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Practically all of it happened on camera — many cameras, on phones held aloft like candles through the tear gas and firework smoke, feeding fragments of footage and livestreams to the many platforms.
It began with the video of a white police officer shooting a Black man named Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., a small lakefront manufacturing city, on Aug. 23, 2020. Over the following nights, Kenoshans found themselves inside a compressed version of the national experience since the killing of George Floyd three months earlier. A demonstration at the site of the shooting grew larger and angrier and gave way to smashed police cruisers; an officer was knocked unconscious with a brick. Within hours, officers in riot gear were firing rubber bullets and pepper balls beneath a pall of smoke from torched municipal trucks, and black-masked arsonists were setting fire to public buildings.
The next day, the mayor attempted a news conference but was forced to retreat inside the public-safety building ahead of a furious crowd that broke the glass of the building’s front doors. That night, police officers defending the county courthouse used a sound cannon and tear gas on demonstrators. Several streets’ worth of businesses and a parole office went up in flames. A man in his 70s trying to defend the Danish Brotherhood Lodge and a store next door sprayed rioters in their faces with a fire extinguisher until a man hit him with a concrete-filled plastic bottle, breaking his jaw.
The footage ran in fiery loops on Fox News and Newsmax. It fueled rumors and conspiracy theories, outraged monologues on talk radio and conversations within the White House, which themselves spilled back onto Fox News. It ricocheted around the online platforms themselves, among people who, by the third day, Aug. 25, were convinced they had to do something — who, when reaching for an explanation of what they had done after the fact, would often reach for a video. When I asked one local man what possessed him to leave his home armed with a rifle and intent on defending a pizza place across town, whose owner he did not know, he directed me to the footage of the beating outside the Danish Brotherhood Lodge. “This,” he wrote to me in a Facebook message, “was what triggered us citizens that day!”
They called themselves citizens or patriots, and the demonstrators and media often called them militias, but it would have been most accurate to call them paramilitaries: young-to-middle-aged white men, mostly, armed with assault-style rifles and often clad in tactical gear, who appeared in town that evening arrayed purposefully around gas stations and used-car lots. Their numbers, based on video footage and firsthand accounts, may have run anywhere from the high dozens to the low hundreds, but no official estimates were made. Law-enforcement officers seemed to have broadly tolerated, and occasionally openly expressed support for, their activities, despite the fact that many of them were violating the same emergency curfew order under which dozens of demonstrators were arrested.
People gathering after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Aug. 23, 2020.Credit…CBS 58 News Milwaukee
One of the most extensive records of their appearance was made by Kristan T. Harris, the Milwaukee-based host of a streamed talk show called “The Rundown Live” (“covering news and conspiracy that your local news won’t”), a sort of junior cousin of Alex Jones’s conspiracist Infowars media empire. Harris was also a prolific livestreamer, a frequent presence at protests and other happenings in the Upper Midwest. An advocate for armed citizens’ groups (though not actually a gun owner himself), Harris had been at plenty of assemblies where military-style hardware was ostentatiously carried. “It’s a penis-measuring contest — let’s call it what it is,” he told me. But it was immediately clear to him, in Kenosha, that something had shifted: “When people say, ‘Hey, take your positions, they’re coming our way’ — that, to me, sounds like war.”
A handful of figures, rifles in hand, were visible in silhouette on the roof of a car dealership. “We’ve got militia on the roof here, and it’s pretty neat,” Harris told his viewers. “They’re here to protect the local neighborhood and buildings, they said.” Out front, two young men stood sentry with rifles in front of a silver sedan. “Get my good angle,” one of them said, leaning nonchalantly against the driver’s side door. He smiled. “I’m Kyle, by the way.”
Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, who lived just across the state line in Illinois, arrived in Kenosha the night before. The next day, he joined several other young men in the defense of the dealership where Harris encountered him. Less than two hours later, he would shoot three men, killing two and wounding the third, and transforming himself, in an instant, into a Rorschach test.
‘Who wants to march? Who wants to go to the police station?’
— A demonstrator with a megaphone at the scene of the Blake shooting on Aug. 23, 2020.
When Rittenhouse, who is now 18, stands trial as an adult in Kenosha in November on charges of homicide and attempted homicide, the prosecutors and defense attorneys will take up the question that politicians and media personalities have spent the past year confidently answering: Who is he, and why did he do what he did? The rush to define him began immediately. After the shooting, Representative Ayanna Pressley, the Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts, called him a “white supremacist domestic terrorist” on Twitter and castigated news outlets for describing him as anything less. The right claimed him just as quickly as a singular hero. “I would describe him as a Minuteman,” John Pierce, a lawyer who attached himself to Rittenhouse’s case, told a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times. “KYLE RITTENHOUSE FOR CONGRESS,” Anthony Sabatini, a Republican state representative in Florida, tweeted. “I want him as my president,” Ann Coulter tweeted. “ALL THE BEST PEOPLE #StandWithKyle,” the right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin tweeted. “It’s now or never … and, yes, it’s war.”
But there has been little so far to suggest that Rittenhouse saw himself as either a Dylann Roof or a Paul Revere when he stepped onto the street in Kenosha with his rifle. Prosecutors have yet to produce evidence that Rittenhouse held extremist views or associations before the shootings; his own defense attorneys intend to argue that in a chaotic moment, he simply acted in self-defense. This is likely to center the trial on Rittenhouse’s actions over a series of brief and fateful moments, and not the much larger question of what brought Rittenhouse and so many others to the streets of Kenosha equipped for war.
Throughout the evening, he was surrounded by men who were at times visibly undisciplined with their firearms and much more aggressive and confrontational toward the demonstrators; the Facebook pages and Reddit threads where some groups organized were full of fantasies about shooting people in the streets. There were paramilitaries who loudly advertised notably radical political commitments. But many more seemed, like Rittenhouse, to be basically conventional conservative suburbanites: a limo-company operations manager, an I.T. entrepreneur, a former city alderman — people whose Facebook profiles were thick with photos of family holiday gatherings and fishing trips, not sovereign-citizen screeds. “I’m legally allowed to carry my AR-15 to the event right?” one of them had asked tentatively on Facebook. “I just haven’t carried it since I was in the army and it feels odd to walk outside with it over my shoulder.”
