An examination of what happened and where we are now.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take."
Today's read: 15 minutes.
In this edition of Tangle, we are going to take a detailed look at the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Because covering this case requires more extensive background information — like detailing the events of Kenosha and what has happened at the trial to date — we are going to focus solely on this topic for today's newsletter. As always, we will include views from the left and right, then my take. But this should be the only thing you need to read about the Rittenhouse trial for a comprehensive understanding of what’s happening. There are also some quick hits at the end of the edition.
Yesterday, Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand in a Kenosha, Wisconsin courtroom, where he is facing six criminal counts, including first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree reckless homicide, reckless endangerment and illegal possession of a firearm. Rittenhouse shot three people and killed two of them during the Kenosha riots, when the then 17-year-old said he took to the streets armed with an AR-15 style weapon to serve as a medic and protect businesses from being looted or burnt. Rittenhouse drove across state lines to patrol the streets, but told the courtroom yesterday that his father lived in Kenosha and he viewed it as part of his community he was trying to protect. He has claimed he used his weapon in self-defense.
The events in Kenosha: Given that there were hundreds of people filming, journalists on the scene, news reports about that night, social media posts about the protests and now a week of a criminal trial, we have a fairly good idea of what happened in Kenosha on August 25th, 2020. It'd be impossible to encapsulate the entire night in this newsletter, but what follows is the most concise and even-handed retelling we can manage from the plethora of video and testimonial evidence available.
Rittenhouse drove to Kenosha after the shooting of Jacob Blake caused widespread protests and civil unrest. During the day, the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, with thousands of people flooding the streets and walking down main avenues in Kenosha chanting Blake's name and calling for police reform (similar protests were happening across the country at the time). But the demonstrations eventually culminated in many Kenosha businesses being looted, burned and damaged over the course of two nights, starting on August 23. More than $50 million of damage was done. The National Guard was called in when many Kenosha residents felt the police response was too tepid and nearby militia members also arrived in the city of 100,000 people and began patrolling the streets, asking other concerned citizens to join them.
Rittenhouse responded to social media calls for patriotic members of the community to come defend their town from rioters, and he attended the protests armed with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, a semiautomatic rifle. Rittenhouse was not old enough to buy the weapon, but gave money to his sister's boyfriend, Dominick Black, who testified that he used the money to buy Rittenhouse the gun and kept it at his family home. On the day Rittenhouse and Black decided to go to Kenosha, Rittenhouse took the gun with him. While Black appears to have broken the law by providing the gun to Rittenhouse, Wisconsin has loose open carry laws, and it’s an open question whether Rittenhouse was violating the law, thanks to a muddled prohibition of gun possession by minors that also includes exceptions for long guns.
In the streets that night, Rittenhouse was wearing doctor's gloves, had a first aid kit on him, and repeatedly identified himself to reporters and livestreamers as an emergency medical technician (EMT) who was there to help give first aid and protect businesses, despite conceding during the trial he was not trained as a medic. He stopped for interviews during the protests, explaining that he was there to try and help his community and protect businesses from being destroyed while treating the injured. Rittenhouse admired law enforcement, had attended a cadet program for at-risk youths in his hometown, and had frequently posted praise for Blue Lives Matter and President Donald Trump on his social media pages. At the time, he had dropped out of high school and was working part-time as a lifeguard.
While patrolling the streets, Rittenhouse was confronted first by Joseph Rosenbaum, a 36-year-old who had spent most of his adult life in prison for sexually assaulting children, and had been released from a Milwaukee mental hospital that day after attempting suicide. Rittenhouse testified that in his first interaction with Rosenbaum, the man threatened Rittenhouse's life. Later that night, Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum had a second confrontation in the parking lot of a car dealership, surrounded by demonstrators and militia members.
Rosenbaum was carrying a plastic bag the hospital had given him, which contained deodorant, underwear, and socks. Rosenbaum threw the bag at Rittenhouse, and then charged him. Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum tried to grab his gun, and Rittenhouse then fired, hitting Rosenbaum in the back and groin, and then the head. Immediately after the shots were fired, Rittenhouse began jogging away from the scene. Protesters surrounded Rosenbaum, trying to stop the bleeding. Rittenhouse was seen in a video on his cell phone, telling a friend "I just killed somebody." Rosenbaum died from his wounds. “Get his ass!” someone yelled as Rittenhouse fled.
