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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

A case of demonization and misinformation

Kyle Rittenhouse is comforted by his lawyer as

Kyle Rittenhouse is comforted by his lawyer as he was acquitted of all charges at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Friday. Credit: AP

The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot three people — two of them fatally — during the racial unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020, should not have been particularly shocking in view of the evidence. The very first eyewitness accounts and videos made it fairly clear that, whatever one thinks of Rittenhouse’s actions, he had a strong case for self-defense. Yet much progressive rhetoric demonized him as a racist vigilante and wanton killer — and in the process, even mainstream media and politicians have often promoted alarming misinformation.

A day after the shootings, a viral tweet by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) called Rittenhouse a "white supremacist domestic terrorist [who] drove across state lines, armed with an AR 15" and killed two protesters for "Black lives." (The protests had been sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a young Black man.)

In fact, Rittenhouse, then 17, went to Kenosha — a half-hour drive from his Illinois home — for his job as a lifeguard, then stayed overnight at a friend’s house while riots broke out nearby. (The same friend had earlier bought him the rifle for hunting.) The next day, he worked on graffiti cleanup; in the evening, as tensions mounted, he picked up the rifle and headed downtown.

Was he looking for trouble, or trying to defend businesses and assist injured people? No one knows what was in his mind. However, both eyewitness testimony and video records suggest Rittenhouse didn’t fire until attacked by Jacob Rosenbaum, a mentally unstable man with a record of violence, and then by Anthony Huber (who tried to hit him with a skateboard when he was knocked down) and Gaige Grosskreutz, the shootings’ sole survivor (who pointed a gun at Rittenhouse).

Lionizing Rittenhouse as a heroic defender of the community, as some conservatives — including Fox News' Tucker Carlson and author and congressional candidate J.D. Vance — have done, is irresponsible: It’s fairly clear the teenager bumbled while armed into a bad situation he had neither the training nor the maturity to handle. But stupid behavior doesn’t negate the right to self-defense. Moreover, those who fault Rittenhouse for courting danger rarely condemn the rioters who created that danger. Progressive narratives have consistently downplayed the devastation inflicted on Kenosha by looters and arsonists — not only destruction of businesses but violence against people.

Partly, this is because many leftists and even mainstream liberals see riots as a righteous if tragic expression of Black people’s anger at brutality and injustice. But evidence suggests the rioting in Kenosha was driven by mostly white extremists who romanticize mayhem. The three "protesters" Rittenhouse shot — and a fourth who may have sparked the confrontation by firing a gun in the air — were all white men with a record of violent felonies.

Last year’s riots in Kenosha were partly enabled by sensationalized, sloppy media coverage which portrayed Blake as an unarmed peacemaker trying to break up a fight, rather than a knife-wielding domestic assault suspect. In the Rittenhouse case, reporting that downplayed evidence favoring the defendant while cherry-picking examples of the judge favoring the defense — despite his other, pro-prosecution rulings — has also stoked dangerous tensions.

The Rittenhouse case has certainly generated plenty of ugly and dangerous rhetoric on the far right, where the teen has become a mascot for those dabbling in macho fantasies of armed struggle against the forces of un-American evil. But the progressive response to the case has largely reflected the left’s own fantasies instead of facts.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.