- Conservative leaders have avoided condemning the shooting at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the days since Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with homicide in connection to the incident.
- President Donald Trump suggested the shooter was “trying to get away” from people attacking him when he opened fire, while conservative TV hosts and bloggers suggested the shooting was self-defense.
- Meanwhile, people have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rittenhouse’s legal defense fund.
- Experts in domestic terrorism and white supremacy told Insider that this type of support isn’t new — though they do believe Trump is making things worse.
In the week since Kyle Rittenhouse was charged in connection to the shooting deaths of two people and the injury of a third during a Black Lives Matter protest, conservatives have avoided condemning him, and his supporters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support his legal defense fund.
Rittenhouse faces multiple charges, including first-degree intentional homicide. The 17-year-old drove from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to the protests that broke out after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Police say he fired at people at close range on the street with his semiautomatic rifle.
He has become a potent symbol on the right. Supporters see him as an avatar for gun rights, and the embodiment of the problem with civil rights protests.
This type of defense from the right isn’t new, according to experts in domestic terrorism and white supremacy who spoke to Insider. Chuck Tanner, research director at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which combats bigotry and intolerance, told Insider it’s led to a “feedback” loop between challenges to racism and backlash from some white Americans.
“Racism in our broader politics is created by racism in our society,” he told Insider. “So it’s maybe a feedback loop or something where racism brings people into [political] office around racial issues, and then they feed back into it and give license to the kind of action that took place in Kenosha.”
Rittenhouse has been supported by conservatives since last week’s shooting — which Trump hasn’t condemned
President Donald Trump declined to condemn the shooting earlier this week, suggesting the shooter was “trying to get away” from people attacking him when he opened fire. Trump did not mention that authorities believe Rittenhouse had already fatally shot one person before the scene the president described.
Former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, too, defended Rittenhouse, telling listeners on a Wisconsin radio show that they “have the right to defend yourself” less than a day after the killings.
Conservative bloggers and TV hosts, including Tucker Carlson, also came to Rittenhouse’s defense, saying he was “not the bad guy” and arguing that he had shot in self-defense when the protest “devolved into anarchy.”
Joseph Young, a professor in the department of justice, law, and criminology at American University, pointed out that Trump is perpetuating such defenses among his conservative supporters.
“I think we’re highly polarized right now,” Young, who teaches courses on domestic terrorism, told Insider. “I think a normal leader in normal times — and I say that both in the Republican and Democratic Party, whether we’re talking to George W. Bush or [Barack] Obama — would have said, ‘This is a time for unity to bring us together.’ And Trump is not that guy.”
Young said Trump is trying to “shore up his base” by tying Rittenhouse to support for the Second Amendment.
“At every moment he can, he’s sort of stoking his base and trying to bring these real hyper-partisan views,” Young said.
Last week, attorney John Pierce announced he would defend Rittenhouse, saying his defense would be funded through money raised in his new nonprofit #FightBack Foundation — which bills itself as an organization that brings “lawsuits to stop the lies and smears of the radical left.”
Pierce’s colleague, attorney Lin Wood, said as of Monday night that the foundation raised $605,550. Meanwhile, a fundraising effort from the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo has raised more than $350,000 for Rittenhouse.
A feedback loop of racism in American politics
According to Tanner, the conservative reaction is another manifestation of backlash from some white Americans against challenges to racism.
“Unfortunately it’s a recurring theme in our history in the United States that every time there’s a significant challenge to racism, to white supremacy — as is taking place with Black Lives Matter — there is a reaction against it by a troubling portion of white America,” Tanner said.
Young compared the defense for Rittenhouse to reactions following the 1984 New York City Subway shooting, in which four Black men were shot and wounded by Bernhard Goetz. Goetz, a white man, opened fire after one of the men asked him how he was doing, which he said he interpreted as the start of a mugging.
“There was a huge uproar in a similar way with people who are saying, you know, ‘this is totally unacceptable.’ Then people on the right were like, ‘He was defending himself… “law and order” needs to be maintained, and if the government’s not going to it, we have to do it for ourselves,'” Young said.
Young and Tanner agreed that the only way to bring an end to such support is to bring Republicans and Democrats together to condemn racism and push for equality.
“It takes people locally being on guard and speaking out against these violent and extrajudicial forms of racism — pressuring institutions into condemning them, and pushing our institutions to really live up to an institution of racial democracy,” Tanner told Insider. “It’s a long-term struggle.”