By Jim Malewitz and Vanessa Swales
Standing in front of a burned-out Kenosha business Tuesday night, Kyle Rittenhouse said he was there to quell violence and protect property in the southeastern Wisconsin city after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back Sunday.
“People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business,” the 17-year-old told the conservative Daily Caller while wearing an Army-green T-shirt with a long gun slung across his back. “If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my weapon, because I need to protect myself.”
Rittenhouse, who lives 20 miles away in Antioch, Illinois, arrived following a widely disseminated call to arms to protect property issued by the Kenosha Guard, a militia group whose leaders include a former Kenosha City Council member.
As police in armored vehicles exhorted protesters to leave because of an 8 p.m. curfew aimed at curbing violence and property damage, video showed an officer thanking the armed men and tossing a bottle of water to Rittenhouse.
Just before midnight, gunfire would echo, scattering bystanders and leaving two Wisconsinites dead and a third injured. “I just killed somebody,” Rittenhouse could be heard saying in a video captured at the scene.
Police have offered no clear explanation or why Rittenhouse was allowed to return to Antioch before being arrested.
By Wednesday morning, the teenager sat in a Lake County, Illinois jail, awaiting a hearing on extradition to Wisconsin in 30 days on two charges of first-degree homicide, one charge of attempted murder for the wounding of another protester and three other charges. The teen’s legal team says he acted in self defense.
Rittenhouse was among a group of armed vigilantes who descended Tuesday night on Uptown Kenosha, a business district in the city on Lake Michigan. Their presence added volatility to a third consecutive night of violent unrest after Officer Rusten Sheskey shot Blake seven times in the back as he walked away from police and tried to enter a vehicle with his children inside on Sunday, leaving him paralyzed.
Rittenhouse’s rapid descent to accused killer illustrated the stakes of what experts call a growing trend: Militias, far-right groups and other armed vigilantes — often mobilized on social media — showing up at racial justice protests, escalating chaos and danger during showdowns between protesters and law enforcement.
“There have been a number of armed conflicts in the history of this movement with police, including recent killings by Boogaloo Boys,” said Chuck Tanner, research director for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. “There’s reason for officers to be very concerned about these organizations because of their willingness to make guns be the kind of solution to the issues that they see.”
ACLU to officials: Resign
The failure to immediately arrest the alleged shooter prompted condemnation from Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on Thursday and calls by the ACLU for top law enforcement officials in Kenosha County to resign.
During a press conference Thursday, Barnes said he found it “completely horrifying” that police allowed the suspected shooter to leave the scene. He added that militias are “nothing that we should accept as normal. It’s ridiculous — because you see the outcome of that sort of behavior.”
Kenosha has a controversial history of officers shooting civilians; the 2004 fatal shooting of Michael Bell led to a state law requiring all shootings by police officers to be investigated by outside agencies. Three Kenosha officers, including Sheskey, have been placed on leave while the state Department of Justice investigates the shooting of Blake.
The hands-off, even chummy, interactions between police and the Kenosha militia is not unusual as such groups mobilize nationwide, said Tanner, whose group is based in Kansas City, Missouri.
The institute, which scrutinzes racist, anti-Semitic and far-right social movements, says it has confirmed at least 136 instances of “right-wing and far-right groups and actors” showing up to — or reacting to — racial justice protests since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25. The research is current through late June, meaning the tally is likely much higher, Tanner said.
“I’m troubled by the general approach and lack of consistent law enforcement voice in condemning these organizations and making it clear that they don’t have a role to play in policing,” Tanner said.
Militias have ‘chaotic’ mix of ideology
Armed groups and individuals showing up to protests are increasingly difficult to delineate at a time when unclear and sometimes contradictory ideology leaves the far-right landscape in flux, said Carolyn Gallaher, a professor at American University and an expert on violence by non-state actors.
The Boogaloo movement — which was also at Kenosha’s protest Tuesday — generally opposes the government and sometimes the police, while its largely white members express various opinions about Black Lives Matter and President Donald Trump, Gallaher said. Meanwhile, more extreme members of the Back the Blue movement defend the police and bash politicians for allegedly impeding police efforts to maintain order. But even those movements are fluid. Online participants sample bits and pieces of ideology as they gaze at their screens.
“It’s really chaotic right now,” she said. “The online ecosystem doesn’t have very clear boundaries. Or the boundaries are there, but people move across all the time.”
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth on Wednesday said his colleagues did not want help from armed citizens, citing the shootings that ensued late Tuesday.
“Yesterday, I had a person call me and say, ‘Why don’t you deputize citizens who have guns to come out and patrol the city of Kenosha?’, and I am like, ‘Oh, hell no,’ ” he said at a press conference.
Said Kenosha Police Chief Miskinis: “Across this nation, there have been armed civilians who have come out to exercise their constitutional right, and to potentially protect property. So if I’m aware that these groups exist? Yes. But they weren’t invited to come.”
Approach differs for militia, protesters
Beth also sought to avoid linking Rittenhouse to militia activity — or comment much at all on Tuesday night’s killing of Anthony Huber, a 26-year-old from Silver Lake, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, of Kenosha. City police and the FBI are investigating.
Beth said he could not immediately explain why officers did not arrest Rittenhouse before he fled to Illinois, describing a high-stress scene of radio traffic, people screaming and massive armored vehicles idling nearby.
“You have such an incredible tunnel vision,” he said at the press conference. “I’m not making an excuse — I’m just telling you from personal experience.”
