Kyle Rittenhouse and the Hierarchies of Rights and Fire

Image Source: DonkeyHotey – CC BY 2.0

The verdict in Kyle Rittenhouse’s case renews the crime. Not only the crime of the shooting at Kenosha in August 2020, for which Rittenhouse was tried, but also the series of crimes against African Americans by the police, by white supremacists, by propertied white men “standing their ground,” and by other self-styled vigilantes; the series of crimes against which Rittenhouse’s victims were protesting; and it also renews the larger series of crimes against minorities in the US and against other people across the globe. It provides yet another legal and cultural precedent to the same relations of racial violence that caused the uprising in the streets of Kenosha, Minneapolis, and other US cities in the first place, and which can be traced back to when the United States of America was founded—or way earlier if we examine the imperial British and French structural and physical violence which the US inherited.

It registers the white man’s right to bear arms, feel threatened by his others (Blacks, crowds, opposition groups, etc.), and shoot with impunity. It is also a reminder of how this right is not extended to others (including the dissident, multi-ethnic, crowd Rittenhouse shot at, and his individual white victims who were part of that crowd). As former NAACP chair Cornell William Brooks said in an interview with Politico: “I don’t have to tell you this, there is no set of circumstances, no reading of the law, no rendering of the imagination, in which a Black person could get away with this.”

All this should be perfectly clear (even if the right wing tries to cloud it, and even as some liberals want to act confused). What remains is to explain the culture of the white shooter, the white master of fire, and his threatening, incendiary, subhuman others, against whom he enjoys the privilege of feeling threatened and the privilege of shooting. As the right wing attempts to paint the gun-teen as both a hero and a victim, and as many liberals are playing the same both-side-ism they have played since the shooting, it is important for the left to look at the conditions that made the crime, and the acquittal, possible.

The Right to Fear, the Right to Kill

A racist clip from a Bugs Bunny cartoon resurfaced recently, wherein the child-friendly rabbit is attacked by a horde of arrow-throwing Native Americans whom he guns down as he sings the American genocidal nursery rhyme “ten little Indians”.

The scene is part of an episode where Bugs Bunny is a US sergeant guarding a cavalry fort in Indian territory where he experiences the settler privilege of feeling threatened by the Natives and of duly shooting them down. The innocent white animal (an avatar for the white child to whom these cartoons are addressed) venturing into threatening—usually Native American, but sometimes African—territory and ultimately neutralizing this threat, through gunfire if necessary, was at one point a recurrent theme in children’s cartoons—let alone in Westerns, and in war movies where Arabs and Africans substitute for the Native Americans. Evidently scenes like these consolidate, in the minds of young men (and many young women), the centrality of a white, innocent, protagonist with the prerogative to innocently shoot at the menacing crowd (while singing a merry melody).

Rittenhouse, though not from the generation which grew up watching Looney Tunes, was reenacting this recurrent and deep running scene, giving himself the right and privilege to be threatened by the ethnic horde, to shoot at them (and to shoot precisely to kill, unlike the random shooting of the Native Americans in the clip and the random incendiarism of the dissident crowd), to present himself as the victim, and, perhaps, to feel thankful for how things turned (it is almost ironic that the verdict came while the settler society in the US was preparing for the annual celebration of its privilege to feel thankful for the land it usurped and the genocide it achieved). His jury, as much a product of this culture as Rittenhouse is, had this scene normalized in their minds—from the moment they learnt to count by subtracting Indians, to the latest war on terror movie they may have watched.

To that extent, Rittenhouse is more the tool of the crime, than its perpetrator.

A White Right

In the US, the constitutional right to bear arms has historically been practiced as a white right; my readers perhaps do not need to be reminded of the time when the Republicans, the Democrats, the National Rifle Association, and Ronald Reagan all scrambled to introduce state legislation in California to prevent arms from reaching the hands of the Black Panther Party. These legal measures were accompanied by (judicial and extrajudicial) security measures and dirty tricks played by the law enforcement agencies to abort the armed vanguards of the African and Native American peoples.

More recently, the Democrats once more exhibited their understanding of the right to bear arms as a white-Christian right when, in response to the recurrence of gun violence in the US, they proposed to ban the selling of arms to people on a list consisting exclusively of American Muslims. Here we do not only see the manipulation of the law to prevent the equal applications of rights, but also a (sometimes genuine) anxiety about fire in the hands of certain populations that are not understood as mainstream and/or white.

The political-legal question is also a cultural question: of how the mainstream culture in the West creates the white man as the legitimate and trustworthy bearer of fire.

Fire as White Man’s Exclusive Domain

Underlying the question of who gets to carry guns, is the question of who gets to wield fire.

In a recently published research paper (which incidentally starts by discussing the shooting in Kenosha), I trace this question to a colonial and evolutionary ideology that imagines the mastery of fire as the exclusive domain of the white man.

The ideologies of civilization, progress, and evolution imagine fire as the first invention of man, that which set him apart from other creatures. Fire then, inaugurates humanity on a path of technology, discovery, and mastery that only the white man is imagined to have completed until the end. Firearms are imagined as one of the most recent technologies that aim at taming, controlling, and regulating fire. They are thus construed as the exclusive prerogative of the white man (and of his Western, modern, and imperialist state, understood as the epitome of civilization).

