Police let Rittenhouse—who was openly carrying a rifle—leave the scene, underscoring a racial double standard.Illustration by Leonardo Santamaria / Photograph: Tayfun Coskun / Getty
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The proliferation of digital video has exposed abuses of power that in the past often remained hidden. It has also allowed people to watch shocking footage and make pronouncements about it on social media before knowing all the facts. Last summer, Americans were still reeling from the excruciating sight of a Minneapolis police officer slowly killing George Floyd when another violent encounter unfolded, with seemingly similar clarity. On the afternoon of Sunday, August 23rd, three police officers tried to arrest a man outside a fourplex in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A neighbor started recording on his phone when he saw the officers, who were white, scuffling with the man, who was Black. The confrontation began behind a parked S.U.V., so initially the neighbor couldn’t see everything. Then the man broke free, went around the vehicle, and opened the driver’s door. One officer grabbed him by his tank top and shot him seven times, from behind.
Kenosha did not equip officers with body cameras, and so the neighbor’s footage was the primary visual documentation of the shooting. The victim, Jacob Blake, survived, but the incident was instantly seen as another grim example of an urgent problem: according to a recent Harvard study, Black people are more than three times as likely as white people to be killed during a police encounter. The comedian Kevin Hart tweeted, “What’s the justification for 7 shots?????”
After Floyd’s death, Kenosha was among the scores of American cities where citizens marched in protest. Hundreds of people now assembled for Blake, a lanky twenty-nine-year-old who had been staying at the fourplex with his fiancée, Laquisha Booker. They had several sons, and the shooting had occurred on the eighth birthday of the oldest, Izreal. Blake had decorated the apartment for a party, and was cooking hot dogs when he and Booker started quarrelling. Blake left in the S.U.V.—Booker’s rental car. “Me and my sisters just saw him skirt off in it,” Booker told a 911 dispatcher. Blake returned, but when the police arrived he was leaving again—this time with the children. His sons witnessed the shooting from the back seat.
The protesters gathered outside the Kenosha County Courthouse, a limestone building facing Civic Center Park, an area surrounded by businesses and residences. Many people marched peacefully and held signs. But, that night and the next, rioters hurled bricks and fireworks at law-enforcement officers. Looters smashed shopwindows, and a Department of Corrections building was burned down. When an older man with a fire extinguisher confronted rioters, someone struck him with a hard object, splitting his nose and breaking his jaw. President Donald Trump had been highlighting the destructive aspects of such protests in order to malign the Black Lives Matter movement. At a Papa John’s, a man stood behind a shattered window and yelled, “Are they trying to get Trump reëlected?” A demonstrator replied, “These people don’t represent our movement!” But, at another moment, when a man told protesters, “What y’all don’t fucking understand is that people have their lives in these businesses,” a woman screamed back, “So what?”
Right-wing news outlets packaged the fieriest images as evidence of ruinous policies in Democratic-run cities, and criticized the mainstream media’s refusal to acknowledge the violence. Joan Donovan, the chief of research at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, identified One America News Network, Glenn Beck on BlazeTV, and Fox News—particularly the hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity—as promulgators of “riot porn.” Writing in MIT Technology Review, Donovan said that such footage, designed to “overwhelm the sense-making capacity” of viewers, inspired militias and vigilantes to “live out fantasies of taking justice into their own hands.”
After Kenosha’s march for George Floyd, on May 31st, Kevin Mathewson, a former city alderman who had sometimes brought a handgun to city-council meetings, decided that the police needed civilian reinforcements. He started the Kenosha Guard, which was less a militia than an impulse with a Facebook page. But on August 25th, as the city braced for a third night of protests in the wake of Blake’s shooting, Mathewson, who is a private investigator, posted a call for “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property.” He invited “patriots” to meet him at the courthouse at 6 p.m., to defend Kenosha from “evil thugs.”
Mathewson’s post caught the attention of Kristan Harris, a streamer whose work included conspiracy content of the Pizzagate variety. All summer, he had been live-streaming protests, calling himself a “citizen journalist.” Harris wrote a blurb about the Kenosha Guard, which got picked up by Infowars. On Facebook, thousands of people indicated interest in joining Mathewson at the courthouse. Mathewson posted an open letter to Kenosha’s police chief, calling himself the “commander” of the Kenosha Guard and warning, “Do not have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest.”
Mathewson’s “Armed Citizens” post elicited such comments as “kill looters and rioters.” Facebook allowed the page to stand even after receiving well over four hundred complaints. A crowd was building when Mathewson, in a Chuck Norris T-shirt, showed up at the courthouse with a semi-automatic rifle. He soon went home, but throughout the evening others used his Facebook page, or similar ones, to spread rumors. One commenter predicted that if armed “untrained civilians” got scared, “someone’s getting shot.”
That night in Kenosha, as at many racial-justice protests, the crowd was a confusing mélange: B.L.M. activists, antifascists in black bloc, right-wing extremists in camouflage. Across factions, people carried guns, some more visibly than others. It was often challenging to tell friend from foe.
South of the courthouse, a group of libertarians flanked the gas pumps of the Ultimate Convenience Center. Dressed in camo, they were heavily armed, if not necessarily experienced: one member mocked another for holding his rifle wrong.
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Harris, the “citizen journalist,” had shown up, to live-stream. He praised militias as “cool,” but not everyone shared his enthusiasm. A muscular man from Chicago told Harris, “These dudes are larpers.” “larp” refers to “live-action role-playing” games. The guns, though, were real.
Private militias and paramilitary organizations are illegal in every state, but throughout 2020 militia types inflamed about B.L.M. protests and pandemic lockdowns had been increasingly showing up armed on urban streets. Last June, a group called the New Mexico Civil Guard appeared at a protest in Albuquerque and “defended” a statue of a conquistador. According to the district attorney, the group’s members had trained in combat tactics and presented themselves at the protest as “indistinguishable from authorized military forces.” An armed man joined the militia in trying to drive protesters away, and then shot and injured one of them.
Mike German, a former F.B.I. special agent who once worked undercover to expose neo-Nazis and is now a fellow at N.Y.U.’s Brennan Center for Justice, told me that domestic extremists have learned that they can receive more “aboveground” support by calling themselves patriots and peacekeepers. Yet, German emphasized, “you can’t just nominate yourself as a security provider.” He compared this approach to tactics in prewar Germany, “when Nazi thugs rallied where they knew they had political opposition—they could attack and get media coverage, and gain a reputation for being tough and scary.”
Militias often outfit themselves with variants of the AR-15, a high-velocity rifle that has become both a popular sporting gun and a favored weapon of mass shooters. Since 2017, such firearms have been used in at least thirteen mass-casualty incidents. Only a handful of states prohibit citizens from openly carrying AR-style weapons. Even the National Rifle Association once called it unsettling to “see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle.” This observation was published on the N.R.A.’s Web site in 2014, at a moment when Texans were ordering coffee at cafés while carrying battle-grade firearms. Two years later, a sniper in Dallas shot and killed five police officers during a B.L.M. demonstration. The city’s police chief publicly reiterated the reason that so many law-enforcement officials oppose open-carry laws: the profusion of visibly armed civilians complicated the task of quickly identifying the shooter.
An Army veteran named Ryan Balch, who lived near Milwaukee, heard about the Blake protests and decided that he was needed in Kenosha. The Kenosha Guard appeared frivolous to him, so on August 25th he drove to town on his own, equipped with an AR-type rifle. Balch later said that he and some friends had to “infiltrate” the city by circumventing roadblocks: “We were sittin’ low, trying to get past the cops, to get in there and do what we needed to do.”