One of the men who began to pursue Rittenhouse was Anthony Huber, who was attending his second protest, prompted to attend by his personal relationship he said he had with Jacob Blake, the man whose shooting had sparked the civil unrest. Huber had his own checkered past, including a 2012 incident when he threatened to "gut" his brother with a butcher knife. He had violated parole, been sent to prison in 2017, and then returned to prison in 2018 on a disorderly conduct charge for kicking his sister.
Huber was an avid skateboarder and pursued Rittenhouse with his skateboard in hand. As Rittenhouse jogged down the street, he passed Gaige Grosskreutz, a regular demonstrator who had actually worked as a paramedic, had attended over 100 protests, and was carrying tourniquets and a medical kit. Grosskreutz was also armed with a pistol, which he had a concealed carry permit for, though during the trial Grosskreutz admitted his permit had expired, but said he was unaware of this on that night. Grosskreutz had also been arrested on suspicion of multiple crimes, including felony burglary.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Grosskreutz asked as Rittenhouse, gun over his arm, jogged past him. “You shot somebody?”
“I am going to get the police,” Rittenhouse replied. As Grosskreutz realized what was happening, he began to give chase as well.
As Rittenhouse ran past Grosskreutz, he stumbled and fell. One man tried to deliver a flying kick to Rittenhouse but missed. Rittenhouse, now on the ground, fired at the man but missed. Then Huber approached, swung his skateboard at Rittenhouse and tried to grab his rifle. Rittenhouse fired again, hitting Huber in the chest. Finally, Grosskreutz approached, running toward Rittenhouse with his gun drawn. Rittenhouse fired again, hitting Grosskreutz in the right bicep. This entire sequence happened in a matter of seconds (Warning: the link contains video of the shootings). Huber died from his injuries, and his family — who declined an interview with The Washington Post — released a statement describing him as a hero. Grosskreutz was tended to using his own medical kit and survived.
After shooting Grosskreutz, Rittenhouse got to his feet and fled, passing some police, who instructed him to get out of the road. He went home that night, then turned himself in to police shortly afterwards. By the end of the night, Rittenhouse had fired his weapon eight times in total — he shot Rosenbaum four times, fired twice and missed at the unknown person who tried to kick him, fatally shot Huber once and then shot Grosskreutz in the arm.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Rittenhouse’s story divided the country: On the right, he was seen as a heroic teenager who had tried to keep his community from burning to the ground, and defended himself with force when attacked by violent rioters. On the left, he was a pariah, a teenager who had illegally obtained a gun, crossed state lines intent on committing violence, joined militia members and then murdered two people, wounded another, and had no business being on the streets in the first place. Those narratives have largely stayed intact.
The trial: Rittenhouse's trial has already been full of drama. His decision to take the stand was controversial, and on Wednesday he testified for the first time. During questioning, Rittenhouse broke down sobbing on the stand as he tried to describe the events that led up to him shooting Joseph Rosenbaum. The judge in the trial, Bruce E. Schroeder, called for a recess so Rittenhouse could compose himself. The sincerity of Rittenhouse's emotion was questioned both by the prosecutor and by many liberal pundits on social media, as well as NBA star LeBron James, who wondered aloud whether Rittenhouse's tears were "real."
During Wednesday's hearing, Judge Schroeder repeatedly scolded the prosecution. During Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger's cross examination of Rittenhouse, Binger implied that Rittenhouse's silence leading up to the trial was potentially incriminating. Rittenhouse's attorney objected, the judge cleared the courtroom, and then the judge berated Binger for implying that Rittenhouse should be punished for exercising his constitutional right to remain silent.
After the tense exchange, Rittenhouse's defense filed for a mistrial with prejudice, which Judge Schroeder said he'd take into advisement. If the defense's wish is granted, Rittenhouse would be released and the state would not be able to retry him on the same charges.
