Teen charged with murder in attack on Kenosha protesters

Caitlin Dickson and Christopher Wilson
·Staff

Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident, was arrested Wednesday and charged with first-degree murder following a night of violent clashes in Kenosha, Wis., protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police. Police said Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two and injuring one.

The victims have not been named by police but are believed to have been among the protesters.

In cellphone footage of the incident, a man holding a rifle could be heard saying, “I just killed somebody.”

The incident has increased concerns about the presence of armed vigilantes as self-appointed peacekeepers during antiracism protests, and raised questions about whether police are looking the other way or even tacitly encouraging the practice.

Protests erupted in Kenosha on Sunday after police shot Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, as he was opening the door of his parked car. Although shot seven times in the back at close range, Blake survived. He is hospitalized in stable condition but reportedly has been paralyzed below the waist. The circumstances around Blake’s shooting remained unclear on Wednesday, three days after it occurred. Two officers have been placed on administrative leave while the incident is investigated by Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley and the Wisconsin Justice Department’s division of criminal investigation.

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice identified the officer who shot Blake as Rusten Sheskey.

A man on the ground was shot in the chest as clashes between protesters and armed civilians who protect the streets of Kenosha against the arson during the third day of protests over the shooting of a black man Jacob Blake by police officer in Wisconsin, United States on August 25, 2020. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A man on the ground was shot in the chest as clashes between protesters and armed civilians continued in Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Blake’s family still doesn’t know why he was shot, according to civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. He said the police department, which hasn’t commented publicly on the incident beyond a brief statement on Sunday, has not provided information to the family.

On Tuesday, Blake’s mother, Julia Jackson, called for the “violence and destruction” to stop, saying it “doesn’t reflect my son or my family.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has deployed the Wisconsin National Guard to Kenosha, where a 7 p.m. curfew has been in effect for the last two nights.

An unofficial group calling itself the “Kenosha Guard” asked members and followers on Facebook to come downtown and be prepared to defend the city after buildings were burned on Monday night.

“Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out [sic] City tonight from the evil thugs?” read one post on Tuesday that preceded the shooting. “Nondoubt [sic] they are currently planning on the next part of the City to burn tonight!”

Following the shooting, the Kenosha Guard attempted to distance themselves from the killings.

“We are unaware if the armed citizen was answering the Kenosha Guard Militia’s call to arms,” read a statement posted to the group’s Facebook page on Wednesday morning. “Just like with the shooting of Jacob Blake, we need all the facts and evidence to come out before we make a judgement. God Bless and stay safe Kenosha!”

The page was no longer viewable by Wednesday afternoon, but the group reportedly had 3,000 followers. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said following the shooting that “I’ve had people saying, ‘Why don’t you deputize citizens?’ This is why you don’t deputize citizens with guns to protect Kenosha.” At a news conference on Wednesday, Beth said deputizing citizens would have put them under his authority, and there would have been enormous “liability” if one of them had shot a protester.

Armed civilians stand in the streets of Kenosha to protect the area against the arson during third day of protests over the shooting of a black man Jacob Blake by police officer in Wisconsin, United States on August 25, 2020. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Armed civilians in the streets of Kenosha on Tuesday. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“I don’t need more guns on the street, in the community, when we’re trying to keep people safe,” said Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian of the militia’s presence.

Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis appeared to suggest that the victims were in part to blame for being out on the street, as “everybody involved” in the Tuesday night shooting “was out after the curfew. ... Had persons not been out in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened.” Miskinis added that Rittenhouse “was involved in the use of firearms to resolve whatever conflict was in place.”

None of the officials at the news conference said they knew anything about what Rittenhouse was doing in Kenosha, 20 miles from Antioch, Ill., where he lived and was arrested. Before it was deactivated Wednesday, a Facebook page apparently belonging to Rittenhouse displayed images of the teenager toting an assault rifle alongside several logos and images referencing Blue Lives Matter, a pro-police movement.