Balch spotted a small group of armed volunteers at Car Source, a dealership whose main sales lot was now a landscape of smoldering metal. Despite an eight-o’clock curfew, the volunteers planned to guard the dealership’s two nearby mechanic shops. As Balch later explained in detail online, he “inserted” himself as a “tactical” adviser. He claimed that a Car Source owner “deputized” the group, but civilians have no such power, and law-enforcement agencies don’t grant that authority. (“What a scary, scary thought,” Kenosha County’s sheriff, David Beth, has said.)
Balch and several others positioned themselves at one of the mechanic shops, a low, flat-topped building. Men with rifles set up on the roof. Balch, who described himself as “anti-establishment,” had been immersed in far-right circles on social media. He seemed to view the police as the enemy, and said that “the cops wouldn’t have been able to defend themselves” against some of the weapons on the roof. According to him, when a police officer stopped and remarked on all the “friendly guns,” he replied, “We’re not here to be friendly to you.”
After dark, the crowd streamed away from the courthouse, where the police were firing tear gas and rubber bullets. As armored vehicles herded the protesters toward the mechanic shop, one of them said, “We in Call of Duty!”
Harris and other live-streamers had been chatting on camera with Balch and a member of his cohort: a talkative teen-ager in a backward baseball cap, with a semi-automatic rifle slung across his chest. A videographer said, “So you guys are full-on ready to defend the property?” The teen-ager, whose name was Kyle Rittenhouse, replied, “Yes, we are,” adding, officiously, “Now, if I can ask—can you guys step back?”
Rittenhouse’s chubby cheeks and high, arched eyebrows gave his face a bemused, childish quality. A first-aid kit dangled at his hip. He explained that he planned to provide first aid to anyone needing it, and said that his gun was for self-protection—“obviously.” He wasn’t old enough to be a certified E.M.T., yet he shouted, “I am an E.M.T.!,” and proclaimed, “If you are injured, come to me! ” Adopting the language of first responders, he told a streamer, “If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way.”
Rittenhouse’s intentions may well have been lost on demonstrators. In addition to the rifle, he wore an Army-green T-shirt and the Sport Patriot style of Ariat boots: part camouflage, part American flag. For all anyone knew, he or others at Car Source were among the Facebook users who had made such threats as “I have my suppressor on my AR, these fools won’t even know what hit them.”
According to a theory of social psychology called the “weapons effect,” the mere sight of a gun inspires aggression. In 1967, the psychologists Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage wrote, “In essence, the gun helps pull the trigger.” Their methodology had flaws, but later studies verified their premise. In one U.K. study, people were more inclined to assault a police officer who was visibly armed with a Taser. Brad Bushman, an Ohio State researcher who served on President Barack Obama’s committee on gun violence, told me, “We’ve found that it really doesn’t matter if a good guy or a bad guy is carrying the gun—it creates the bias to interpret things in a hostile way.” Citizens who openly carry firearms “think that they are making the situation safer, but they are making it much more dangerous.”
In front of the Ultimate Convenience Center, protesters set a dumpster on fire. After a member of the group at the gas station put it out, a demonstrator hurled a flagpole like a javelin. A man in a “Black Lives Matter” mask racked his pistol; another man said, “I say we jack them and take they guns.”
Protesters pushed the dumpster down the street and approached the mechanic shop, where the figures on the roof presented a menacing image: heavily armed white guys at a Black-justice demonstration, positioned like snipers. One protester decried the “pussies on the roof,” and the dumpster was soon burning again. One of the shop’s armed “guards” ran to extinguish the fire, screaming at the protesters, “You guys wanna fuck around and find out?”
Demonstrators were complaining that someone on the roof had pointed a “green laser” at them; a laser sight can be attached to a gun, to improve aim. Protesters lobbed stuff at the men on the roof. Rittenhouse stepped before Harris’s camera and claimed that demonstrators were “mixing ammonia, gasoline, and bleach together—and it’s causing an ammonia bomb!” One guard said that he wanted to “pump some rounds,” but someone talked him out of it.
Videos captured what was happening with surprising thoroughness: multiple angles, decent clarity. Among the crowd was an agitated bald guy in his mid-thirties, with a ginger goatee and an earring. He was wearing a maroon T-shirt, and had brought a plastic shopping bag containing socks, underwear, and deodorant. The man, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had recently been charged with domestic violence, and then had attempted suicide. Hours before the protest, he had been discharged from a psychiatric hospital. He apparently had wandered into the melee on the street, where it was difficult to perceive anything but his rage. At the Ultimate Convenience Center, he confronted the armed men, screaming both “Don’t point no motherfucking gun at me!” and “Shoot me! ”
A man yelled, “Somebody control him!”
During the chaos, Rittenhouse moved down the street toward Car Source’s second mechanic shop, where rioters had been smashing car windows. He crossed paths with the angry bald man, who chased him into the shop’s parking area. The man now wore his T-shirt as a head wrap and face mask, leaving his torso bare. Screaming “Fuck you!,” he threw his plastic bag at Rittenhouse’s back. Rittenhouse, holding his rifle, reached some parked cars just as a protester fired a warning shot into the sky. Rittenhouse whirled; the bald man lunged; Rittenhouse fired, four times. The man fell in front of a Buick, wounded in the groin, back, thigh, hand, and head.
The nearest bystander was Richie McGinniss, the video chief at the Daily Caller, the online publication co-founded by Tucker Carlson. McGinniss, who had been covering protests all summer, had been following the chase so closely that he had nearly been shot himself. He removed his T-shirt and knelt to compress the man’s wounds. Dying, the man breathed in a horrifying growl.
Rittenhouse stood over McGinniss for half a minute. Amid the sound of more gunfire, he didn’t stoop to check on the injured man or offer his first-aid kit. “Call 911!” McGinniss told him. Rittenhouse called a friend instead. Sprinting out of the parking lot, he said, “I just shot somebody!”
Demonstrators were yelling: “What’d he do?” “Shot someone!” “Cranium that boy!” Rittenhouse ran down the street toward the whirring lights of police vehicles. To those who had heard only the gunfire and the shouting, he must have resembled a mass shooter: they tend to be heavily armed, white, and male.
A demonstrator ran up behind Rittenhouse and smacked him in the head. When Rittenhouse tripped and fell, another man executed a flying kick; Rittenhouse fired twice, from the ground, and missed. Another demonstrator whacked him in the neck with the edge of a skateboard and tried to grab his rifle; Rittenhouse shot him in the heart. A third demonstrator approached with a handgun; Rittenhouse shot him in the arm, nearly blowing it off.
He rose from the asphalt and continued toward the police lights. A man screamed, “That’s what y’all get, acting tough with fucking guns!”
Rittenhouse tried to flag down armored vehicles that were now moving toward the victims, but they passed him by, even after witnesses pointed out that he’d just shot people. Next, he approached a police cruiser, but an officer inside apparently told him, “No—go.”
Two men were fatally shot. A third was maimed. Everyone involved in the shootings was white. The astonishing fact that Rittenhouse was allowed to leave the scene underscored the racial double standard that activists had sought to further expose: the police almost certainly wouldn’t have let a Black man pass.
Clips from Kenosha immediately went viral. Footage of a teen-ager loping around self-importantly with a gun was juxtaposed with video of the second set of shootings. In other posts, he could be seen bragging about his medical bona fides or accepting bottled water tossed from the hatch of an armored law-enforcement vehicle. Officers inside had offered the water just after authorities had gassed the area around Car Source, and before the shootings occurred, with one of them saying, via loudspeaker, “We appreciate you guys.”
Internet sleuths quickly identified Rittenhouse, and revealed that he was seventeen and lived with his family in an apartment in Antioch, Illinois. His social-media accounts—Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram—showed him handling long guns, cheering for Trump in the front row at a campaign rally, and participating in a Police Explorers program for teen-agers. He ardently supported Blue Lives Matter and wore a T-shirt from 5.11 Tactical (“gear for the most demanding missions”).
