The trial that exonerated the teen protester-killer, Kyle Rittenhouse, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the trial that convicted three white men of murdering the young Black man Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia had some key similarities and some important differences.
Both trials deliberated on events that included: murder by armed vigilantes claiming to have engaged in legitimate self-defense while claiming to protect private property not their own (used car dealerships in Kenosha and a house under construction in Brunswick); the use of guns against unarmed victims; efforts by victims to grab the killer’s gun; initial provocation by the killers.
Both cases hinged largely on video evidence. Both were intimately related to the George Floyd Rebellion (see below). Both involved vicious white gun assaults on a young Black man – Arbery in Georgia and Kenosha’s Jacob Blake, whose brutal shooting by a white police officer at the end of the George Floyd summer sparked anti-racist civil rights protests that brought the teen Trump fan Rittenhouse from Illinois to the streets of Kenosha with a safety-off AR-15 fully loaded with 30 full metal jacket bullets on the night of August 25, 2020.
Both immediate killers (Rittenhouse in Kenosha and Travis McMichael in Georgia) fired kill shots after injuring victims with previous firing.
Both cases were tried by white attorneys and white judges before juries that were wildly and absurdly more Caucasian than the jurisdictions where the killings occurred and the trials were held (the Kenosha jury was all-white in an 80% white city and the Georgia jury had just one Black member in a 26% Black county while deliberating on a murder that took place in a 55% Black town).
Even though the murder victims in the Rittenhouse case were white (Joe Joe Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber), both cases were very much about race. Arbery’s white killers tracked him down and falsely identified him as a burglar because of his race. They defended their actions as an attempted “citizens’ arrest” under an 1863 Georgia slave catchers’ law. The Kenosha protest that Rittenhouse shot up was about racist police brutality. His political hero was the white-nationalist fascist president Donald Trump. And everyone knows that a Black male carrying an AR-15 into a volatile crowd situation would have been immediately arrested and likely shot down by local police, National Guardsmen, and/or white paramilitaries (Boogaloo Bois and Proud Boys et al.) on the scene. As the historian Carol Anderson shows in her new book The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, the Second Amendment (proclaiming the right to own guns as part of a “well-regulated militia”) has always been “for whites only” and traces back to the white slave patrols of the colonial era.
And yet, with the partial exception of a very brief reference to Arbery’s race as the reason for his targeting in the Brunswick prosecutor’s final argument, both trials avoided reference to race and racial politics. The judge in Kenosha refused to let the prosecution bring up Rittenhouse’s racist connections and motivations. The prosecutor in Brunswick opted not to bring up evidence (e.g., a Confederate flag vanity license plate on Travis McMichaels’ pick-up truck and racist online posts by Travis McMichael) of the killers’ racist mindset for fear of triggering white jury reaction.
Both cases will have follow-up trials.
There are also key divergences between the two trials, some relevant to the different outcomes.
The victims in Kenosha were white whereas the victim in Georgia was Black.
The 55% Black Georgia community of Brunswick is considerably Blacker than the 12% Black city of Kenosha.
The Brunswick, Georgia murderers stalked and killed one young man. Rittenhouse somewhat haphazardly and chaotically killed two young men and tried to kill a third.
Rittenhouse killed with an illegally owned military-grade assault rifle while Travis McMichael killed Arbery with a legally owned traditional shotgun.
The Georgia killers murdered in their hometown and neighborhood whereas Rittenhouse travelled from out of state to the town where he killed two men and maimed another.
Rittenhouse was young and relatively unexperienced with guns, absurdly enough given his possession of an illegally owned AR-15, whereas Arbery’s stalkers and killers included a former US Coast Guard member trained in “use of force” (the shooter Travis McMichael) and a retired veteran police officer (McMichael’s father).
Two accomplices besides the actual shooter (Travis McMichael) were tried (and convicted) for murder in the Arbery case. Rittenhouse’s many accomplices, including a Boogaloo Bois leader, Randy Balch, who met and guided him and Dominick Black, who bought Rittenhouse’s AR-15 and kept it for him in Kenosha, were not put on trial.
