Kyle Rittenhouse was 17 years old when he showed up to the violent aftermath of a Black Lives Matter protest in the US city of Kenosha on 25 August 2020, armed with a semi-automatic rifle. On 19 November, Rittenhouse, now 18, was found not guilty on all charges related to the shooting of three men, two of whom died of their injuries. He acted, ruled the court, in legitimate self-defence. He and those he shot were all white.
One half of the country is furious, casting Rittenhouse as – in the words of the New Yorker – the “American Vigilante”. President Joe Biden said he was left feeling “angry and concerned” following the verdict, while other Democrats expressed their dismay in much stronger terms.
The other half of the country takes an entirely different view. One Republican politician, Anthony Sabatini from Florida, described Rittenhouse as an “American hero”; congressman Madison Cawthorn has offered him an internship. These supporters accept Rittenhouse’s account of events: that he had gone to Kenosha to protect the city from rioters, that he took a gun in order to defend himself, and that he fired it out of desperate need.
Whichever side is right on the morality of his actions, the Rittenhouse affair has served as an acrid reminder of what riots are really like. Last summer, immediately before the Kenosha rioting began, left-leaning media outlets across the world were publishing articles downplaying the violence taking place in American cities.
GQ published an article titled “Why Violent Protests Work”. An opinion piece in the Guardian suggested that America might “soon reap extraordinary benefits from this temporary upending of the usual order”. And the writer and activist Vicky Osterweil promoted her 2019 book titled In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, which argued that rioting and looting “rip, tear, burn and destroy to give birth to a new world”.
I’m familiar with the bien pensant defence of violent disorder. As an undergraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, I took a course that included a week on the history of rioting in Britain. I vividly remember sitting in a seminar and listening to fellow students insist that rioting is a direct expression of political marginalisation – “the language of the unheard”, as Martin Luther King Jr phrased it. I asked sheepishly whether the huge over-representation of men among rioters might not suggest that some other factor could be at play. Answer came there none.
In the UK, a riot is defined as 12 or more people using or threatening unlawful violence in a way that makes others feel fearful; but that is, by necessity, a rather bloodless definition. Colloquially, we use the word “riot” to mean total mayhem – a situation so dangerously unstable that the representatives of the state are forced to withdraw. And when the state is absent, terrible things can happen.
There’s an extraordinary video taken by an Australian news crew in Minneapolis during the riots of May last year. It begins immediately after a man has been stabbed. The perpetrator, who is white, is held at gunpoint by members of the public who await the arrival of the police. The victim, who is black, is receiving some basic first aid nearby, desperately in need of an ambulance.
But this is a riot. You can’t just call the emergency services as you normally would. Someone brings an ordinary car and tries to bundle the victim inside, but they can’t manage it. Minute after minute passes with the victim still unaided. What if nobody comes, you start to think.
Eventually, they do. The police arrive, but they can’t get through the crowd, who are throwing bricks at them. They fire stun grenades and the crowd move back. The perpetrator is arrested and the police create a ring around the victim so that the paramedics can get through. They scoop him up and retreat as the frenzy resumes.
Something similar happened during the 2011 riots in the UK, except that it wasn’t filmed by a news crew, and it didn’t have a happy ending. When a teenager attacked 68-year-old Richard Mannington Bowes on 8 August on a street in Ealing, west London, the assault was witnessed by several police officers from a distance. But they had to wait for riot squad officers to push back the rioters before they could offer any help; Mannington Bowes later died in hospital. He was one of five people killed during those riots.
For most people, “what if nobody comes” is a fearful thought. But if you’re a young man lusty for adventure, a riot can be thrilling. It seems plausible that Kyle Rittenhouse set off for Kenosha on the night of 25 August 2020 with adventure in mind, perhaps alongside more public-spirited impulses.
Rittenhouse was still legally a child at the time, but historically it’s hardly unusual for 17-year-old boys to pick up weapons and head towards conflict. Rioting is a young man’s game. It’s scary and ugly and unpredictable. And it produced a scenario where a teenager roaming the streets of a burning city, carrying a semi-automatic weapon, encountered grown men who weren’t afraid of a confrontation. Violent disorder tends to attract such people. The Rittenhouse affair is an indictment of a political class that allowed such a situation to develop, and an intellectual class that is happy to “rip, tear, burn and destroy”, but then balks at the inevitable consequences.
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos