Before Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly opened fire on anti-racist protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday night — killing two and severely injuring another — a video showed police essentially deputizing the 17-year-old.
Rittenhouse had been walking the streets of Kenosha carrying an assault rifle alongside other armed white men, a local self-styled militia formed for the purported purpose of protecting property from protesters.
“We appreciate you guys, we really do,” a cop can be heard telling the group over a loudspeaker before tossing Rittenhouse a bottle of water.
It was a scene familiar in American history: agents of the state conscripting armed white vigilantes to help violently suppress movements for racial justice and liberation. (“Cops and the Klan go hand in hand,” the common protest chant goes.)
So it wasn’t surprising to see Rittenhouse, in another video published Tuesday, walk toward police after allegedly killing the two protesters — or for him not to be apprehended until the following day, when he was arrested at his home in Illinois.
As historic uprisings against police brutality have swept the country in recent months, antagonistic right-wing vigilantes have been a constant, menacing presence. Often seen patrolling Black Lives Matter protests with the tacit — and very often explicit — support of law enforcement, these vigilantes have shot protesters, attacked them with cars, and beaten them.
And as political tensions intensify heading into the presidential election this fall — with a president who routinely demonizes anti-racist protesters as “thugs” and terrorists, and with reactionary police forces desperate to beat back calls for their own abolishment — there’s genuine concern that the deadly vigilante violence on display in Kenosha could be replicated elsewhere.
A Wave Of White Vigilante Violence
White vigilantes and far-right actors have shown up to oppose Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. at least 497 times this year, according to data collected by Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. He started gathering data on May 27, two days after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and continued through this week.
The dataset, which Ross shared with HuffPost, documents a staggering amount of violence directed at protesters by the far-right, including 64 cases of simple assault, 38 incidents of vigilantes driving cars into demonstrators, and nine times shots were fired at protesters.
All told, six protesters were hit by vigilante bullets in this summer’s violence. Three died from their wounds.
Ross’ dataset also includes 387 incidents of intimidation, such as people using racist slurs, making threats and brandishing firearms.
“There just isn’t really anything to compare it to,” Ross told HuffPost. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
The data — which Ross gathered from social media posts, news reports and the ACLED US Crisis Monitor with help from Political Research Associates and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights — includes some harrowing tales of violence.
A U.S. Army sergeant, who had previously posted tweets about targeting Black Lives Matter activists, shot and killed a protester in Austin, Texas.
Black Lives Matter protesters marching through a rural part of Bedford County, Pennsylvania, say a white man opened fire on them at night, striking one protester in the face.
A man in Iowa City, Iowa, allegedly drove his car into a crowd of protesters and, according to a criminal complaint, later justified the attack by telling police the protesters needed “an attitude adjustment.”
The steady drumbeat of such stories this summer has coincided with story after story of cops and national guardsmen openly supporting or collaborating with fascists and white vigilantes.
Ross said his dataset includes about two dozen incidents of vigilantes receiving approval or support from law enforcement. A sheriff in Arizona, for example, announced he would form a “civilian posse” to help “suppress lawlessness” during a time of “widespread unrest.”
In California, a sheriff’s deputy was spotted wearing a “III Percenters” militia patch on his uniform while policing a protest. And in Portland, Oregon, cops let the neo-fascist gang the Proud Boys attack protesters in the streets.
Disturbing images also emerged of police cozying up to far-right activists: A cop in Georgia was photographed fist-bumping an armed militia member, and cops in Philadelphia posed for a friendly photo with vigilantes who roamed the city’s streets with baseball bats.
Still more stories emerged this summer of cops themselves relishing violence against protesters.
A police chief in Sioux Rapids, Iowa, was suspended for two weeks after writing a Facebook comment encouraging people to drive their cars through Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
“HIT THE GAS AND HANG ON FOR THE SPEED BUMPS,” he wrote.
And in Wilmington, North Carolina, three white police officers were fired after being caught on camera using racial slurs while discussing massacring Black protesters.
“We are just going to go out and start slaughtering them fucking niggers,” one officer said.
“Wipe ’em off the fucking map,” the same officer said. “That’ll put ’em back about four or five generations.”
A report published this week by former FBI agent Mike German, now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, documented how police ties to “white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities” have been uncovered in over a dozen states since 2000.
“In a time when the effort to defund police is getting some salience, the police are behaving in such a way as to justify that argument,” German told The Guardian.