The Facebook posts about the Kenosha Guard led some of the sleuths to misapprehend Rittenhouse as a militia member. (He belonged to no such group.) Because he lived in Illinois, people assumed that he had travelled some distance, for nefarious purposes, and had “crossed state lines” with his rifle. (The Rittenhouse apartment was a mile south of the Wisconsin border, and Rittenhouse had been storing his gun in Kenosha, at the house of a friend’s stepfather.) Rittenhouse’s age led some to conclude that his mom had “dropped him off” at the protest. (He drove himself to Kenosha.) One widely shared image showed an armed, camo-clad woman, captioned “terrorist Kyle Rittenhouse’s mother.” (Some other lady, some other place.)
The day after the shootings, Ayanna Pressley, a Democratic U.S. representative from Massachusetts, tweeted that the shootings had been committed by a “white supremacist domestic terrorist.” This characterization stuck, even after the Anti-Defamation League scrutinized Rittenhouse’s social-media accounts and found no evidence of extremism.
After years of deepening political polarization, Americans were primed to see whatever they wanted to see in the Kenosha clips. It was beyond question that Rittenhouse had inserted himself into a volatile situation with a gun that he was too young to legally own. The footage also made clear that he’d killed and wounded people. But many liberals went further, characterizing Rittenhouse as someone who’d gone to the protest intending to harm others.
This view was buttressed when another kind of video surfaced. Weeks before the shootings, Rittenhouse had been hanging out with other teen-agers on the Kenosha waterfront when an argument erupted involving the younger of his two sisters, McKenzie. Reese Granville, a rapper who happened to be cruising past with a friend, filmed the altercation with his phone. (In the video, Granville and his friend could be heard debating what would happen if the police arrived: “It’s all white people, boy. We Black—we goin’ to jail.”) When a girl started to fight with McKenzie, Rittenhouse punched her, repeatedly, from behind. Bystanders broke it up by turning on Rittenhouse: “Don’t put your hands on a female!”
Conservatives largely ignored the waterfront video. The protest footage had convinced them that Rittenhouse was a patriot who, after months of destructive unrest in U.S. cities, had finally put “Antifa” in check by bravely exercising his Second Amendment rights. Carlson, on Fox News, declared, “How shocked are we that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
The glorification extended, weirdly, to Rittenhouse’s street instincts. Gun users praised his “trigger discipline,” noting that he’d fired only when “attacked.” A sportsman in Washington State blogged that Rittenhouse had “accomplished” the feat of hitting “several moving ‘targets’ closing in from multiple angles, throwing things at you, kicking you in the head, and hitting you in the head.” Another fan concocted a macabre “Kyle Drill” at a shooting range. On YouTube, a survivalist praised Rittenhouse’s “mind-set” during “urban warfare.” The worshipful tone intensified when Rittenhouse’s admirers learned more about Joseph Rosenbaum, the first man he’d killed. Rosenbaum wasn’t an antifascist, but he’d spent more than a decade in prison for child molestation. (As a boy, Rosenbaum himself was sexually abused.) After the shooting, someone tried to set up a GoFundMe account related to Rosenbaum, and a user commented, “you were a predator & a piece of shit rest in piss!!!!”
Shops began selling T-shirts that depicted Rittenhouse with his gun and bore slogans like “Fuck Around and Find Out.” Online, memes spread—“Oh, I shot a pedophile? My bad”—and people declared that Antifa types and other troublemakers deserved to get “Rittenhoused.” The sudden notoriety made a line in one of Rittenhouse’s TikTok bios stand out: “Bruh I’m just tryna be famous.” He’d written the motto as a joke, for an audience of twenty-five.
There was more to Jacob Blake’s case than the viral video revealed. In 2012, police had charged him with battery and with endangering the life of a child after he had allegedly tried to choke Laquisha Booker and she fell while holding her baby, a son from a previous relationship. “Alcohol abuse appears to be the defendant’s primary problem,” a court document noted, explaining that if Blake “doesn’t drink he tends not to get into trouble.”
In May, 2020, Booker returned from a party and went to bed. According to police, she awoke to find Blake standing over her; he reached between her legs, sniffed his finger, and said, “Smells like you’ve been with other men.” Then he left, taking her car. Booker called 911. The responding officers found Booker “visibly shaken” and humiliated. She said that Blake assaulted her about twice a year, and that he had her keys. A felony arrest warrant was issued, charging Blake with domestic abuse and sexual assault.
This warrant was active on the day of Izreal’s birthday party, and the officers responding to Booker’s 911 call learned of it en route. The Kenosha Police Department’s policy was to detain anyone wanted on a felony warrant. According to an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Blake repeatedly refused to be detained. (He told state investigators that he didn’t want his sons to see him handcuffed.) The officers Tased him multiple times, but the shocks had no visible effect.
Then one officer screamed, “Knife!” The officers drew their guns, yelling, “Drop the knife!” By now, the neighbor was recording the confrontation. The officer nearest to Blake was Rusten Sheskey, who later told investigators that he was determined not to let Blake leave, and was asking himself, “Will we have to pursue the vehicle with a child inside of the car? Is he going to hold the child hostage?” In a report summarizing the state’s findings, the district attorney, Michael Graveley, said that Sheskey had fired after Blake whipped around, “driving the knife towards Officer Sheskey’s torso.”
Scrutiny of the neighbor’s video footage confirmed that Blake was holding a knife. The location of Blake’s wounds—four in the lower back, three in the left side—corroborated Sheskey’s claim that Blake was hit while turning toward him. Sheskey had been trained to shoot until a threat was neutralized, and didn’t stop firing until he saw Blake drop the knife. Advocates of criminal-justice reform argue that such protocols do not make keeping a suspect alive a top priority. Kirk Burkhalter, a law professor at N.Y.U., told the BBC that resisting arrest “happens often” and does not offer “carte blanche to use deadly physical force.”
Blake was hospitalized for six weeks. Prosecutors dropped the domestic-violence charge after investigators had trouble getting Booker to coöperate. Sheskey was not charged: Graveley concluded that the state could not prove the officer hadn’t acted in self-defense. He also noted that, in 2010, Blake had waved a knife, “in a slashing motion,” at police who had stopped a vehicle he was in.
These revelations meant that an incident partly captured on video had been characterized without being fully understood. But they did not change the broader truth that police shootings of Black Americans occur with appalling frequency.
Blake can no longer walk. In March, he filed a civil lawsuit against Sheskey. His lawyers declared that “the hail of gunfire fired into the back of Mr. Blake in the presence of his children was excessive and unnecessary.”
Lately, gun-reform advocates have stressed the importance of focussing on the “how,” not the “why,” of gun violence. Instead of exploring sociological or personal factors that may have contributed to a shooting, they want to concentrate on shutting down the mechanisms that let guns fall into the wrong hands. But when an event becomes a distorted media spectacle, as Kenosha did, it can be useful to clarify both the “why” and the “how,” even if the latter is ultimately more important.
Kenosha, an old automotive city of a hundred thousand people, is on the western shore of Lake Michigan, between Milwaukee and Chicago. The lake is the main attraction: boats on the horizon, storm waves thundering at the riprap. The first time I visited, in January, buildings in the protest zone remained patched with plywood and tagged with optimistic graffiti (“Heal the World!”).
Just south is Lake County, Illinois. Rittenhouse’s parents, Wendy and Mike, got married there in February, 2000, and their daughter Faith was born six months later. The other two Rittenhouse children were born in 2003: Kyle in January, McKenzie in December. When the children were small, Wendy and Mike worked various jobs, including machine operator, housekeeper, and cashier. Mike, who struggled with alcohol addiction and sometimes experimented with drugs, was unemployed for a couple of years. When Kyle was four, Mike was charged with domestic battery after allegedly punching Wendy in the stomach. (He denies this; the charges were dismissed.) Twice, Wendy and the children briefly lived in a shelter.
