The Other Columbus: The Rittenhouse verdict will be a lose/lose proposition

This case isn’t even the only so-called vigilante trial happening now, which is to say America is as close to hitting the rewind button to 1960 as ever

Scott Woods
The prosecution prepares to give closing arguments in Kyle Rittenhouse's trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 15, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse is accused of shooting three demonstrators, killing two of them, during a night of unrest that erupted in Kenosha after a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while being arrested in August 2020. Rittenhouse, from Antioch, Illinois, was 17 at the time of the shooting and armed with an assault rifle. He faces counts of felony homicide and felony attempted homicide.

By the time you read this, Rittenhouse’s jury may have come to a decision, so know going in that this comes to you at the end of business on Tuesday. Depending on how things go, we can chalk this exchange up to pessimism or prescience. I’m not staying up until midnight to find out, gnashing my teeth in the darkness and then writing whatever comes after. Better to get it out now, while there is still hope in the air, or something that smells like it.

I am not ashamed to admit that I am a member of the camp that believes that Kyle Rittenhouse will get off, but I haven’t been eager to advertise it. How he will likely come to be acquitted is convoluted (self-defense is a truly fine hair to split in this case), and I have no stomach for armchair lawyers, amateur sociologists or trolls on this one.

The Rittenhouse trial was one of those flashpoints I was willing to sleepwalk through, telling people to just wake me when it’s over. Either he’s found guilty of one or more charges — which from where I sit should have been a slam dunk — or he isn’t and I need to renew my passport. As the judge’s odd (and actionable if not wholly illegal) behavior in the court was sent to me in drips, I shook my head and dived into the proceedings, every day bringing a new jaw-dropping development. Every day, I inched closer to the determination that an acquittal was not just a defensive play, but a distinct possibility. And as the defense made a case for self-defense that became less and less porous, I resigned myself to a likely acquittal. 

What such a verdict represents to me is more than the death of hope for justice. It represents the licensing of indiscriminate murder, a Pandora’s box of regressive opportunities on the part of white supremacists looking for any excuse to spark a race war that only exists in their imaginations. If a teenager amped on the inflections and privileges of white supremacy can get away with killing people, it will feel very much like open season on Black people. I’m used to that feeling — I’ve felt it my entire adult life — but there will be a marked ratcheting up in intensity. 

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I have schooled my body to be on alert for the police. I am used to them getting away with the taking of life for no reason; they’re cops. That’s practically a condition of citizenship in America at this point. What I’ve discovered is that I’m less prepared for the well-armed, random, self-deluded white person who doesn’t realize how good they’ve got it. I’m used to encountering them on my job or at a restaurant or in a service situation, but they’re not usually armed.

To be clear, anybody with a gun on them puts me on edge. That is an appropriate and natural response, as far as I’m concerned. And while a lot of people who brandish them in public treat them as political accessories, it’s not a cardboard sign. A gun is a gun. 

But a white person with a gun puts me in a defense-mode loop: Watch their hands. Watch their eyes. Watch their gun. Repeat. I don’t care where we are. I don’t care which of us entered the room first. I don’t care what their job is. They could be Employee of the Month in Vance Outdoors’ gun department greeting me at the door for a Black History Month sale and that loop would still kick in. Do I even need to explain the family tree of that feeling? Where its roots come from? Must I bother with telling you about how easily public displays of protection by white people turn into public displays of aggression? Need I remind anyone that it was so not-long-ago that people I know experienced such transformations first-hand? No? Well then, suffice it to say that my feelings are earned and do not melt in the sun.

Rittenhouse’s case isn’t even the only white so-called vigilante trial happening right now, which is to say America is as close to hitting the rewind button to 1960 as it has ever been, when white people with guns — badge or no badge — could kill Black people with impunity. We thought we had at least fought back the tide to just the police getting away with such egregious breaches of social contract, but the courts seem to have something else in mind.  So much for the great racial reckoning of 2020.

Black hope in a case like this is a lot like voting: We’re not sold on any of the candidates — don't believe their rhetoric, don't believe their smiles, don’t believe their outcomes forecast change so much as forestall deeper damage — but we show up at the polls anyway.

The paper-thin observation that if Rittenhouse had been a Black person with a gun in a similar situation he would have been convicted is so beneath this moment that, while true, its presence infuriates me. That’s not even a thing worth mentioning because everybody knows it’s true. The protesters knew it was true. The police know it is true. The prosecution and the defense teams know it’s true. Even Rittenhouse knows it’s true. I guess people who point this out feel like they have to say something to make plain where they stand on the matter. I promise they do not. No one is taking responses for that survey at this point. All of the players understand that there are multiple justice systems at play at all times. All they’re doing is making their way into this paragraph, like a string of meat I have to dislodge out of my teeth.

And look at all of this baggage I have packed, even while the destination remains unclear. Look at the weight America makes me carry, just when I thought things couldn’t be more clear. It wasn’t even my thought to begin with: Everybody saw the Rittenhouse moment for what it was. 

And sure, the verdict could still go the way that it should. But that is not the glass from which I have been drinking. Despite what people possessing the privilege of walking away from such history lessons believe, not drinking something doesn’t change its flavor. It is a Kool-Aid that will be waiting for you when you get so thirsty for truth that you chug it anyway, trying to quench the thing I told you would come, if not now, then the next time; a verdict now or a new case later. And that truth will still taste the same, though the time you took to accept that reality will have done something foul to it. 

The flavor of this particular drink is that no matter how the jury decides, nothing will feel different.