What Kyle Rittenhouse displayed in a Kenosha, Wisconsin, courtroom this week as he testified in his homicide trial was what folks like to call an “ugly cry.”
Charged in the killings of two men and injury of another amid days of racial justice protests last summer, the defendant started to falter on the stand as he described that fateful night last August, when the then-17-year-old was armed with a rifle, patrolling the streets of a town that was not his own. Rittenhouse’s eyes shut almost completely, save for an occasional glance to his left in the direction of the jury. Then came the sobbing, which kept the rest of his response to his attorney’s questioning about that evening from escaping his quivering lips.
Rittenhouse’s blubbering was the headline of the day after the defendant offered his much-awaited testimony in the case Wednesday, recalling the night he shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber to death and “vaporized” 90 percent of the bicep of medic Gaige Grosskreutz, according to Grosskreutz’s testimony. Rittenhouse wasn’t weeping with regret; he was claiming self-defense, and recounting how he felt his life was in danger.
The trial and pretrial proceedings had already sparked a national outcry after Judge Bruce Schroeder decided last month that prosecutors may not refer to Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz as “victims,” and that defense attorneys could call them “looters” or “arsonists.” Now with his tears, Rittenhouse has cast himself as the lone victim in his own homicide trial.
When he wasn’t crying, Rittenhouse explained why he had traveled the roughly 20 miles from Illinois. Earlier that day, he allegedly offered “condolences” to a business owner for the cars that were set afire the previous night, and he and a friend agreed to help provide armed protection for the business that night. The defendant also testified that he gave a bulletproof vest in his possession — issued by the Grayslake, Illinois, police department’s Explorer program for young people interested in law enforcement careers — to a friend, saying he felt he wouldn’t need it because, he recalled in the courtroom, “I’m going to be helping people.”
The Illinois teenager faces two counts of first-degree homicide and one of attempted homicide, along with three other charges in the shooting on August 25, 2020, just a couple of nights after a local police officer shot Black motorist Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of three of his children. The killings of the demonstrators caused a national shock wave last summer, highlighting the powder keg of emotion surrounding arrests, clashes, and tense exchanges as tens of millions of Americans took to the streets to protest racial injustice.
The debate this week has centered on whether the defendant’s spectacle was authentic. Whether or not the crying was real, it was a performance, and it had an audience. Like many white men accused of violent crimes and misconduct before him, Rittenhouse appealed with his tears not merely to the 12 fellow citizens who will decide his fate, but also to certain white members of the American public who too often see emotion like that and imagine only the faces of their sons — not any born to mothers who look like mine.
There is evidence that Rittenhouse conspicuously aligned himself with the “blue lives matter” crowd, so it’s worth considering his sobbing within the context of the toxic and limited view of manhood that remains so popular in America, particularly among the modern political right. Some compared Rittenhouse to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s reaction when questioned during his confirmation hearings about Christine Blasey Ford’s credible allegations of sexual assault. Wednesday’s display from Rittenhouse bore some similarities to Kavanaugh’s sanctimonious anger, which he often dotted with cracks in his voice. As I wrote at the time, the future Supreme Court justice took advantage of the leeway that his gender and privilege affords to him, and Rittenhouse did the same.
It is a particular privilege to be considered a “boy” after you’ve become an adult — and when you’ve made decisions like Rittenhouse’s. In Rittenhouse’s case, he was generously characterized by the New York Times as someone “who has idolized law enforcement since he was young” and went to Kenosha “with at least one mission: to play the role of police officer and medic.” The prosecution noted a number of his lies Wednesday, including false claims to the press about being an EMT. Part of the discomfort as we watched him emote, to say nothing of the suspicion, may be that we’re generally unfamiliar with seeing boys and men exhibit emotion in such a public way. Vulnerability and common conceptions of manhood, especially among conservatives, have not traditionally been bedfellows.
However, Rittenhouse’s emotion on the stand should be an indictment of his behavior, not an excuse for it. By law, he was too young to have the weapon he possessed and used to kill. He told the court that the reason he picked the AR-15-style rifle, as opposed to a handgun, is he thought “it looked cool.”
Legal experts I spoke with judged Rittenhouse’s testimony to be a positive for him, because the defense must have it both ways: While admitting to the facts of the shootings, they must show that Rittenhouse was the good guy that night, and that he feared for his life. If Rittenhouse provoked the conflict and shooting with his actions, he has no credible claim to self-defense. But if he can convince the jury that, as he told the court, it was either him or them, perhaps he created sufficient reasonable doubt. Time will tell.
American jurisprudence has bigger problems than Kyle Rittenhouse. This trial, however, is shining light on a few. Our legal system tends to treat young white men like him as sob stories rather than cautionary tales, especially if they exhibit anything approximating fear or remorse. The resentment and accusation of melodramatics is due in part to the reasonable presumption that another 17-year-old who isn’t white, committing the same act, wouldn’t receive the same sympathy. They wouldn’t be able to be caught in false statements — such as Rittenhouse’s claim on the night of the killing that Rosenbaum was armed when he allegedly threatened Rittenhouse prior to the shooting (Rosenbaum wasn’t) — and have any expectation that tears could secure their acquittal.
Rittenhouse’s victims were all white men, making them somewhat of an exception in American jurisprudence. Typically, such prejudgment is saved for people of color, and is handed out by law enforcement. If people of color even survive encounters with law enforcement and live to see the inside of a courtroom for the chance to be wrongfully convicted or disproportionately sentenced, it feels like a small miracle.
The self-styled militia patrolling the city that night were, by several accounts, nearly all white men, yet another example of the unequally enforced protections of the Second Amendment. It isn’t that they didn’t have the right to do so, though Rittenhouse technically was too young (among the charges he faces is possessing a dangerous weapon under the age of 18).
Is it reasonable to think that a Black person similarly outfitted with a weapon of war during a civil rights protest in Kenosha would not have been arrested or potentially harmed by the police swarming the streets? If that person shot someone, would they be able to use the defense so many police officers use when killing Black and brown people — that they feared for their life? Tears on the stand didn’t work for the Exonerated Five in New York City back in 1989. Would they work for anyone who looked like us?
This speaks to much of the negative reaction to Rittenhouse’s display on the stand Wednesday. It isn’t simply that a killer cried about his own fear, rather than the lives he took. It represented the exercise of entitlement, the enduring perception of the youth of white men and boys who commit illegal acts.
Racial favoritism remains one of the many cancers afflicting our jurisprudence. By the late summer of 2020, there were fewer children incarcerated in the United States than at any point since the 1980s — but then a survey, released in March by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, revealed that even during a pandemic, the racial disparity in youth detention grew even wider, with white children in 30 states being released at a rate 17 percent higher than Black youths.
“America’s mistreatment of Black children is chronic and casual,” NYU law professor emerita Kim Taylor-Thompson wrote in May. “The ‘Black person as criminal’ stereotype, which equates dangerousness with skin color, has demonstrated remarkable resilience over time. It persists even in light of conflicting data.”
Kyle Rittenhouse can’t reverse that stereotype by himself, even if he’s convicted. It isn’t bad if Rittenhouse receives a fair trial. Everyone should. That’s the point. However, it’s the exploitation of the leeway too often shown to young white defendants that makes people resentful, and rightfully so.
The manner in which Rittenhouse has been granted grace is astounding, but not necessarily bad. But Jacob Blake is paralyzed today, in part, because he didn’t receive the benefit of the doubt from a police officer that Rittenhouse has received from a legion of supporters (with even a judge seeming to tip the scales in his favor). If all lives truly mattered, that wouldn’t be the case.
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