Wendy and Mike eventually split up. (Mike says that he has been sober for years and wants to repair his family relationships.) Wendy had become a certified nursing assistant, but she continued to struggle financially. The family was repeatedly evicted.
Wendy sometimes felt too overwhelmed to help her kids navigate difficulties. In 2017, when Kyle was fourteen, she tried to resolve a conflict between him and two classmates, twins named Anthony and Jonathan, by seeking restraining orders. In a handwritten petition to the court, Wendy, who has dyslexia, wrote, “Anthony calls Klye dumb stupid say that going to hurt Kyle. Anthony follows Kyle around to take picture of Klye and post them on soical media.”
That fall, Rittenhouse, a pudgy ninth grader in dark-framed glasses, joined the Explorers program at the Grayslake Police Department, near Antioch. The police chief viewed the program as a way to “teach self-discipline, responsibility and other appropriate ‘life lessons’ ” to youths who “may have a challenging home, social, or school life.” Rittenhouse participated in a similar cadet program through the Antioch Fire Department. Jon Cokefair, the fire chief, told me, “Most of the kids that are doing this, they don’t play football, they’re not cheerleaders—this is their focus.”
Jeff Myhra, the deputy chief who ran Grayslake’s Police Explorers program, told me that participants trained with harmless replicas of service weapons. Explorers wore uniforms and often helped manage parade traffic. Rittenhouse went on police ride-alongs, a practice that may impart a false sense of competence, or authority. One brochure declared, “Like Police Officers, Explorers must be ready and willing to encounter any emergency situation such as first responders to accidents or injuries.”
In 2018, shortly after another eviction, Wendy filed for bankruptcy. She developed a gastrointestinal bleed that required hospitalization, and Faith was also hospitalized, after an attempted overdose involving over-the-counter painkillers. To make money for the family, Kyle worked as a fry cook and a janitor while attending school online. He also became certified as a lifeguard and found part-time work at a Y.M.C.A. Eventually, he hoped to graduate from high school and become a police officer or a paramedic.
In January, 2020, Rittenhouse, now seventeen, tried to join the Marines, unsuccessfully. Shortly after the pandemic arrived in America, the Y furloughed him. He applied for another lifeguard position, and while awaiting word he hung out with his sister McKenzie’s new boyfriend, Dominick Black, who was eighteen.
Rittenhouse had always wanted a brother, and he became close to Black. They camped and fished and attended car meets. Black’s family lived in Kenosha, but he often stayed in Antioch with the Rittenhouses. Upstate, where the Blacks owned property and liked to hunt, the boys practiced shooting at bull’s-eye targets and bottles.
Wendy had let her kids play with Nerf and paintball guns, but she didn’t allow actual guns in her home. Rittenhouse wasn’t old enough to buy a firearm, but he wanted one anyway. Black owned a Smith & Wesson M&P15—an AR-15-style rifle. In 1994, after a series of mass shootings, Congress banned many assault weapons. A decade later, the ban expired, and these firearms flooded the market. According to the Wall Street Journal, before 1994 there were an estimated four hundred thousand AR-15s in the U.S.; today, there are twenty million AR-15s or similar weapons.
In 2019, a Marquette University Law School poll revealed that Wisconsin residents overwhelmingly supported expanding background checks to include private sales. Yet Wisconsin’s lawmakers had been resisting stricter measures, and went so far as to remove a mandatory forty-eight-hour waiting period for handgun purchases. In many cases, an eighteen-year-old could legally buy a semi-automatic rifle without a permit or proof of training, and openly carry it almost anywhere, even at street protests.
In early May, 2020, Black bought a Smith & Wesson for Rittenhouse at an Ace Hardware in northwestern Wisconsin, using money that Rittenhouse had given him. Black’s stepfather insisted that the rifle be kept in a locked safe at his house in Kenosha. (Black, who faces felony charges related to having provided a weapon used in homicides, declined to comment, and his stepfather couldn’t be reached.) Rittenhouse had told his mother that he intended to buy a gun, but she assumed he meant a hunting rifle or a shotgun, like her father and brothers had owned. According to Wendy, when Rittenhouse told her what he’d bought, she responded, “That’s an assault rifle!” But she didn’t make him get rid of it.
Rittenhouse had just started a new lifeguarding job when Blake was shot. On the second night of the protests, he finished his shift at around 8 p.m., and hung out with Black at Black’s stepfather’s place, two miles west of the courthouse. On social media, people were spreading false rumors that rioters planned to attack residential neighborhoods. The teens watched live streams of events that were unfolding so close to home that, when they stepped outside, they could smell smoke and hear screams.
The next day, Rittenhouse and Black cleaned graffiti in the protest zone, then offered to help guard what remained of Car Source. The business was insured, but one of its owners, Anmol Khindri, said to reporters that it was devastating when the police “did nothing” to stop rioters.
Black kept his rifle disassembled in the trunk of his car. On the second day of the protests, the stepfather had removed Rittenhouse’s rifle from the safe, to keep it handy, he later told police. The gun was fetched from the stepfather’s house. Black later told a detective that this made him uncomfortable, but added that if he’d objected Rittenhouse “would have threw a fit.” The night of the shootings, the rifle was equipped with a thirty-round magazine and hung from a chest sling that Rittenhouse had bought that afternoon.
At dusk, Black was on the roof of the mechanic shop while Rittenhouse and others stayed on the ground. It was Black whom Rittenhouse called following the first burst of gunfire. After the second round of shooting, Black came down and found Rittenhouse sitting in a chair inside the shop, “all shooken up.” Rittenhouse had placed his rifle on the flatbed of a truck.
Black later told a detective that he drove Rittenhouse home to Antioch, where Wendy gave her son two choices: turn yourself in, or leave town. Around 1 a.m., she drove him to the police station in Antioch. They waited together for more than two hours, Kyle crying and vomiting. Finally, two Kenosha police detectives, Benjamin Antaramian and Martin Howard, took them into an interview room. When Antaramian explained that he needed to read a police form aloud, Rittenhouse asked, “Is it Miranda?,” and then said, “I know how Miranda works.” He did not know how Miranda works. He both wanted a lawyer and to talk—incompatible desires. The detectives halted the interview.
Rosenbaum, the man who had chased Rittenhouse into the parking lot, was dead. The man who had struck him with the skateboard, Anthony Huber, a twenty-six-year-old demonstrator from Kenosha County, was either dead or dying. The third man shot—the one with the handgun—was also a twenty-six-year-old demonstrator, Gaige Grosskreutz, who lived near Milwaukee. Videos were already starting to make their way online: Rosenbaum taking his final breaths; Huber clutching his chest and collapsing; Grosskreutz shrieking, his right biceps mangled.
Messages from strangers were appearing on Wendy’s phone: “Your son is a white supremacist murderer bitch. You and your family need to count your fuckin days”; “We going to make your home look like Beirut.” They knew where she lived. Wendy told Kyle, “We can’t go back.”
When Rittenhouse learned that he was being arrested, he exclaimed that someone had hit him “with a fucking bat! ” (Widely circulating videos show no such attack.) Antaramian explained that the charges could “range anywhere from reckless injury to reckless homicide to second-degree homicide.” Wendy wailed, “Murder?”
Rittenhouse, who had been speaking with the detectives in a familiar manner, requested a favor: “Can you guys delete my social-media accounts?”
