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Rittenhouse acquittal reaction highlights nation’s polarized politics: Republicans claim 2nd Amendment victory, progressives call it a miscarriage of justice

·6 min read

In the run-up to Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial, legal experts cautioned that no matter which way the verdict fell, larger political conclusions should not be drawn from the case.

But in a highly politicized and polarized America, that’s exactly what transpired after Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all counts Friday afternoon.

Elected leaders and pundits on the right declared the verdict a victory for guns rights and the use of self-defense and a defeat for media entities they argued had unfairly smeared Rittenhouse.

“God Bless America!” U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., tweeted moments after the verdict. “Never surrender your Second Amendment right to defend yourself and your family.”

Many on the left decried the verdict as a gross miscarriage of justice that allowed a white teenager toting an AR-15-style rifle to walk free after killing two demonstrators and wounding a third amid the chaotic fallout of the Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shooting of Jacob Blake. Some progressives doubted the same verdict would have been afforded to a defendant of color.

“This is a horrible decision and a miscarriage of justice. It sends a horrible message to those who are exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois. “It is clear that the decks were stacked against the truth in this case. But I remain fully persuaded that truth will ultimately prevail.”

John Gross, director of the Public Defender Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said before the trial that in such high-profile cases, politicians, pundits and the public often “try to hold up criminal cases as a symbol of something.” Gross said sometimes that’s the case, such as how the conviction of Harvey Weinstein came to symbolize the #MeToo movement, but he cautioned that the Rittenhouse case was not that type of trial.

“I try to remind people that what’s on trial in a criminal case isn’t a political viewpoint. It’s not movement. It’s not our history. It’s not our future,” Gross said. “What’s on trial? A criminal case is a person and that person’s specific actions to the extent that people want to extrapolate meaning from a particular verdict.

“Often times criminal cases don’t lend themselves to being some referendum on a particular movement or viewpoint,” he said. “And this is one of those cases that I don’t think is necessarily transferable.”

The stream of political consciousness on social media and on cable news networks, however, suggested otherwise.

“You know damn well that if Kyle Rittenhouse were Black he would have been found guilty in a heartbeat — or shot dead by cops on the scene,” tweeted former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro.

Tulsi Gabbard, who also ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, had a different take.

“The jury got it right — finding Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges,” wrote Gabbard, a former congresswoman from Hawaii. “The fact that charges were brought before any serious investigation is evidence that the government was motivated by politics, which itself should be considered criminal.”

Before the trial began, it was widely known how Rittenhouse benefited from fundraising tied to far-right interests that tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and how he flashed a hand sign appropriated by white supremacist groups while wearing a “Free as F---” T-shirt and drinking in a Wisconsin bar after his arrest.

Prosecutors said they had evidence Rittenhouse met for lunch after a hearing earlier this year with several high-ranking members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for street fights that the Anti-Defamation League characterizes as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration,” with some members espousing “white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies.”

The judge overseeing Rittenhouse’s case, Bruce Schroeder, barred discussion of that evidence at trial, ruling it would impede on Rittenhouse’s right to a fair trial.

As some vented their frustration, they zeroed in on Rittenhouse’s affiliation with the far right and the Proud Boys.

“It’s not whether I wanted guilt or not, it’s that so many people will never be afforded the opportunities given to someone who killed people, bragged about it, and became a national white supremacist hero,” said Illinois state Sen. Robert Peters, a progressive Democrat. “This is a perfect example of how f----d our criminal legal system is.”

Alderwoman Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez, a Democratic socialist member of the Chicago City Council, said “this whole trial has been a sham.”

“Prison wouldn’t have made it better, but there’s absolutely no accountability required from this kid,” Rodriguez-Sanchez tweeted. “Another pass for white supremacist violence against our communities and allies. Sending love and solidarity to everyone fighting white supremacy.”

The Chicago Teachers Union contended that the verdict served as further proof that the criminal justice system is not equitable.

“Whew. As educators, and human beings, we are dismayed by today’s verdict. But not surprised, not unbothered and not unmoved,” the union tweeted. “For too long, our justice system has been unbalanced, inequitable and inadequate when it comes to keeping *some* of us safe.”

On the right, Republicans railed against President Joe Biden for suggesting on social media and in a campaign ad that Rittenhouse was a white supremacist.

“Joe Biden needs to publicly apologize to Kyle Rittenhouse,” tweeted Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Rittenhouse’s actions were thrust into a hotly contested presidential campaign last year between Biden and then-President Donald Trump, with both visiting Kenosha in the days following the shooting of Blake and the deaths of the protesters.

Biden’s campaign featured a photo of Rittenhouse in an ad that criticized Trump for refusing to condemn white supremacists. Trump defended Rittenhouse’s actions, saying the teen had acted in self-defense as protesters “violently attacked him” and suggested the teen was “in very big trouble” and “probably would have been killed” during the confrontation.

On Capitol Hill, the far right of the Republican Party celebrated. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Glock-packing politician prone to conspiracy theories who owns a Colorado restaurant named Shooters Grill, declared, “Today is a great day for the Second Amendment and the right to self-defense. Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty on all counts! Glory to God!”

And Miller, the Illinois congresswoman who apologized earlier this year for referencing Adolf Hitler in a speech, also participated in the social media victory lap.

“Justice has prevailed for Kyle Rittenhouse In America, we have trial by jury. Not by the media. Not by Hollywood celebrities. And definitely not by liberal blue checkmarks on Twitter,” Miller wrote. “Americans have a Second Amendment right to self-defense, and we will never surrender it.”

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(Chicago Tribune’s John Byrne, Gregory Pratt and Dan Petrella contributed to this story.)

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