Enforcing A Racial Order
Nick Estes, a professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and author of the book “Our History Is The Future,” remembers listening to the police scanner earlier this summer when the gun-toting militia group New Mexico Civil Guard turned up to harass and attack anti-racist protesters in Albuquerque.
He said cops could be heard on the scanner referring to this group of vigilantes — founded by a neo-Nazi — as “heavily armed friendlies.”
A short time later, one of those “friendlies” shot and badly injured an anti-racist protester.
Estes argues it’s important to remember the history of white vigilantism in the U.S. in order to understand how these fascist groups operate in our society today, and how they’ve often proven an eager partner with law enforcement.
“The Second Amendment was created specifically to arm white settlers against runaway slaves, enslaved African people, as well as to kill native people on the frontier,” Estes said.
Fast forward to the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, Estes said, and you see the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, a white vigilante group that used the Second Amendment to terrorize Black Americans. Decades later, during the Jim Crow era, armed citizens often attacked Black Americans in Sundown Towns — referring to all-white municipalities or neighborhoods across the country — with little to no recourse from law enforcement.
“These white vigilantes today don’t misinterpret history. They’re actually upholding the kind of the original intent of the Second Amendment.”
And look at the violence in “border towns” — white majority settlements ringing Native American reservations — where white vigilantes have maimed and murdered Indigenous peoples for generations. Law enforcement has often looked the other way.
“These white vigilantes today don’t misinterpret history,” Estes said. “They’re actually upholding the kind of the original intent of the Second Amendment.”
What’s happening now, he added, is “an intensification of that kind of citizen policing” in response to a growing tide of Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist organizing.
Steven Gardiner, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank that monitors the far-right, said there has been a “tremendous increase” in right-wing paramilitary activity this year.
It gained momentum, he said, during protests against lockdown measurers meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Armed militias circled — and sometimes even entered — state Capitol buildings, showing the often hands-off approach with which governments often treat white vigilantes.
At Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of Floyd, disparate paramilitary and vigilante groups — Boogaloo Bois, III Percenters, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and white nationalists — became a regular fixture of right-wing counterprotests.
“If you get counterprotesters showing up who are armed, cops are almost always facing towards the Black Lives Matter and racial justice protesters, not towards the armed counterprotesters,” Gardiner said.
This, he argued, has created an atmosphere in which paramilitary groups feel emboldened.
“Going forward, we need to seriously reconsider the permissiveness with which we are allowing armed paramilitaries to roam the streets of our nation’s towns and cities, as if this is normal,” Gardiner said. “There’s nothing normal about this. We don’t want to be living in a war zone.”
A ‘Recipe For Disaster’
The next few months could prove treacherous, as multiple armed factions aligned with the state — including private militias, the National Guard, sheriffs departments and local municipal police — could descend on more cities like Kenosha, where a particularly energetic uprising broke out after the police shooting of Jacob Blake this week.
Moreover, President Donald Trump could send out more federal troops from the Department of Homeland Security, like the ones seen abducting protesters and throwing them into unmarked vans in Portland and Chicago earlier this year.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” Gardiner said. “At a minimum, there needs to be a sorting out of who’s in charge, and some understanding of what the rules of engagement are for law enforcement and the National Guard, and who’s gonna play what role.”
Meanwhile, both right-wing media and the Trump-led GOP appear hellbent on throwing more gasoline on the fire.
On Wednesday evening, Fox News host Tucker Carlson attempted to justify Rittenhouse allegedly shooting anti-racist protesters in Kenosha.
“How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” he asked millions of viewers on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
The next day, congressional Republicans including Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Paul Gosar (Ariz.) made statements appearing to defend Rittenhouse, arguing that he somehow acted in self-defense.
This right-wing propaganda push was hardly surprising, considering how opposed the MAGAverse is to Black Lives Matter protesters.
At the Republican National Convention earlier this week, the GOP chose to feature Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the white Trump supporters facing felony charges for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis this summer. They delivered a prime-time speech full of racist dog whistles aimed at white suburban voters.
“You know we’re not the kind of people who back down,” Mark McCloskey said. “Thankfully, neither is Donald Trump. President Trump will defend the God-given right of every American to protect their homes and their families.”
The McCloskeys aren’t the only white vigilantes to have shown enthusiasm for the president this year.
“Trump rally!” read the caption of a TikTok video taken from the front row of a Trump campaign event last month. The video was posted by an account with the words “BLUE LIVES MATTER” and “Trump 2020” in its bio.
The owner of the account, a 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse, is now in jail. He faces charges of first-degree murder.