Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who has gained hero status in parts of the conservative movement after he was acquitted in fatal shootings in Wisconsin last year, told a crowd of thousands in Phoenix on Monday that he was a scapegoat for a government effort to disarm the public.
"I think my trial was an example of them trying to come after our Second Amendment rights, our right to defend ourselves and trying to take our weapons," Rittenhouse, now 18, told a crowd of roughly 6,700 people at the Phoenix Convention Center.
A jury found Rittenhouse not guilty of all counts against him in November following a widely-watched trial that exemplified the country's political polarization and raised questions about justice, equity and self-defense.
Rittenhouse has made appearances on conservative media since then, and spoke Monday during a four-day gathering of conservatives put on by Turning Point USA, a student-focused movement that supports a free market and limited government.
The nonprofit's political affiliate has worked to turn out support for President Donald Trump, and its founder, Charlie Kirk, has promoted false theories the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. The organizations are pro-Second Amendment rights.
While Rittenhouse is feted by conservatives, the verdict also is viewed as a validation of vigilantism and prompted concern about an increase in violence at protests.
Kirk: 'You're a hero to millions'
The mood for Rittenhouse was celebratory. A crowd gathered in the hall hoping to snag a picture of him. Inside a cavernous convention hall, the audience chanted "Kyle, Kyle, Kyle" waiting for the teenager to come on stage — and then gave him a standing ovation.
Rittenhouse, who sobbed when he testified during his own defense at the trial, smiled and joked on stage with Kirk and other panelists. The 45-minute discussion included one brief reference to one of the men killed in Kenosha over a year ago.
While Rittenhouse has appeared on conservative media and visited with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, the appearance in Phoenix marks the first semi-public event for Rittenhouse, who just weeks ago told Fox News' Tucker Carlson that he wanted to "lay low" and that the polarization around his case was "sickening."
"You're a hero to millions, it's an honor to be able to have you," Kirk told Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was not compensated for his appearance, according to Turning Point USA spokesman Andrew Kolvet.
Rittenhouse has another tie to Arizona: He sparked controversy at Arizona State University, where he was briefly enrolled as a non-degree-seeking online student, and has expressed interest in attending school on the Tempe campus.
That did not come up Monday, and a spokeswoman for Rittenhouse did not respond to a question about whether Rittenhouse would visit the campus while in Arizona.
Different viewpoints on shooting
Rittenhouse was 17 years old when he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 28, during protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake Jr. in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020.
The police shooting, which left Blake partially paralyzed, rekindled racial justice protests that had embroiled some of America's largest cities during the summer of 2020.
Prosecutors portrayed Rittenhouse as an untrained vigilante who brought an AR-15 rifle to the protests in Kenosha looking for trouble.
Rittenhouse's defense team argued he acted in self-defense as others were attacking him. Rittenhouse has said he went to defend more private property from destruction following two nights of rioting in Kenosha.
Conservative commentators and politicians have embraced Rittenhouse as a victim of mainstream media bias and a righteous example of the need for self-defense laws. Progressives said the jury's verdict was another example of white privilege and disparate treatment within the justice system.
Rittenhouse suggested he will sue media outlets, saying "accountability is coming, I'd be on the lookout," and prompting cheers from the audience. He said he took the stand "to tell the world what happened in Kenosha, the truth, unlike with the prosecution tried to do. That's why I took the stand."
Supporters in Phoenix share thoughts
Alexander Sjogren, 23, of Pennsylvania, said he supported Rittenhouse and shared a fear that Democrats in Washington, D.C., wanted to take away Second Amendment rights. Sjogren draped his shoulders in a camouflage flag that hung to the floor.
"He presented the truth very well, and we're here to support him," Sjogren said. "We're here to be there for him. We're here to pray for him. And we can't imagine what he's going through right now."
Trey Godzich, 19, of Mesa, said Rittenhouse's prosecution exemplified a malfunctioning justice system because it was a "clear cut case" of innocence. He said the justice system and media target white male gun owners in the U.S.
"They're not only going to go after Kyle, they're going to be coming after everyone," he said.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Kyle Rittenhouse cheered in Phoenix during AmericaFest appearance