one with a semiautomatic rifle at an August 2020 protest for Black lives in Kenosha. His defense was based on his claim that he acted in self-defense, and the jury decided that he did: they acquitted him of homicide and even of recklessly endangering safety.
The trial was extremely biased in favor of Rittenhouse. The judge disallowed crucial video evidence on ridiculous and ignorant grounds (the “digital zoom” feature), and would not allow the court to describe the protesters Rittenhouse killed as “victims” (but allowed the terms “rioters” and “looters”). The judge made it clear that he stands on the side of Rittenhouse and sees the victims as responsible for their own deaths.
Whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense was the crucial question in this trial. But if we get bogged down in this, we won’t see the forest for the trees. To say that Rittenhouse was justified in bringing a semiautomatic weapon to fight anti-racism protesters is to justify racism itself. It places the fear of possible property damage, fueled by racism, above the rights and needs of people who experience racist violence and the threat of it from cops and others on a daily basis. Rittenhouse is a supporter of “Blue Lives Matter,” which looks down on the movement for Black lives as illegitimate, violent, and requiring strict police control, and so it made sense for him to arm himself and go to a Black Lives protest.
Whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense in the moment does not change the fact that he took a clear side opposed to the fight against racism. The Black Lives Matter movement is a response to centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and police terror against Black people. And Rittenhouse took a stand against this movement. Rittenhouse clearly did not see racist oppression as a problem, or he would have used his rifle to protect the lives of protesters who are sick of racism, not to protect an auto dealership from vandalism.
The capitalists who run this society have always used racism to divide the working class against itself. In a capitalist society based on exploitation and oppression, we have to choose sides. Rittenhouse chose the side of the exploiters and oppressors. Working-class people, regardless of race, need to choose the other side and fight for the liberation of all oppressed people.