In the first major federal lawsuit against the city, police and county resulting from the riots in August last year, attorneys say that Rittenhouse and other gunmen were given preferential treatment because of their race. If Rittenhouse were Black, the complaint reads, the “defendants would have acted much differently.”
Rittenhouse, who is awaiting trial in November, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree reckless homicide in the killing Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum on Aug. 25, 2020, during a street protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. He is also charged with attempted first-degree homicide for shooting and injuring Gaige Grosskreutz. Additional charges include possession of a dangerous weapon while under the age of 18 and reckless endangerment.
Rittenhouse, then 17, shot Huber, 26, following a foot chase that ended when Huber attempted to disarm him with a skateboard. Rittenhouse, who is White, has said he was acting in self-defense. Since the incident, Rittenhouse has emerged as a folk hero for far-right groups who have praised him for being willing to protect local businesses from protesters they have characterized as antifa.
Anand Swaminathan, a Chicago-based attorney for Huber’s family, said the presence of armed men patrolling the downtown area and neighborhoods made the outbreak in gun violence “perfectly foreseeable.” Police fostered the chaos, he said, by forcing protesters into the streets, away from the public square where they had been demonstrating for two days. An 8 p.m. curfew was selectively enforced against protesters but not the armed individuals, who at the time told the media and police that they were there to protect businesses from rioters. Video and social media evidence, he said, showed that the militia members were sympathetic to police and vice versa.
“There was no reason to take [the protesters] in that park and disperse them into the street,” said Swaminathan. The police “especially shouldn’t have done so because they were well aware, based on Facebook posts and internal communication among officers, that there were all these armed people outside of the park just waiting for them.”
The suit specifically names Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth, former Kenosha police chief Daniel Miskinis and current Kenosha Police Chief Eric Larsen.
A city spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
The suit, filed on behalf of John Huber, Anthony Huber’s father, does not specify any monetary damages. In December, their attorneys filed a $10 million claim notice, a legal procedure that tells the government a lawsuit is forthcoming. A similar claim was filed that same week by the attorney for Grosskreutz, saying that the police and sheriff’s department “were aware of, condoned, cooperated with and enabled the actions of” a local militia “and other armed vigilantes through explicit and implicit support.” An email and phone call to Grosskreutz’s attorney were not returned by Monday.
Looting and arson that took place the night before the shootings prompted the creation of a Facebook page by Kevin Mathewson, a former Kenosha City Council member, that asked neighbors to “take up arms to defend our City tonight from the evil thugs.” About 4,000 people expressed approval, and a few hundred people volunteered to patrol. Reddit, Infowars and other websites amplified the message. Kenosha police officers were caught on video handing water bottles to the militia members and expressing support for their help.
The complaint says law enforcement did nothing to dissuade the militia members from showing up that night. “Defendants deputized Rittenhouse and other armed individuals, conspired with them, and ratified their actions, allowing them to patrol the streets armed illegally with deadly weapons, and to shoot and kill innocent citizens,” it says.
Since then, Beth and other Kenosha officials have tried to distance themselves from the militia and Mathewson. During a news conference following the shootings, Beth complained that misinformation was making law enforcement’s work more difficult. “We don’t know who is doing what. Are they a protester? Or are they trying to protect? We don’t know unless we get our hands on them,” he said.
Steven Howard Wright, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said the challenge for plaintiffs will be to prove an active conspiracy between the city, law enforcement and White militia members. “They are swinging for the entire community, which will make it a lot harder to sell,” he said. Because there is not a specific “smoking gun” to prove the conspiracy, he said he expects plaintiffs’ attorneys to ask the court “for the widest degree of discovery” to show that both departments had significant race problems long before the Blake incident.
Only nine Kenosha police officers, or 9 percent of the total, are Black, according to data released by the department last February, an increase of 1 percent in five years. “I recognize that we are not yet reflective of Kenosha’s demographics; however, we have made strides and hope to continue to do so,” Miskinis said in a statement that month. The city also recently rolled out a four-year equity plan intended to root out structural racism in policing practices and other policies.
Tuesday’s lawsuit follows a second federal lawsuit filed in Milwaukee last week against the city, Beth and Mayor John Antaramian by Jenna Miller, a Wisconsin woman who said Kenosha police arrested her for a curfew violation and held her overnight while she was working as a security contractor for a local NBC news crew. Brady Anderson, her attorney, said she did nothing illegal since the curfew was never officially enacted. Police seized equipment from Miller, including two guns and a flashlight, which remains in their possession.
“We have no idea why,” said Anderson. “And we have no idea why it was taken in the first place. It’s perfectly legal equipment to possess.”
Late last year, Rittenhouse posted a $2 million bond, raised primarily by far-right groups. He is currently residing in an undisclosed location in the area with his family. At a November court hearing, John Huber told the court that Rittenhouse was a flight risk because he “thinks he’s above the law and he’s been treated as such by law enforcement.”
“He was an active shooter and he tried to flee. And my son lost his life trying to prevent him from escaping. My son is a hero,” Huber said.