“Across this nation, there have been armed civilians who have come out to exercise their constitutional right and to potentially protect property,” Miskinis said. “Am I aware the groups exist? Yes, but they weren’t invited to come.”

A person believed to have been the shooter was captured in a number of videos Tuesday night, wearing a green shirt and carrying an assault rifle. He was seen talking with police, who gave him a bottle of water and thanked him for being there. Another video shows police ignoring the same man as he walks away from the shooting and toward a police car with his hands in the air and a rifle slung over his shoulder. Bystanders shout, apparently trying to direct police attention to the man.

When asked about the video Wednesday, Beth said the officers on the scene were caught up in a chaotic situation and presumably didn’t realize the suspect was attempting to turn himself in.

In the protests that followed the death of George Floyd in late May, armed vigilantes and right-wing militants have shown up to patrol streets and guard businesses. There are allegations that they have received lenient and even friendly treatment from local law enforcement, in contrast to the rough treatment sometimes handed out to protesters.

Demonstrators sit in the street, in front of law enforcement, on August 25, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Demonstrators sit in the street in front of law enforcement in Kenosha on Tuesday. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Residents of Omaha, Neb., believed this was the case when local officials initially declined to file charges against Jake Gardner, a white bar owner and former Marine with an alleged history of racism, after Gardner fatally shot 22-year-old James Scurlock, an unarmed Black protester, during a night of demonstrations over Floyd’s death on May 30. Hours before the shooting, Gardner, who did not have a valid concealed-carry permit, posted on Facebook about having to “pull 48 hours of military style firewatch” outside his bar.

In June, an armed counterprotester shot a demonstrator who was attempting to remove a statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque, N.M. Video showed Steven Ray Baca harassing the demonstrators and pushing one woman to the ground. As the situation escalated, a crowd of protesters followed Baca, who allegedly fired into the group and injured one man. Members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed militia group that had been a consistent presence at antiracism protests, protected Baca prior to his arrest. Both the group and Baca have claimed he was not a member.

Baca’s lawyer claimed that Baca’s actions were a “completely lawful exercise of self-defense.” Charges were first dropped, then reinstated by District Attorney Raúl Torrez.

When he announced the refiling of charges against Baca, Torrez also announced the filing of a civil suit asking a judge to prohibit the New Mexico Civil Guard from “organizing and operating in public as a military unit independent of New Mexico’s civil authority” and from “assuming law enforcement functions by using or projecting the ability to use organized force in response to perceived threats at protests, demonstrations, or public gatherings.”

“I strongly believe that [the New Mexico Civil Guard’s] presence at the protest and their declared intention to be present at future protests, rather than safeguarding the community, rather than safeguarding property, actually makes the situation far worse,” Torrez said at a July news conference. “So it is based on those conclusions that I’ve authorized the filing of a complaint today to seek to prevent them from engaging in that conduct in the future.”

Police in Albuquerque had already faced scrutiny for their contacts with the armed militia groups. A week before the shooting, a video caught officers talking to MMA fighter Jon Jones and a group of men, some armed, outside an academy where he trains.

“I’m sure you guys can deescalate just by talking to them,” an officer told Jones. “But, obviously with us in uniform, they treat us a little bit different. So, I mean, if you guys can talk to them on that level.”

In this file photo provided by the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office is Steven Ray Baca. New Mexico prosecutors on Monday, July 13, 2020, amended the complaint against a man who they say opened fire after a fight broke out as protesters tried to tear down a statue of a Spanish conquistador, charging him with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon after one protester was shot and injured. (Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Steven Ray Baca, who allegedly fired into a group of protesters attempting to tear down the statue of a Spanish conquistador in Albuquerque, N.M., in June. (Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office via AP)

The Albuquerque Police Department said this was not its policy. “It has come to our attention that a couple of our officers met with a group as they prepared to attend Monday’s protest. This was not a Department-sanctioned contact, and we are investigating the incident,” wrote the department on Twitter. Gilbert Gallegos, spokesperson for the APD, said the incident was being investigated but the officer had not been disciplined.

