People who commit acts of political violence—people like Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old militiaman who shot three people, two of them fatally, in Kenosha, Wisconsin this week—are always on the lookout, during the stages at which the violence takes shape in their minds, for a “green light”: signs of wider social and cultural approval or encouragement for going ahead and squeezing the trigger on whatever weapon it is they intend to use. Rittenhouse had a steady stream of green lights—particularly the demonization of protesters in Kenosha by right-wing media—leading up to his murderous moment on Monday.
This is why the flood of mainstream conservatives now rushing to defend Rittenhouse—ranging from multiple Fox News figures such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, to white-nationalist-friendly figureheads such as Nicholas Fuentes and Cassandra Fairbanks—is so dangerous: They are themselves green-lighting future acts of retributory violence against by protesters for a substantial and heavily armed horde of “Three Percenters,” Proud Boys, “Boogaloo” fans, and other violent far-right thugs.
Rittenhouse himself—whose online handle was “@4doorsmorewhores”—appears to have digested a steady diet of pro-Trump and pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” talking points about protesters. (He also attended a Trump rally in Des Moines on Jan. 30.) But there’s nothing unusual about that; most of the American right has taken to parroting Trump’s tweets and speeches blaming protest violence on “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others.” He described Antifa as “leading instigators of this violence.”
So the teenager drove across the Illinois-Wisconsin border from Antioch and joined up with the militia crew calling itself the Kenosha Guard Militia, which had organized on Facebook, ostensibly to prevent violence at the protests. On Monday, it had published a post calling for “Armed Citizens to Protect Our Lives and Property,” with text reading: “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from the evil thugs? No doubt they are currently planning on the next part of the city to burn tonight.”
The right-wing pundits who have rushed to Rittenhouse’s defense—à la George Zimmerman’s supporters after he murdered Trayvon Martin—have, in classic victim-blaming fashion, afterwards raised a number of specious claims and irrelevant smears related to the men Rittenhouse killed. One of these is the contention that the first victim—Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, of Kenosha—threw a Molotov cocktail at Rittenhouse before the latter opened fire.
The complaint filed by investigators in charging Rittenhouse with first-degree murder, however, makes abundantly clear that there was no Molotov cocktail: “The video shows that as they cross the parking lot, Rosenbaum appears to throw an object at the defendant. The object does not hit the defendant and a second video shows, based on where the object landed, that it was a plastic bag. Rosenbaum appears to be unarmed for the duration of this video.”
Some of Rittenhouse’s defenders have suggested that 26-year-old Anthony Huber of Kenosha—who appeared to be trying to disarm Rittenhouse while holding his skateboard after Rosenbaum’s shooting—also deserved to be fatally shot for his actions, though the criminal complaint makes clear that Huber was not assaulting Rittenhouse, rather, “it appears that he is reaching for the defendant’s gun with his left hand as the skateboard makes contact with the defendant’s left shoulder. Huber appears to be trying to pull the gun away from the defendant.” Others have raised Rosenbaum’s criminal record (he was convicted in Arizona in 2001, at the age of 18, of sexual conduct with a minor, and was registered in Wisconsin as a sex offender), even though that record has zero bearing on either his behavior on Monday night, nor Rittenhouse’s decision to shoot him.
However, while many of Rittenhouse’s defenders in the media were eager to proclaim him innocent by virtue of self-defense, the larger narrative that they spun out of the Kenosha shootings was chilling to anyone who believes in American democracy: Armed vigilantes not only are justified in opening fire on protesters, but more of them are needed in every place where there is an anti-police protest. Their message is one that would open the floodgates to wanton murder.
This ranged from Ann Coulter’s (later deleted) tweet—“I want him [Rittenhouse] for my president”—to Tucker Carlson’s morally deranged explanation for the shootings:
People in charge from the governor of Wisconsin on down refused to enforce the law. They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn.
So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?
Carlson was not the only figure at Fox News to rush to Rittenhouse’s defense: Sean Hannity’s attorney, Media Matters reports, apparently is soliciting donations on his behalf.
Conspiracy-meister Alex Jones described the Kenosha protests as part of a “communist overthrow of the country,” and Rittenhouse’s shootings as an act of self-preservation.
“When the police stand down and you’ve got thousands of people going through neighborhoods burning down houses and businesses, raping and robbing, you’re going to have the vaccum filled with citizens, and you’re going to have street battles,” Jones told his audience Wednesday.
Right-wing columnist Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire tweeted: “People have every right to protect private property while armed. If you attack armed men because you’re mad that they’re stopping you from lighting buildings on fire, and then you get shot in the process, it’s 1000 percent your own fault. I shouldn’t need to explain this.”
White nationalist “Groyper” figure Fuentes tweeted a popular theme: “Kyle Rittenhouse did nothing wrong.” A website dedicated to propagating that meme immediately popped up online. Fairbanks echoed it on her Twitter account.
Fairbanks, who writes for Gateway Pundit, also retweeted an admirer’s post saying: “I don’t give a fuck anymore. I gone full Cassandra. Kill all the idiots violently terrorizing our towns. If the white suprematist [cq] do it then they’re more useful than elected officials.” “Yeah,” responded Fairbanks, “I’m literally just sitting here like… maybe some people will think twice about rioting tomorrow.”
Predictably, a number of extremist groups took this narrative to heart. A militia calling itself the North Carolina Constitutional Guard announced a “call to action from all American organized militia groups” to demand Rittenhouse’s immediate release. Moreover, it said it was planning to travel to Kenosha to demonstrate in support:
The NCCG is planning an armed march into the city of Kenosha, alongside other militia groups, in demand for Kyle’s immediate release and freedom. The American people have seen enough of the violence and destruction running rampant in our cities and streets. We demand Constitutional law, order, and justice—immediately. Our government and law enforcement agencies have proven complacent and incompetent in ceasing the chaos within our cities, and for that, the American people will sit idly by no longer. We must and we will take our country back through constitutional capacity.
The green light also came on at far-right demonstrations around the country. As Brandy Zadrozny of NBC News noted, the leader of a QAnon “Save the Children” rally in Texas recently announced that she was planning to attend the event fully armed and with body armor—posting a selfie photo dressed in the gear and brandishing a semiautomatic rifle.
This is an ominous development that bodes ill for ongoing protests around the country, including both Portland—where right-wing thugs have already hurled pipe bombs and fired guns at protesters—and Kenosha, as well as cities where right-wing groups are organizing their own events.
Christopher Mathias recently explored at HuffPost the dynamic in which right-wing groups increasingly are engaging in violence with the help (or non-interference) of police, based on a study by Alexander Reid Ross of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. Both noted that, since the murder of George Floyd May 25, there have been more than 500 incidents in which counter-protesters have threatened and assaulted people protesting police brutality.
These include include “64 cases of simple assault, 38 incidents of vigilantes driving cars into demonstrators, and nine times shots were fired at protesters.”
“Going forward, we need to seriously reconsider the permissiveness with which we are allowing armed paramilitaries to roam the streets of our nation’s towns and cities, as if this is normal,” Steve Gardiner, an analyst at Political Research Associates, told Mathias. “There’s nothing normal about this. We don’t want to be living in a war zone.”
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.