On Tuesday, the defense scored a major win when cross-examining one of the prosecution's star witnesses, Gaige Grosskreutz. Grosskreutz was the third person Rittenhouse shot, the regular protester and medic who was illegally armed with a pistol. During his testimony, he conceded to the courtroom that Rittenhouse did not fire at him until he pointed his own pistol at Rittenhouse and began advancing toward him.
"When you were standing three to five feet from him with your arms up in the air, he never fired, right?" Rittenhouse's attorney Corey Chirafisi asked.
"Correct," Grosskreutz said.
"It wasn't until you pointed your gun at him, advanced on him with your gun, now your hands down, pointed at him, that he fired, right?" Chirafisi said.
"Correct," Grosskreutz said.
The exchange drew visible reactions from the courtroom, including from Rittenhouse and his attorneys, who seemed to look around and at each other, understanding both the gravity and the advantage of what Grosskreutz was saying.
Other moments throughout the trial have also drawn lots of attention. At one point, Judge Schroeder's cell phone rang, and played Lee Greenwood's patriotic anthem "God Bless the U.S.A," which is the song former President Donald Trump enters his rallies to. At another point in the trial, the prosecution tried to pursue a line of questioning about Rittenhouse wearing a "Free as F—" t-shirt into a bar this winter, where he then posed for pictures with patrons. The judge denied the request, once again expressing frustration with Binger and the prosecution.
After calling 22 witnesses forward over the course of six days, the prosecution rested its case against Rittenhouse. The defense will begin calling witnesses today.
To review, the charges against Rittenhouse are first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide, which are equivalent to murder charges in most other states and carry a maximum life sentence in prison for each. He's also being charged with first-degree recklessly endangering safety (up to 12 and a half years in prison and/or a $25,000 fine), possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18 (up to nine months in prison and/or a $10,000 fine), and use of a dangerous weapon (which could add up to five years in prison to any sentence for the other convictions).
On the homicide chargers, prosecutors are facing an uphill battle. Wisconsin law makes it more difficult than many other states to convict someone who claims self-defense. A defendant only needs to present some evidence of self-defense in order to put the burden of proof on the prosecution to negate that claim beyond a reasonable doubt, former prosecutor Daniel Blinka explained to the Wall Street Journal.
Along with the basic self-defense laws in Wisconsin, the case is also being tried by a judge who has a strong reputation for favoring the defense. “For a jury trial, if you get him, you are happy as a defense attorney,” Michael Cicchini, a criminal defense lawyer in Kenosha, told The Washington Post. Some unorthodox rules imposed in Schroeder's courtroom, including a prohibition on the prosecution calling the three men Rittenhouse shot “victims,” have sparked outrage. But they are long standing rules in Schroeder's court, as he maintains loaded language can cloud the judgment of jurists.
“That’s been a rule in his courtroom since Day One,” Cicchini told The Washington Post. “Whether the person is a victim is the very thing the prosecution has to prove.”
So far, legal experts say the defense has already scored major wins with Schroeder. He’s already dismissed a charge for Rittenhouse's alleged failure to comply with curfew, citing insufficient evidence a curfew was in effect. And he prohibited the prosecution from entering evidence allegedly showing links between Rittenhouse and the White nationalist group the Proud Boys, as well as evidence Rittenhouse attacked a woman in June of 2020 who was fighting with his sister. Schroeder also stopped the aforementioned line of questioning about Rittenhouse posing for selfies in bars in the months leading up to the trial.
His rules have cut both ways, though. He also prohibited the defense from calling the men Rittenhouse shot "looters" or "rioters" unless they could prove the men were involved in those activities.
The right has so far claimed vindication from the trial. In The Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe said the trial should never even have happened.