On August 27th, the Kenosha County D.A. charged Rittenhouse with Wisconsin’s most serious crimes, among them first-degree intentional homicide, the mandatory punishment for which is life in prison. Other felony charges included reckless homicide, and he was also charged with a misdemeanor: underage possession of a dangerous weapon. Thomas Binger, the assistant district attorney assigned to the case, has said, “We don’t allow teens to run around with guns. It’s that simple.”
Conservatives denounced the homicide charges as political, noting that both Binger and Graveley, the district attorney, are Democrats. Criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer are typically appointed a public defender, but so many conservative and far-right figures rallied around Rittenhouse that private counsel was all but assured.
Among the attorneys who stepped forward was John Pierce, a civil litigator in Los Angeles, who believed that, in the digital age, lawyers needed to “gang tackle, swarm, and crowd-source.” His firm, now known as Pierce Bainbridge, had reportedly received nine million dollars from a hedge fund, Pravati Capital, in what The American Lawyercalled possibly “the first public example of a litigation funder investing in a law firm’s portfolio of contingent fee cases.” The firm would bring cases against big targets, and Pravati would receive a cut of any damages. Critics have called forms of this practice “legal loan-sharking.”
Pierce secured a few high-profile clients, including Rudolph Giuliani and Tulsi Gabbard, who sued Hillary Clinton for saying that the Russians were “grooming” Gabbard to run as a third-party Presidential candidate. But, by the spring of 2020, Pierce Bainbridge reportedly owed creditors more than sixty million dollars.
Last August, Pierce launched a charitable nonprofit, the #FightBack Foundation, whose mission involved raising money to fund lawsuits that would “take our country back.” A Trump supporter, he was hostile toward liberals and often expressed his views crudely. One Saturday, during an argument with his ex-wife, he unleashed a stream of increasingly threatening texts, including “Go watch an AOC rally. Fucking libtard”; “I will fuck u and ur kind up”; and “People like u hate the USA. Guess what bitch, we ain’t goin anywhere.” Not for the first time, she obtained a restraining order against him.
#FightBack was registered in Dallas, where one participant, a lawyer named Lawson Pedigo, had joined Pierce in representing the former Trump aide Carter Page. Pierce and Pedigo were also working with Lin Wood, a well-known defamation attorney. When the Kenosha protests began, #FightBack leaped into the fray, declaring that “law-abiding citizens have no choice but to protect their own communities as their forefathers did at Lexington and Concord in 1775.” The Rittenhouse shootings gave the foundation a face for its cause.
The Rittenhouses never returned home. Wendy and her daughters were staying with friends when Pierce tweeted an offer to represent Kyle, who had been transferred to a juvenile detention center in Illinois: “Will fly up there tonight and I will handle his defense with team of best lawyers in USA.”
The Rittenhouses’ experience with the criminal-justice system was limited to Mike’s history, and to a battery charge against Wendy: the month before Kyle was born, she pleaded guilty to spitting in a neighbor’s face. Pierce’s Harvard law degree impressed them, and, on Twitter, the family could see him discussing Kyle alongside elected officials such as the Arizona congressman Paul Gosar, who tweeted that Rittenhouse’s actions had been “100% justified self defense.”
Pierce met with the Rittenhouses on the night of August 27th. Pierce Bainbridge drew up an agreement calling for a retainer of a hundred thousand dollars and an hourly billing rate of twelve hundred and seventy-five dollars—more than twice the average partner billing rate at top U.S. firms. Pierce would be paid through #FightBack, which, soliciting donations through its Web site, called the charges against Rittenhouse “a reactionary rush to appease the divisive, destructive forces currently roiling this country.”
Wisconsin’s ethics laws restrict pretrial publicity, but Pierce began making media appearances on Rittenhouse’s behalf. He called Kenosha a “war zone” and claimed that a “mob” had been “relentlessly hunting him as prey.” He explicitly associated Rittenhouse with the militia movement, tweeting, “The unorganized ‘militia of the United States consists of all able-bodied males at least seventeen years of age,’ ” and “Kyle was a Minuteman protecting his community when the government would not.”
Wendy often appeared with Pierce as a “momma bear” defending her son. “He didn’t do nothing wrong,” she told an ABC affiliate. “He was attack by a mob.” She publicly threatened to sue Joe Biden for using a photograph of Rittenhouse in his campaign materials, promising, “I will take him down.”
Such partisan rhetoric rallied support among conservatives convinced that liberals were destroying American cities with impunity. As donations streamed into #FightBack’s Web site, other contributions were offered directly to the family, for living expenses. Certain donors further yoked Rittenhouse to the militia movement: in September, the group American Wolf—self-appointed “peacekeepers” in Washington State—presented Wendy and Pierce with fifty-five thousand dollars in donations, after having taken a twenty-per-cent cut.
If Pierce seemed erratic and incendiary, he was more than matched by Lin Wood. A civil litigator in his late sixties, Wood rose to prominence in the nineties, when he won defamation suits on behalf of Richard Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly implicated as the Centennial Olympic Park bomber. Wood often went on TV to defend clients. In 2006, he told the publication Super Lawyers, “A media appearance is really a mini-trial. You may be advocating to a jury of millions.” After Wood represented the family of JonBenét Ramsey—the six-year-old girl murdered in 1996—observers characterized the family’s flurry of defamation lawsuits as “legal vigilantism.”
After Donald Trump was elected President, Wood’s work became noticeably ideological. He represented Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the white couple in St. Louis who pointed guns at B.L.M. protesters marching past their house. He represented Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky high-school student who sued various publications for their depictions of an interaction that he had, while wearing a maga hat, with a Native American activist in Washington, D.C. (Sandmann eventually fired Wood.)
People close to Wood noticed troubling changes in his behavior. According to a recent lawsuit by three lawyers who worked with him in Atlanta, Wood asserted that Chief Justice John Roberts would be exposed as part of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring, and that Trump would name him Roberts’s successor. (Wood denies making these statements.) The lawyers, who were suing to cut their business ties with Wood, cited repeated “abusive” behavior. In a voice mail, Wood called one of the lawyers, Jonathan Grunberg, a “Chilean Jewish fucking crook,” and on another occasion he allegedly assaulted him in an elevator. (Wood has called the lawsuit “frivolous.”)
Wood, who became #FightBack’s C.E.O. on September 2, 2020, attempted to turn Rittenhouse’s legal case into a cultural battle, calling him a “political prisoner” and comparing him to Paul Revere. He tweeted, “Kyle Rittenhouse at age 17 warned us to defend ourselves.” Wood implied that patriots were needed for an even bigger fight—a looming “second civil war.” His Twitter bio included the QAnon slogan #WWG1WGA—“Where we go one, we go all”—and he became a leading promoter of a conspiracy theory claiming that a secret group of cannibalistic pedophiles has taken control of the United States.
In the first few weeks of #FightBack’s campaign, Wood announced, some eleven thousand people donated more than six hundred thousand dollars. The foundation paid Pierce and produced a publicity video, “Kyle Rittenhouse—The Truth in 11 Minutes,” which framed the case as one with “the power to negatively affect our lives for generations.” A narrator intoned, “This is the moment when the ‘home of the brave’ rise to defend ‘the land of the free.’ ” Wood called the case “a watershed moment” for self-defense; Pierce tweeted, “Kyle now has the best legal representation in the country.”
Pierce was a civil attorney, not a criminal-defense lawyer. A double homicide was “not the fucking case to learn on,” one experienced defense lawyer told me. In Wisconsin, a homicide case requires representation by a local lawyer. Rittenhouse hired two criminal-defense attorneys in Madison, Chris Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz, who had the understanding that #FightBack would cover their legal fees. The Madison lawyers quickly concluded that the #FightBack arrangement wouldn’t work for them. Van Wagner told me, “When you have crowdfunding of a criminal defense, they take over—they have their own political agenda.” He recalled that one #FightBack conference call began with “Hello, patriots!”
