The Streets of Kenosha and the National Stage
After the violence came mourning, defiance, and distortion.
September 1, 2020
On Thursday, demonstrators outside the Kenosha Police Department called for the release of arrested activists.
After four days of protests, the storefronts of downtown Kenosha were boarded up on Thursday afternoon. The small city of a hundred thousand people, on the shore of Lake Michigan, an hour and a half north of Chicago, was under a 7 p.m. curfew. Lingering news crews set up their tripods on Kenosha’s street corners, recording standups in front of the Car Source auto lot, with its incinerated vehicles, or propped before groups of volunteers, who were painting the plywood with hearts and rainbows and apolitical messages: “Be the Light”; “Do small things with great love”; another, over a painting of a lighthouse next to stormy waves, read “Even in our darkest hours our beacon still shines brightly.”
On Sunday, August 23rd, a twenty-nine-year-old Black man named Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by Rusten Sheskey, a white officer with the Kenosha Police Department, while Blake opened the door of the car where his three children were waiting for him. In the next two days, protesters filled the city. They were met by the Kenosha Police Department with tear gas and rubber bullets, and soon began damaging and burning around thirty local businesses and a Wisconsin Department of Corrections Probation and Parole office.
On Tuesday, August 25th, a group of self-styled militia members convened a Facebook group called the Kenosha Guard, which posted an event titled “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property.” A leak published
by BuzzFeed later revealed that Facebook moderators had allowed the group to remain on the site, despite the fact that it was flagged by users as dangerous four hundred and fifty-five times—some two-thirds of the complaints that Facebook received that day.
On Tuesday night, Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old Donald Trump
supporter and an aspiring police officer from across the state line in Antioch, Illinois, drove to Kenosha, where he shot and killed two protesters, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and wounded another, Gaige Grosskreutz, with an assault rifle. After the killings, Rittenhouse, who is white, walked past a phalanx of police officers with his arms raised and drove home to Illinois, where he turned himself in to police the next day. Later, video emerged from before the shootings, in which police officers gave Rittenhouse bottles of water and thanked him. “We appreciate you guys. We really do,” a police officer can be heard saying.
By Thursday, Rittenhouse was in custody in Illinois and charged with two counts of first-degree homicide and one count of attempted murder, among other charges. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Justice had continued its investigation into the shooting of Blake. Jacob Blake, Sr., the victim’s father, told CNN that his son—who as a result of the shooting had suffered kidney and liver damage and a severed spinal cord, and had part of his colon removed—had been shackled to his hospital bed. Sheskey, who has not been charged with a crime, is on administrative leave.
A National Guard convoy parked outside the Kenosha Dinosaur Discovery Museum.
In Kenosha, it seemed as if the violent spectacles of the past few years—the police brutality in Ferguson, Staten Island, Louisville, and Minneapolis; the teen-aged shooters of Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas; the demonstrator who was killed in Charlottesville—were converging. The right-wing militia movement, which had gathered for an armed rally
in Virginia this year, was now a presence at protests for racial justice. The distortions of social media seemed more craven than ever. I had clicked through Facebook memes in which an image of Huber, clutching the fatal gunshot wound to his chest, was Photoshopped as the cover of the Playstation game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. These memes, along with one of Jesus guiding Kyle Rittenhouse into murder and comments of “Rot in hell commie scum,” were posted on Huber’s girlfriend’s Facebook wall. Some people on Twitter had started calling Rittenhouse “Saint Kyle.”
There have been marches in Kenosha every day since Jacob Blake was shot, sometimes more than one, but the looting and burning had stopped after Tuesday. The police had stopped firing rubber bullets and tear gas, too, and the vigilante groups had retreated to guard the entrances of subdivisions on the outskirts of town. In the city center, the police had taken to pulling over activists in their cars and arresting them for violating curfew. Thirty-six such arrests had been made on Wednesday night, including of someone driving a U-Haul truck filled with food and fire extinguishers donated by a church in Milwaukee.
Civic Center Park is a leafy plaza surrounded by limestone municipal buildings built in the classical-revival style. By Thursday, when I arrived, the windows of buildings—the Kenosha County Courthouse, a United States post office, the Dinosaur Discovery Museum—were, like the stores, boarded up. A couple dozen evangelical Christians stood with their arms raised before a singer belting out religious pop songs. The worshippers swayed gently, their eyes closed in ecstasy. “Ma’am, can I pray for you?” a young, dough-faced blond man in a T-shirt proclaiming “jesus” asked me. Another crowd gathered across the park, watching the Christians with mild interest, their protest signs sitting in the grass. An organizer quickly introduced me to the leaders of a new group called Black Lives Activists of Kenosha, or blak. A Kenosha-based volunteer named Jerelle and wearing a Brewers jersey handed me a flyer and talked me through the group’s list of demands. At the top was a call to arrest and charge the officers who were present at Blake’s shooting.
Activists gathered each day near Civic Center Park.
A member of the newly formed organization Black Lives Activists of Kenosha.
Windows and storefronts were boarded up around the city.
