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The arrest of a teenager on charges of killing two people amid clashes in this city over the police shooting of a Black man has stoked the nation's culture wars yet again and presented an incendiary challenge to President Trump's reelection campaign.
Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, a white youth who has often praised police, is charged with homicide in what officials described as a vigilante act that resulted in three protesters being shot, two fatally, late Tuesday night. After the incident, onlookers alerted police that Rittenhouse — who was underage and not allowed to openly carry a weapon — was roaming the street with a semiautomatic rifle slung around his neck.
Since his arrest Wednesday across the border in Antioch, Ill., details have emerged that Rittenhouse posted to social media in support of the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement. He spoke to reporters before the shooting about being a self-styled citizen patrol who came to Kenosha to protect businesses from vandalism.
He appears in photos at a Trump rally this year in Des Moines. A TikTok video from the account @kylerittenhouse33, first reported by BuzzFeed and later deleted, appeared to show Rittenhouse's recording from the rally. The account had the bio of "BLUE LIVES MATTER” and “Trump 2020."
Rittenhouse's alleged actions coincide with this week's Republican National Convention, where the president's campaign promise of "law and order" is a dominating theme. Speakers this week have warned about "crime, violence, mob rule" and spiraling "chaos and violence into our communities."
Those warnings were largely directed at nationwide protests that erupted after the death at police hands of George Floyd nearly three months ago in Minneapolis. Trump has portrayed liberal cities as overrun with anti-police liberals bent on violence. Rittenhouse complicates that story even as it springs out of demonstrations against another episode of alleged police brutality and racial injustice.
Jacob Blake, the 29-year-old Black man Kenosha police shot on Sunday — seven times in the back as he tried to enter an SUV where his three children sat — lay paralyzed in the hospital as the city entered a fourth night of unrest, with authorities saying Wednesday that he had a knife in his car but no gun. The incident happened when police responded to a domestic dispute.
Late Wednesday, the Trump campaign released a statement on the shooting in which Rittenhouse is charged.
"President Trump has repeatedly and consistently condemned all forms of violence and believes we must protect all Americans from chaos and lawlessness," said campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. "This individual had nothing to do with our campaign and we fully support our fantastic law enforcement for their swift action in this case.”
Officials in Kenosha, a majority-white city of 100,000, said that they were unprepared and unaccustomed to consecutive nights of up to 1,000 people protesting, some of which turned violent and left businesses burned and charred in Kenosha's Uptown business district.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers accepted the president's offer to send federal law enforcement to the city after initially rejecting it. The governor said they would reinforce the Wisconsin National Guard and local police who patrolled downtown streets. Roads have been barricaded, and the county courthouse, the main site of demonstration clashes, is surrounded by a fence.
Democrats have accused the president of instigating violence by dispatching federal forces to cities experiencing unrest, such as Portland, Ore., where city officials said they didn't want the troops' presence. One of Trump's tweets in particular this summer has been singled out. After riots in Minneapolis, he wrote that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." The phrase harks back to the ’60s, when it was used to describe police crackdowns on Black civil rights activists.
"My heart breaks for the families and loved ones of the two individuals who lost their lives and the individual who was injured last night in Kenosha,” Evers said in a statement. “We as a state are mourning this tragedy.” The governor has called the protests in Kenosha a reflection of the "pain, anguish and exhaustion of Black people in our state and country."
Kenosha's mayor, John Antaramian, said Wednesday that a 7 p.m. curfew had been extended through at least Sunday and expressed shock at the state of his city. "I'm not good at this," said the Democrat, who was mayor from 1992 to 2008 and elected again 2016. "I've been mayor for a long time. This is not what I'm used to."
Police Chief Daniel Miskinis and Sheriff David Beth said they believed armed individuals, possibly members of militia groups, were behind some of the violence. "I don't want violence regardless of which side of any issue you are on," Miskinis said.
In Uptown Kenosha, a business district near the shore of Lake Michigan that has rapidly undergone redevelopment over the years, store owners, some of them supporters of and participants in the protests, boarded up or guarded their doors Wednesday afternoon after driving in past the ashes of a Mexican restaurant, furniture store and used-car dealership that had burned down.
"I grew up here, and I usually know the people who are out protesting. These folks out there, though, I don't recognize a lot of them, and I wonder where they've come from," said Alvin Owens, a Black community organizer who recently opened up a barbershop and teen resource center off Sheridan Road, a main north-south street at the heart of much of the unrest.
"I'm in pain for Blake and his family, and there is no way you can watch the video of police shooting him and think it's OK," said Owens, 52. "As someone who was out there myself protesting — pepper-sprayed one night, tear-gassed the other, I also am concerned about police tactics. But Black Kenosha loves its city, and we don't need to destroy our own downtown."
Joseph Centeno, who two years ago moved his pet supply store, K-9 Kibble, to a now-scorched stretch of Sheridan Road, said he was "praying" for peace. "I don't want to lose focus here; the incident with Mr. Blake is tragic. I pray that he heals and the family gets better. But I think there is an opportunity for the principles of Black Lives Matter to move forward positively."
The U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into Blake's shooting. Wisconsin law enforcement agencies on Wednesday released more details in the Blake case and on the shooting in which Rittenhouse faces charges.
The people who died Tuesday, in an area near a gas station where demonstrators congregated after police dispersed them from in front of the county courthouse, were a 26-year-old from Silver Lake, Wis., and a 36-year-old from Kenosha.
Of the three officers now on leave as the Wisconsin Department of Justice investigates Blake's shooting, the department identified the one who shot him as Rusten Sheskey, who has been with the force for seven years. In a statement, the department said police were called Sunday to a home after a woman said her "boyfriend was present and not supposed to be on the premises."
Kenosha police do not wear body cameras, but the statement matches what's seen on bystander videos, which show police trying to arrest Blake before he walks to his car door, opens it and is shot in the back after Sheskey grabs him by his tank top. Blake falls onto the car horn, which goes off continuously. The state Justice Department said police tried to Taser Blake before the shooting, which "was not successful in stopping Blake."
Blake's lawyer, Benjamin Crump, has said Blake was “simply trying to do the right thing by intervening in a domestic incident" and described the officers as "irresponsible, reckless and inhumane.” Crump, who has represented the families of several other Black men shot or arrested by police, including Floyd, said Blake's sons, ages 3, 5 and 8, were in the car as police shot him.
The state Justice Department said it will release its report on the shooting to the district attorney, who will decide whether to press charges, next month.
Kaleem reported from Kenosha and Megerian from Washington.