‘No one knows what to expect’: Kenosha wary as Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial looms

·6 min read

KENOSHA, Wis. — If you want to know how this city feels about the impending Kyle Rittenhouse trial, a conversation with Scott and Dee Seip is a good place to start.

One mile northwest of their house is the still-vacant commercial strip that burned during protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. One mile northeast is the street where Rittenhouse, a teenager from Antioch, Illinois, who said he came to Kenosha to provide security during the unrest, shot two men to death and wounded a third.

With Rittenhouse’s murder trial set to begin Nov. 1, the international spotlight promises to focus once more on this mid-size, postindustrial city on the shore of Lake Michigan. Numerous opinions and concerns about the case could be heard around town last week, many of which were reflected by the Seips.

Scott Seip, 76, is a Democrat. He thinks Rittenhouse was in the wrong and needs to be held accountable for his actions. His wife Dee Seip, 63, is a Republican. She thinks Rittenhouse was defending himself and a local business and deserves to be acquitted.

But there is one thing they agree on: Trouble might flare once more after the verdict.

“I think if he’s found not guilty, we’re going to have another riot,” Dee Seip said.

That is a common but not unanimous view around town. Some are more concerned about possible threats from self-styled militias who view Rittenhouse as a hero. Others are confident that local law enforcement, having learned from the destruction of 2020, will be better prepared to tamp down violence this time.

“I don’t have a feeling that anything will get too out of hand,” said Donovan Scherer, 39, owner of the Studio Moonfall bookstore near downtown. “I think the heat of the moment is over. People are more worried about just staying afloat.”

Rittenhouse has opted for a jury trial, and the pool will be drawn from all of Kenosha County. Though the city, which accounts for more than half of the county’s 170,000 residents, tilts Democratic, the rest of the county is considerably more Republican, with Donald Trump winning numerous areas last year by a 2-1 margin.

But county leaders of both parties said despite the politics surrounding the trial at a national level, where Rittenhouse has been alternately portrayed as a Second Amendment champion or a symbol of white supremacy, the case has yet to become much of a political issue locally.

Heather Novotny, 42, who did volunteer work for Democratic candidates in Kenosha County during last year’s election, said the upcoming trial feels less intense than it otherwise might without a divisive presidential campaign radiating in the background.

“I had a feeling of being a pawn in a bigger game someone else was playing (last year),” she said. “It felt like the situation in Kenosha was being used for political theater.”

Others, though, remain wary of how the trial might play out. Ironworker Chris Wade, 52, who was putting up an elaborate Halloween display in his front yard, said he’s on edge after seeing six friends lose their businesses to arson during last year’s riots.

“It’s a black cloud because no one knows what to expect,” he said. " … We weren’t (ready for the unrest) last time. I wasn’t very happy with my mayor or my governor. The National Guard should have been here Day One.”

Kenosha police spokesman Sgt. Leo Viola said local law enforcement is ready to deal with “any kind of contingencies that might arise” during or after the trial, and that there are no plans to bring in the guard.

“They’re aware that the trial is happening and there’s a potential they could be called, but they aren’t going to be in town or set up in any way for the trial,” he said.

His counterpart at the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department, Sgt. David Wright, said there have been no signs that outside groups are planning to make trouble. Though a few armed supporters of Rittenhouse gathered outside the courthouse during early hearings, he said, they have not been seen in recent months.

David Goldenberg, Midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, likewise has seen no indication that extremists plan to show up. But he added that could change quickly.

“A lot of these groups don’t plan very far in advance,” he said.

Erica Ness of Leaders of Kenosha, which organized demonstrations against police violence after Blake’s shooting, said her group’s marches and community events over the past year have been shadowed by armed men she took to be Rittenhouse supporters.

The group has its own security, she said, and so far no confrontations have taken place. But she said police haven’t been much help, and she worries that if Rittenhouse beats the case, more gun-toting outsiders will feel emboldened to insert themselves into Kenosha’s affairs.

“It’s very demoralizing and it makes me (think) our safety is not the No. 1 priority,” she said. “I don’t know what our local government is doing to prevent this threat. I’m very frightened he won’t get (convicted) and people will think it’s OK to come into a community and shoot people if they perceive property damage.”

Almir Ismani, 26, participated in some demonstrations following Blake’s shooting but stayed home the night Rittenhouse came to town. He said it’s clear the Illinois teen broke the law and deserves the maximum sentence.

If Rittenhouse is acquitted, Ismani anticipates angry protests from people who feel the judicial system let them down again, followed by an overly aggressive response from police. Then again, he added, trouble might also follow a conviction.

“I think it’s really hard to gauge what the reaction will be, but it’s almost a guarantee that something will happen on one end or the other based on how strongly and passionately people feel,” he said.

Some Kenoshans who spoke with the Tribune said they haven’t followed the twists of the legal case, or as a 36-year-old group home worker named Tawana put it, have opted to “stay out of the way.”

Tawana, who preferred not to give her last name, is a Black woman from Chicago who moved to Kenosha several years ago, and despite the focus on social justice following the Blake shooting and subsequent unrest, she said she has seen little positive change.

“I’m actually thinking about moving,” she said. “We get stereotyped a lot. That has not improved at all.”

Another transplant from Chicago, 35-year-old Janice Mosley, said while her family has also faced anti-Black prejudice, she still views Kenosha as a good place to raise her two young children. Sitting at a sidewalk cafe north of downtown, she said last year’s unrest “was scary for everyone” and expressed hope that a thoughtful trial and calm aftermath will finally allow the spotlight to dwindle.

“Let them do their job and let’s be done with it,” she said.

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