Once again, national attention soon focussed on property damage. The anger that some in town held against the protesters had been articulated by Vice-President Mike Pence the night before, at the Republican National Convention, when he advanced a narrative that only Republicans can save what Trump has called “the suburban life-style dream” from a lawless rabble. On Friday, an editorial in the Kenosha News
said, “It’s time to enforce the curfew, arrest, and get these people off the streets. Some of them likely are visiting Kenosha for the first time.”
One activist told me that, earlier in the week, he had met someone who had driven all the way from Jacksonville, Florida. But in Kenosha there was also a committed core of locals who were reliable stalwarts of every march: the white-haired hippie in tie-dye; the young man carrying a glossy black puppy; the woman wearing a portable voter-registration desk around her neck, in the manner of a cigarette girl; the skateboarder who had face tattoos and platinum hair. They were joined, at times, by a pale Lutheran priest in his clerical collar and three young women from a youth group called EquiTeens Kenosha. I met Jason and Jade Lopez, father-daughter members of
blak; Porche Bennett, one of the group’s omnipresent leaders; and Nathan Upham, who is the creative director of a venue and event space in town called New World Order. Each day was different, but only subtly so. By Friday, blak had printed and distributed T-shirts, a contingent of National Guardsmen was patrolling the perimeter of the dinosaur museum, and yet another freelance Christian proselytizer was making apocalyptic pronouncements on a bullhorn from a street corner.
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Of the outsiders, it seemed unlikely that many were visiting Kenosha for the first time. Kenosha is the midpoint between Milwaukee and Chicago, and a town with three colleges. “A lot of people travel through these small towns in Wisconsin,” an activist from Milwaukee named Khalil Coleman told me. “If you’re a person of color, there are disparities in police stops between Black, brown, and white individuals.”
On Thursday evening, after our phones had sounded an emergency alert about the impending curfew, I stood and talked with three more protesters from Milwaukee. One, who gave only her nickname, Mimi, wore a pink Black Lives Matter hat, a bodysuit tie-dyed the colors of a pack of Starburst, a pendant in the shape of Africa, and a holstered gun around her waist. She was affiliated with a grassroots group called the People’s Revolution, which had held protests in Milwaukee and surrounding towns every day since the killing of George Floyd
, in Minneapolis, more than ninety days ago.
“People want the world to be sparkly and pretty, while it’s rotting at the core,” she said. “What people are doing—they’re exposing what America is. It’s ugly. This shit is ugly. For people to care more about burning buildings than this man they just paralyzed and handcuffed to a bed?”
Her friend Sasha was nodding. “You really seriously think a building holds more value than a life?” she added. “Anybody who feels that way is fucked up in the head. You’re not O.K. Because all this shit can be replaced. You can rebuild all of it. You cannot rebuild a human life.”
Sasha and Mimi came to Kenosha from Milwaukee.
Marchers in Kenosha on Friday.
Night had fallen when word of another arrest rippled through the park. A group of activists marched the few blocks to intercept it, phones recording on the approach. They interrupted a group of officers, one of whom carried a long gun, handcuffing three people outside a parked car. I was surprised when the police let everyone go and then drove away. One of the patrol cars was labelled as belonging to the Trempealeau County Sheriff’s Office, from the other side of the state.
“Why is that sheriff even here?” one of the activists yelled. “This is Kenosha!”
Walking back to Civic Center Park, I saw Tucker Carlson’s face frowning on television through the window of a second-story apartment. The previous night, he had talked about Rittenhouse on his show. “Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated into murder?” Carlson had asked. “How shocked are we that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
Many of Anthony Huber’s friends witnessed his death on live-streamed videos on Facebook. Huber, who was twenty-six and had grown up in Kenosha, was known around town as a committed skateboarder. The videos showed Huber trying to take on Rittenhouse, who had already shot Rosenbaum, with his skateboard. One of his friends told me, “If he had used the truck”—he turned his own board in his hands, to show me its metal axles—“it would have been another story. He would have been alive.”
It was Saturday, and a dozen or so of Huber’s friends were gathering in a local skate park. They had been visiting the park every day since Huber died, to “skate it off,” as one of them put it to me. Eulogies—“Skate 4 Huber” and “You’re a Hero Huber”—decorated the park’s ramps. Huber’s girlfriend, Hannah Gittings, sat on a bench. She wore a gray beanie and was supported by friends, a tattooed and pierced crew with scrapes on their elbows and gauges in their ears. “Literally every one of these people was his friend,” one told me. “We haven’t seen each other in, like, ten years.”
On Saturday, at the skate park where friends of Anthony Huber, who was killed last Tuesday, had gathered to mourn.
A burly bearded man named Justin Tawwater stood at the edge of the park and watched the others practice tricks. “He just liked to skate,” he said of Huber. The two men had hung out at Tawwater’s house, which was near the protest, the night before Huber died. “He didn’t go out there looking to get shot, that’s for sure,” he continued. “He wasn’t a communist. I see a lot of people saying that he’s, like, a commie and, like, a super radical and all of that. It’s not a thing.”
