“It’s been a wake-up call”: Wisconsin activists see the Rittenhouse verdict as a turning point

“If we can change it here, we can change it everywhere.”

A scene from outside the Kenosha County Courthouse following the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.
AJ Dellinger
Originally Published: 

KENOSHA, Wis.—Shortly before the Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty verdict last week, the scene outside the Kenosha County Courthouse was quiet — but I was advised not to call it that. It’s superstition, a street medic told me, not to describe a scene as “quiet” when it could “blow up at any point in time.”

There was a brief eruption when the verdict came in. Rittenhouse, an 18-year-old from Illinois, was found not guilty on all five charges he faced, including two counts of murder brought against him for killing two men and injuring another with an AR-15-style rifle. A crowd had gathered around the building, split in its interests. One side was hoping to see a conviction, any sort of indication from the justice system that there are consequences for outsiders invading communities, wielding weapons of war, and taking the lives of others. The other had already crowned Rittenhouse a hero, insisting that his decision to open fire on several people was an act of self-defense. The latter broke out in celebration as the jury’s decision was announced.

Hours later, they were also largely the only ones who remained on the steps of the courthouse — their presence more trolling than jubilant. One person stood on a railing holding a “Free Kyle” sign, occasionally getting into yelling matches with passersby who found his presence to be somewhere between unwelcome and unnecessary.

A man holds a sign supporting Kyle Rittenhouse.

AJ Dellinger

In a Civic Center Park across the street, another man stood in the center with a sizable homemade sign made in the shape of the cross. The imagery does not appear to be a coincidence: He views Rittenhouse as a savior figure. “Kyle the Gladiator kills them all, Caesar Schroeder sorts them out,” part of the sign reads, referencing Rittenhouse and Judge Bruce Schroeder, who had his actions — insisting those Rittenhouse killed not be called “victims” but allowing them to be described as “looters,” asking the courtroom to applaud a defense witness because he was a veteran — called into question repeatedly throughout the trial. Many people who were saddened by the lack of a guilty verdict believe that the system is rigged, that certain privileged people have their rights protected more vigilantly and are given more lenience than others. This man’s sign seemed to agree with that — he just happened to believe that means the system is working.

About three blocks away, across the street from the Boys & Girls Club of Kenosha, a group of activists set up shop and dropped a pin. Many were not shocked by the outcome of the trial and saw it as the opportunity to draw attention to the systems that had failed them, hoping that the outcome, terrible as it was, could serve as a rallying point. Pop-up canopies and portable heaters were set up to counteract the winds and the cold air that winter evenings in Wisconsin often bring. A table was laid out with offerings of food, grilled on-site, and water. Small speakers and a microphone amplified the voices of activists and community members who addressed the crowd.

The event, called Reimagine Kenosha, attracted a crowd of several dozen people. For locals, it’s a familiar scene. A group called Leaders of Kenosha have been involved in organizing local action for months now. On Thursday, the group had held a similar rally that invited community members to listen to local speakers who wanted to change the politics of the city — to push out the “old boys club” that has resulted in people like Schroeder, who ran unopposed for the office in 2020, holding power. On Friday, those calls for change grew louder, galvanized by the not guilty verdict.

Speakers address the crowd at Reimagine Kenosha.

AJ Dellinger

“In a land of laws, we hold people accountable for murder,” one of the speakers, a local reverend, told the crowd. Another activist stepped up to the mic and called on the Department of Justice to get involved.

“Joe Biden, we’re coming for you,” Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake, told the crowd when he stepped to the mic. Blake wrote last year in The Guardian that the Black Lives Matter movement helped Joe Biden carry Wisconsin in the 2020 election. “Don’t forget us,” he wrote. A full year later, Biden’s first words about the Rittenhouse verdict were, “I stand by what the jury has concluded. The jury system works and we have to abide by it." Those at Reimagine Kenosha, Blake included, felt forgotten.

Despite this, most speakers still exuded a positive energy. Anger and indignation, while surely present, did not win the day. Kyle Flood, a former Kenosha school board member and outspoken political activist within the community, embodied the happy warrior persona that many seemed to carry that day. “It’s been a wake-up call,” he told me. “The national media has had their eyes on Kenosha in a way that I don’t think anybody here ever expected them to. But I think it’s a really good thing. We’ve got a lot of issues, politically, culturally, a lot of issues that we need the whole world to have its eyes on it, because that’s the only way we’re gonna change it. And if we can change it here, we can change it everywhere.”

The positivity may have come from a place of necessity. While the heart of the Reimagine Kenosha rally emanated unshaken defiance and focused on the opportunity for change, there was tension around the edges. Outside of the canopies, a man with a tactical vest stood tall and seemed to be scanning the street. At one point, a man with a rifle marched around the perimeter. Flood said he was a part of their group and was there to keep everyone safe.

“I think people get it mixed up when they think of these protests,” he told me. “A lot of us support the Second Amendment, we support the right to own a gun and to carry a gun to protect yourself. But that’s not what Kyle Rittenhouse did.”

Flood said that activists within the community have been receiving threats for quite some time. Rittenhouse supporters — many of whom are believed to have come from outside of the Kenosha community, just like Rittenhouse — have been agitating at rallies and events, too. “Whenever we’re out here, they’re armed up, they’re watching us, they’re driving by taking our pictures,” he explained.

At one point, activists on the perimeter of the event started whispering. “Shots fired,” one of them said, supposedly a couple blocks away. While they seemed to be intentionally keeping it quiet until it could be confirmed, word spread. Another group could be overheard discussing the alleged shot. When asked, they chalked it up to rumors. “There’s a lot of fake stuff going around,” one told me. The sense was that would continue as the sun started to set.

There was little in terms of unrest that resulted from the verdict. Demonstrators returned to the courthouse that night, and while there was some commotion, it remained contained. Police detained one woman for the crime of writing in chalk on the courthouse steps, which resulted in a $700 ticket.

The fact that things remained relatively calm may have been a surprise to law enforcement and media, but activists weren’t fazed. “We’re going to be good,” Flood told me. “I was more worried if Rittenhouse was convicted. I was worried about what they might do.”

The sentiment was largely the same in other parts of Wisconsin. In Madison, the state’s capital, nonprofit organization Freedom, Inc. responded to the trial’s conclusion by hosting a community-building event Friday that gave people of color the opportunity to speak about how the verdict made them feel and what they want to see done about it. “[We’re] moving power away from that system and into our hands because we know what keeps us safe, and we know what we need to live our joyful Black lives,” event organizer Crystal Ellis told the local press.

On Sunday, rallies around the state saw more turnout and more organization. In Kenosha, a group marched the same route that Rittenhouse took on the night that he killed two people. In Madison, there was a rally to gather volunteers willing to canvas communities and push for judicial reform. Just hours away in Chicago, hundreds demonstrated in protest of the not guilty verdict. Other communities across the country rallied, as well.

The Rittenhouse trial is over. For seemingly the first time since Rittenhouse came to Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, the city is starting to feel free from outsiders. The press has largely packed up and gone. Far-right militia groups got the result they wanted and will move on to defending the next wrongdoer/“vigilante” somewhere else. For those who remain — the citizens of Kenosha, the activists leading efforts to rethink the community and uproot the systems that produced the result — the real work is just starting.