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Kyle Rittenhouse: Racial Discrimination In The American Justice System

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Roar News writer Mila Stricevic on the Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal.

On Friday, November 19,  Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on charges of murder as he broke down sobbing in the courtroom. Last year, at 17, Rittenhouse travelled across state lines with an assault weapon from his home in Illinois to the town of Kenosha, Wisconsin.

An unwarranted vigilante, Rittenhouse took to the streets during protests that broke out in August 2020 over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a White police officer. Rittenhouse would go on to fatally shoot two men, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injure a third, Gaige Grosskreutz. While all three of the victims were White, as well as Kyle Rittenhouse himself, the case has raised more questions about the racial discrimination present in the American justice system and demonstrates once again how tilted the courtrooms are in favour of white offenders.

In October 2020, two months after the Kenosha shooting occurred, it was reported that Homeland security officials interviewed about the case had been told to say Rittenhouse “took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners.” In this one statement alone, we see the marked difference in attitudes held towards White and Black people during protests.

The American right-wing media courtroom was quick to acquit Rittenhouse of any wrongdoing as frightening pictures circulated the news showing Kyle Rittenhouse carrying a semi-automatic rifle while fires blazed behind him. Rittenhouse, a young, teenage boy was depicted as a hero, defending the town of Kenosha from the looters and rioters out for blood. While those protesting were depicted as angry mobsters willing to do whatever it took to get revenge.

The processes in the actual courtroom took a  little longer than an editors meeting in Fox News but at times it felt as those the outcome would be just as predictable and just as scripted.

Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty to all five of the crimes he was charged with, two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide and two counts of recklessly endangering safety. In an unprecedented move for a trial of its magnitude, Rittenhouse himself took to the stand to plead his case, a move which again, speaks to his privileges as a white defendant.

Speaking to PBS NewsHour, lawyer and vice president of advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, Insha Rahman stated that “When Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand himself, he actually got to paint a story about self-defence that was so different than what had come out through the prosecution… if there was one moment that swayed this jury, it was that Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand”.

In the United States, where only 5% of the 15 million criminal cases filed every year go to trial, Rittenhouse’s ability to take the stand was a huge benefit to his case. In his defence plea, Kyle broke down several times as he recounted the moments that led up to the fatal shootings that night. Arguably this ability to be vulnerable as a baby-faced, young white man led to his acquittal.

His age also played a significant role in winning over the hearts of many watching the trial as well as the jury. At 17 when the incident occurred and 18 at the time of the trial. It seems it is obvious that the fact he is still a teenager with his whole life ahead of him was in the minds of the jury as they determined his fate.

The case and verdict have highlighted further questions around gun laws in America and how gun laws are applied very differently to white and black people. The fact that a 17-year-old boy was able to get his hands on a semi-automatic assault rifle is frankly terrifying to the average British onlooker. During the trial, the prosecution re-enacted the way in which Kyle Rittenhouse’s wielded his weapon in public for the jury to see, he did so with all the confidence of someone well trained in the use of a semi-automatic assault rifle.

News outlets across the country condemned them for their reckless use of the firearm in the courtroom begging the question if those responsible for upholding the law cannot be trusted to carry a weapon responsibly in a professional setting, how on Earth could an adolescent boy caught up in the tense environment of a riot and possibly be expected to handle a gun safely? The answer is he couldn’t, and it cost two people their lives.

In closing statements, the lead prosecutor Thomas Binger spoke of the role the AR-15 assault weapon played in Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defence, “when the defendant provokes this incident, he loses the right to self-defence. You cannot claim self-defence against a danger you create.”

America’s normalisation of gun ownership has created a sad reality in which weapons like Rittenhouse’s semi-automatic rifle are seen as acceptable ways to protect yourself from harm. It seems pointless to ask at this point how many more pleas of self-defence in murder trials are necessary before gun ownership is seriously reconsidered but until then cases such as that of Kyle Rittenhouse will not be going away any time soon.

In truth conviction for Rittenhouse now would not be justice for the centuries of racism inflicted on innocent black men in the legal system charged with similar crimes to that of Rittenhouse but found guilty nonetheless.

If there is one thing we can hope to gain out of a case like this it is to further rally the fight for tighter gun restrictions and systemic change in the way people are racially profiled in the legal system. While it is disheartening to witness these trials and feel powerless to help we should remember that by continuing to talk and demand change from those in office we are doing what we can and the fight for justice reform will continue.

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