The judge in Georgia was by all indications a competent and impartial professional whereas the Kenosha was an openly demented and right-wing buffoon.
The expert Georgia prosecutor was more effective and competent than her Kenosha counterpart, who wrapped up well but made some glaring errors prior to final arguments.
The ultimately absurd “self-defense” argument was far more plausible in Rittenhouse’s case (especially with the judge ruling out evidence of the teen fascist’s political and racist motives) than in it was in the case of the three men who stalked and killed Arbery.
The Georgia case held more interest for the national Black civil rights community and there was a considerably bigger local and national Black presence outside and around the Georgia trial than outside the Wisconsin trial. (The clumsily racist nature of the Georgia defense team helped encourage this presence).
Black human and civil rights movements have a long prior history in and around the southern Georgia community but little history in and around Kenosha, a deindustrialized rustbelt town in the upper Midwest.
The Georgia case would likely have caused more national unrest than what was seen following Rittenhouse’s exoneration had the Brunswick trial gone the killers’ way. There was a troubling lack of large-scale national protest after the horrible Rittenhouse verdict. Thanks to Arbery’s race, the mobilization of Black leadership, and the stronger nature of the legally permitted case against Arbery’s killers, not guilty verdicts in Georgia would have brought many more people into the streets (though the cumulative impact of two racist exonerations, one right after the other, would have been part of the protest mix.)
And yet, counter-intuitively for those who reflexively over-identify US American racism with the Deep South, 6% Black Wisconsin – home to the lunatic paranoid-style Republifascist US Senators Joe McCarthy and (currently) Ron Johnson – may well be more racist than 33% Black Georgia. The ever creepier Sundown State of Wisconsin is the leader – number 1 – among the nation’s fifty states in per capita Black imprisonment and racially disparate rates of incarceration.
The Georgia case was something of a traditional, Jim Crow-style southern white lynching of a Black man, occurring in an otherwise quiet and private, suburban residential space, out of the public eye. By contrast, Rittenhouse killed in a downtown area as part of a fascist political movement confronting a large and volatile anti-racist protest movement during a loud public demonstration. The teen killer was a cop-loving Trumpist who took counsel in Kenosha from the neo-Nazi Balch, whose organization seeks a genocidal race war. Rittenhouse later met and made white supremacist hand signals with members of the fascist Proud Boys, who like to wear t-shirts saying “[the onetime Chilean fascist dictator Augusto] Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong” and “6MWE” (which stands for “Six Million Jews [killed by the Third Reich] Wasn’t Enough”). While absurdly claiming to “support the Black Lives Matter movement.” Rittenhouse has since his exoneration appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fatherland News Hate Hour and visited the frothing narcissist and “instinctive fascist” Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago.
Rittenhouse killed amidst civil and human rights protest in a public downtown area after receiving encouragement and protection not just from vigilante paramilitary sorts but also from local militarized police. Arbery’s killers murdered on their own, with no proximate or immediate police encouragement, in a quiet and private residential space.
The baby-faced, hyperventilating, fake-crying teenager Rittenhouse was far more likely to win sympathy from a jury than the older, uglier, mean-spirited, and poorly prepared men who stalked and killed Arbery.
Rittenhouse’s $2 million defense was better funded and thus more professional and competent than the often transparently and clumsily racist lawyers defending Arbery’s killers. Rittenhouse enjoyed this good fortune because his case became a cause célèbre for the neofascist white nationalist right. As Paul Butler explained in the Washington Postone week ago, even before the conclusion of the Georgia trial:
‘Kyle Rittenhouse beat his case because he put on the best defense money can buy. Rittenhouse’s $2 million legal defense funds enabled his lawyers, before his trial, to stage separate ‘practice’ jury trials — one in which 18-year-old Rittenhouse took the stand and one in which he did not. The more favorable reaction from the pretend jurors when Rittenhouse testified informed the decision to let the teenager tell his story to the real jurors. His apparently well-rehearsed testimony was probably the most important factor in the jury ultimately letting Rittenhouse walk.’
