On August 25th, the third day of protests in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, along with dozens of other armed vigilantes, answered a call put out by a right-wing militia group called the “Kenosha Guard” to pour into Kenosha and protect private property with lethal force. That night Rittenhouse would shoot three protesters, killing two of them. The incident echoes similar shootings which took place in Austin, Texas, where an active-duty Army sergeant named Daniel Perry shot and killed a young armed protester named Garrett Foster in July and in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a failed city council candidate named Steven Baca shot and wounded a protester in June. These events have become major reference points for shaping public opinion.
What is new in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse is the conversion of the violence-prone young man, who fits a familiar social archetype characterized by police and state worship, into a rallying symbol of the Right. The leading commentary has come from Ann Coulter (who called Rittenhouse “my president”), Tucker Carlson (who asked why anybody would be surprised that “17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”), and Trump himself, who echoed the narrative of self-defense offered by Rittenhouse’s lawyer. The boy’s image has even gone international: a leader of the far-right party Vox in the Spanish State, defenders of the legacy of the Francoist dictatorship, tweeted a picture of the armed Rittenhouse with the message “+ Kyle Rittenhouse. – George Floyd.”
Forces of reaction have long used the pretext of protecting private property in times of chaos and crisis as cover for perpetrating racial and political terror. This pattern of reactionary violence was witnessed 15 years ago, long before anyone knew the names of George Floyd or Michael Brown. To better understand the political heritage and motivations underlying the actions of vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse, we should look back to those self-appointed guardians of private property who turned murder into sport and New Orleans into a hunting ground during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Armed racist vigilantes travelled to New Orleans from other parts of the country (allegedly including famous “American Sniper” Chris Kyle according to his own biography) in order to take advantage of the chaos and openly hunt Black victims of the disaster who were scavenging for supplies in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters this country has ever seen, under the pretext of protecting private property from looters.
John Penny, a criminologist from Southern University, is quoted in the New York Times as saying: “The environment that was produced by the storm brought out what was dormant in people here — the anger and the contempt they felt against African-Americans in the community. We might not ever know how many people were shot, killed, or whose bodies will never be found.” Some witnesses say there were streets littered with bodies in parts of the city which were never touched by floodwaters — allegedly, the cause of death was not drowning, but gunshot wounds. Signs were hung in white neighborhoods boasting, “We shoot looters.” The story of white vigilantism in post-Katrina New Orleans is perhaps one of the most well-kept secrets in the recent history of lynchings.
Daniel Perry, Steven Baca, Kyle Rittenhouse and the vigilantes of Hurricane Katrina all entered these armed confrontations with the same motivations and desires: to inflict violence and terror upon Black people and those who have joined the struggle to extend democratic rights to Black people, to put private property before human life, and ultimately to maintain this racist bourgeois system.
However, aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenosha was not experiencing any kind of natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, nor any shortages of supplies like food and water. Under these different circumstances, was the looting in Kenosha that Rittenhouse sought to deter justified? As we said in our statement on the murder of George Floyd back in early June:
“The looting and destruction of property by protesters is an entirely rational response to the state’s disregard for the civil rights of Black people. It is the practical expression of the simple truth that George Floyd’s life was incomparably more valuable than any commodity or building. It is the propertarian logic expressed in George Wallace’s now famous quote, ‘When looting starts, the shooting starts,’ which is irrational, criminal, and perverse.”
The mass rebellion in Kenosha which Rittenhouse was resisting was the expression of the righteous and just rage of those who seek to push history forward. This fact was not lost on reactionaries across the world who have rallied around Rittenhouse as a hero.
This is precisely what explains the behavior of the police who allowed the armed Rittenhouse to walk away from the scene of two murders without even stopping him for questioning, as well as their general friendliness towards the armed elements of the far right. As we said in our piece Understanding the Rise of Far-Right Militias published in July:
“At protests, the far right is met with the tolerance, deferential treatment, and cooperation of the police. Often, the membership of the police force and the patriot groups overlaps (one member of the board of directors of the Oath Keepers is a Texas Sheriff’s Constable). The assaults and acts of terror of these reactionaries are always shielded by their ostensible purpose of protecting the constitution, private property, and law and order. In the end, right-wing terror serves to preserve the capitalist order, which is why these groups are relatively tolerated by the bourgeois state.”
In the face of this situation, the Biden campaign has replied with an ad purchase of $45 million, its largest so far during the election cycle, featuring a condemnation of rioters and looters and a call for their prosecution. Of course, this is familiar territory for Biden, who is equipped with an unrestrained hand and the proper legislative background to confront and parry the Trump campaign’s pivot towards the theme of law and order. At the end of the day, no party of the State will defend rioting and looting. A follow-up to Biden’s “do I look like a radical socialist?” could have been “do I look like George McGovern?” No, the drafter of the 1994 crime bill is no McGovern, no matter how much GOP tacticians might invoke the possibility of Nixon’s “silent majority” coming to Trump’s rescue in November.
There no doubt exists a vast middle America, who believe strongly in the neutrality of the police, the National Guard, and the military, on whom the rule of the bourgeoisie rests, and for whom Kyle Rittenhouse is nothing more than a somewhat deviant son who took his admiration and imitation of the police too far. The contest between Trump and Biden to conquer the votes of this section of America — to give full play to its ignorance, its myths, and its philistinism — is ramping up. On law and order, one candidate uses the symbol of Rittenhouse and the other candidate his “track record of getting things done.” On the other hand, the message to the youth who have been in the streets since May demanding justice is clear: this election is not about you.