"Not only is this because the prosecution clearly should not have ever brought it to trial, but also because the riots that impelled Rittenhouse to go foolishly to Kenosha never should have happened," Lowe wrote. "The police shooting of Jacob Blake was eminently justified, and the rioters who destroyed the Wisconsin city as a result were not only criminals but also completely unjustified... Kenosha shouldn't have imposed a curfew to make way for rioters to run rampant, and the state of Wisconsin shouldn't have withheld the necessary outside support for law enforcement that the city clearly needed. And finally, the men killed by Rittenhouse shouldn't have openly aimed to threaten the teenager, and the prosecutors shouldn't have overcharged Rittenhouse and taken this case to an unwinnable trial. The events unfolding on television today are just the final domino to fall after a series of reckless, and some criminal, actions of multiple people, just not the man on trial."
On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said Rittenhouse's self-defense case is looking stronger than ever.
"Every single witness the prosecution has called so far has wound up making Kyle Rittenhouse’s case for him. That would include even Gaige Grosskreutz. He's the avowed communist who Rittenhouse shot in the arm. Grosskreutz was supposed to be the prosecution's star witness in this trial. But once he got on the stand, he admitted that Kyle Rittenhouse only shot him after he pointed a loaded gun in the boy's face," Carslon said on his show. "So that's kind of it right there, that's pretty much the end of the trial, because when someone runs up and points a loaded gun in your face, you are allowed to shoot that person that is called self-defense. That's the rule. It has been the rule throughout human history, in every society on Earth since people lived in caves."
In National Review, Andrew McCarthy said Rittenhouse "did not belong on Kenosha’s violent streets on the night of August 25."
"He was voluntarily helping to guard a business, he was equipped to provide first aid to people injured in the unrest, and he wanted to be helpful to the beleaguered police. All noble motives . . . but it was a bad scene, and he was a 17-year-old kid. It was deadly dangerous, and the decision to go was foolish," McCarthy said. "Exercising poor judgment is not a crime. Neither, for that matter, is being a young white police supporter whose presence at an anti-police riot is irksome to young white radicals. Being armed with a rifle at the scene could be a crime, but it probably isn’t in Rittenhouse’s case."Naturally, the overzealous prosecutors have charged Rittenhouse with misdemeanor gun possession," McCarthy added.
"Openly carrying a rifle, as he was doing, is generally legal in Wisconsin — where a friend, who was also armed and seeking to protect property, gave Rittenhouse the gun to protect himself that night. The prosecutors counter that, having not yet attained the age of 18 at the time, Rittenhouse’s possession was unlawful — a misdemeanor. But the controlling statute, a densely worded muddle that prohibits most gun possession by minors, appears to exempt long guns. The law is so vague, in any event, that a conviction based on it is apt to be constitutionally unstable."
The left has maintained that Rittenhouse is guilty, that he should have never been at the riots in the first place, but they are also bracing for him to be let off.
In The Washington Post, Paul Waldman said what is about to happen will be "sickening."
"From the moment Rittenhouse killed Rosenbaum and Huber, he has been embraced by the right as a hero," Waldman wrote. "Conservatives quickly raised much of the $2 million for his bail. After he was released, Rittenhouse went to a bar wearing a T-shirt that said 'Free as F---,' where he posed for pictures flashing a white power sign and was 'serenaded' with the anthem of the Proud Boys, the violent radical right-wing group. On Fox News and other conservative media, one personality after another rushed to his defense...
"So try to imagine what will happen if Rittenhouse is acquitted," Waldman said. "Trump will issue a statement somehow taking credit for it. Fox News will fly Rittenhouse to New York for triumphant interviews. Social media will erupt with joy, as millions of conservatives cry 'Suck it, libs!' He’ll appear on T-shirts and bumper stickers; maybe he’ll speak at the next Conservative Political Action Conference. And don’t be surprised if Trumpist candidates start seeking Rittenhouse’s endorsement and asking him to appear on the campaign trail with them. There will be some Republicans who will respond to questions about Rittenhouse by saying the whole thing was an unfortunate episode and we should just put it behind us. But they will be drowned out."
Elie Mystal said he hopes "everyone is prepared for Kyle Rittenhouse to go free," citing the bias of Judge Schroeder.