In interviews and in their own social media postings, the paramilitaries often insisted that they had to be out there because of the intolerable extremity of the destruction and occasional physical violence that had been happening for two days in Kenosha, and local law enforcement’s manifest inability to control it. These events were not unique to Kenosha, yet it was the only city in 2020 where a disaggregated armed force of such scale materialized in response, seemingly out of nowhere, and inflicted multiple fatalities.
Many people I met in Kenosha tried to articulate a local explanation for all that happened the previous August: the particular tinderbox of inequities and resentments and pathologies (there are always plenty of those) that was ignited, the warnings that were issued and ignored (and plenty of those, too). None of it seemed wrong, exactly, but it did not seem like nearly enough to explain the storm that whipped through their city, even as they themselves described it. Few of the people arrested and charged so far with serious crimes relating to the destruction in the city actually lived there. This was true, too, of all but a handful of the paramilitaries I was able to identify, many of whom had come in from surrounding suburbs and towns to defend businesses with which they had no apparent connection. Rittenhouse did not live in Kenosha, nor did two of the three men he shot. In a tragedy stemming from a confrontation over policing and race, nobody directly involved in the shooting was Black or a law-enforcement officer.
Even to describe it as a tragedy seemed insufficient. That word, in its sorrowful-news-anchor usage, implies a collective remorse, a society-level acknowledgment of terrible mistakes made, but none of this really existed in the case of Kenosha. The shootings that happened there had come within a trigger pull of happening elsewhere, and indeed in Kenosha itself, in the months before, and the underlying conditions had changed so little that there was every reason to think something similar would happen again. The city had simply been first to experience the inevitable consequences of a moment when partisan politics, rather than providing an alternative to political violence, had become an accelerant of it — when the rhetoric swirling around those politics, and the voices amplifying it, had persuaded a large number of people with military-style weapons that the time for talking in America was over.
“I got friends on the other side, too,” Harris told one paramilitary he met on the street shortly before the shootings. “We try to have conscious debates and conversations.”
“You can’t have that anymore, man,” the other man replied.
In the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020, many of the participants were not themselves Black: a significant break with the preceding history of racial protest politics in America, and a reflection of how much white liberals’ views on race had changed in the last decade. But even as racial justice became thoroughly embedded in Democratic politics, B.L.M. retained the characteristics of a largely leaderless protest movement — most notably, in 2020, an inability to control the actions that were taken under its banner.
According to a study by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, only 6 percent of Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year involved violence — by demonstrators, counter-demonstrators or police officers — or property destruction. But those that did presented an obvious dilemma for Democratic elected officials: How do you respond to the burning of a police precinct building in the name of a cause that an overwhelming majority of your voters, and often you yourself, also endorse? The footage of buildings in flames and toppled statues that aired repeatedly on conservative media throughout the spring and summer often did capture genuine failures of governance: city administrations that were feckless, pinned between their political commitments and civic obligations or simply overwhelmed. But it also exaggerated the extent of the chaos and treated it as a stage for a new sort of political morality play, with its own cast of heroes and villains.
Donald Trump had labored for several years to make a national boogeyman out of antifa, the left-wing anti-authoritarian movement, directing law-enforcement resources toward it that had been dedicated to investigating right-wing extremism and threatening to designate it a terrorist group, despite his F.B.I. director’s belief that it was really “more of an ideology than an organization.” In the antifa heartland of Portland, Ore., the upheavals following George Floyd’s death brought members of the movement together with Black Lives Matter activists in clashes with the police that would continue for months. In other cities, the streets were filled with white demonstrators who at least looked like antifa. These developments offered an end run around the messy racial optics of a law-and-order campaign that directly targeted Black protesters.
In a speech on June 1 in the Rose Garden, Trump announced that he was urging governors to deploy federal law-enforcement officers and National Guard troops to quell the chaos in Portland and elsewhere. (He would later go further, sending waves of federal law-enforcement officers over the protestations of local leaders.) He dutifully denounced the “brutal death of George Floyd” but also the “acts of domestic terror” that followed his killing, never mentioning Black Lives Matter and instead blaming “antifa and others who were leading instigators of this violence.” The next day, Fox News published a story claiming, according to a single anonymous “government intelligence source,” that antifa had a coordinated national plan to bring chaos and destruction to the suburbs. “Local and state authorities have to get a grip on this,” the source said, “because if it moves to the suburbs, more people will die.”
It was inevitable in this political climate that confronting demonstrators would become a path to right-wing celebrity. On June 28, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a wealthy couple in St. Louis, were captured in a much-circulated video aiming guns at protesters marching past their home; two months later, the night before the Rittenhouse shootings, they addressed the Republican National Convention. “What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country,” Patricia McCloskey said. “Your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”
The month after George Floyd’s death was full of examples of people following this idea to its logical conclusion. In towns across Idaho, groups of armed men materialized on the street in response to unfounded Facebook rumors about incipient antifa activity. A group of men with bats and golf clubs faced down Black Lives Matter demonstrators in the street in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, some shouting racial slurs. And on June 15, a group of armed men surrounded protesters in Albuquerque, N.M., trying to tear down a statue of New Mexico’s 16th-century colonial governor, the conquistador Juan de Oñate, who slaughtered hundreds of Pueblo people during his rule. Amid rising tension, one of the men, Steven Ray Baca Jr., pepper-sprayed members of the crowd. As one man reportedly swung a skateboard at him, Baca fired his handgun four times, wounding the man.
‘Kenosha was a nice place. But it’s happening everywhere now, even in nice places.’
— The Fox News Host Tucker Carlson on Aug. 24.
Baca (who is currently awaiting trial), the son of a sheriff’s deputy and a recent candidate for City Council, posted a MAGA-hatted selfie from a Trump rally the previous September. He was defended at the protest by the New Mexico Civil Guard, which formed a year before in opposition to gun laws proposed by the state’s Democratic governor and became a regular counterpresence at protests. Its leader, Brice Smith, told a local reporter that they hoped to be “a visual deterrent” to would-be statue topplers: “Our goal there was to make sure violence didn’t spill out from the area of the statue.” Where American militias once defined themselves principally in opposition to the federal government, groups like the New Mexico Civil Guard now often defined themselves explicitly or implicitly in relation to Democratic governments, national or local — either in opposition to them or their policies or as a compensation for what they saw as their obvious failures at law enforcement. And they increasingly defined their mission as protecting against the excesses of the new wave of racial-justice demonstrations.
A version of these political dramas arrived in Wisconsin on June 23. That afternoon, a Black man named Devonere Johnson walked into a pub in downtown Madison with a baseball bat and, for several minutes, shouted accusations of racism at employees and patrons through a megaphone he pointed directly at their faces. Johnson was a regular at Black Lives Matter protests in the city, and after he was arrested, a crowd of a couple of hundred people gathered in protest at the state’s Capitol. The Capitol’s “Forward” statue, a female figure representing progress, was toppled. Another statue, depicting an abolitionist, was beheaded and thrown into Lake Monona. At one point, a state senator named Tim Carpenter, a liberal Democrat, stopped outside the Capitol to film the crowd on his phone. As he tried to assure the protesters he was their “ally,” he was beaten by several of them, suffering a concussion and a broken nose. The two women who were later charged with attacking Carpenter were both members of Madison’s white liberal professional class: a former social worker in a suburban school district and a physical therapist.
Clashes between racial-justice activists and the police had been regular occurrences in Madison since late May, and Satya Rhodes-Conway, the city’s Democratic mayor, struggled with how to respond to them. “Thank you for being angry,” she told participants in one early march, explaining that she had spoken with the city’s police chief about “the need for de-escalation and restraint.” After reports that the city’s police union was considering holding a vote of no-confidence in the mayor, she recorded a contrite video addressing the police force. “You are not what the protesters say you are,” she told them. “I was so focused on the task of addressing the concerns of our community that I didn’t remember that you need and deserve both recognition and appreciation.” When this statement, in turn, infuriated local activists, Rhodes-Conway issued yet another statement: “Black lives matter. I believe deeply in this, and yet I failed to center this in my message to the Police Department. I realized that this action has done deep harm to the Black community, and for this I apologize.” The episode at the Capitol cast these contortions in a suddenly unsparing light.
Vicki McKenna, a prominent conservative talk-radio host, who broadcasts her show on the Milwaukee-based talk and news station WISN from a studio in Madison, began her June 24 episode in stark terms. “The state of Wisconsin is under siege,” she told her audience at the top of the show. “And there is nobody — nobody — who is willing to defend it.”
For the next hour and a half, a procession of guests inveighed against Rhodes-Conway and Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor. “I have folks, you know, friends of mine, who are Democrats,” Brian Schimming, a former Wisconsin housing-authority official appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, told her. “They’re going, ‘Well, that’s not us.’”
“Yeah it is,” McKenna said.
“Yes. It. Is,” Schimming agreed.
“This is anarchy,” said Van H. Wanggaard, a Republican state senator and former police officer from Racine. “These are terrorists. These are domestic terrorists.” Echoing McKenna, he urged listeners to blame not the rank-and-file police but a leadership beholden to Democratic officials. Mike Koval, the recently retired police chief of Madison, agreed. The police, he said, were “thoroughbreds that are basically being put on a pony cart and told to walk around in circles.” He spoke darkly of officers’ being “muzzled” and insisted that “strings are being pulled from the highest level.”
McKenna was particularly furious about the absence of the National Guard, which Evers did not deploy until that day. “Here’s my idea,” she told her listeners: “We get a couple of hundred people with AR-15s to descend into the downtown area in Madison and just walk the perimeter. I tell you something, Tony Evers would see that sight, and he would declare a state of emergency so fast.” Returning to this idea throughout the broadcast, McKenna was always careful to present the aim of that deployment as not vigilante action but rather forcing Evers’s hand: If the Black Lives Matter activists could get what they wanted by flooding the streets, why couldn’t conservatives?
Over the course of the show, however, she fielded several calls from listeners who saw putting guns in the streets not as a means to a solution but as the solution itself. “I believe it’s time for a civilian army, so to speak, to show up in Madison and guard our history, and our artifacts, and our Capitol and our people,” one caller told her. “Enough is enough. I mean, this is absolutely getting crazy.”
“It shouldn’t be up to us,” McKenna told him. “But if it must be — and if you don’t feel comfortable, you know, I don’t know, open-carrying — ”
“I’m game,” the caller cut in. “I know a lot of other people that are.”
It made sense that Madison, with its lefty college-town politics, would be a flash point in Wisconsin’s post-George Floyd upheaval. It made sense, too, that protests and clashes with the police would be more or less continuous throughout the summer in Milwaukee, a 39 percent Black city with a history as an important Northern front in the civil rights struggle. But few Wisconsinites would have expected the upheaval to arrive most dramatically in Kenosha: a factory town turned Chicago bedroom community where the handful of dedicated local racial-justice activists previously strained to turn out more than a couple of dozen people for demonstrations.
Kenosha has a population just shy of 100,000 — small enough that in the days after George Floyd’s death, the racial and political fissures that opened up were often personal, dividing people who knew one another or thought they did. “Anarchy, chaos taking focus away from the original substantive issue,” a white A.P. government teacher at a Kenosha high school fumed on Facebook after a police precinct building in Minneapolis burned on May 28. “Our government should never allow these PUKES to take over the streets of an American city.” “I’m so disappointed,” one of his Black former students, who had defended rioting on social media, told him in a message. “You were my favorite teacher.” The teacher unfriended her.
After Floyd’s death, several local Black community leaders and activists in the city, which is 12 percent Black, planned a Kneel for Nine event to memorialize the approximately nine minutes the police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. It was intended to be a scrupulously mainstream event; the mayor, police chief and county sheriff would all be attending. But the politics of the moment did not wait for, or necessarily welcome, leaders. Three days before the Kneel for Nine, a different call to action — who first issued it, no one I spoke with in Kenosha seemed to know — began bouncing synaptically around local social media, summoning people to gather downtown the next day, May 31, to take a stand against police brutality.
About a thousand people did, by participants’ estimates. They radiated outward across the city, in cars and on foot. Although a handful of businesses reported broken windows or burglaries that night, the demonstration was broadly peaceful. It was also heavily policed. The most significant altercations, however, turned out to be not between demonstrators and police officers but between demonstrators and other civilians.
Just after 6 p.m., a woman walking her dog encountered a hundred or so demonstrators as they passed a residential area. She told the protesters that “this wasn’t the place for this,” according to a police report. Three female protesters, all of whom were Black, started arguing with her, and the woman later told officers that one of them struck her. The dog walker punched the protester. A Jeep Wrangler pulled up, and a 29-year-old white man jumped out, brandishing a loaded AR-15-style rifle and advancing on the group of protesters. A sheriff’s deputy standing nearby reported that the man shouted something like “Get the [expletive] out of our neighborhood!”
Over the course of the evening, two other men, both white, brandished guns as protesters passed by their homes. Koerri Washington, a local livestreamer who followed the demonstrations through the streets that night, also filmed a Black man walking alongside a loose column of marchers with an assault-style rifle, raising his fist. “This is Wisconsin,” Washington, who is Black, told me. “I’m pretty sure everyone here has a gun. For the most part, people seem to know how to handle firearms.”
At the time, Wisconsinites’ views of these demonstrations were still unsettled. In mid-June, a poll by the Marquette University Law School found that 61 percent approved of the racial-justice protests since Floyd’s death. The poll’s responses diverged significantly by race but more significantly by party: 91 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement, while only 32 percent of Republicans did. And yet, despite prolonged unrest in cities like Minneapolis and Portland, all of which was covered extensively in conservative media and centered in Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, the poll found that less than half of Wisconsin Republicans had an unfavorable view of Black Lives Matter in mid-June.
Ralph Nudi, then a conservative talk radio host in Kenosha, told me he dismissed the B.L.M. movement as “Marxist.” But he also seemed genuinely outraged by Floyd’s killing, and on the air he sometimes seemed to be trying to work out for himself what kind of response to it wouldn’t be totally excluded from his own politics. It had not bothered him, Nudi said, that Kenosha’s local elected officials, virtually all Democrats, had shown up, along with local law-enforcement officials, for the June 2 Kneel for Nine. “That was a peaceful movement,” he said. “That’s OK to show your support.”
He was angry, however, when the same people did not show up for the Back the Blue rally in support of law enforcement several weeks later in Civic Center Park, the tree-lined plaza downtown that is Kenosha’s main public gathering place. A friend of Nudi’s, the wife of a state trooper, organized the event and invited Nudi to speak at it. (Vicki McKenna, the Madison radio host, attended as well.) “You’re making it political when you decide that you’re going to show up at the Kneel for Nine but you’re not going to show up for the Back the Blue rally,” he told me. “You’re basically saying Democrats don’t back police officers anymore, period.”
But the possibility, however faint, of the event’s having been genuinely nonpartisan seemed to have been precluded from the outset by the organizers’ choice of headlining act: David Clarke, the former Milwaukee County sheriff and right-wing celebrity, and possibly the most political and polarizing figure in American law enforcement. In a 2018 column on TownHall.com, Clarke criticized the “guerrilla-type warfare tactics of the Democrat Party and the American left” and the Republican elites who were ill-equipped to fight them in “this new age of political warfare.” This sort of rhetorical posture, that held anyone to the left of the Republican Party to be a treasonous threat to the state, was once a fringe view in the party; by 2020, national Republicans who did not espouse it seemed the exception rather than the rule.
Clarke, who is Black, had also described Black Lives Matter activists as “subhuman creeps” and claimed that they were allying with the Islamic State to destroy America. Local racial-justice activists quickly assembled a protest to the Back the Blue rally. Early in the event, one of their number crossed the street, banging loudly on a metal pot. Several rallygoers confronted him, and as the argument escalated, another activist and a local journalist were hit as they tried to separate them. A white police officer in plain clothes mistaken by a rallygoer for a demonstrator was punched in the jaw when he went to pick up a BLACK LIVES MATTER sign that the activist had dropped in the street.
Brian Little, a local activist who had turned out to protest against Clarke, tried to extricate another protester from the rally crowd. One rallygoer called Little, who is Black, a racial slur, and another told him to “get off welfare,” he recalled. “I was just so angry,” he told me. “I was thinking, I can’t believe this is what Kenosha is turning into.”
Clarke appeared in the center of the park with a megaphone. “We saw earlier what went on in the back with those idiots back there,” he said, in apparent reference to the altercations. “I made it clear: If I saw one of ours under attack, I’m jumping into the fray. And I fight to win.” The crowd cheered. “I think they faced some casualties on their side,” Clarke added. The rallygoers, apparently unaware that one of the casualties had in fact been a police officer, laughed loudly. As at the Trump rallies where the crowd cheered the manhandling of a protester, there was a giddiness, a feeling of civil society’s greatest taboo falling away.
The news of Jacob Blake’s shooting, at 5:15 p.m. on Aug. 23, traveled almost instantaneously throughout Kenosha and beyond, thanks to a cellphone video in which the police officer, Rusten Sheskey, could be seen firing his handgun at Blake’s back seven times as Blake climbed into an S.U.V. with his children inside. The incident would prove to be more complicated than the video suggested: The police were responding to a domestic-violence call from the mother of Blake’s children, and Blake had loaded the children into the car aware that the police were coming for him. He was also carrying a knife that was not visible to the camera but was visible to Sheskey. At the time, however, all anyone knew was that a Black man had been shot repeatedly in the back. Although Blake would survive, paralyzed, it was widely assumed that he was dead.
A crowd had been gathering for hours along the police tape marking off the intersection where the shooting occurred, growing increasingly agitated, when a loud hiss came from the tire of a Sheriff’s Department S.U.V. A wave of electricity passed through the crowd: A line had been crossed. “Hey, we don’t do that!” someone shouted, as members of the crowd began throwing objects at the sheriff’s deputies. “We don’t do that!”
