Juries are part of the American system of justice, not its entirety. They are bound by constraints aimed at fairness and the law: the evidence they’ve seen, the laws they’re evaluating. Jurors are not experts but, ideally, objective citizens measuring the state’s effort to meet its burden of proof. The question of justice broadly is subjective but it isn’t a jury’s duty to answer that question anyway. Arriving at justice depends on the whole system, the prosecutors, the judge, the defense.
We should remember, then, that acquittals are not moral judgments. They are a measure of those same concrete elements of a trial, the wording of statutes and what they were allowed to consider. If a jury says that the government failed to meet its burden of proof, this is an assessment of the government as much as the accused. The defendant is judged to have been found not guilty of the charges, not to have been found innocent.
This is useful to remember in general, but particularly in the context of Friday’s verdicts in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was 17 years old on Aug. 25, 2020, when he left his home in Illinois to travel to Kenosha, Wis., as part of an organized civilian effort — vigilantes — to stifle unrest following an incident in which a Black man was shot by police. Armed with a rifle, Rittenhouse at first joined others at a car dealership in order to keep protesters at bay. Eventually, he was separated from them.
Surrounded by members of the group he’d brought his weapon to Kenosha to guard against, Rittenhouse shot and killed a man who tried to grab his rifle. Fleeing that incident, and with an angry group chasing him, he stumbled. He shot a man trying to hit him with a skateboard, killing him, and injured another man who had pulled a handgun.
The jury found Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges, an evaluation that the state had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse was not acting in self-defense. What the jury did not do was determine that Rittenhouse acted properly on that evening. As David French wrote for the Atlantic, Rittenhouse not being guilty didn’t make him innocent. His being found not to be criminal does not establish him as law enforcement.
There is “an immense difference between quiet concealed carry and vigilante open carry, including in ham-handed and amateurish attempts to accomplish one of the most difficult tasks in all of policing — imposing order in the face of civil unrest,” French wrote.
This is an enormously important point that’s often missed in the commentary about Rittenhouse’s behavior that night. Shortly after it occurred, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson wondered on his show why we would be shocked that “17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would.” But the second and third people shot by Rittenhouse were struck in the middle of the road maybe a hundred yards from law enforcement. It wasn’t that there were no police. It was that the police were containing the unrest, not engaging in it.
Perhaps more could have been done, but what Carlson and others argued was that trained law enforcement who made decisions about how to respond were failing while Rittenhouse and the others who joined him that night were doing their jobs for them. That Rittenhouse was responding to anarchy instead of unrest. That he deserved the descriptor of hero as much as the nearby police officers who quickly moved in after the shootings to deal with the aftermath.
The incident in Kenosha was not isolated. There had been protests for months, with President Donald Trump doing his best to leverage them to present himself as something akin to the last barrier before societal collapse. The night before Rittenhouse arrived in Kenosha, speakers at the Republican National Convention amplified the idea that the United States was on the brink of destruction. Activist Charlie Kirk warned of a “vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighborhoods, schools, churches and values.” The president’s son falsely claimed that “anarchists have been flooding our streets and Democrat mayors are ordering the police to stand down.” A couple from St. Louis, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, parlayed an incident in which they pulled weapons on Black Lives Matter protesters into a speaking slot at the convention.
“It seems as if the Democrats no longer view the government’s job as protecting honest citizens from criminals,” Mark McCloskey said, “but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens.” He had pulled a gun and become a hero, an American exemplar who used his Second Amendment rights to stand up to people walking on a sidewalk near his house. He’s now running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican.
Rittenhouse was similarly championed even before the trial. Even in the short period since the jury found him not guilty, right-wing legislators have celebrated the decision as a confirmation of their moral position.
“Those who help, protect, and defend are the good guys,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) wrote on Twitter. “Kyle is one of good ones” — again equating a teenage vigilante with the police.
In a video posted on social media, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) went further, encouraging people to “be armed, be dangerous and be moral.”
It is critically important to recognize the way in which the unrest and vandalism that erupted last summer has been used as a rationalization for political violence. In the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, there were repeated comparisons to last summer, frequent reiterations of false claims about the extent of that violence and of the threat it posed to cities and to the country broadly. The right blamed the left for Jan. 6 because it had purportedly downplayed the unrest that conservative media had exaggerated. It was a very dangerous form of whataboutism.
Now there’s an additional risk that the Rittenhouse verdict will be seen as validating his approach: appoint yourself a keeper of the peace and trust that the legal system will accept your need to defend yourself. This overlaps with recent polling from PRRI in which 3 in 10 Republicans agreed with the idea that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
The rhetorical line between self-defense and defending America is, for many, thin. Any situation in which the constraints on engaging in violence are loosened is worrisome, particularly in this moment and in this context.
This is why it’s important to step back from the Rittenhouse verdict and contextualize it. Rittenhouse killed two people and the state was unable to convince a jury that he bore criminal responsibility for doing so. The jury was not asked whether it approved of Rittenhouse’s actions or if individuals should take it upon themselves to supplement or replace law enforcement. They were not asked to take sides in the underlying tension between critics of law enforcement behavior and the police. Perhaps other jurors would have reached a different conclusion.
The problem here is not the jury. The problem is one that predates Aug. 25 of last year: a willingness to leverage violence for political ends and to rationalize political violence.