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Kyle Rittenhouse breaks down on stand during trial
03:20 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Despite last year’s demonstrations supporting racial justice and substantive efforts at political reform, the system that devalues Black lives remains largely – and powerfully – intact.

Peniel Joseph

Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old on trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for shooting three people and killing two of them, represents the epitome of White privilege in America run amok. Rittenhouse, who has pleaded not guilty to six charges including reckless homicide, intentional homicide and attempted intentional homicide, cried during emotional testimony on Wednesday. Anyone watching the proceedings who was unfamiliar with the events that led to this trial would be forgiven for assuming that Rittenhouse was the victim of an unspeakable crime rather than being its accused perpetrator.

His protracted sobs – and people’s telling reactions to them – spoke volumes about the moment America now finds itself in. Whether or not Rittenhouse is convicted, the perspective he represents – galvanized by the anger, fear and prejudice of White Americans – has already achieved its ends: normalizing a kind of racial privilege exposed, but far from extinguished, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year.

During racial justice demonstrations in Kenosha in the summer of 2020 that were sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Rittenhouse allegedly crossed state lines, driving from his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, and later arming himself with an AR-15 style rifle. Yet Rittenhouse tried to tell a different story with his tears on the stand, portraying himself as a non-aggressor, saying that he felt in fear of his life as he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and shot and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27.

The baby-faced vigilante has become a hero to many among the far right-wing political establishment, who have hailed him as a paragon of virtue brave enough to stand up to the sinister forces of the Black Lives Matter movement. The circumstances of his trial reflect the way in which race shapes America’s unequal criminal justice system.

Rittenhouse, even after police were alerted to an active shooter being on the scene, was never arrested and turned himself in, accompanied by his mother. Amazingly, Rittenhouse was released on a $2 million bail, money raised by right wing supporters. He was seen photographed with actor Rick Schroeder shortly after being released – who told the New York Post that he was “infuriated” and “Kyle’s life [was] being destroyed.”

The insistence among many on seeing Rittenhouse – a teenager with a fearsome weapon – as a sympathetic figure and not a menacing one stands in stark contrast to the stories of a number of young Black men and boys, especially those perceived (fatally) by others to be threats. For example, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman in 2012. Zimmerman’s acquittal helped inspire the creation of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag that grew into a global movement. In 2014, Cleveland police officers shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was Black and in possession of a toy gun; police described him on the radio as “maybe 20” and said they were afraid for their lives.

Early on in the trial, Judge Bruce E. Schroeder ruled that prosecutors could not refer to Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz as “victims,” but Rittenhouse could refer to the men he shot as “looters” and “rioters” (each words with a loaded racial history) if he could show evidence they were those things (even though two of them are dead and one has never been charged with a crime for any behavior associated with the protest). Over the course of Rittenhouse’s trial, Schroeder, who some legal experts consider to be sympathetic to the defendant, and the prosecutor have sparred further over legal procedures, and clashed during the prosecution’s cross-examination of Rittenhouse.

The Rittenhouse case is also unfolding at the same time as Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan are on trial in Brunswick, Georgia, for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery last year. These three White men have pleaded not guilty (the defense contends Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense) and claim to have tried to make a citizen’s arrest of Arbery as he was out jogging.

On Tuesday, a detective testified that Gregory McMichael told him he never saw Arbery commit a crime – even though a reasonable suspicion of one is a necessary component for a citizen’s arrest to be lawful. Another police officer who interviewed McMichael after the shooting testified that he never mentioned a citizen’s arrest.

While these trials are ongoing, what’s clear is that Arbery and many other Black Americans never received the grace or benefit of the doubt afforded to Rittenhouse who – despite being armed with a military-style weapon – was pepper-sprayed and let go by Kenosha Police. These systemic failures were further crystallized during the jury selection in Georgia: Gregory and Travis McMichael and Bryan are being judged by a jury whose composition has scholars and law experts making comparisons to the Jim Crow era.

Prosecutors objected to the defense’s move to strike Black potential jurors; although Judge Timothy Walmsley acknowledged the appearance of “intentional discrimination in the panel,” he ruled to seat the jury with 11 White members and 1 Black member because the defense made race-neutral arguments for striking the Black potential jurors.

We live in a society where a Black man can be allegedly killed for jogging in the “wrong” part of Georgia and the White men charged in his murder face a nearly all-White jury, while a White teen armed for war can be hailed by many as a hero.

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    This staggering treatment sends a toxic message to the criminal justice system, social movements trying to change that system and the entire nation. That message fuels the delusions behind the January 6 assault on the US Capitol. It is an inherent threat to our democracy. The actions of White vigilantes, whether in downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin or at the nation’s capital, have been reimagined in conservative far-right mediascapes as courageous, civic-minded patriotism.

    “I defended myself,” Rittenhouse claimed during his testimony. If the jury believes these words, Rittenhouse will likely go free. His defense team has also made a motion for a mistrial with prejudice, meaning he couldn’t be retried.

    If any of that happens, it will be to America’s enduring shame.