“We want to discourage groups from attempting to engage in a public safety role during protests and large gatherings. They are not trained, and they are more likely to escalate tensions if they are carrying firearms and dressed like military or law enforcement officers,” Gallegos said in a statement to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

In Philadelphia, some residents said police were letting roving groups of mostly white men armed with bats and clubs get away with violence toward protesters. One man was arrested after video showed him assaulting a journalist.

“The video of men marching through the streets of Fishtown armed with bats, a hatchet and other weapons is disgusting,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner in a statement. “Reports and images of their innocent neighbors being beaten, threatened and addressed with hateful speech by them are devastating. And, if confirmed, reports that some police officers witnessed and tolerated this conduct without arresting them only add to the hurt arising from George Floyd’s killing by police. I know [Police] commissioner [Danielle] Outlaw doesn’t want and will not tolerate passive support for vigilante violence and hatred from any Philadelphia Police Officer.”

“We do not condone vigilantism,” Mayor Jim Kenney said. “We understand that communities desire to protect their neighborhood, and if they want to do that in peace, we would allow it, regardless of neighborhood. But armed vigilantism will not be tolerated moving forward. I am glad police moved in to eventually disperse the group, but I am not happy about how long it took.”

Michael German, former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled 'Whistleblower Retaliation at the FBI: Improving Protections and Oversight' on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 4, 2015. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Former FBI special agent Michael German. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Michael German, a former FBI special agent and fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, said he’s observed a “concerning trend” of “far-right militants coming to these protests with intent of instigating greater violence.”

German, who specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations during his 16 years at the FBI, told Yahoo News he’s been particularly “shocked” by the positive reaction these groups have received from police, given the “long history of far-right violence against law enforcement.”

In fact, German said right-wing militants “certainly present a far more significant threat of deadly violence [to police] than the protest groups that are being met with a significant amount of police force.” During a hearing held last month by the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence & Counterterrorism, extremism experts similarly emphasized the threat that right-wing extremists pose for police in particular.

And yet, German said, “we see law enforcement donning patches of these groups and otherwise treating them as supporters of law enforcement.”

While German noted that it’s unclear whether the suspected shooter in Kenosha was affiliated with any specific militia group, he pointed out, “These groups have zero barrier to entry. If you want to put on military-style clothing as if you’re a soldier in a foreign war and walk into protest, you’re part of the far-right militia.”

Mark and Patricia McCloskey speak during the Republican National Convention seen on a laptop computer in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Mark and Patricia McCloskey speak during the Republican National Convention on Monday. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ultimately, he said, “whether this person was part of a far-right militant group or not, certainly this person was acting as a vigilante, walking around a protest with a long gun.”

Beyond the actions of local law enforcement, German argued that the repeated statements made by President Trump and Attorney General William Barr, among others, deriding anti-police protesters as “antifa” radicals and violent anarchists, serve as further encouragement for would-be violent actors.

“They don’t need to be part of an organized group, they’re hearing this from the head of our government, identifying the enemy to them,” he said. “Once that governmental stamp of approval is placed, it will encourage vigilantes to come out and commit violence.”

On Monday, the St. Louis couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their home spoke at the Republican National Convention. Mark and Patricia McCloskey were charged with unlawful use of a weapon, a class E felony, for pointing a long gun and pistol at protesters.

“Democrats no longer view the government’s job as protecting honest citizens from criminals but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens,” Mark McCloskey said in a pretaped video. “Not a single person in the out-of-control mob you saw at our house was charged with a crime. But you know who was? We were. They’ve actually charged us with a felony for daring to defend our home.”

Trump commented on the violence, tweeting, “We will NOT stand for looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness on American streets. My team just got off the phone with Governor Evers who agreed to accept federal assistance (Portland should do the same!) TODAY, I will be sending federal law enforcement and the National Guard to Kenosha, WI to restore LAW and ORDER!”

Crystal Hill contributed to the reporting of this story.

_____

Read more from Yahoo News: