Before Thanksgiving, the African American community and believers in justice were served another blow. While some families feasted on their dinner and watched the Bears defeat the Lions, some African Americans were still trying to wrap their brains around a verdict that once again didn’t make sense.
“The die was cast. The writing was on the wall. It was a done deal.” This was the sentiment of many African Americans regarding the Kyle Rittenhouse decision — the acquittal of a then-17-year-old boy who fatally shot two men and injured a third during a protest in Wisconsin last year. The jury found Rittenhouse to be acting in self-defense.
Some white observers have asked: Why are Black people sensitive to the Rittenhouse case? Why do they care? Rittenhouse is not Black, and he didn’t kill Black people. What is the connection?
These are good, valid questions. On the surface, it may appear that the Rittenhouse case should not have resonated with African Americans. However, when you probe a little deeper, it becomes clearer that the case had several layers and dimensions related to the African American experience.
The Rittenhouse case was closely watched and carefully weighed by African Americans. In general, these kinds of cases provoke exceptional curiosity, wild theories and rampant speculation. This case, especially the decision, also provoked “déjà vu, here we go again” and “same decision/different day” reactions.
The white victims — Jason Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz — were considered African American allies because they shared similar opinions about the consistent, flagrant and egregious police brutality and injustices, and the lack of accountability. To many people, the men’s presence at the protest represented their support of Jacob Blake, an African American male who was shot seven times by a police officer. They stood shoulder to shoulder with African Americans and paid the ultimate price at the hands of Rittenhouse.
They are seen in the same light as other white Americans who lost their lives while supporting civil rights and justice during the civil rights movement. These slain white activists include Andrew Goodman, Michael Henry Schwerner, the Rev. James Reeb, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, the Rev. Bruce Klunder, William Lewis Moore and Paul Guihard. They have been inscribed in the social justice annals of history as champions, challengers, influencers, advocates, defenders and guardians of justice and civil rights. They were courageous enough to go to the front line, take up the cause and resist.
The Rittenhouse charges and decisions were: First-degree intentional homicide — not guilty. Attempted first-degree attempted homicide — not guilty. First-degree reckless homicide — not guilty. First-degree recklessly endangering safety — not guilty. Cleared of all charges. Acquitted. Exonerated. Freed.
The decisions compel us to harken back to the Trayvon Martin case. The comparison that African Americans made are: Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old white male “vigilante” who carried an assault rifle, killed two protesters and injured another, was found not guilty. Martin, a 17-year-old African American male, carried a bag of Skittles while wearing a hoodie and was killed by a “vigilante.” Although the details of the cases are different, the construct of bias, imbalance in justice and double standards are obviously present.
The glimmer of hope that there may be a modicum of fairness in the process was found in Georgia, in the Ahmaud Arbery decisions.
There are several unanswered questions about the Rittenhouse case that may be studied by scholars, sociologists and students of law for decades to come, such as: Was this case about the right to bear arms versus the right to protest? Was this case about race? Was this case about the political landscape that was primed for such an escalation and verdict? Was this case about all of these issues?
What many in the African American community have come to realize are these things: 1. These decisions will not change until ideology changes. 2. These decisions will not change unless the system changes. 3. These decisions will change upon greater engagement, impatience and intolerance of the people.
The Rittenhouse decision may not make sense. However, we must cling to hope that Rosenbaum and Huber did not die in vain.
The Rev. Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.