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Kenosha: Summer, 2020


Roger Benham

Three years ago last week, I was a volunteer street medic in Charlottesville, Virginia, providing first aid to antifascist and antiracist protestors. Shortly before James V. Fields drove his car into a march, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, I was treating people who were pepper sprayed and beaten in front of the statute of Robert E. Lee.

Later I learned that I had narrowly missed Richard Preston, Jr., a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, firing his handgun at a Black protester. Preston missed his target. He walked away from the scene, crossing directly in front of riot police.

After being arrested at his home in Maryland, Preston attempted a plea of self defense. Today Preston sits in prison, not for attempted murder, but for “discharging a firearm within 1,000 yards of a school.”

How is his name not on all of our tongues?

This past Tuesday, protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin ended not in a misfire, but in murder.

Jacob Blake, the grandson of a civil rights activist and preacher, had been accused of sexual assault and violating a restraining order. Three police officers attempted to arrest him on a Sunday. That was Aug. 23.

The incident has familiar steps, like a quadrille. A black man. An encounter that goes bad. One police officer whose violence isn’t stopped by the others.

As far as anyone can tell, police tasered Blake, but he ignored them, walking to the SUV where his three sons waited for him. The Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation said Blake admitted he had a knife in his possession. Law enforcement agents recovered one from the driver's side floorboard of his vehicle. But the Wisconsin attorney general has refused to say whether police saw a knife in Blake’s possession before shooting him.

The media reported that Rusten Sheskey, one of three officers on the scene, shot Blake seven times. Blake’s lawyers said at least one bullet went through his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. His liver, kidney, and stomach were damaged, and his colon and small intestine were removed, the lawyers said. He was also shot in his arm.

For the past two nights in Kenosha, a declining industrial city on the shores of Lake Michigan, businesses had been burned, looted, and damaged. The protests provided fodder for speakers at the Republican National Convention.

While they hammered home a message about chaos and anarchy, a young man named Kyle Rittenhouse took it upon himself to defend the buildings and businesses in Kenosha. It wasn’t even his hometown. He lived in Antioch, Illinois, about 30 minutes away. Later, when he faced murder charges, he would have to be extradited.

Nobody seems to know what started it, but two anti-racist protesters, Anthony Huber, 29, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, were fatally shot, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, was shot in the arm and is expected to recover. The alleged shooter is Rittenhouse. He is only seventeen. Baby-faced, with a baseball cap turned backwards, he could be younger: an all-American boy, but a doughy one, a lost kid who found purpose.

Rittenhouse is an enthusiastic Trump supporter who attended at least one of the president’s rallies. He reportedly saw himself as a member of a militia bent on safeguarding private businesses from looting and arson. Like Preston, Kyle Rittenhouse walked away from the scene, even though bystanders were shouting that he had just shot somebody. A video has Rittenhouse admitting it.

After the first victim was shot, Huber reportedly hit Kyle Rittenhouse with his skateboard, trying to dislodge the boy’s AR-15. Again, like Preston, Rittenhouse’s lawyers are claiming self-defense.

I have been agitated since I heard the news. Anthony Huber looked like someone I would have known, many people actually, when I was still out on the streets doing the work. Bearded, ectomorphic, politically committed, with a girlfriend who had a young child, he might easily have been a friend. Twenty years ago, he could have been me.

Barry Glassner, a sociologist and author of The Culture of Fear, told Axios recently that fear-based messaging creates the same visceral, fight-or-flight response as encountering a wild predator. Rational thinking gets much harder. Glassner said that constant messaging like this—“fears and “scares”—make a lasting imprint. Glassner’s book became the basis for the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine. As I read this, I saw a common thread: young men prey to the insecurities one has at that age, heavily armed.

And they see a war at home.

Elizabeth Neumann has been making the talk show rounds lately. Until April, she was DHS’s assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy. Soon after Donald Trump took office, DHS officials noticed an uptick in attacks on Jewish cemeteries. Then Charlottesville happened. After that, the shooting in El Paso.

At an international conference on terrorism, Neumann said, the majority concerns expressed were about right-wing terrorism. Yet the Trump administration refused to call the actions of white supremacy groups terrorism, and ignored officials' requests to fund operations to counter it.

After all, some of these “very fine people” were Trump supporters.

Neumann, a Christian who opposes abortion, voted for Trump in 2016. She is voting for Joe Biden.

In a recent interview, Neumann called the portrayals of protesters as dangerous and violent "a sideshow to distract from the real threat."

"You have right-wing extremists coming in trying to take advantage of the cover of the protests to carry out these violent acts," Neuman said, adding: "they are trying to start a race war."

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The use of cell phones to shoot video has changed the nature of protests, and journalism. Since the shootings in Kenosha, video has emerged of Rittenhouse giving an interview to the right-wing extremist Daily Caller before the shooting.

Police reached out of their armored cars to hand him water, telling him that they “appreciated” him and his fellow militia members. In one of these videos, Rittenhouse claims to have been pepper sprayed by a protestor. The police asked if he and his compatriots would respond in kind. Rittenhouse, carrying an AR-15 rifle, says “we don’t have [anything] less lethal.”

I’ve dealt with head injuries, tear gas inhalation, and broken bones from police batons and fall injuries. I’ve seen protestors attacked by police dogs, and shot with rubber and plastic bullets. I’m now in a rural place where I am far from the marches that bring out armed vigilantes. But I have feared their coming for a while now.