“Anthony might have been radical, but not, like, in a political way,” another friend, Mathius Durkee, said.
“Yeah, it was more like ‘radical . . . bro,’ ” Tawwater said, making the “hang loose” symbol. “I know, when he went to my crib the night before, he told me he was trying to be in before curfew.”
Later, I met another friend of Huber’s, Nathan Peet, who had been recording and live-streaming the protests on Facebook since the day of Blake’s shooting. We stood in the sun, in the center of Civic Center Park, as the cicadas droned in the trees overhead. Like several protesters I met, Peet had attended the demonstrations armed and thought of his role as protecting protesters as well as marching against police brutality. He told me that he had mistrusted the Kenosha Police Department ever since they had played a role in putting him and his siblings in foster care as children. Because of his videos on Facebook, Peet had attracted derision from right-wing activists on social media, and he was not the only person I spoke to who had received threats. His boss had asked him not to speak to his co-workers about his involvement in the protests.
“It’s directly reflective of the shit show that we’re in with this Administration,” Peet said. “We’re sitting here calling Americans that just want freedom and equality—we’re out here labelling them domestic terrorists. It’s really sad.”
Peet told me that he had been in contact with some of the militia members who were there the night of Huber’s death. He found that some of them shared his disgust about the loss of life. “They want to clear the air about what happened that night,” he said. Like Peet, the militia members he spoke with wanted to be seen as guardians and protectors. Apparently noting my skepticism, Peet said that they had recognized that Huber had died trying to stop an active shooter. “They’re upset that they’re being blamed for what happened, and that people are assuming Kyle was part of that militia, because he wasn’t. Kyle was a lone actor.”
In the week since Blake was shot, his family members have become nationally known figures. Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman, gave a speech that went viral. His father, Jacob Blake, Sr., became a recognizable face in the news. On Friday, they were in Washington, D.C., speaking before a crowd of thousands at the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march. On Saturday, they were back in Kenosha, where several hundred people gathered outside of a Boys & Girls Club, on Fifty-second Street, then marched again to Civic Center Park. The march included members of the original Black Panthers chapter of Madison, Wisconsin; a group wearing T-shirts that identified them as part of the African Lions of America; a biker whose vest bore the patches of a motorcycle club in Waukegan; and lots of young people and families with children. A black-clad security detail, led by a large man wearing a filtered mask and a fez and holding a cutlass, protected the Blake family. Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, was there, along with the son of Fred Hampton, the activist and Black Panther Party leader who was shot and killed in a police raid in 1969. Also present, holding a photograph of his son, was Michael Bell, the father of Michael Bell, Jr., an unarmed white man who was shot and killed by a Kenosha police officer after refusing a breathalyzer test in 2004.
Members of the original Black Panthers travelled to Kenosha for the march.
Saturday’s march through Kenosha.
The event’s crowning speech was given by Jacob Blake, Sr. A stage had been put up in front of the courthouse; Blake, Sr., stood on it, with the help of a cane, and pulled down his mask to speak. He wore a T-shirt bearing a photograph of him and Blake, Jr., which said “i am a human being.” He began by reciting Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran, because “there’s seven verses; there’s seven bullets put in my son’s back.”
He made a plea for calm. “Good people of this city, understand: if we tear it up, we have nothing,” he said. “If you tear it up, then we’ll have nowhere to go. I don’t want you all to be homeless. I don’t want you all to be storeless. I want you to be able to buy your sons, daughters, grandbabies the food and the milk that they need. Do me a favor, my nation is asking. Stop. Stop it. Show ’em for one night we don’t have to tear up nothing.”
Jacob Blake, Sr., speaking at Saturday’s march in Kenosha.
The headline of the Kenosha News’ coverage of the march led with a quote from an unidentified speaker, who took the microphone at the end of the rally: “If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours.” An editor at the paper who attended the rally quit in protest.
he next day, on Sunday, Civic Center Park was the site of a pro-police demonstration, a gathering of a couple dozen white people dressed mostly in blue and black. Two women presided over a table with a petition to recall the Democratic governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, for his response to the coronavirus pandemic
(mandating masks) and the events in Kenosha (not protecting property). A man held his Doberman pinscher on a tight leash. I started chatting with a local businessman named Brian Thomas, a high-school track coach with a laid-back demeanor.
“These people that get shot in these police encounters tend to have a history,” he explained to me. “If you go through enough red lights in life, something’s going to hit you eventually.” Rittenhouse, he contended, was just defending himself. “I don’t know if I can fault that kid for shooting,” he said. “The one guy hit him with a skateboard.” Thomas shared some restaurant recommendations, and talked to me about the decline of manufacturing in Kenosha and the high taxes in New York. The National Guard drove by, and the assembled group burst into applause.
Later that night, the curfew was extended through Tuesday. President Trump—who said that he would not meet with the Blake family because they had requested the presence of their lawyer—would be coming to town on Tuesday to meet with law enforcement, and to tour the wreckage of the businesses that had burned.
Jacob Blake’s uncle, in yellow, at Saturday’s march in Kenosha.
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