Why the Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict Doesn't Matter

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Substack
Why the Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict Doesn't Matter Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It's a Misdirection to Keep Us from the Real Issue

Kyle Rittenhouse was a seventeen-year-old kid who made a decision to travel to another state, pick up a rifle, and insert himself in a volatile situation—a decision that resulted in the loss of two lives. Both the men he killed would probably still be alive if Rittenhouse had stayed home and let the police do their job. Those are the facts. But these facts seem to be irrelevant to both those who condemn and those who celebrate Rittenhouse’s not-guilty verdict. Instead, both sides have inflated Rittenhouse into a blimp-sized symbol of racial tension in America like a giant cartoon character balloon floating over a used car lot. And like those balloons, it’s all gas with little substance.

Much of that lighter-than-air intellectual gas comes from the conservative media bullhorns gleefully chirping about how the verdict will result in more freedom of self-defense and how this proves that the justice system works. They know none of that is true but the bright, waving Rittenhouse balloon gets your attention so they can launch into their simplistic soliloquies about Freedom this and Freedom that. People of Color are worried about vigilantes who think they’ve just been issued a 007 license to kill roaming the streets looking for targets darker than beige. Their interpretation of the verdict is more realistic since they’ve seen how injustice breeds more injustice.

But this is the wrong case to make into such a massive symbol.

We should start by recognizing that a not-guilty verdict was inevitable, not because of racism but because of the law. Sure, the judge seemed a bit biased at times and of the 20 jurors only one was a Person of Color. But, from what we were able to piece together through news reports, the prosecution did not present a compelling case. The state laws about self-defense did favor Rittenhouse’s actions. In the end, the verdict did not seem to be the result of racial bias that favored him because he was white. The fact that we may not like why Rittenhouse was in Kenosha, or that the police were clearly prejudiced in supporting him as he wandered the streets with a loaded rifle, or that he’s become a poster boy for white supremacists and right-wing pundits, doesn’t justify conviction if the case presented in court doesn’t merit it.

America’s past is too littered with the bodies of people lynched, executed, or imprisoned because of what they represented rather than any legal evidence. We sent 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry to prison camps during World War II as symbols rather than verifiable threats. Two Black Muslim men convicted of the assassination of Malcolm X were exonerated this week, 55 years after their conviction, when it was discovered that the FBI and the NYPD withheld information from the defense that would have likely resulted in their acquittal.

If we are to be outraged by miscarriages of justice in the courtroom, we can’t be outraged by a verdict that is justified based on the case presented. However, if the three defendants who killed Ahmaud Arbery are found not guilty, that would be justified outrage.

Systemic racism in America won’t get worse because of this verdict. Actually, it’s hard to imagine it getting worse. Over 150 years after the end of slavery and Black people are facing legislation in nearly half the states to make it more difficult for them to vote while rampant gerrymandering insures that when they do vote, their effect of their votes will be diluted. Anyone who wanted to know the truth could read the hundreds of studies that prove Black Americans are disadvantaged from birth in terms of education, health, medical care, job opportunities, life expectancy, and the legal system. And if you think this disparity is something from the distant past, Scientific American’s December 2021 issue reveals studies that show how Black children fare worse than white children with routine surgeries because when they are brought into the hospital, they are less promptly diagnosed and less promptly treated than white children. These Black children had medical complications at a rate 18 percent higher than white children and were three times more likely to die. If these statistics were reversed and white kids were at greater risk, hospital reform would be instantaneous.

Hiding, obscuring, and denying these facts about systemic racism from the American public was always the real goal of the right’s obsession with the Rittenhouse trial. When everyone gets into heated arguments about the minutiae of the trial or the possibility of more vigilantism or what would have happened if he’d been Black, we’re distracted from the most important issue involving the case. The right aren’t just celebrating Rittenhouse’s verdict, they’re gloating because to them this proves that the Back Lives Matter protests that inspired up to 26 million Americans to take to the streets in the largest protest in American history had little real-world effect. The actual protest that brought Rittenhouse out of his room from playing Call of Duty to take to the streets gets minimized: Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer (against whom no charges were or will be filed).

The Rittenhouse verdict is the magician’s misdirection. While we’re wringing our hands over the trial, the actual sleight-of-hand was to silence African Americans’ voice in conversations about America. The conservatives’ twisted logic is that if Rittenhouse goes free, that is proof that whatever BLM was protesting is not legitimate. It’s the equivalent of having a doctor tell you that you need to exercise more or you’ll have a heart attack and instead you dig up dirt on the doctor which proves you don’t need to exercise. The doctor isn’t out to destroy you anymore than protests are out to destroy the country but rather to improve it.

There are good reasons to fear vigilantes. Vigilantism has been so romanticized in our culture that we can’t really be surprised when some impressionable kid wants to be a superhero. From Spider-Man to Batman, the Marvel and DC Universes are almost entirely vigilantes. Colorful costumes and angsty origin stories don’t change that. Our heroes are rule-breakers who think they know what’s best for people more than the judicial system or elected officials. That’s what made Trump appealing to so many: he was a soft-core vigilante who thought he knew better than everyone else. He didn’t, and the economy was damaged, civil rights were repressed, and thousands of people died unnecessarily as a result. Ironically, the vigilante and the villain live by the same code that they should be permitted to act outside the law because they alone know what is best. While that makes for entertaining fictional stories, in real life it creates chaos and injustice and we can’t and won’t tolerate it.

Don’t waste any outrage on the Rittenhouse verdict. Instead, be outraged that very few people are still marching for Black Lives Matter, even though all the reasons for it still persist. Be outraged that the restrictive Texas abortion law—being copied by Florida, Arkansas, Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota—isn’t bringing millions to actively protest and boycott those states that are taking away women’s rights and treating them as second-class citizens. Be outraged that Critical Race Theory is being demonized as an attack against whites rather than an educational adjustment to school curriculums that deliberately excluded the contributions of most People of Color in American history.

Ignore those who worship the bloated Rittenhouse balloon as a justification for their white exceptionalism. We need to stay focused on the real evils behind the curtain and not get distracted by those making slimy mud pies and thinking its all-American apple pie.

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