The Rittenhouse verdict
Yet another example where “upholding the law” does not equate to justice
For a little while last summer, the world was watching with a mix of shock, disbelief, and genuine concern as the USA seemed to have been brought truly and irrevocably face-to-face with the deep-seated systemic racism of its government and law enforcement. Protests and civil unrest erupted across the country and was the subject of around the clock media coverage. During this, we heard about a 17-year-old from Illinois who got his hands on an assault rifle, and crossed state lines to act as a vigilante against the protesters before killing two men and injuring a third. This past week, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of all the charges against him. There are quite a few other nations around the world where a teenager can pick up an assault rifle, drive across state borders, and open fire on anyone that makes him feel threatened, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Come to think of it, they only got to that state after prolonged exposure to the USA; maybe the problem is with the USA?
There is a lot to unpack when someone shows up with a gun, panics, and shoots people who are responding to his initial posturing, then gets to claim self-defence as a motivation for his actions. Put simply, even if we concede that on that day in Kenosha, Rittenhouse was merely defending himself, one must not lose sight of the fact that he would not have been there in the first place if not for his own decision to attend as a sort of armed militia. Sadly, Judge Schroeder did seem to lose sight of this fact. It can be argued that once he dismissed the charges of unlawful possession of a firearm and curfew violation, important context was lost about the situation.
It sounds like we are dealing with Kyle minding his own business, living his own life, when people showed up in his front yard to threaten him. Now I am aware that even in that case, it is up for debate if his actions were appropriate. We will get to that in a bit. For now, I think it is important we recognize that important context was not considered. Kyle Rittenhouse illegally obtained a firearm and illegally traveled to Wisconsin. By all accounts, he tried to emulate some character out of a dystopian movie and found that he could not take the heat. He panicked, and even during the trials made a point of being a cry-baby about it. We cannot judge the charges of homicide, attempted homicide, and reckless endangerment, without taking his initial actions into account.
Ever since the verdict, those in the right of the political spectrum have been emphasizing the same point over and over: that regardless of how we feel or what we think about this case, the law has been upheld. As far as established laws are concerned, we are supposed to accept that Rittenhouse has not done anything wrong, and justice has been served by finding him not guilty. I am not a legal expert, but as I have already hinted, I feel that the jury was compelled to overlook, or remove from consideration, very important contextual information without which the application of law simply makes no sense. However, once again I am willing to concede that the letter of the law was upheld. Unfortunately, throughout history and across the world today, just upholding the law is not enough.
Fifty years ago, a white man in South Africa could have a black man, or really any person of colour, arrested for being in the same train compartment as him. Barrister M.K. Gandhi, the future leader of the Indian Independence Movement, was in fact thrown off a train for protesting this. On that occasion, the letter of the law was upheld. How many of us would like to return to those simpler times?
In the early to mid-90s, the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time. Using their interpretation of Shariah law, the Taliban assaulted men who did not grow full beards. They stoned women who tried to go to school or work. They destroyed beautiful sculptures dating back thousands of years, because Shariah law forbids sculptures under the pretext that they lead to idol worship.
In the USA itself, there was a time not too long ago when women or persons of colour were not allowed to vote. The democracy and universal franchise America is so proud of, and often tries to export to other nations (with a side of bombs) was not a thing in the USA until the 60s. India possibly had true universal franchise before the USA did, despite only attaining its independence in the late 1940s. Returning to the point at hand, less than a hundred years ago, an American who worked, payed taxes, and possibly fought in a war for their country could still be refused the right to vote.
If the point I am trying to belabor is not clear yet, it is often not sufficient to uphold the letter of the law. We always want to ask ourselves if this law is in the spirit of democracy, equality, and basic human dignity, among other things. We all know, whether we want to admit it or not, how a Black teenager would have fared if he had an assault rifle and was walking around in city streets. But again, that is a topic for another day. Today I am saying, even if every single written law was upheld, that it does not make acceptable what Rittenhouse did. If a teenager can illegally obtain an assault rifle, drive into the middle of a tenuous situation brandishing his gun, and still be found not guilty of the slightest provocation, then laws need to be updated, not blindly upheld.
I am not delusional. I am fully aware that even with all the perfect laws in the world, the USA has its challenges. I am aware that a Black teenager with a gun would not have fared as well in this case. I think in the last few years we have established a Black teenager without a gun, just trying to walk home, would not have fared as well. For now, though, I just want to point out to all those Rittenhouse supporters who insist that the law was upheld – that is not always a good thing. Sometimes it just means you need better laws.