Like so many other events this plague year of 2020, the killings in Kenosha make it hard to think of the ordinary stuff of life. I find myself constantly checking for updates and new information.

Rittenhouse’s social media presence was heavily pro-police and covered with references to “Blue Lives Matter.” Huber was a skateboarder and stepfather to his girlfriend’s daughter. Rittenhouse is a former police Explorer cadet. Rosenbaum had just gotten engaged. The protestor shot in the arm had a handgun. Huber died trying to disarm Rittenhouse using only his skateboard. Rittenhouse was driven to Kenosha by his mother. Jacob Blake, paralyzed by the seven shots to his back that started this round of protests, was shackled to his hospital bed. Rittenhouse was arrested and charged with first degree homicide. The Kenosha police chief blames the protestors for being out past curfew and says the shooter used his rifle to “resolve” a dispute.

Each one of these details drives out the previous one, creating a maelstrom of emotions and countervailing thoughts. I watch the videos again and again, and don’t even notice until I read a news analysis this morning that when Huber was gunned down, four shots came from the shooter’s AR-15, but several other gunshots simultaneously resounded on the street nearby.

I place myself in these videos, imagining how I would have reacted in such a violent and disordered scene. I see people running to disarm the gunman, and want to tell them to take cover. But I have no solid idea how I would react. I’ve been tear-gassed, I’ve driven ambulances in Ramallah. In actual situations like these, events happen before one can process them.

I’ve seen, this summer, in my social media, medics treating life-threatening injuries, often night after night, more in a few months than I saw in years. In our trainings for doing support at protests, we teach principles of ethics and consent, referring people to higher levels of care, and dealing with “less lethal” police weapons.

Dealing with gunshot wounds was not part of this. Until 2016.

That summer, the Republican National Convention that formalized Trump’s nomination in Cleveland was replete with counter-protestors openly displaying firearms. The city banned potential “weapons” such as poles or knives over a short length from the downtown area. Firearms were explicitly allowed, ostensibly because of the Second Amendment. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of armed extremist militia members mingled with crowds of pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators. While both sides engaged in heated verbal exchanges, actual physical confrontations were at a minimum.

But at one point a loud report resounded through the downtown area and everyone on the street was unsure of what to do, including the police. Was that the shot that would start the violence? It turned out to be a tire blowing out.

The whole scene in Cleveland felt like an elaborate but somehow unreal cosplay, from the militiamen with tricked-out assault rifles and tactical vests to the Texas Rangers imported to help with security, riding their horses, wide-brimmed Stetsons perched on their heads.

The unreality would persist, but not the posturing. Police and protestors came under fire at a Dallas Black Lives Matter protest. A man was shot in Seattle by a Trump supporter. Armed and organized fascists and white nationalists started parading in communities across the nation, culminating in Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally.

As Trump’s rhetoric ratchets up, protestors, too, have armed themselves. The reality is that vigilantes are being given tacit, and not-so-tacit, permission to do what the police are often constrained from doing, deploying deadly force against protestors or threatening to do so.

This has happened before in American history. There are many examples in the Jim Crow years. But what Kenosha makes me think of the most is Bleeding Kansas.

In the 1850s, Kansas was given the electoral choice to enter the Union as a free state or a slave state. Competing groups from pro-slavery states and from abolitionist movements flocked to the territory. Civil violence ensued. People were murdered, others killed in retaliation. Over 200 people died violently in a dark preview of the Civil War. The federal government stood aside.

Now, in 2020, we are still in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 180,000 Americans. We are suffering massive unemployment. Black, Brown and Indigenous Americans have been disproportionately stricken. Health care, educational, and service workers deemed “essential,” have been coerced by the lack of federal income supports or rent relief to go back to work and risk getting infected. Police violence against communities of color continues, and the ubiquity of cameras ensures that we all can see these atrocities in almost real time.

And Trump encourages those who feel threatened to take matters, and the guns that outnumber Americans, into their own hands. In his brazen and reckless way, he has articulated the ethos of the day: “What the Hell have you got to lose?”

What, indeed? I can’t see an end to this spiral of retribution until we change the injustices in American society. These injustices affect all Americans, even the vaunted and derided rich. They are a wound we all bear, no matter our circumstance, crippling the rich and tormenting the poor. But in a country awash in guns, I fear we must go through a very hard time before the wound is salved.

We remember the names: George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor. We think of all the other Black Americans murdered by systemic American racism. We remember Heather Heyer, Anthony Huber, and Joseph Rosenbaum, white protestors for racial justice run down or gunned down by vigilantes.

It would be comforting to think we can keep all their names in our minds. But unless we commit to changing the systems of oppression that have provoked protest and retaliation, I fear their memories will be lost, much as the memories of people shot dead in Tulsa, in Rosewood, in Watts, in Newark, in Detroit, and in so many other places across the United States. It won’t always be the forces of the state doing the killing. It will be armed civilians, emboldened and empowered by the police or by the Federal government, people entrusted with authority who look the other way.

This time, it will not be only Charlottesville that suffers, or the Kansas Territory that bleeds.

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Dorothea Lange photo, from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Roger Benham is an organizer and activist with grassroots environmental and social justice movements with experience providing medical assistance at demonstrations and disaster zones. He currently lives and studies in the Northeastern United States.

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