MADISON, Wis. — From the moment Kyle Rittenhouse shot three people on the streets of Kenosha during protests over the police shooting of a Black man, he’s personified America’s polarization.
The 17-year-old from Illinois who carried an AR-style rifle and idolized police was cheered by those who despised the Black Lives Matter movement and the sometimes destructive protests that followed George Floyd’s death. He was championed by pro-gun conservatives who said he was exercising his Second Amendment rights and defending cities from “antifa,” an umbrella term for leftist militants.
Others saw him as the most worrisome example yet of vigilante citizens taking to the streets with guns, often with the tacit support of police — a “chaos tourist,” in the words of the lead prosecutor, who came to Kenosha looking for trouble.
Though Rittenhouse and all three men he shot are White, many people saw racism at the heart of Kenosha — an armed white teen, welcomed by police to a city where activists were rallying against a white officer’s shooting of a Black man, and allowed to walk past a police line immediately after shooting three people.
That division is likely to be on display at Rittenhouse's trial, which opens Monday with jury selection. Rittenhouse, now 18, faces several charges, including homicide — and could see a life sentence if convicted.
“It’s another battle in what has become the central story of our time —- the culture wars,” John Baick, who teaches modern American history at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts, said.
In many ways, the key question at trial is simple: Was Rittenhouse acting in self-defense? Plentiful video exists of the events in question, and legal experts see a strong case for that. The judge overseeing the trial, Bruce Schroeder, has said forcefully that it "is not going to be a political trial.”
But the case has been exactly that, almost from the moment the shootings happened — driven by powerful interest groups, extremists, politicians and others using it to push their own agendas.
Rittenhouse’s defenders, including his family, have leaned into some of the symbolism. A website devoted to his defense — and raising money for it — greets visitors with a quote attributed to James Monroe: “The right of self-defense never ceases.” The site blasts “Big Tech, a corrupt media, and dishonest politicians” out to “ruin the life of Kyle Rittenhouse.” The site briefly sold branded “Free Kyle” merchandise before vendors backed away.
Ryan Busse, a former firearms industry executive who is now a senior adviser at the gun-safety organization Giffords, which was founded by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in an assassination attempt in 2011, said he's worried that Rittenhouse will become “some heroic martyr.”
“I’m worried about empowering more actors like him who think it’s glamorous to go kill somebody with a rifle,” Busse said.
Rittenhouse made the 20-mile trip from his home in Antioch, Illinois, north to Kenosha as the city was in the throes of several nights of chaotic demonstrations after an officer shot Jacob Blake in the back following a domestic disturbance. At least one call had gone out on social media for armed citizens to respond, though Rittenhouse's attorneys say that wasn't what brought Rittenhouse to the city.
Videos taken that night show him with a first-aid kit at his side, along with his rifle, bragging about his medical abilities. Video also shows police appearing to welcome Rittenhouse and other armed citizens, including handing them bottles of water.
Later in the evening, video shows a man named Joseph Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse in the parking lot of a used car dealership; seconds later, Rittenhouse shoots and kills him. In the ensuing minutes, Rittenhouse — pursued by other protesters — shot and killed Anthony Huber, who swung a skateboard at him, and shot and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, who had stepped toward Rittenhouse with a pistol in hand.
Video then shows Rittenhouse walking toward police with his hands up, his rifle slung over his shoulder, as protesters yell that he has just shot people. Rittenhouse went back home, turning himself into police the next day.
The day Rittenhouse was arrested, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts, tweeted that the shootings had been committed by a “white supremacist domestic terrorist.”
Rittenhouse's defense team pushed back against that, saying Rittenhouse isn't a white supremacist and wasn't aware of “hateful rhetoric” on social media about the Kenosha protests leading up to the shootings. The Anti-Defamation League found no evidence of extremism in his social media accounts.
But Rittenhouse was embraced by the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group that generally traffics in white nationalism, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, and other members have been shown wearing T-shirts that say, “Kyle Rittenhouse Did Nothing Wrong!” And soon after being freed on bond, Rittenhouse was photographed at a Wisconsin bar with people who flashed a hand signal associated with the Proud Boys and sang a song that has become an anthem of the group. Rittenhouse flashed the hand signal, too.
The fact that Rittenhouse wasn’t a member of any extremist group before the shootings doesn’t matter now given how he’s been embraced by them, said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher for the Center on Extremism with the Anti-Defamation League.
He said extremists will be looking to turn the trial to advantage. Some view the mere fact that Rittenhouse was charged as evidence that courts and the system are stacked against conservatives, or that the system is biased against white people, Friedfeld said.
“It starts to kind of lay the groundwork for the idea that people need to tear down these institutions and the system is broken and needs to be changed, which requires action,” he said.
Baick, the historian, called the Rittenhouse trial “a moment for reality TV" and said the entire case takes its place amid one of the nation's most turbulent periods in generations.
“We have to link in Jan. 6,” he said. “We have to link in military groups across the country, anti-mask protests, school board protests. Whether it's Kenosha, or Minneapolis, or the entire state of Florida, these debates over the role of government, the role of law and order — these are deeply unsettled in America right now in a way they haven't been since the 1960s.”