Someone started jumping on the S.U.V. From up the street, where more police cars were parked, came the splinter-thud of smashing windshields. A Molotov cocktail arced through the air and exploded against the asphalt near a police cruiser; seconds later, a police officer was knocked unconscious with a brick.
An older Black man, a Black Lives Matter activist who had come in from Lake County, Ill., started shouting at a multiracial group of younger demonstrators: “We got what we asked for. We asked for them to stand down, they stood down. And we still want to act a damn fool! We asked for them to stand down, they stood down! I can’t change what happened. I can’t change what — ”
“This is how we get our change!” a young man interrupted him. “We show we’re angry!”
“They know you’re angry!”
“No, they [expletive] don’t!”
The crowd marched to the public-safety building downtown. The next hours unfolded almost programmatically, as if everyone, protesters and police alike, were following a now-familiar script. Someone lobbed a firecracker. Lines of Police and Sheriff’s Department officers, joined by reinforcements from neighboring towns, advanced on the demonstrators with riot shields, firing tear gas and other less-lethal munitions. As they were forced back from the public-safety building, people thronged into Civic Center Park and the surrounding streets, where the county courthouse, the post office, a high school and the city’s Dinosaur Discovery Museum stood. Some of them torched the garbage trucks and dump trucks that had been parked at intersections to block off the streets. A group of masked rioters toppled the fiberglass dilophosaurus that stood sentry in front of the museum, then began smashing windows. On the museum steps, a Black man in a hoodie and mask hurled a flaming projectile at the building.
‘This thing has almost been an attempt by Democrats to destroy the city.’
— The talk-radio host Mark Belling on Aug. 25.
“I didn’t recognize Kenosha,” Alvin D. Owens told me, recalling the scene at the Civic Center that night. More to the point, he said, “I didn’t recognize Kenoshans.” Owens, a 53-year-old local barber and prominent figure in Kenosha’s Black community, had helped plan the city’s first Kneel for Nine in June. When the crowd marched on the public-safety building after the Blake shooting, he rushed to the scene and tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to engage in a similar kneeling protest. Later outside the museum, he watched, dumbfounded, as a white woman handed out gasoline bombs fashioned out of aluminum foil.
Kenosha, Owens reminded me, was a small city. “We all know each other,” he said. “If I don’t know you, my brother don’t know you, an Italian don’t know you” — Kenosha is heavily Italian American — “then you’re not from here.” Out on the street that night, watching figures darting past and fires burning, he exchanged bafflements with Tanya McLean, a local racial-justice activist. “I was like: ‘Tanya, you know them? Are they from Lincoln Park? Are they from Wilson Heights?’ Nobody knew these people.”
Nearly every Kenoshan I spoke to who was out that night said something similar: Nobody knew these people. The county court and jail records and federal indictments from that night and the two that followed show that in fact many of the arrests made were of Kenosha residents, but many others were indeed from outside the city — mostly Milwaukee and its suburbs or the Chicago area, each about an hour’s drive away. Occasionally they came from Madison and Minneapolis and very occasionally from points farther east or west. Kenosha was a small city within easy reach of many larger ones, and its local activists, by their own accounts, were inexperienced and ill equipped for the sudden influx of both allies and opportunists, people for whom Kenosha was not a hometown but a battlefield.
On Aug. 24, the following evening, Kenosha was the lead story on Fox News’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” “Kenosha was a nice place,” Carlson said in the first segment of his show. “But it’s happening everywhere now, even in nice places. Of course it is. No one in charge has stopped this for months.”
The night before, Evers, the governor, issued a statement that made no mention of the destruction, addressing only Blake’s shooting and expressing solidarity with his family, friends and neighbors. “While we do not have all of the details yet, what we know for certain is that he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or our country,” it read in part. On his show, Carlson said, “After last night’s riots in Kenosha, both the city’s democratic mayor and the governor of Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers, took the side of the rioters.” (The mayor, John Antaramian, had actually condemned the destruction at a news conference that afternoon.) “Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t.”
Carlson’s take on the events in Kenosha was in line with what others in local conservative media were saying. “I’m tired of seeing these subhumans be allowed to destroy property,” David Clarke told Vicki McKenna on her radio show that afternoon. “I’m tired of seeing officers injured with tepid response in reply.” McKenna agreed. Recurring themes of that broadcast, as she talked with Clarke and other guests, were what McKenna contended was the complicity of Democratic officials in the destruction, and its highly organized nature. “It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see it,” McKenna said. “All you’ve got to do is watch this video and ask yourself, ‘Well, what are all those white kids doing there?’” She continued, “And what are we going to do about it?”
Months earlier, shortly after George Floyd’s death, a Facebook page appeared with little fanfare announcing a new organization called the Kenosha Guard. Its creator, a 36-year-old private investigator and former Kenosha alderman named Kevin Mathewson, would later insist it had not really been an organization, just a Facebook page, and he had given a few other people administrator access to it. He said he couldn’t recall who among them created the Guard’s first event: a muster in Civic Center Park on the afternoon of June 2, the same time and place as Kenosha’s first organized Kneel for Nine event, advertised with a Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and billed as a “peaceful, armed assembly to deter looting/rioting.”
The notion of what was assumed to be an armed group of white people taking it upon themselves to police a peaceful demonstration, much less one that would be attended by the leadership of Kenosha’s actual law-enforcement agencies, incensed the Black activists who saw Mathewson’s post. “Can a bunch of Black guys go to the country and say we’re defending buildings?” Raymond Roberts, a local data analyst and Army veteran who organized a counter-demonstration, asked me. But in the end, few people participated in the Guard event, and Mathewson himself — a conservative Republican, but one who had a reputation as a critic and watchdog of local law enforcement — chose to participate in the Kneel for Nine instead. “People were upset about George Floyd and what happened to him,” he told me. “I was one of those folks.” But it infuriated him that the night before, after someone complained about a group of armed men that had taken it upon themselves to patrol the downtown area in violation of the curfew that had been imposed, the police told the group to go home. “That pissed me off,” he said. “I just think it’s not fair.”
Mathewson went to the site of the Blake shooting shortly after it happened and left as the protest turned destructive. The night of Aug. 24 began where the previous night left off, with a pitched battle between demonstrators and law enforcement between Civic Center Park and the government buildings to the north. But crowds were soon spilling west into Uptown, a neighborhood of lower-income homes and immigrant-owned businesses, smashing cars and torching commercial buildings. The destruction was documented in great detail by livestreamers, photographers, TV crews and a half-dozen newly arrived video reporters from right-wing media outlets including The Daily Caller and The Blaze: political storm chasers who had spent the summer following weather systems of urban unrest across the West Coast and the Midwest — the most spectacular of which, for the moment, seemed to have settled over Kenosha.
‘Armed and ready. Shoot to kill tonight.’
— Facebook comment on Aug. 25.
Mathewson, who has a private security license, was hired by a local businessman to stand guard at his shop, which had been burglarized. He stayed there until around 4:30 a.m., when the streets were mostly deserted, and then went home to his house in White Caps, one of several subdivisions near the city’s western limits.
By the night of Aug. 24, the subdivisions’ residents had become increasingly paranoid. Much of the worst destruction was along 60th Street, which connected the subdivisions to the city proper — five miles east of White Caps, but five miles was starting to not seem so far. On Facebook, anonymous “police scanner” accounts provided a steady stream of alarming unconfirmed (and often false) reports, and rumors were circulating that White Caps and the neighboring subdivisions would be deliberately targeted. An armed neighborhood-watch group made plans to gather on the grounds of a local elementary school.
Erin Decker, a county supervisor and chairwoman of the Kenosha County Republican Party, recalled similar rumors circulating even farther out of the city. “There were posts on Facebook saying, ‘We’re going to go out to the county where the white folks live, in the rich white neighborhoods,’ and stuff like that,” she said. That evening, Lily Evans, a 32-year-old Black woman who operates a small organic farming business in Kenosha, encountered a roadblock on a residential street in Pleasant Prairie, a town southwest of the city, where several white men with assault rifles and paramilitary attire were standing around a traffic barricade. “They were stopping cars,” Evans recalled. “I was like, ‘Are you law enforcement?’ And they said no.” Evans, a Republican, owned a handgun, too, and had it with her in the car. But “it’s different when I carry a gun,” she said. “I have to be really mindful, very careful of how I maneuver and how I move — especially when I’m interacting with police officers,” she said. “And yet you have these militia guys walking around with they ARs, and it’s OK for them.”
By the morning of Aug. 25, it was clear that the damage overnight was much worse than the first night. “Law enforcement is outnumbered and our Mayor has failed,” Mathewson wrote on the Kenosha Guard Facebook page. “Take up arms and lets defend our CITY! Meet at civic center park at 8pm.”
The post quickly piled up hundreds of R.S.V.P.s. In the comments, people openly fantasized about killing demonstrators: “Dispose of these criminal protesters,” one wrote. The post was flagged 455 times by Facebook users for violating the platform’s prohibition on militia activity — constituting 66 percent of all reports the company received about events that day, according to internal communications later obtained by BuzzFeed — but was cleared four times by the company’s moderators and allowed to stay up.
“There is an attempt to bring this kind of insurrection we have seen in Portland, and Seattle, and Chicago and Minneapolis to Kenosha, Wis.,” Mark Belling, the popular conservative talk-radio host, told his listeners on WISN, the Milwaukee station, that afternoon. “They would love to do this in a predominantly white community that isn’t considered a big city. They’ve been arguing forever that ‘We’ve got to make the people — we’ve got to get this stuff out of our own cities. We’ve got to bring this thing out to the suburbs.’” He blasted Evers, Antaramian and Jim Kreuser, the Democratic county executive, by name. “If they don’t wake up by tonight, Kenosha’s going to be gone. And people will be dead.”
The image of predominantly white suburbanites existentially imperiled by a violent, terroristic left, and Democratic officials who were either complicit or helpless in the face of it, fit neatly against the backdrop of footage showing local law enforcement unable to control what was happening in Kenosha. In reality, the city’s leadership was already acting: That morning, Antaramian, along with David Beth and Daniel Miskinis, the Kenosha police chief at the time, had already called Bryan Steil, the Republican congressman whose district includes Kenosha, to request more federal assistance. When Steil called the White House switchboard, he soon found himself unexpectedly on the line with Trump himself, urging the president to send U.S. Marshals, A.T.F. agents — whatever reinforcements were available. “You want me to call your governor, even though your governor hasn’t called me?” Trump asked, according to Steil.
Steil said he did. “Talk to Mark,” Trump said.
Steil explained the situation once again to Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff. That evening, Meadows appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” He told Carlson that he spoke with Evers earlier that day, offering more National Guard troops, and Evers had declined the assistance. “As a governor or elected official,” Meadows said, “you’ve got to either ignore the problem — which a lot of liberal governors are doing exactly that, they’re ignoring the problem — or you have to deal with it.”
“Clearly Tony Evers wants riots,” Carlson said.
Beth told me that while local officials had indeed asked for anything the federal government could provide, they understood that the resources the state could marshal on a few hours’ or even a few days’ notice were limited. “No one was failing in anything,” he said. “Everyone was giving us all the resources they could give us.” Though there had been calls by some county supervisors to deploy a thousand or more National Guard troops after the first night, the 125 Evers sent the next day, according to the Wisconsin National Guard, were the entirety of the Guard’s quick-reaction force; 125 more would be sent the following day. Britt Cudaback, a spokeswoman for Evers, disputed Meadows’s account of his conversation with the governor. She said that the chief of staff had in fact offered not the National Guard but personnel from the Department of Homeland Security. The administration had recently sent D.H.S. officers to Portland, where their presence raised civil liberties concerns and inflamed protests. “A lot of people were concerned about those actions,” Cudaback told me.
Neither Belling nor Meadows told citizens to take matters into their own hands — and Belling had warned of the possibility of it happening — but people discussing plans for that evening on the Kenosha Guard Facebook page seem to have drawn that conclusion. “Today, Mark Belling from WISN said Kenosha residents are on their own, due to a small police force and weak leadership,” a Kenosha resident wrote on one of Mathewson’s posts. Another commenter chimed in: “Armed and ready. Shoot to kill tonight.” A third replied, “Ditto!”
The Guard event, boosted by a write-up by Kristan Harris on the website of “The Rundown Live” that was recirculated by Infowars, reached 3,000 R.S.V.P.s. At 5:42 p.m., Mathewson wrote an email to Miskinis, which he signed as “Kenosha Guard Commander.” “We are mobilizing tonight,” he wrote. “I ask that you do NOT have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest as you have done in the past.” “It is evident,” he went on, “that no matter how many officers, deputies and other law-enforcement officers that are here, you will still be outnumbered.” He hit send and went to Civic Center Park with his AR-15-style rifle.
At the park, Mathewson stood before the TV cameras and denounced “looting scumbags.” But his appearance there was brief; after his wife saw him on one of the broadcasts from the park, she texted him ordering him to come home. Mathewson complied, guarding one of the entrances to White Caps with the local neighborhood watch for a while, then spent the rest of the evening watching a movie at home with his kids. On Facebook, he posted a photo of himself with seven other armed men in White Caps. When I told him several people I’d talked to accused him and his group of being white supremacists, he denied it and pointed out that some of the men with guns in the photo were Black and Latino.
In the weeks that followed, Mathewson would be banned from Facebook and sued (unsuccessfully) in federal court; the Kenosha Guard was denounced in a U.S. Senate hearing. But the contention that he had been centrally responsible for filling the streets of Kenosha with paramilitaries, in retrospect, was more assumption than established fact: Armed crews had been organizing across numerous Facebook groups and personal accounts that day, vowing to defend the city, or businesses in it, or their own suburban neighborhoods.
‘Go watch the video of that kid. I’d have done the same thing.’
— The talk-radio host Vicki McKenna on Aug. 26.
How much of the online bravado actually produced offline action was impossible to gauge, but in some cases the jump was made in a matter of hours. That afternoon, Randy Ruegg, the proprietor of a local pizza place, posted on Facebook a photo of his wife praying over an Italian roast beef sandwich and a can of Dr Pepper: “Eating our last possibly meal here,” he wrote. A local man named Doug Flucke commented on the photo: “Randy there are a group of armed civilians that are taking to the streets tonight to assist against the fires and looting and [expletive]. Would you like it if they posted a few by the shack??”
“Yes we could use the assistance,” Ruegg replied. An hour and a half later, Flucke posted a photo of himself with armed men, some in balaclavas, in front of the restaurant.
For Flucke and others who went to defend businesses outside the downtown area, the night was mostly uneventful. Things were quieter than the night before across most of the city save the area immediately around Civic Center Park, where police and demonstrators dug in for a third consecutive night of street-fighting. But now Beth attempted what he had not the previous nights, sending a line of armored vehicles to forcibly clear the park and surrounding streets two hours after the 8 p.m. curfew passed, pushing the crowd south.
When Kristan Harris began livestreaming once again, the push had just begun, and Rittenhouse’s group of paramilitaries, assembled around the dealership just south of the park, was right in its path. For the next hour and a half, Rittenhouse would alternate between standing guard at the dealership and making sorties up and down the street to offer medical assistance. It was during one of these missions, around 11:40, that he was cut off from the rest of his group by the armored police vehicles.
The video of Rittenhouse’s movements on the street that night clearly shows Joseph Rosenbaum, whom Rittenhouse encountered earlier that evening, pursuing him across the lot and eventually throwing a plastic bag at him. Another man, later identified as Joshua Ziminski, can be seen shooting a handgun in the air nearby moments before Rittenhouse, off camera, apparently turned and shot Rosenbaum. A minute later, a crowd chased Rittenhouse up the street, and after Rittenhouse fell, several people lunged for him. Rittenhouse shot one of them, Anthony Huber, who was swinging a skateboard, and another, Gaige Grosskreutz, who appeared to be reaching for his own handgun.
Rosenbaum and Huber died within minutes; Grosskreutz, who was shot in the arm, survived. The police arrived two minutes later, at 11:51 p.m., but they did not arrest Rittenhouse, who walked toward and then past the police line, still armed, and went back home to Antioch, Ill. Hours later, accompanied by his mother, he turned himself in at the Antioch Police Department.
“Go watch the video of that kid,” Vicki McKenna said on her show the day after the shootings. “I’d have done the same thing.”
“I don’t advocate for some of the stuff that’s starting to happen,” David Clarke said on Mark Belling’s show. “But I am certainly done — I am through with condemning it.” Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona, tweeted that afternoon that the real criminals were the “Kenosha local government that allows the riots, burning and looting night after night. Armed citizens defending themselves will fill the vacuum.” A few weeks later, Rittenhouse’s mother, Wendy, appeared as Michelle Malkin’s guest at a Waukesha County Republican women’s group event, where McKenna was the M.C., and received a standing ovation.
By then, donations were pouring in for Rittenhouse’s defense — several million dollars, eventually — and two high-profile right-wing civil attorneys, L. Lin Wood and John Pierce, had announced that they would represent him. One of the two Wisconsin defense attorneys they hired was Jessa Nicholson Goetz, a Madison lawyer who also happened to be representing Kerida O’Reilly, one of the racial-justice demonstrators charged with assaulting Tim Carpenter at the State Capitol two months earlier (O’Reilly was acquitted in October). To Goetz, the two clients, who fell at opposite poles of the street politics of 2020, were not so dissimilar. Both had placed themselves in situations where political elites — local and national, Republican and Democratic — had abdicated their basic obligation to discourage their partisans from burning down a police station or playing soldier. “The reason all this is happening is we have a government that is unwilling to govern,” Goetz told me. “We’re too busy hating each other — and our kids are getting killed.”
This was not Wood’s and Pierce’s view of the case. On social media and in TV interviews, they cast Rittenhouse in mythic terms. Pierce announced, on Tucker Carlson’s show, that the defense team would be invoking Title 10, Section 246 of the U.S. Code: the clause defining the classes of militias. On Twitter, he compared the shots Rittenhouse fired to the start of the Revolutionary War in the battles of Lexington and Concord. According to Chris Van Wagner, Goetz’s co-counsel, Wood — who also represented the McCloskeys — spoke of Rittenhouse in terms of biblical prophecy. “He said: ‘God always sends boys to get his message across. He sent Christ as a boy,’” Van Wagner told me. “ ‘He sent Kyle Rittenhouse to re-establish the right to self-defense.’”