As Butler noted, this reflected the distinctive political aspects of the Rittenhouse case:
‘Most criminal defendants cannot afford those kinds of resources. Rittenhouse, raised in a working-class family, could not have either but for influential people such as former president Donald Trump and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) acting as his cheerleaders,” he explained. “On Monday night, Rittenhouse — in the tradition of dancing with the one who brung you — will be interviewed by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Regardless of whether Rittenhouse wants or deserves to be, he is now the poster child for reactionary White men who seek to take the law in their own hands, who want to patrol Black Lives Matter protests with assault weapons and who think that violence is a legitimate form of political discourse…’
‘When defendant Travis McMichael took the stand, his testimony was not nearly as smooth as Rittenhouse’s — perhaps because McMichael did not have as many chances to practice. Indeed, McMichael, testifying about how he, his father and a neighbor hunted down a Black man and demanded that he stop and justify his presence on public streets, sounded like a slave catcher. This was fitting because empowering White civilians to apprehend runaway slaves was the origin of the Georgia citizens’ arrest law — since revised — that is the linchpin of the defense.’
Rittenhouse became a Tucker- and Trump-anointed fascist hero (ala neofascist Amerikaner martyrs Ashli Babbit and Aaron Danielson and the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel) because his victims were protesters linked to the supposedly “radical Left” Black Lives Matter movement – a leading bete noire/bogeyman for the white-nationalist movement that the wannabe fascist strongman Donald Trump both reflected and fanned. This makes perfect sense. Among other things, fascism is about controlling public space and crushing real or perceived Left movements with organized mob violence.
Arbery’s grubby and stupid (they filmed their own crime) killers have not quite qualified as white power heroes and their conviction is unlikely to make them into neofascist martyrs. The white nationalist cult leader Trump quickly defended the young, baby-faced fash-model Rittenhouse; there is no record of him doing the same for the far less media-friendly and older wan white dudes who stalked and murdered Arbery.
The follow up trial in Georgia will result from a federal hate crimes prosecution. Further trials in Kenosha involve civil lawsuits over Kenosha city and county government’s classically fascist collaboration with extra-state paramilitary forces on the terrible night of August 25, 2020.
The Second and the First in a Fascitizing Superpower
The Arbery murder was a terrible crime and the convictions not just of Ahmaud’s direct killer (Travis McMichael) but also his two accomplices are a welcome development for all who value human and civil rights. (It’s good that the Brunswick murders lacked the deep pockets defense case granted Rittenhouse.) The convictions also reflect the power of public pressure fueled in no small part by the beautiful George Floyd uprising. As Refuse Fascism activist Jay Becker notes, the Floyd Rebellion “boosted some courageous local protesters who overcame the county prosecutor’sand police’s blatant protection of the McMichaels.” The McMichaels and their loathsome snuff film videographer would have gone free without the civil and human rights spotlight on the Brunswick case.
But the terms at issue in the Kenosha case may have had more grave future ramifications. The not-guilty Rittenhouse verdict threatens to advance the trumping of the First Amendment (free speech and public assembly) by the racist slave patrol Second Amendment (gun rights in connection with a racist militia) in support of the growing racial-nationalist and fascist Amerikaner war on what’s left of bourgeois democracy and civil decency. That is no small problem, intimately bound up with the broader normalization of mobilized far-right mob violence against election officials, school officials, public health agents, retail clerks, and other responsible agents of civil society and government – “people being attacked for teaching some truth about the history of this country, for enforcing basic public health regulations in the middle of a pandemic,” (Becker), for providing pregnant women with health care and reproductive freedoms, for refusing to rig elections for the right, and for reporting on the rising fascist menace in the world’s most dangerous and destructive country. Liberals and the left are now compelled like no time in recent memory to contemplate the necessity and advisability of armed self-defense in support of future civil rights and social justice protests in a country that seems increasingly in danger of an armed bloodbath and potentially even genocidal (see this ominous reflection from the leading genocide scholar Alexander Laban Hinton) fascitization.