The defense attorneys also found Pierce and Wood’s media presence compromising. On September 7th, they e-mailed Wood: “Almost all of the news today about Kyle’s case centers not on the case itself but on the two lawyers who have publicly identified themselves as his lawyers, as well as on the ‘cause’-oriented Foundation.” They reminded Wood that a “proper defense” of Rittenhouse should be the “lone objective.”
Around this time, Pierce announced that he was stepping away from #FightBack’s board, and tweeted that he wanted to “avoid any appearance of $$ conflict.” But, in the e-mail, Van Wagner and Goetz told Wood that they could not proceed unless the foundation addressed “financial questions swirling around” Pierce. They asked Wood to deposit the Rittenhouse donations into a conventional bank-trust account “under the sole control of Kyle’s mother along with a bank trustee.” This would “ensure that the funds are used solely for the purposes for which people donated them.”
These demands were not met, and the Madison lawyers left the case.
#FightBack’s Web site noted that contributions could be channelled to associated law firms, “for other purposes.” The foundation had announced a fund-raising goal of five million dollars, for bail and other costs, and at first the site displayed a progress bar—$1.9 million on September 23rd; $2.1 million on October 1st. The ongoing tally was then replaced with a simple “Donate Now” button.
On October 30th, Rittenhouse was extradited from Illinois to Wisconsin. His first Kenosha County court appearance was scheduled for a few days later. Wood tweeted that #FightBack needed to “raise $1M” before then. Wisconsin is a cash-bail state: a defendant must pay the full amount in order to await trial outside of jail. The court had set Rittenhouse’s bail at two million dollars. Given that #FightBack had supposedly reached that benchmark weeks earlier, Wendy wondered if the #FightBack lawyers were leaving Kyle in jail as a fund-raising ploy. (Wood calls the notion “blatantly false.”)
In mid-November, Wood reported that Mike Lindell, the C.E.O. of MyPillow, had “committed $50K to Kyle Rittenhouse Defense Fund.” Lindell says that he thought his donation was going toward fighting “election fraud.” The actor Ricky Schroder contributed a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Pierce finally paid Rittenhouse’s bail, with a check from Pierce Bainbridge, on November 20th—well over a month after #FightBack’s Web site indicated that the foundation had the necessary funds.
The fact that a suspect in a double homicide could raise so much money and get out of jail struck many people as another example of an unfair system. The minister Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King, Jr., tweeted that Kalief Browder “was held at the Rikers Island jail complex, without trial, for allegedly stealing a backpack.” (Browder spent three years at Rikers, and later hanged himself.)
Moments after Rittenhouse was released, he jumped into an S.U.V. driven by Dave Hancock, a former Navy seal who now worked in security. Hancock told me that he started working for Wood in March, 2020, and became #FightBack’s executive director that September, but found Wood’s volatility untenable. “He has no filter, and no bottom,” Hancock told me. One night in October, during an argument, Wood grabbed Hancock’s handgun from his holster. Hancock and Wood parted ways.
Hancock was still on decent terms with Pierce, though, and had said yes when Pierce asked him to “extract” Kyle from Kenosha. In the S.U.V., Hancock gave Rittenhouse new clothes from Bass Pro Shops and an order of Chicken McNuggets, then drove to Indiana. Pierce, a Notre Dame graduate, had relocated Rittenhouse’s family to a “safe house” near South Bend. The arrangement astonished one attorney, who later said, “Why does Wendy Rittenhouse think she’s entitled to a free lawyer and free housing? Because John Pierce and Lin Wood told her she was.”
The night of the family’s reunion, Ricky Schroder showed up. Rittenhouse happily posed for a photograph with him and Pierce, who was staying nearby. Rittenhouse wore a T-shirt, bought by Hancock, that bore the image of a gun’s crosshairs and the words “Black Rifle Coffee Company,” a roaster that sells a blend called Murdered Out. The photograph wound up on Twitter. The family of Huber, the man shot in the heart, had released a statement decrying attempts to celebrate “armed vigilantes who cause death and chaos in the streets.” Black Rifle soon declared that it “does not have a relationship” with Rittenhouse.
The Rittenhouses had accepted #FightBack funds without hesitation, but they were growing uncomfortable with Pierce. They say that he drank excessively in front of Wendy’s kids; called Faith, who supported Bernie Sanders, a “raging liberal”; and billed the family for time spent shopping for a shirt to wear on Tucker Carlson’s show. Pierce also appeared determined to monetize Rittenhouse’s story, and had been exploring book and film deals.
Hancock, who expressed concerns that Pierce was exploiting the family, was sensitive about financial impropriety. In 2012, he’d been accused of mismanaging an online fund-raiser that he’d established to support seal families. Hancock showed me documents indicating that, after an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute.
Wood, for his part, now seemed preoccupied less with Rittenhouse’s case than with exposing “election fraud.” #FightBack was asked to stop featuring Rittenhouse in its fund-raising efforts. Wendy says that she has pressed both the foundation and Pierce for a comprehensive accounting of donations and expenditures, but has not received the information. (Pierce refused to answer questions from this magazine.)
Last fall, Pierce sought a formal place on Rittenhouse’s criminal-defense team. #FightBack had hired Mark Richards, a veteran defense lawyer in Racine. Richards didn’t tweet and considered it “unethical as hell” to discuss cases on social media; he saved his arguments for court. Richards was also a liberal Democrat. He’d told conservatives involved in Rittenhouse’s case, “You and I aren’t going to be going to the same parties on Election Night.”
Courts routinely grant out-of-state lawyers pro-hac-vice status, allowing them to practice “for this occasion.” But the Kenosha prosecutors objected to Pierce’s petition to join the defense team. On December 3rd, they argued in a motion that the combination of his substantial debt and his connection to #FightBack—a “slush fund” with “unregulated and opaque” finances—offered “ample opportunity for self-dealing and fraud.” (#FightBack eventually must disclose certain financial details to the I.R.S., but there is no immediate avenue for public oversight.)
Pierce then abandoned his attempt to join the case and announced that he was “taking over all civil matters for Kyle including his future defamation claims.” He would also be “orchestrating all fundraising for defense costs.” On Newsmax, he said that the defense was “going to need millions of dollars” to litigate “probably the most important case, honestly, in the history of self-defense in the Anglo-American legal system.”
The Rittenhouses, with Hancock’s help, launched their own Web site and raised money by selling “Free Kyle” merchandise, including a $39.99 hoodie and a $42.99 bikini. The merchandise featured a slogan said to have been uttered by Rittenhouse: “Self-Defense Is a Right, Not a Privilege.” The attorney for Grosskreutz, the third man shot, complained to a Wisconsin news channel that Wendy was “trying to profit off of these tragedies,” adding, “It’s frankly vile.”
Eventually, the two million dollars in bail money could be returned to Pierce Bainbridge. A former client of Pierce’s recently heard about this possibility and posted an admonishment on YouTube: “You’re trying to boogie with his money, bro.” In June, Pierce announced that he had launched another nonprofit, the National Constitutional Law Union, as a counterpart to the A.C.L.U. The organization’s Web site noted that a “substantial amount of funds raised” would be “paid to a law firm owned and/or controlled by the founder.”
Throughout the pandemic, Rittenhouse’s pretrial hearings were held on Zoom. He usually sat silently in a mask next to Richards, in Richards’s office. One hearing occurred on January 5th, two days after Rittenhouse turned eighteen. His mother joined him, along with Hancock, who now oversaw the family’s safety and wore a handgun at the small of his back. Several volunteer lookouts, whom Hancock says that he met through Pierce, stood watch outside Richards’s building.