"He let Rittenhouse out on $2 million bail (which is not cheap but something Rittenhouse was able to crowd fund because enough white supremacists rallied to his cause), refused to make Rittenhouse turn over his address to prosecutors, then did nothing when Rittenhouse repeatedly violated the terms of his release. He also ruled that he will allow Rittenhouse’s defense team to introduce evidence of police telling him and other armed whites 'we appreciate you,' and, while I have no doubt that some racist cops in Wisconsin were totally happy to have another gun-toting white boy on their side, police permissiveness ordinarily has no bearing on a claim of self-defense.
"At the same time, Schroeder announced that he will not allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of Rittenhouse’s prior disposition to shoot people to death," Mystal wrote. "There is video of Rittenhouse watching from a car as people leave a CVS: He calls them 'looters' and says that he wishes he had a gun to shoot them. The video was taken in August 2020, about two and a half weeks before Rittenhouse shot up the streets of Kenosha. There are also photos from January 2020 of Rittenhouse posing with members of the Proud Boys. Both the video and the photos will be excluded, but the police patting Rittenhouse on the head like a good little white supremacist will be included. And these are just the biased decisions Schroeder has made before the trial starts."
In MSNBC, Issac Bailey argued that Rittenhouse has already won.
"If Rittenhouse is convicted, he will likely stop being a right-wing mascot and become a right-wing martyr. If he isn’t convicted, he will set a precedent for others like him to pick up guns they shouldn’t have and thrust themselves into the middle of unrest they should avoid — confident in knowing that prison won’t be in their future," Bailey wrote. "If he is freed, the status quo of America’s flawed criminal justice system, in which white offenders are less likely to be convicted, can remain just a little bit longer, the inevitable merely delayed, if not denied. If he’s imprisoned, those sympathetic to his plight have even more reason to use him as an example of how their way of life could be threatened if they don’t fight, and hard. His supporters have basically guaranteed those outcomes."
There are two threads here to discuss and they deserve to be separated in order to achieve any semblance of clarity.
The first thread is Kyle Rittenhouse, the person. I'll admit from the top it is hard for me to empathize with him. The story Rittenhouse is telling himself — the one he has told on the stand and since the shooting — certainly contains elements of a noble cause. He wanted to protect businesses from burning; he wanted to help care for the injured during the protests; he felt a sense of duty to protect his community from violent rioters. It's hard to tell what's truly in a person's heart, but if you take this story at face value it's easy to describe Rittenhouse's motives as well-intentioned.
It's also easy to ascribe them to an arrogant, perhaps radicalized teenager who was completely and totally out of his depth. As I watched Rittenhouse on the stand yesterday, I didn't see an imposing white nationalist who wanted to kill protesters calling for police reform. And I didn't see a noble hero with a future in law enforcement trying to protect his community. I saw an ignorant young man, so brainwashed by the idea that he had a right to police the streets of a community where he didn't live, that he at times seemed legitimately perplexed by the questions being asked of him on the stand.
To say Rittenhouse used "exceedingly bad judgment" might be the understatement of the year. I remember being 17. I remember being young and dumb and excitable and arrogant. But I can't think of doing anything as unbelievably stupid as what Rittenhouse did: asking a friend to buy me a rifle, crossing state lines to obtain that rifle, patrolling streets during a riot and presenting myself to journalists and community members as a medic or a community protector, despite being neither of those things.
Rittenhouse is not innocent. And he is surely no hero. He's a punk kid who should not have had access to a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 and certainly should never have been allowed to carry one into a situation as volatile as the Kenosha riots. His photos with the Proud Boys, his fetishization of police on social media and his "Free as F—" t-shirt and celebrity photoshoots inside Wisconsin bars do not tell the tale of a humble, young crime fighting Robin Hood. They tell the story of someone who spent the months after killing two people embracing a right-wing narrative that he was a hero, and basking in it. Whether the judge in this case wants to allow that as evidence is irrelevant to whether it can inform my own opinion of Rittenhouse. And it does not tell a flattering story.
That anyone pretends otherwise is a bizarre hill to die on, and I can't even begin to contemplate viewing Rittenhouse as a heroic innocent. That any of this needs to be said — that I have to even write something like, "No, 17 year olds shouldn't be allowed to patrol civil unrest with loaded guns," is actually an astonishing thing if you stop to think about it for even a moment.