But civil rights advocates drew a different impression from Tuesday night’s events: That officers treated protesters of Blake’s killing far more harshly than the vigilantes who arrived with guns.
“The video shows officers thanking these armed people even as they are taking a completely different approach to the protesters — you know, ordering them to disperse and treating them pretty roughly,” said Chris Ott, executive director of ACLU Wisconsin. “So right there, that seems to be encouraging exactly what we don’t want more of.”
Online calls to arms
As of Thursday evening, evidence had not surfaced of a militia group claiming Rittenhouse as a member, according to a review of social media by First Draft, a nonprofit that helps journalists detect and report on disinformation.
But videos Tuesday night showed the teenager congregating with other armed men who claimed to be protecting property. Also unclear is whose messaging spurred Rittenhouse to leave home for Kenosha, where protests following Blake’s shooting left parts of Uptown engulfed in flames and a 71-year-old man brutally assaulted by looters.
Screenshots of Rittenhouse’s Facebook page, since removed from the platform, paint a young man fascinated with guns and police — plastering his account with “Blue Lives Matter” messaging. Buzzfeed also unearthed a TikTok video he posted from the front row of a President Donald Trump rally in Iowa. (A Trump spokesman told Buzzfeed: “This individual had nothing to do with our campaign.”)
Rittenhouse traveled across the Illinois-Wisconsin border while the Facebook group Kenosha Guard was urging its 3,500 followers to “take up arms and defend our city tonight from evil thugs.” The conspiracy website InfoWars amplified the message ahead of Tuesday’s protests. Similar calls circulated on the social media platform reddit, prompting replies such as “Going to cleanse the streets of rioters,” and “Time to purge,” according to research by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Facebook told The Verge on Wednesday that it found no evidence that Rittenhouse followed the Kenosha Guard Facebook page or was invited to the group’s events. Before the page was taken down, the group issued a statement on the shootings, saying, “We are unaware if the armed citizen was answering the Kenosha Guard Militia’s call to arms.”
Former city official led the charge
One clear guard participant: former Kenosha Ald. Kevin Mathewson, who left office in 2017. On Tuesday afternoon, he posted a call on Facebook to deputize citizens “and put them on the front line.” He posted photos and video of himself Tuesday night, standing alongside other armed Kenosha Guard members. He also appeared in a video on the Kenosha Guard page titled “We are here,” urging fellow militia to join them, and in a CBS Chicago interview.
Mathewson runs a private investigations and security firm. As an alderman, he pushed for police body cameras to fight against “b.s. complaints against officers.” He also repeatedly clashed with other city officials.
In an email to Wisconsin Watch, Mathewson distanced his group from Rittenhouse’s actions.
“He is a child. The second amendment has some restrictions,” Mathewson wrote. “You cannot process (sic) a gun if you are a child. The only one responsible for his actions are himself. I do not know him and I have never spolek (sic) to him.”
Mathewson criticized Beth and Miskinis as “anti-second amendment” but said the “hard-working” police officers and sheriff’s deputies “welcomed us well and thanked us all night.” He bristled at those who said his militia made Kenosha more dangerous.
“People felt more safe. Law enforcement was outnumbered,” he wrote. “The second amendment was meant for scenarios like this. My community is at war and we are under siege.”
Hateful messages fill Facebook
Facebook shut down the Kenosha Guard group’s page Wednesday morning. But calls to gun down protesters continue to flood other pages. Administrators of Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine, a private group of nearly 121,000, have not formally mobilized vigilantes to Kenosha. But the group has morphed into a space for members to advocate violence.
“Snipers on rooftops take out 60 this will be over by midnight,” wrote one Facebook user who says he lives in Delafield, Wisconsin, responding to a posting of a live feed from Kenosha Tuesday night.
“Guns and ammo!!!!! And go! Cmon patriots in the area! Show up and do your job,” another user replied.
On Thursday, a group member posted a link to a legal defense fund for Rittenhouse. It raised more than $100,000 as of Friday morning.
The Facebook group was among hundreds that mobilized national protests this spring against shutdowns of businesses and public spaces to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Administrators of the Wisconsin group, who have ties to the pro-gun movement, helped mobilize people to a protest in April — short on masks but with ample imagery backing Trump and attacking Evers’ handling of the pandemic — that brought an estimated 1,500 people to the state Capitol.
Tanner said militia and far-right activity has morphed nationwide from protesting coronavirus restrictions to playing a quasi-policing role in the racial justice protests.
“The transition from the reopen events to the George Floyd protests was kind of the perfect storm for expanding that,” Tanner said.
Armed citizens disrupting Wisconsin protests
Tuesday night offered the latest example of armed citizens attending racial justice protests to disrupt them or with the aim of protecting people or property.
Those include a May 31 episode in Kenosha in which a white man was arrested for allegedly pointing a weapon at Black Lives Matter protesters who were marching past his house, according to the Kenosha News. David Allan Naekrsz was charged with two misdemeanors: intentionally pointing a gun at another and disorderly conduct. He was released from jail June 1, court records show.
And on Monday night, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters from Milwaukee faced gunfire in Pennsylvania during a live streamed 700-plus-mile march to Washington, D.C., injuring one marcher, according to media reports.
Barnes, who is Black, said Tuesday’s fatal shootings are just the latest examples of deadly attacks against protesters.
“We saw that happen in Louisville already. We saw that happen in Charlottesville — somebody ran their vehicle into protesters. Heather Heyer was killed. Now Kenosha, Wisconsin, is also home to that sort of tragic scene.”
Howard Hardee and Dee J. Hall contributed to this report. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.