On the surface, the jury’s Nov. 19 verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse was all too simple. The defense team proved that Rittenhouse was acting in selfdefense and shot and killed 2 people last August during protests in Kenosha.
But Rittenhouse’s reasons for being in Kenosha, then-roiled by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and the lack of accountability that’s being placed on his behavior is something criminal and racial justice activists are deeply concerned—and wholly unsurprised—about moving forward.
Rittenhouse said that he was a supporter of Black Lives Matter, but that it had nothing to do race. Rittenhouse spoke with Fox News on Nov. 22. The circumstances are, in general, related to police brutality and racial justice. Rittenhouse is white, as well as all three of the men that he shot.
However, according to some activists, the ramifications of his trial are less about Rittenhouse as an individual, and more about what he is now seen as representing—an opposition to protests and protesters that isn’t less about protecting property or supporting law enforcement, and more about a deep-seated disdain for racial equality.
Learn more We are all less safe because of the Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict
The impact of Rittenhouse’s trial will be seen in “what happens when the people who respond to injustice are confronted by those who don’t agree with the response,” Dr. Amara Enyia, a public policy expert with Movement 4 Black Lives (M4BL) tells TIME. “This verdict is more about those who disagree with people who are protesting for whatever reason. It sends a message to those people—that they can get involved in ways that are reckless.”
“The jury’s verdict upholds white supremacy, even though the victims were white. The underlying issue was about the power of Black people to push back against police violence,” argues Delores Jones-Brown, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York.
Blake, 29, a Black man, was injured and paralysed in a fight with police officers. This occurred on Aug. 23, 2019. The officers in question have not been charged with any crime. To many, the incident was yet another example of the injustices that often befalls Black civilians during encounters with the police—and resonated even more after George Floyd’s murder and the killing of Breonna Taylor.
“[Like with] many issues that people feel like are so important,” Enyia says of racial justice protesters, “the only way that they can get the attention of the powers that be is by being out in the streets engaging in their First Amendment rights.”
And it didn’t take long after news of Blake’s shooting broke for protests and unrest to spread across Kenosha. There were peaceful demonstrations by local organizers as well as violent protests. On August 24, 2020, Wisconsin National Guard sent a contingent to the area.
Rittenhouse came to this area to be a medical aid for protesters who were injured in the clashes. He also wanted to keep an eye on businesses at risk of theft or property crime. Regardless of his initial intentions, activists believe that his presence served to escalate tensions—to a fatal point. Rittenhouse killed two people and injures a third before the evening was over. Rittenhouse was accompanied by others who testified that Joseph Rosenbaum had been the first victim of a conflict. Rittenhouse stated that he killed him in self defense. He fled from the scene and engaged in physical combat with Joshua Ziminski (who was killed) and Gaige Grosskreutz (who was hurt). Both men were armed.
“I think for white protesters, this may be their first brush with the idea that if you [are] for social justice or racial justice, you are at great risk that the system is willing to harm you,” Jones-Brown says. And activists are now concerned this verdict could “give license” and send a message to others that may identify with Rittenhouse’s actions. “It actually emboldens them. It sends a message that they will not be held accountable for their behavior and decision-making,” Enyia adds.
This in turn will most likely impact Black people engaged in protest work to a much larger extent than their white peers or “allies.”
Learn more Self-Defense Took the Center Stage in the Kyle Rittenhouse Trial
“These are the same voices that vilify Black protesters fighting for racial justice and defend state-sanctioned police violence against them. Rittenhouse is one person, but his actions are intrinsically tied to a web of white supremacist rhetoric and the nation’s longstanding history of anti-Black violence,” Rashad Robinson, president of the civil rights activists group Color of Change, said in a Nov. 19 statement.
“For those of us who believe in protest and who believe in the need for protest as a tool toward the end of systemic and structural injustice, it won’t stop us,” Enyia tells TIME. “Protesting is a tool and we will continue to use it.”
Other racial justice activists speaking with TIME in response to the jury’s verdict likewise say it will not impact their advocacy. But it presents serious complications, and may well change their tactics—forcing those on the ground protesting on the defense, focused on assessing potential threats and protecting themselves as well as uplifting their cause.
Some cases may require you to have a legal gun. (An August survey from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project revealed that demonstrations involving armed individuals are “nearly six times as likely to turn violent or destructive,” when compared to those that take place without firearms.) It may also indicate that organizers are being trained in deescalation strategies. The big takeaway is that this is another reminder that activists and protesters can’t rely on the system itself to protect them.
This creates a dangerous dichotomy in which protestors against white supremacy or racial brutality will run greater risk for being silenced.