People across the country are still reeling in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, which was announced Friday after two weeks of arguments and roughly 25 hours of jury deliberations. Eighteen-year-old Rittenhouse, who faced up to 170 years in prison for the killings of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber during a Black Lives Matter protest last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was found not guilty on all five counts, including first-degree intentional homicide.
Now that Rittenhouse has become a hero to people on the right—with some Republican members of Congress even offering him internship opportunities—racial and criminal justice activists are grappling with how to best move forward with their cause, and many are considering what the verdict could mean for the safety of progressive demonstrators at protests in the future.
“[The] verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son,” Huber’s family said in a statement after the verdict was read. “It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”
Jennifer Epps-Addison, a Wisconsin native, a former public defender, and current co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), is reminding racial justice advocates that there has always been an element of danger in protesting—even before Rittenhouse. Despite the disappointing verdict, Epps-Addison says that until violence and white supremacy are quelled, activists must continue to work together to enforce change.
“Violence could occur when you engage in civil disobedience, when you engage in protest,” Epps-Addison said. “You do it because you’ve exhausted all of the other options and avenues. We’ve called, we voted in record numbers, we told our stories, we went out on strike. When we take to the streets, it’s because the interruption of violence, the forcing of society to pause and look at our pain, has an impact on people’s ability to see past the sort of lies and stories that are told to us and the ways that they try to suppress us.”
At CPD, Epps-Addison works with a collective of community organizations in more than 130 American cities, including local organizations like the Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and Leaders Igniting Transformation, to fight for a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. CPD fights for multiple criminal justice causes, including an end to mass incarceration, the abolition of hyper-criminalization, and greater investments in Black and brown communities.
Epps-Addison understands the outrage over the verdict, but also says there is one important element of the Rittenhouse story that is being overlooked: A guilty verdict for Rittenhouse wouldn’t have advanced their cause, since throwing people in prison is not the kind of justice many criminal justice advocates are looking for.
“It was clear in every step of this case that even if your version of justice is somebody being locked up in a cage, that was not going to be served,” she said.
Epps-Addison says that in order to understand why a verdict like this could happen, you have to look deeper into Wisconsin politics and understand how white supremacy shows up in various state laws and legislation. Wisconsin jails a record number of Black people and accepts money for law enforcement expansion. These are two signs of the hold that white supremacy has on this state.
A recent study by The Sentencing Project shows that one in every 36 Black adults in Wisconsin is in prison—the highest rate in the country. Since criminal justice groups in Wisconsin are hoping for a complete reimagining of public safety across the state, Rittenhouse being convicted would not have resolved the problems with mass incarceration, racism in the criminal justice system, or the criminalization and demonization of protestors.
The future of protesting
Since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015 and the Women’s March in 2017, it’s become a common occurrence for ordinary people who aren’t normally involved in political or social justice movements to create a sign, grab a friend, and head to a protest. But with the Rittenhouse verdict sending a clear message that could embolden white supremacists vigilantes to show up at protests and intimidate people, how safe will progressive demonstrators feel protesting in the future? Will they show up in large numbers?
Wisconsin activists and community organizers across the country are acknowledging the concerns some people may have after the Rittenhouse verdict, but are reemphasizing the need for protests and the powerful impact they can have.
“The idea that our criminal justice system is so broken as to allow for this to happen is just plain scary,” said JoAnna Bautch, the movement politics director for Citizen Action of Wisconsin. “But in the spirit of the civil rights movement, we won’t stop gathering peacefully in our communities, calling for what is right and just for all of us in Wisconsin.”
Epps-Addison said it’s important to remember that the current criminal justice system isn’t going to be able to satisfy the needs of the community. Folks should “find a squad” or connect with an organization that can provide tips on how to remain safe during protests. The continued solidarity of community organizers is how folks like Epps-Addison maintain their optimism during difficult times.
“White supremacy doesn’t give up easily,” she said. “It will fight to protect itself and to maintain power. And at every turn, people of all races, all backgrounds, came together to fight to move [and] birth the country of our dreams into existence. And I have to believe in that.”
The only certainty after cases like the Rittenhouse trial is that activists won’t stay silent or be driven away by fear.
“If we sit on the sidelines [and if] those of us, especially with more privilege, don’t double down on our demands to value Black lives in this country, then we allow the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world to win,” Epps-Addison said. “In this moment, we’re reaching out to our members, we’re talking to them, we’re giving them a space to express their pain and trauma and frustration. But we’re all, I think, deeply committed to continuing the fight for justice and to understanding that it has always been violent to protest, because the birth, the origin of protest, is standing against violence.”