This is not to dismiss the other political stakes (for example the vested interest of the US establishment to prevent, at all costs, the emergence of armed radical opposition groups) or the cynical, asymmetric, and unjust distribution of rights in the context of the United States, but to argue that, side by side with these stakes, there is a racialized understanding of fire, an imagination that in the hands of the white man the technologies of fire become purposeful, precise, and productive, whereas in the hands of others, fire is perverted into an incendiary, out of control force. This is something the US inherited from its imperial forerunners, especially the British. The latter’s archive of colonial encounters is rife with examples (some of which belonging to the genre of fiction, some of them passing themselves as factual though clearly the figment of imagination of colonial officials) from Robinson Crusoe subduing Africans through his ability to wield fire and then bestowing this privilege on his slave-friend Friday, to the natives of the Egyptian city of Alexandria frantically setting their own city on fire during the British massive bombing of the city in 1882 (but to British and pro-British reporters it was not conceivable that the fire of Alexandria was started by the orderly British missiles and therefore had to be attributed to frenzied and maniacal natives). Opposed to this frenzied (Brown and Black) arsonist crowd, the European inhabitants of the city, armed by the British embassy, start, in the words of the British Foreign Office’s report, a “very lively fire” by shooting at the natives. A similar dichotomy is there between the lively, friendly, and funny fire of melody singing Bugs Bunny, and the random arrows of the Injuns; throughout the Bugs Bunny episode, the Native Americans fail to properly use guns, and in the rare instances which they do, their guns persistently misfire.

The violence of this image is continuous with the international imperial violence of the precise (sometimes friendly) fire of the US and British war machine, opposed to the explosive fire of the non-European insurrectionary and/or terrorist. Once again, the Democrats exhibited that their domestic racism is not lacking in global consciousness when they conjoined the two misfiring figures, the domestic out of control shooter and the international exploding-imploding terrorist, in a list of Muslim suspects to whom guns should not be sold.

The domestic dissident crowd, the representative of otherness at home, receives similar treatment. The racialized, mainstream understanding of politics has always understood the relationship of solidarity to also be a relationship of contamination: In the 1960s and 70s this entailed depicting the white allies (especially the women) as lovers of excessive Black masculinity. Nowadays it entails the application of the same racialized tropes that are typically associated, in racist discourse, with Blackness and with racial-otherness. Indeed, in the apology provided by the right wing, the victims of Rittenhouse are unemployed, loitering, dangerous and prone to violence, with criminal records: stereotypes that have long characterized racist representations of ethnic minorities.

This racialization of Rittenhouse’s victims, and of the multi-ethnic dissident crowd more broadly, is in itself a continuation of the West’s cultural bias against crowds as such. In representations of crowds, there persists an imagination that once people coalesce into a collective they become a threatening other; or, in the words of Gustave LeBon who christened the Western theory of the crowd (and whose outdated and pseudo-scientific ideas continue to inform Western cultural representations of the crowd) “by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation.” At least since the Paris Commune, crowds have been depicted through tropes of racial savagery, including that of incendiarism and of wild, untamed, fire.

In Minneapolis, in Kenosha, and in other US cities, the politically motivated riots were reduced, in various representations (by the right wing media, by the Trump regime, and by some liberal outlets), to vandalism and arson, while officers of the law, the bearers of state fire, along with the vigilantes to whom the fire of the state was subleased, were represented as precise and targeted shooters.

Indeed, in his interviews, Rittenhouse tries, through his body language and his description of the way he tackled his gun to exhibit his mastery and restraint. At the same time, he shows a fixation on the supposed arsonist activities of the mob. In addition to the privileging of property over Black (and white pro-Black) lives, we can observe here a hierarchy of fire itself: of the well aimed gunfire as the exclusive prerogative of the white man and the modern state, versus the inferior, licentious fire of the arsonist mob.

Rittenhouse, much like the British colonial officials, saw his fire as lively. When Rittenhouse falsely claimed, in court and later in interviews, that he were a medic, when he outrageously alleged that he brought a semi-assault rifle to the demonstration in order to render first aid, and when he recounted an absurd vignette wherein he wanted to render first aid to a person he just shot but was prevented from doing so by the angry mob, he was professing this belief in his fire as lively.

Rittenhouse shot an actual medic who has pulled his gun in an act of actual self defense, but the ready-made hierarchies supersede the specific material realities of the situation: Rittenhouse was carrying the white man’s rifle, prerogative, and burden, and therefore must have been carrying the force of liveliness; he is the medic if he is in fact the shooter, whereas Gaige Grosskreutz , whom Rittenhouse shot, was part of the insidious crowd and therefore was a threat, even if he is the one who was in fact a trained medic and the one reasonably acting in self-defense.

Rittenhouse, understood himself (and falsely presented himself in court) as a fire fighter. If the crowd represents untamed, uncontrollable, fire, then firing at them is indeed akin to fighting fire.

In this sense, Rittenhouse acted normally and reasonably within the parameters of mainstream culture. His acquittal was long coming, as his court, judges, jury, and the legal system to which they all belonged to, is part of this same culture.

This is not, of course, to absolve Rittenhouse of the killing, or to pin down his violence, this kind of violence that was practiced through him and has been practiced along the history of the British and American empires, as something that is inevitable or unchangeable. It is to highlight the necessity of a brave cultural struggle to any attempt to enact change in the US—or elsewhere for the matter.

Ahmed Dardir holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University. His forthcoming book is titled Licentious Topographies: Global Counterrevolution and Bad Subjectivity in Modern Egypt. His personal blog can be found at