Goetz and Van Wagner left the defense in a matter of days. Within a few months, Wood would be gone, too, subsuming himself instead in the election-fraud lawsuits filed on behalf of Trump. (Wood did not respond to requests for comment.) By early this year, Pierce was out as well, fired by Rittenhouse amid disputes over the management of the funds that had been raised; he is now representing multiple defendants in the federal cases stemming from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. (“It remains my sincere hope that Kyle is able to receive the justice he deserves and that the entire Rittenhouse family can soon put this tragic situation behind them,” Pierce said in an email.) Rittenhouse was adopted as an informal mascot by the far-right group the Proud Boys; he was photographed surrounded by local Proud Boys in a bar after his release on bond, and The New Yorker reported that he and his mother visited the group’s national leader in Florida in January. But as the year went on, Rittenhouse’s loudest champions in more mainstream conservative media and politics mentioned him less and less.
‘It’s now or never … and, yes, it’s war.’
— The commentator Michelle Malkin on Aug. 29.
The day after the shootings, a deployment of officers from multiple federal agencies arrived in Kenosha. “Since the National Guard moved into Kenosha, Wisconsin, two days ago, there has been NO FURTHER VIOLENCE, not even a small problem,” Trump tweeted later that week, shortly before traveling to Kenosha to tour the wreckage. Asked by reporters about Rittenhouse in a news conference several days after the shootings, Trump was supportive: “You saw the same tape as I saw, and he was trying to get away from them — I guess it looks like, and he fell, and then they very violently attacked him.” But he did not mention him once in his remarks in Kenosha.
This was the limbo into which Rittenhouse fell in the Republican imagination over the year after the shooting. He still received the occasional shout-out — the tweets of support from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, in the weeks before his trial. But now he was more often the subject of uncomfortable silences. Shortly after the shootings, Erin Decker, the county party chair and county supervisor, told the hosts of “Fox and Friends” that “talking to people around the area, I would say about 80 percent of the people support what Kyle did.” In June, I asked Decker if she thought that was still true. “Most definitely,” she said. “They’re just quiet because they know that people will attack them, and the news media will go after them also for defending what he did.”
Rittenhouse’s current lawyers — led by Mark Richards, a criminal defense attorney in Racine — have crafted a conventional self-defense case that is unlikely to mention the battles of Lexington and Concord or Wood’s prophecies. Many people initially suspected that Rittenhouse was drawn to Kenosha by Kevin Mathewson’s Facebook post and the many bloody-minded comment threads trailing behind it. But a forensic audit of Rittenhouse’s phone conducted by the local police showed no engagement with the post or any of the other calls to arms in Kenosha. Rittenhouse was already in Kenosha by the time Mathewson posted it, having arrived the night before with Dominick Black, an 18-year-old friend who bought the gun Rittenhouse would carry the next day and, according to police reports, met the owners of the car lot he and Rittenhouse would end up defending.
As for Rittenhouse’s politics, his since-deleted social media accounts suggested they had been conventional enough: He attended a Trump rally in February, and he had an interest in guns and a total adoration of the police. His posts were scattered with images of the Thin Blue Line: a black-and-white American flag with a single blue stripe, embodying the tribal vision of law enforcement as the only thing keeping anarchy from overrunning society. This was the basis of his support for Trump, Dave Hancock insisted to me: “He liked Trump,” he said, “because Trump liked the police.”
After an early jailhouse phone interview with The Washington Post, Richards, Rittenhouse’s criminal defense lawyer, generally kept his client clear of reporters. Since then, Hancock, a former Navy SEAL who runs a private security firm, had become a de facto spokesman for the Rittenhouse family. In our conversations, he often seemed to be previewing Rittenhouse’s lawyers’ defense: Rittenhouse’s decision to go to Kenosha with a gun was an act of teenage knuckleheadedness derived not from political extremism but from a misguided desire to serve the community, and he acted understandably and legally, if regrettably, in undeniably chaotic circumstances. This argument challenged the claims of Rittenhouse’s detractors, of course, but it also more subtly challenged the more strident claims of his supporters and of other paramilitaries who were there that night, who continued to insist that their actions were a legitimate exercise of civic duty. As one man who guarded the car lot with Rittenhouse that night insisted on McKenna’s show three days later, “We were, like I said, there to help.”
The paramilitaries did not seem to understand what lay beneath the surface of that statement — how much privilege was required to declare yourself the defender of someone else’s neighborhood simply because you owned a gun. On Aug. 24, Koerri Washington captured on video an exchange on the street between three heavily armed young white men and a Black man who was loudly lamenting the Blake shooting, in which they tried unsuccessfully to persuade him that they were on the same side. One of the group, his face half-obscured by a yellow bandanna, approached Washington. “Just ’cause I don’t live in this neighborhood,” he asked, “am I that out of line?”
Watching the video, I thought I recognized the man. He had attended a gun rights rally the month before in Virginia, where he had been photographed with members of the Boogaloo: a nebulous far-right movement that gained traction online in 2019, espousing a wild-eyed anarcho-libertarianism that often involved calls to — and occasional acts of — violence against law enforcement. Rittenhouse had appeared briefly alongside the man in the yellow bandanna and several other Boogaloo bois, as they call themselves, in a scrum of paramilitaries gathered at a gas station the following night, an hour or so before the shootings. During one of our phone calls in August, I texted Hancock a photo of the man.
“Hey, Kyle, did you talk to this guy?” Hancock called out. He was at home in Reno, Nev., where Rittenhouse had gone to stay with him before the trial. Rittenhouse had been sitting in the room, I suddenly realized, as we were talking.
“I remember him saying, ‘I don’t give a [expletive], burn down the police station,’” Rittenhouse told Hancock.
He said it offhandedly, but it was striking: The one overwhelming theme of Rittenhouse’s since-deleted social media presence, and the videos of his