Afterward, Hancock drove the Rittenhouses to lunch. One of the lookouts also went to the restaurant, and was joined by friends. The group ate at another table and then offered to take Rittenhouse out for a beer. When Hancock balked, Rittenhouse pointed out that, in Wisconsin, someone his age can legally drink at a bar if a parent is present. Wendy agreed to go.
Hancock drove the Rittenhouses to Pudgy’s, a bar near Racine. Outside, Rittenhouse vaped. He had changed out of his dress clothes and into a backward baseball cap and a T-shirt bearing the message “free as f--k.” When his drinking buddies arrived, they wanted photographs with him. Rittenhouse posed with a hefty guy in a Brewers cap, flashing a thumbs-up. A bearded man in a gray hoodie stepped up next, and made the “O.K.” sign. Rittenhouse noticed, then did the same.
Inside, the bartender handed him the first of three beers. Customers came up to Rittenhouse and shook his hand. Someone on the far side of the room surreptitiously took photographs, and these images soon surfaced online. To detractors, Rittenhouse, with his “free as f--k” shirt and alcohol, looked like he was trolling.
Binger, the prosecutor, obtained the bar’s surveillance footage and could see that Rittenhouse’s group ultimately consisted of about ten people, all but two of them men. The party stayed at Pudgy’s for nearly two hours. Rittenhouse appeared unfamiliar with his hosts yet pleased to be there. Wendy, drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade, hovered off to the side with Hancock.
At one point, five of the men started singing: “I’ve been one rotten kid / Some son, some pride and some joy.” The larger group eventually took a photograph with Rittenhouse in which most of them made the “O.K.” sign. Both the gesture and the song—“Proud of Your Boy,” from the stage production of Disney’s “Aladdin”—are hallmarks of the Proud Boys. The organization, which originated in 2016 as a club for “Western chauvinists,” with a logo of a rooster weathervane pointing west, has become a home for right-wing extremists who embrace violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Proud Boys as a hate group, and in Canada they are considered a terrorist entity. Associates are known to wear T-shirts that say “6MWE”—“Six Million Wasn’t Enough,” a Holocaust reference—and “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong!” The “O.K.” sign can be code for “white power.”
After the Kenosha shootings, the Proud Boys had made Rittenhouse an extension of their pro-violence message. At a far-right rally attended by many Proud Boys, the crowd had chanted “Good job, Kyle!” The group’s chairman, Enrique Tarrio, was photographed wearing a T-shirt that said “Kyle Rittenhouse Did Nothing Wrong!”
Hours before the Pudgy’s outing, Pierce texted Wendy, “Just got retained by Chandler Pappas.” Pappas had been charged, in Oregon, with macing six police officers during an assault on the state capitol, in protest of covid-19 restrictions. He was a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, and had appeared at a Proud Boys rally with Tarrio, who had been charged, in Washington, D.C., with property destruction and firearms-related offenses. In a tweet, Pierce gave the impression that he was representing both defendants.
The Rittenhouses say that they didn’t know who either Pappas or Tarrio was at the time. Hancock, who has become one of the family’s advisers, says that neither he nor the Rittenhouses grasped the meaning of “Proud of Your Boy” or the “O.K.” gesture, and didn’t realize that any of the men at Pudgy’s were Proud Boys. Though Hancock is a security professional, he told me that he hadn’t learned the names of the men who had volunteered as lookouts or invited Rittenhouse to the bar. Explicit clues about the men’s affiliations existed in plain sight. When I examined the Pudgy’s surveillance footage, I noticed “Proud Boy” tattooed on one man’s forearm; another man had a tattoo of the rooster weathervane from the Proud Boys logo.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol occurred the next day. Federal authorities have charged numerous presumed Proud Boys, including one alleged organizer, Ethan Nordean, who had publicly praised Rittenhouse as a “stud.” Lin Wood had tweeted that Vice-President Mike Pence should be executed by firing squad, and would later call him a “TRAITOR, a Communist Sympathizer & a Child Molester.” On the morning of the attack, Wood tweeted, “The time has come Patriots.”
Six days after the Capitol assault, Rittenhouse and his mother flew with Pierce to Miami for three days. The person who picked them up at the airport was Enrique Tarrio—the Proud Boys leader. Tarrio was Pierce’s purported client, and not long after the shootings in Kenosha he had donated a hundred dollars or so to Rittenhouse’s legal-defense fund. They all went to a Cuban restaurant, for lunch.
The Rittenhouses would not say what was discussed at the meal. Hancock, who wasn’t there, clearly understood that it didn’t look good. He insisted to me that the Rittenhouses were uncomfortable with the meeting, and blamed Pierce for orchestrating the encounter and exposing Rittenhouse “to elements that hurt him.” Hancock, who told me that the Proud Boys are “fucking losers,” said that Rittenhouse initially “may have thought it was kind of cool to see people fighting for him, but when he learned what they were all about it didn’t sit well with him.” He added, “He’s just as horrified by the white-supremacist part of it as anybody.”
The Miami lunch did not become publicly known. But the next day the prosecutors in Kenosha filed a motion—based on the surveillance footage from Pudgy’s—asking the court to make it a condition of Rittenhouse’s bond that he avoid contact with “known members of any violent white power / white supremacist groups.”
The Rittenhouses stayed at a Courtyard Marriott in Coral Gables. According to Hancock, the family didn’t see Tarrio again. The court soon accepted the modification to Rittenhouse’s bond agreement, and also restricted him from possessing or consuming alcohol.
Rittenhouse fired Pierce, via FaceTime, on February 1st. Since then, Hancock told me, he has advised the family to reject overtures from other extremist figures and to stop appearing on right-wing media programs. Meanwhile, he was battling Wood, who had accused him of hacking #FightBack’s network and taking the donor list. The police chief in Yemassee, South Carolina, where Wood lives, recently issued a felony warrant against Hancock. Hancock denies any wrongdoing.
The Kenosha prosecutors’ petition calling #FightBack a “slush fund” has led Hancock to establish a more conventional trust for the Rittenhouses, modelled on the arrangement that Van Wagner and Goetz described in their e-mail to Wood. According to Hancock, it has so far raised nearly half a million dollars. He told me that most donations are between twenty and fifty dollars, but, citing privacy concerns, he wouldn’t release a list of donors. He also wouldn’t discuss details of his payment agreement with the Rittenhouses. He said of the #FightBack debacle, “It was never meant to become this grossly political B.S. that morphed into ‘election fraud’ and militias adopting Kyle. The point was to fund his criminal defense.”
After breaking with Pierce, the Rittenhouses left Indiana. In April, I met them at their new place, whose location I agreed not to disclose. My request for an interview had repeatedly been refused, but Hancock had facilitated a meeting. There were substantial restrictions: the Rittenhouses would answer questions about their family history, and about such figures as Pierce, but—as is common with homicide defendants—we could not directly discuss the case.
When the Rittenhouses fled Antioch, they abandoned most of their possessions. Donors re-outfitted them: their current place had a new sectional sofa, a Keurig coffeemaker, and bed linens from Walmart. Each family member had a bedroom. All three siblings, including Faith, who is twenty, were back in high school, online, and using new computers that Hancock had provided.
Before I arrived, Wendy set out platters of deli meats, and made a dip of cream cheese and canned chili. Rittenhouse was in his room, but Wendy took me to meet him briefly. He had on a dark-blue hoodie and black Lululemon slacks. Behind him were PlayStation controls and a desktop computer. He had been researching where to apply to college, and said that he hoped to go into pediatric nursing. He later explained, “Seeing how my mom and her co-workers work with their patients, and how they treat their families—those people are having the worst day of their lives, and they need somebody to fall onto and rely on. That’s something I want to do.”
In the den, Wendy and Faith sat together on the sofa and Hancock perched at one end. The family clearly hoped to distance themselves from some of the people who had surrounded them. Wendy said of the Rittenhouses’ decision to break with Pierce, “Kyle was John’s ticket out of debt.” She was pressing Pierce to return forty thousand dollars in donated living expenses that she believed belonged to the family, and told me that Pierce had refused: “He said we owed him millions—he ‘freed Kyle.’ ”
The Rittenhouses, with considerable input from Hancock, described Kyle as selfless (“He has this nature to protect people”) and ideologically open-minded (“huge Andrew Yang fan”). The Rittenhouses did not see themselves as particularly political, but Faith considered herself an ardent advocate of Black Lives Matter. I was told that Kyle liked Trump because Trump liked the police.
They insisted that Kyle was not racist, and made a point of explaining that the Rittenhouses have Black relatives. The whole family agreed that the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had murdered George Floyd, and Faith said that she had attended a march protesting the killing. She had actively disapproved of her brother’s support of Trump, especially given Trump’s misogyny, but said that Rittenhouse knew “how to respect women.” I raised an obvious discrepancy: the punching incident. Wendy said, “I told Kyle, ‘Never hit a girl.’ I also told Kyle, ‘Always defend your sisters.’ ”
The Rittenhouses told me that Kyle used to travel with a combat-grade tourniquet tucked in his boot, and that he had distributed tourniquets to his family. When I asked what he had kept in his first-aid kits, Hancock called him out of his bedroom, and Rittenhouse instantly provided a list: airway kits, tourniquets, QuikClot hemostatic gauze, gloves, splints, bandages, cotton swabs, tweezers, C.P.R. masks—“not the cheap ones.” His determination to appear prepared, or strong, suggested an adolescent’s need to prove himself. At the Antioch police station, he had said, “I’m not a child anymore.”
The night of the shootings, Wendy had a bad feeling, and called Rittenhouse. “I’m doing medical,” he told her. The gunfire started moments later. “That day, I felt a part of me die,” Wendy told me. Faith said, “Because Kyle had to defend himself? And, if he didn’t, he would have died?” Wendy said, “Yeah.” She started to cry: “He didn’t want to kill them!”
Faith overtly acknowledged the deaths. “I’m sorry to the families—we all are sorry,” she said, adding, “We think about it—a lot.” Wendy remained stuck on the idea that if Kyle “didn’t have that gun he’d be dead.” She seemed unwilling to grasp that if a bunch of civilians hadn’t been carrying rifles that night, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
In 2017, Dwayne Dixon, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, heard about an upcoming Ku Klux Klan rally in Durham. He showed up to counter-protest with a semi-automatic rifle. Dixon belonged to Redneck Revolt, whose members believed in arming themselves in self-defense against white supremacists.
The rally never materialized, but the sheriff’s department charged Dixon with two misdemeanors: “going armed to the terror of the people” and carrying a weapon to a demonstration. There was precedent. In 1968, during the civil-rights movement, the North Carolina Supreme Court had upheld the need for restricting loaded weapons, noting, “In this day of social upheaval one can perceive only dimly the tragic consequences to the people if either night riders or daytime demonstrators, fanatically convinced of the righteousness of their cause, could legally arm themselves.” Public safety was jeopardized when firearms were “ready to be used on every outbreak of ungovernable passion.”
But times had changed. The first of Dixon’s charges was dropped, and a judge ultimately dismissed the count of “carrying a weapon,” citing Dixon’s First Amendment and Second Amendment rights.
After arresting Dixon, the sheriff had declared that he could not “ignore the inherent danger that comes with untrained individuals operating as a self-appointed security force in our streets.” The climate has only worsened since then. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence recently began compiling a list of demonstrations that attract visibly armed protesters or counter-protesters. Throughout 2020 and early 2021, there were more than sixty such events, in twenty-four states and in Washington, D.C.
Many state laws supersede city ordinances, making it impossible for cities and towns—even those with rising gun violence—to set constraints on guns. Not long ago, officials in Boulder, Colorado, banned “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, but in March a judge blocked the ban, saying that the local government had no control over the extent to which people can be armed in public. Ten days after the judge intervened, a shooter killed ten people at a Boulder grocery store.
In May, Washington State banned civilians from openly carrying firearms at permitted demonstrations. The ban’s primary sponsor, Patty Kuderer, has said, “The purpose of bringing a weapon to a public demonstration is not to protect yourself, it’s to intimidate.” Other states, however, are moving in the opposite direction. Texas, later this year, will allow people to carry handguns without a permit, and in California there are new legal challenges to long-standing bans on AR-15-style weapons and large-capacity magazines. The availability of guns correlates with gun violence. During the ten years of the federal ban on assault weapons—1994 to 2004—the number of mass-shooting events diminished. Last year, the U.S. broke records for gun sales and reached the highest level of gun homicides in decades.
Thirty states have adopted “stand your ground” laws, further institutionalizing civilian use of lethal force. Robyn Thomas, the Giffords Law Center’s executive director, told me that such laws urgently need to be repealed, because, among other things, they distort the notion of civic responsibility: “You have this misconception of a hero with a gun being the answer to public safety, when it’s exactly the opposite.” Armed civilians assume that they are “doing good” partly because “the system propagates that mythology, by passing laws that allow for it.”
In Wisconsin, determining if someone acted in self-defense involves the question of who initiated the aggression. But, as in many states, there is no clear definition of provocation. As John D. Moore explained in a 2013 article in the Brooklyn Law Review, in some parts of the country a person forfeits the privilege of self-defense merely by having shown up at a “foreseeably dangerous situation.” Moore argued that the varying standards make it harder for citizens to “fairly distinguish between the vigilant and the vigilante.” Wisconsin’s law favors someone who “in good faith withdraws from the fight,” yet there is not always a duty to retreat. At Rittenhouse’s trial, which is scheduled to begin on November 1st, the jury may need to find only that when he pulled the trigger he reasonably feared death or great bodily harm.
Many people in Wisconsin expect the jury to determine that the D.A. overreached when he imposed the charge of intentional homicide. Yet Rittenhouse could still go to prison if jurors hold him accountable for the deaths. The Harvard law professor Noah Feldman recently wrote that, though Rittenhouse presumably will claim that he feared having his gun wrested away and used against him, it’s only “the presence of Rittenhouse’s own weapon” that gives him “the opportunity to claim that he was in fear of bodily harm.” Thomas told me that if Rittenhouse hadn’t concluded that it was his responsibility to venture, armed, into a “hot environment,” he “wouldn’t have been in harm’s way, and he certainly wouldn’t have hurt anyone else.”
In a recent hearing, Bruce Schroeder, the judge who will preside over Rittenhouse’s trial, stressed the importance of sticking to “the facts and the evidence.” He demanded “a trial that’s fair to the defendant, which is his constitutional guarantee, and to the public, which is my responsibility.”
But, thanks to the opportunists who have seized on the Rittenhouse drama, the case has been framed as the broadest possible referendum on the Second Amendment. No other legal case presents such a vivid metaphor for the country’s polarization. Many of Rittenhouse’s supporters have described the shootings almost in cathartic terms, as if they were glad that he killed people. If a jury appears to sanction vigilantism, it seems likely that more altercations between protesters and counter-protesters will turn deadly.
Thomas sees the case as “a bellwether,” putting “guns at the forefront of the stability of our democracy.” Protecting citizens’ safety “is a primary function of our government,” she said. “Yet it’s gotten to the point where this idea that you have a right to carry a loaded weapon is starting to literally overtake other rights—the right to express your vote, the right to assemble without fear.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the July 5, 2021, issue, with the headline “American Vigilante.”
Paige Williams began writing for The New Yorker in 2013 and became a staff writer in 2015. She is the author of “The Dinosaur Artist,” which was named a Times Notable Book of 2018.