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American Despair

Whether Orson Welles ascended to the firmament where he is presently residing with The Deity and Angels...Or, much more to his liking, he's on an astral sphere where he will forever have a '59 Chateau Margaux on the house, he is right now cursing his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin...

- Angelina Orduno

Any resemblance to Kyle Rittenhouse is purely physical, if not coincidental.

About 15 years ago, a criminal justice professor at George Washington University wrote a paper on rap music that overturned stereotypes many Americans held about the disruptive form of music, particularly white Americans. Charis Kubrin, a white girl from a modest background who had grown up in L.A. listening to rap in her public high school, analyzed the lyrics of 403 rap songs written from 1992 to 2000, when the earlier, more political forms of rap gave way to harsher "gangsta" rap.

What she found was that the aspects of rap that were getting everyone's back up - misogyny, violence - were outweighed by images of nihilism and despair.

African-Americans were the first to show the effects of deindustrialization. But in an interview I did with her in 2011, Kubrin clearly traces the progression from blacks to working-class whites.

"Initially, the economic changes in the U.S. over the past 30 years disproportionately affected less educated minority males. There were no more factory jobs, and then crack came in. Whether you call it deindustrialization or 'things done changed,' you’re talking about an enormous change in communities," Kubrin said.

"Now...joblessness [is] much more common for whites. When you think about what’s been happening broadly in society — increasing inequality levels, de-industrialization, outsourcing — these trends are affecting us all."

If you hadn't already gotten the news from the brilliant TV series American Rust or Sam Quinones 2015 book Dreamland, about the opioid epidemic in rural America, look at Kenosha.

Kyle Rittenhouse and his victims were textbook cases of poverty in all its grinding despair, marked by drug addiction, suicidal impulses, and violence. The man closest to escaping that cycle was Anthony Huber, 26. Huber, shot while brandishing his skateboard at Rittenhouse - the skateboard that had been his refuge from an insane home life as a teenager - was seven years sober from heroin. He had grown up in a madhouse with a mother who was a hoarder and like Huber, was bipolar.

But Huber was getting his life together. His girlfriend attributed her sobriety to him, and the two of them had cleaned up the mess in his mother's home not long before the shooting, a symbolic gesture that would come to have tragic irony.

Two days before the protests, on Aug. 23, a black man named Jacob Blake had ignored commands from police responding to a 911 call, fought off Taser shocks and attempted to climb into his car. The story is familiar now, as recounted in the Post: "As a bystander recorded the scene, Officer Rusten Sheskey fired seven rounds into Blake’s back and side, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Police said they recovered a knife that Blake was carrying from the floorboard of the car; Sheskey has not been charged with a crime."

Huber had been friends with Jacob Blake, and when word of the upcoming protests spread, he and his girlfriend decided to attend so they could use their cell phones to document them.

The least sympathetic of the victims was Joseph Rosenbaum, but he, too, had been a victim. According to a Pulitzer-quality magazine piece in The Washington Post, "Rosenbaum met his father only twice and told his mother that he was molested by his alcoholic stepfather 'on an almost daily basis,' according to court documents.

"When he was 13 his mother was sent to prison for two years, and Rosenbaum was sent off to a group home, where he began using heroin and methamphetamine, according to court documents. By 18, he was in prison for sexual conduct with five preteen boys, the children of people who had taken him in after his mother told him to leave her house, according to a presentencing report. He spent most of the next 14 years behind bars.

"Not long after he was released in 2016, he met a woman in Arizona and fathered a child, but the relationship didn’t last. When the woman fled to Kenosha, Rosenbaum chased her.

Sometimes, he posted pictures of his daughter on Facebook. “That is my lil princess,” he wrote in September 2019, a few months after arriving in Kenosha. 'She is a daddy’s girl all the way i miss her so much.'"

Not long before the demonstration in Kenosha, Rosenbaum was found vomiting and having convulsions outside a McDonald's after a suicide attempt.

The survivor of the violence, and the only player in this tragedy without a prison record and with a college education, 26-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz, was attending the protests as a volunteer medic with a group called the People’s Revolution that was calling out police brutality. According to the Post, Grosskreutz and his friends outfitted a black pickup truck with a red cross and packed it with gauze, water, tourniquets, bandages and quick-clotting agents.

The difference between Grosskreutz and previous medics at U.S. protests was that these latter-day support people were armed. When Huber, brandishing his skateboard, tried to disarm Kyle Rittenhouse, Grosskreutz ran at them with his gun drawn.

Kubrin wrote of a "normative code of violence" that emerged in rap as a logical response to the distrust of police. "As the problems of the inner city become more acute and police-community relations grow increasingly tentative, residents claim they must assume primary responsibility in matters of conflict," she wrote.

The difference between the bullets that took away Jacob Blake's ability to walk and the cops handing Kyle Rittenhouse a bottle of water at the Aug. 25th protest are images from a country at war with itself, a failed state where violence is the means to create social organization.

All of these men with the possible exception of Rosenbaum, whose mental illness was the inciting factor in these tragedies, arrived at the protest with a notion that they could somehow fix things. What were they trying to fix? Their own damaged lives or America itself?

This includes the subject of the protests, Jacob Blake, the black man charged with battery and with endangering the life of a child in 2012 after he had allegedly tried to choke Laquisha Booker and she fell while holding her baby, a son from a previous relationship, according to the New Yorker. “Alcohol abuse appears to be the defendant’s primary problem,” a court document noted, explaining that if Blake “doesn’t drink he tends not to get into trouble.”

And Kyle Rittenhouse, the pathetic 17-year-old whose background was as unmoored and sad as the others. Parents cycling through a series of dead-end jobs. An alcoholic father charged with battery for attacking his mother. Repeated evictions. Kyle Rittenhouse had dropped out of high school, and lost a succession of jobs himself.

He bought the Smith & Wesson M&P15—an AR-15-style rifle - with pandemic relief funds.

- Susan Zakin

Angelina Orduno has worked in the development hellscape of various studios for more years than she cares to count. She enjoys eating tacos from gourmet taco trucks (no mammals).

Susan Zakin is editor of Journal of the Plague Years.

Editorial consultation: Cyrus Sanai.

The Story Behind the Story: Subscribe to the Journal

Orson Welles: "I'm not ashamed of being from Wisconsin. Just of being from Kenosha. It's a terrible place."

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