It's also true, as many commentators have noted, that it's hard to avoid the racial element in this case. The riots, of course, were the culmination of a summer of protests against police brutality towards people of color and specifically the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. I also find it impossible to deny that our country, and, indeed, our justice system, still views a white 17-year-old from suburban Illinois who adores police, wants to be a cadet and carries a rifle into a volatile situation like Kenosha much more favorably than they would, say, a Black teenager from Chicago carrying around a loaded AR-15. Denying this assertion is futile.
The second thread, though, is a precise legal question. This thread, I think, exists in a vacuum, outside of however absurd it is that I think Rittenhouse thrust himself into this civil unrest in the first place. And it's on this precise legal question that my opinion has changed over time. That question is, primarily, whether Rittenhouse was justified in using his weapon, and if he is protected by Wisconsin's self-defense laws in this case.
The first time Rittenhouse shot his weapon is perhaps the hardest instance to justify. Rosenbaum was "armed" with a plastic bag full of personal items while Rittenhouse was armed with a rifle. Rosenbaum did charge him, though, and did attempt to grab his weapon. So he also clearly displayed a violent intent, and it's quite possible that if Rittenhouse had not fired his weapon, that Rosenbaum could have overtaken him and used his own weapon against him (which, again, is a good reason not to insert yourself into a riot armed with a rifle when you're 17 and untrained). It's also possible that Rosenbaum would have simply disarmed him or used non-lethal force to harm him, which would have been a much better outcome by any objective standard. But pretending that outcome was likely, given who Rosenbaum was and the state of mind he was in, also requires some element of disjointed thinking.
The second and third shootings, though, appear less ambiguous to me. The video footage, testimony, and news reports paint a pretty clear picture: Rittenhouse was on the ground being attacked by a number of people. Those people might have believed they were detaining a murderer, but they clearly displayed some violent intent toward Rittenhouse in the process. Huber was carrying a skateboard and he attempted to smash his skateboard over Rittenhouse's head, then reached for his rifle. The other person pointed a loaded pistol at Rittenhouse as he moved toward him. In each case Rittenhouse is going to have a strong self-defense claim under Wisconsin law, and he is probably going to get off on those charges. By the letter of the law, he probably should.
Of course, this all leaves the other charges and the more obvious pursuit of justice generally. Should Rittenhouse be a free man when this case ends? I can't bring myself to believe he should. The outlines of what he did are so reckless, so dangerously stupid, and so obviously resulted in the deaths of two people and serious injury to a third, that I believe he must face some kind of serious punishment. We can't, in my mind, live in a country where what Rittenhouse did — a teenager who illegally obtained a rifle, drove into the heart of a riot, then patrolled the streets as an untrained, armed wannabe cop, and fired his weapon eight times, killing two people — is allowed to stand. We can't. That's not a civil society.
And yes: I understand that the people who view Rittenhouse as a hero, or simply an innocent, would contend it's not a civil society if you allow rioters and protesters to destroy a community and burn buildings to the ground unchecked. And I agree with you. But the responsibility to protect that community is with the police and the National Guard, who were both present, but many of whom admittedly failed to do their jobs; it is not with out-of-state teenagers who attended a few months of police cadet school for troubled youths. At the absolute most charitable, once the police and National Guard failed, the responsibility or right to defend themselves lay with actual Kenosha residents, adults, who were legally armed and protecting their own property and businesses. We must all be able to agree on that.
I know this opinion is unlikely to make anyone happy, and that's fine. But it's how I honestly feel. Rittenhouse seems likely to escape the homicide charges, and I don’t think a life sentence here would be a just outcome. But he needs to face some punishment — whether it's for recklessly endangering public safety or coming into possession of a firearm illegally. Allowing him to go uncharged will only encourage others like him to take up arms in the streets whenever they feel entitled, and leave the rest of us — even Rittenhouse's supporters — in an increasingly volatile, unsafe and lawless society.
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Editor's note: A previous version of this edition stated that Rittenhouse took a rifle across state lines. In fact, Rittenhouse crossed state lines to pick up the rifle, which was already in Wisconsin.