Teen's acquittal of killing 2 men reveals widening political split in US

Kyle Rittenhouse reacts to the verdict during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, US on Nov 19, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) Like so much else in modern America, Friday's acquittal of Mr Kyle Rittenhouse both revealed and widened the split between the country's hostile political factions, with conservatives calling it a victory for the right to defend yourself and liberals condemning it as a miscarriage of justice.

Mainstream and far-right Republicans alike celebrated the not guilty verdict for Mr Rittenhouse, an 18-year-old who last year shot and killed two men and wounded another during protests over the police shooting of a black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, Senator Ron Johnson said that "justice has been served".

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said on Twitter that "the Rittenhouse verdict reminds us we have the moral and legal right to self-defence".

And former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said the verdict "renews our faith in the jury system".

On the far right, many saw the verdict as vindication and encouragement. Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina told supporters in a video that "you have a right to defend yourself" and advised them to "be armed, be dangerous and be moral".

And on social media, one popular meme circulating among accounts associated with the far-right group the Proud Boys showed Rittenhouse in a tuxedo offering a Champagne toast.

Democrats called the verdict an endorsement of violence. Governor Gavin Newsom of California said it was a message to "armed vigilantes" that "you can break the law, carry around weapons built for a military, shoot and kill people, and get away with it".

And Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the verdict "unconscionable" and Rittenhouse's self-defence claim "ludicrous".

United States President Joe Biden said the acquittal would "leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included," but he also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful, warning that "violence and destruction of property have no place in our democracy".

The case was so politicised that it drew fund-raising on both sides, with at least one political action committee using anger at Mr Rittenhouse to raise money for progressive candidates and Mr Rittenhouse's supporters raising money to subsidise his legal fees.

"We're already expecting legal costs of about US$110,000 (S$150,000) for November, but if we can find 2,500 people to donate over the next 48 hours, we should be OK," Rittenhouse's mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, wrote in a fundraising appeal issued Tuesday. After the verdict on Friday, former president Donald Trump sent a fund-raising appeal of his own based on the trial's outcome.

The shooting made Mr Rittenhouse an instant conservative celebrity. His mother received a standing ovation at a Republican Party dinner last year in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, a month after the shooting.

Hours after the verdict, Fox News said that an interview with Mr Rittenhouse by Tucker Carlson would air Monday.

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Republican politicians, in search of attention and small-dollar campaign contributions, tried tying themselves to Mr Rittenhouse. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida and Mr Cawthorn publicly offered him internships in their congressional offices.

After the verdict, an effort was already under way on Gab - a social media network popular among the far right - to screenshot posts by Mr Rittenhouse's critics in the news media for use in possible defamation suits.

One account, QAnon John, which is dedicated to the conspiracy theory and boasts more than 70,000 followers, wrote enthusiastically about the "massive energy shift" that had just occurred and posted a silhouetted image of Mr Rittenhouse wearing wings and carrying a rifle over a slogan that read, "KYLE IS FREE".

Accounts associated with the Proud Boys on the chatting app Telegram were equally excited. Some channels attacked the family of Jacob Blake, the black man whose shooting set off the unrest in Kenosha, calling them "parasites".

"Your comrades are dead and your mortal enemies are celebrating," one of the accounts wrote. "We hope that eats away at you for a long time."

Among Democrats, there was anger mixed with conciliation.

Like Mr Biden, Governor Tony Evers of Wisconsin, a Democrat, kept his tone muted, saying: "No verdict will be able to bring back the lives of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, or heal Gaige Grosskreutz's injuries."

But Mr Evers acknowledged the inevitable spotlight shining on the state again, which he said had "undoubtedly reopened wounds that have not yet fully healed." Still, other Democrats were far more pointed.

Demonstrators raise their fists while marching on the street during a protest against the Kyle Rittenhouse not-guilty verdict in New York on Nov 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, a Democrat who has made a career out of being publicly mild-mannered, expressed outrage at those celebrating the verdict.

"The fact that some people are cheering a ruling that has allowed someone to take the law into his own hands and walk free from any accountability after shooting and killing two people is disrespectful to the lives that were lost," she said.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, called for a federal review of the verdict by the Justice Department, describing it as a "miscarriage of justice" that "sets a dangerous precedent".

"Justice cannot tolerate armed persons crossing state lines looking for trouble while people engage in First Amendment-protected protest," he wrote on Twitter.

Mr Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, said in a statement that "extreme gun culture has rotted out our collective soul," adding, "only in America can a 17-year-old grab an assault weapon, travel across state lines, provoke a fight, kill two people and injure another and pay no consequences".

And Mr Derrick Johnson, president of The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, called the verdict a "travesty" that "sets a dangerous precedent".

"This verdict is a reminder of the treacherous role that white supremacy and privilege play within our justice system," he said in a statement.

Mr Rittenhouse's verdict may be a prelude to a similarly explosive trial looming in another corner of the country, as a verdict approaches in the case of three white men who shot and killed Mr Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was jogging near Brunswick, Georgia.

That case has already seen its share of racial strife, with lawyers for Mr Arbery's assailants arguing that civil rights leaders sitting in the courtroom could unduly influence the jury.

"At the same time they are giving a lot of praise and offering congressional internships and jobs for going to Kenosha with an AR-15," said the Reverand Al Sharpton, who has appeared in court with the Arbery family, "they're condemning black preachers for going to Brunswick with Bibles".

Correction note: An earlier version of this article described the victims as black men. This has been corrected. We are sorry for the error.

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