Column: In Kyle Rittenhouse’s case, vigilantism goes on trial too

Kyle Rittenhouse, left, walking in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 25, 2020.
Kyle Rittenhouse, left, in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 25, 2020. He has been charged with killing two men and wounding another that night.

(Associated Press )

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse starts Monday. What’s going on trial isn’t just the teenager accused of killing two men during a chaotic night in Kenosha, it’s also the idea of the self-appointed authority to take up arms — essentially, vigilantism.

Rittenhouse wasn’t law enforcement. He wasn’t a member of the military. He didn’t even live in Wisconsin, let alone the city where civil unrest and protests happened after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Rittenhouse is charged with killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber on Aug. 25, 2020, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz. He has pleaded not guilty.


But before we hear the prosecution’s case or Rittenhouse’s claims of self-defense, let’s be clear about one thing: Rittenhouse was carrying an assault rifle in a state that prohibits minors (Rittenhouse was 17 at the time) from carrying firearms in public, with exceptions for hunting. He has said he went to Kenosha armed to protect businesses from looters.

An acquittal wouldn’t just set Rittenhouse free, it would set a legal precedent for other citizens to grab a gun and take the law into their own hands.

You start making that OK and good luck getting that genie back in the bottle in a country with more guns than people.

The truly unnerving thing is that judging from the video footage, law enforcement did not see Rittenhouse as a threat. In fact, before the shootings, officers gave him water as a show of their appreciation. And even after the shootings, even as bystanders yelled at nearby officers about what had happened, Rittenhouse was not seen as a threat. In fact, he just calmly walked away from the scene.

The irony is that had local police viewed Blake — who was shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha officer — in a similar fashion, there would not have been unrest in Kenosha to begin with.

But Blake, who was holding a knife as he was trying to return to his vehicle in broad daylight, was seen as a threat and treated as one. Rittenhouse, who was out patrolling chaotic streets with an assault weapon at night, was not.

In August, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that prosecutors had a video of Rittenhouse, sitting in a car outside a CVS, saying he that he wished he had his assault rifle so he could shoot at some men leaving the store.


The county prosecutor said in court papers that the video “demonstrates that the defendant fervently sought to insert himself as an armed vigilante into situations that had nothing to do with him. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the video proves that the defendant was ready and willing to use deadly force in a situation where it was completely unjustified.”

According to the authorities, Rittenhouse’s friend, Dominick Black, allegedly bought the semiautomatic rifle for Rittenhouse because Rittenhouse was still a minor. Black allegedly asked Rittenhouse to join him on his crusade to protect local businesses.

What about any of this feels like law and order? It’s more like a scene from one of “The Purge” movies, dystopian horror flicks where all crime, including murder, becomes legal once a year.

Rittenhouse and his friend felt they had unbridled power to be enforcers, and that resulted in multiple shooting deaths. To decide this isn’t a crime would say more about our future than Rittenhouse’s.