Teenager hailed by far-right as trial played into toxic divisions

Kyle Rittenhouse was 17 when he drove from Illinois to Wisconsin in the middle of a summer of racial justice uprisings.

e was responding to a call for armed support from a local militia, and equipped himself with a firearm that he would later use to kill Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injure Gaige Grosskreutz on August 25, 2020.

He was charged with five felonies, including first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide, and two counts of recklessly endangering safety in the first degree.

Over the past two weeks, jurors watched more than a dozen pieces of video, including livestreams, an interview Mr Rittenhouse gave moments before he fired his gun, body camera footage, and aerial video from the FBI.

They also heard testimony from police, witnesses, the man who survived, and Mr Rittenhouse himself.

More than a year after the shootings, the nationally televised trial brought the judge, defence attorneys, prosecutors and proceedings into a 24-hour news cycle, raising doubts about how – and whether it was even possible – to disconnect the shootings from the toxic political events surrounding them.

On August 23, 2020, two days before the Rittenhouse shootings, Kenosha police officers responded to a domestic complaint and shot Jacob Blake in the back.

Mr Blake, who is black, was left paralysed from the waist down. Officer Sheskey, who is white, did not face criminal charges.

The shooting revived racial justice protests in a town of roughly 100,000 people on the shores of Lake Michigan, brought into sharp relief in the middle of a summer of uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd.

As protests entered a third night, local militia put out a call for armed support on social media, and Mr Rittenhouse drove from his home in Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha to patrol the streets.

After the shootings, i

mages of Mr Rittenhouse holding his AR-15-style rifle quickly spread across social media, with some critics characterising him as a teenager who inserted himself into a story that was not his, or a white supremacist arming himself against racial justice.

He was also hailed as a kind of folk hero, martyr and patriot on America’s far right.

Donald Trump, members of Congress and right-wing news personalities came to his defence. He has been celebrated on “Free Kyle” T-shirts, in memes, and far-right media personalities cheered him. 

For more than a year, far-right media has fed its audience a false narrative that bolsters Mr Rittenhouse as a hero who stood up to their hyper-violent visions of “antifa” and Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of 2020 uprisings – and how “activist” prosecutors sought to make an example out of a “kid” who was unjustly arrested.

A foundation started by election fraud conspiracy theorist Lin Wood raised $2m (€1.77m) for Mr Rittenhouse’s bail. Jurors heard testimony from a far-right livestreamer who called for “bloodshed” after the 2020 presidential elections.

Jurors also were not allowed to see images of Mr Rittenhouse making an apparent white supremacist-signalling hand gesture with a group of alleged members of the Proud Boys far-right gang four months after the shooting. Judge Schroder deemed such evidence “too prejudicial”.

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