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Column: The Kyle Rittenhouse trial and the threat of white vigilantes

Kyle Rittenhouse testifies during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on Nov. 10, 2021, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Sean Krajacic/Pool/Getty Images/TNS.

On Tuesday, the jury went into deliberation for the trial against Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Last year, 17-year-old Rittenhouse crossed state lines and opened fire on people in Kenosha protesting police brutality and the death of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse killed two and wounded one, and is now facing five felony charges — with the most severe carrying a mandatory life sentence.

Rittenhouse’s actions are just one brush stroke in the larger picture of white vigilante violence that paints much of American political culture. We are not untouched by this violence in North Carolina, or even on our own campus.

Even without the explicit use of violence, self-proclaimed vigilantes invade spaces of progressive protest and use fear and intimidation to send their message. They do this under the guise of preserving law and order — Rittenhouse said he traveled to Kenosha with the intent to protect private property.

Counterprotesters to the student-led Silent Sam protests waved Confederate flags and other far-right symbols in the face of students speaking out against racial injustice and the statue’s presence on campus. In 2019, a Confederate group walked onto campus carrying guns and weapons and faced no arrests. 

Then, when UNC gave $2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it took a stand with a group that has long fought against racial equity across N.C. and across the South.

In 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a rally of white supremacists turned fatal. Rally members, chanting and bearing racist and anti-Semitic slogans, were armed with torches, firearms and shields. One counterprotester was killed when she was struck by a car.

Although both of these circumstances bore different outcomes, they attempted — and arguably succeeded — to maintain the “status quo” of racial inequities and far-right sentiments across the South and in moments of civil unrest.

It’s important to differentiate the actions of Rittenhouse from the state-sanctioned police violence against protesters and people who are Black, indigenous and people of color. The violence of “vigilantes” often goes unchecked by the state and police — often, criminal justice outcomes only condone and allow racist and far-right sentiments to live on.

When police allowed an armed Rittenhouse to leave the scene of a double homicide, they condoned the violence he incited against those protesting for racial justice.

When police unions and politicians donated to Rittenhouse’s defense, they agreed that deadly violence is justified when it is in the pursuit of right-winged ideals.

And now, as we wait for the jury’s decision, we fear the criminal justice system will once again grant generosity to vigilantes who commit acts of violence.

All of these examples are to highlight the ways in which the police and “vigilantes” work in conjunction with one another to maintain systems of fear, intimidation and ultimately white supremacy.

The legal protection of far-right vigilantes doesn’t stop there. Videos circulated the news and social media of Rittenhouse crying on the stand, while the judge urges the defendant to take deep breaths and eventually calls a recess. The weaponization of white tears is an intentional strategy, used by Rittenhouse to appeal to the white jurors and onlookers who will decide his fate.  

And while we wait with uncertainty for the jury’s decision, the case reminds cut and dry: Rittenhouse crossed state lines and killed two people. His defense claims he came to protect private property and to act as a medic, yet he was armed with an AR-15 that killed two innocent protesters.

As our eyes are on the Rittenhouse trial, we can’t forget what it means for white tears to be used as a defense. We can’t forget that police remained idle as an armed Rittenhouse invaded a crowd of protesters. We can’t ignore the threat of vigilante violence within our communities and the system of oppression that allows it to persist.


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Caitlyn Yaede

Caitlyn Yaede is the 2023-24 print managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel and oversees weekly print production. She previously served as the DTH's opinion editor and summer editor. Caitlyn is a public policy master's student at UNC.