The Violence Could Get Much Worse

Unless police and political leaders begin to crack down on the armed vigilantes monitoring protests, more bloodshed could soon follow the killings in Kenosha.

An ar​med civilian wounded by a​ gunshot receives aid from other armed civilians in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Alex Lourie / Redux)

The killings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, represent an alarming escalation of the fight over police violence that has consumed the country this summer: It wasn’t an agent of the state who shot two Americans dead this week. Instead, an American man turned his weapon on other civilians during a protest—and law enforcement let him walk right by them and out of town. Police and political leaders have failed for years to take the actions necessary to prevent this kind of violence. Without serious, sustained intervention, more bloodshed could soon follow.

Late Tuesday night, a young white man with an AR-15-style rifle slung over his shoulder sprinted down a darkened street. He had, according to the narrative later pieced together from cellphone footage, just shot a person in the head and left them to bleed out in the parking lot of a car dealership. As he ran, a scattered group of people gave chase, and he fired at them, hitting at least one. A bystander called out to the police stationed at the end of the block: “Hey, dude right here shot them!” Yet the officers did nothing. When the shooter reached the squad cars, his arms raised in surrender, they let him pass.

Seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who has described himself as a militia member and appeared in videos that night next to other armed men linked to a local militia group known as the Kenosha Guard, has since been arrested and charged with killing two people. (He hasn’t yet entered a plea.) Rittenhouse and the other men, who claimed to be protecting local businesses, are not the first armed right-wing counterprotesters to evade police scrutiny this summer. In May and June, such extremists appeared on 187 occasions at protests around the country, according to the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a left-leaning organization that tracks extremist groups. Vigilantes appeared to receive the support or approval of police in about two dozen of those instances, says Alexander Reid Ross, a researcher at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right and the author of Against the Fascist Creep.

On June 2, amid the nationwide demonstrations to protest the killing of George Floyd, officers in Philadelphia allowed men armed with bats to linger outside a police station past curfew, then looked on while members of the group beat protesters. Around the same time, authorities in Curry County, Oregon, seemed to welcome “local boys” defending the community against a rumored appearance from the left-wing group antifa. A constable in Texas called on members of a far-right paramilitary organization called Oath Keepers to guard a hair salon from threats of looting and arson. A police officer in Salem, Oregon, was filmed politely asking a group of armed men to disperse ahead of curfew “so we don't look like we're playing favorites.”

But deferential treatment of armed counterprotesters suggests that police are playing favorites. When law enforcement reacts leniently to far-right militant organizations, those groups tend to believe any violence on their part is authorized, says Michael German, a retired FBI agent who spent months in the early 1990s working undercover among white supremacists and right-wing militants. Consistent leniency, he told me, “has created a monster that’s going to be hard to contain.”

This week’s violence suggests that “you’re going to see more people arming themselves and deciding they’re going to police the environment,” Erroll Southers, the director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy, told me.

Vigilantes have recently appeared in situations beyond anti-police-violence protests too. Authorities have allowed men and women wielding assault rifles to storm state capitol buildings in protest of the mask mandates and stay-at-home orders instituted during the coronavirus pandemic. Armed militias, under the watch of police, have demonstrated against the removal of Confederate statues. (Left-wing groups have used intimidation tactics and violence too, but their relationship to law enforcement is different and their presence has been much less frequent at public events this year.)

President Donald Trump and his allies have not condemned armed vigilantism. "How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?" Tucker Carlson asked on his Fox News program. At the Republican National Convention last night, Vice President Mike Pence decried the “rioting and looting” occurring in America’s cities and vowed to stand up for law enforcement. But he didn’t reference Rittenhouse, or the police shooting of Jacob Blake that triggered the Kenosha protests in the first place. When he denounced the murder of federal officer Dave Patrick Underwood in Oakland in May, Pence failed to mention that he was murdered by a man with ties to a far-right extremist group; instead, Pence implied that the officer’s death was caused by “the riots.” Trump similarly omitted details about the Kenosha protests when he announced yesterday that he planned to send federal law enforcement and the National Guard to Wisconsin “to restore law and order.” Over the summer, Trump has repeatedly referred to Black Lives Matter protesters as “thugs,” and in June ordered peaceful demonstrators to be tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets.

Trump’s messaging empowers right-wing extremists, German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me. “The president has [treated] protesters as his political enemies,” he said. “It’s easy to see how these groups feel that Donald Trump is their champion, at least for the short term.”

Civilians taking up arms during periods of social unrest is a familiar phenomenon in America: During the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, for example, armed citizens defended their stores from looting and vandalism. But 30 years ago, the very nature of vigilantism was different: Americans didn’t have such easy access to the military-grade weapons that are now prevalent in this country. The Los Angelenos guarding their businesses brandished pistols, not AR-15s. This kind of firepower necessarily means that the potential for mass injury and death is much greater. One-third of American adults own a gun, and 43 percent of adults in Wisconsin have a gun in their home, according to a recent estimate from the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit policy think tank. (It is legal for an adult to carry firearms openly in public places in Wisconsin.)

Another difference: Historically, many militia groups have been anti-police and anti-government. But some of those in action today are outright supporters of law enforcement and conservative politicians. The groups that protested mask restrictions and stay-at-home laws this summer echoed Trump's opposition to both measures, and as the president has decried antifa on Twitter, these groups have appeared at protests to beat back far-left activists. Rittenhouse himself is a Trump supporter who attended one of the president’s rallies earlier this year, according to BuzzFeed.

Yet the partisan nature of these groups also means that Republican leaders can help put a stop to their vigilantism. Political violence tends to increase during election years, German said, and that’s especially true in periods when rhetoric is heated and political polarization is at record levels. A consistent message from Trump and other elected officials at both the local and national levels could help calm the turmoil. “You will not be the police,” Southers advises officials to tell community members. “Anybody breaking the law will be arrested and prosecuted, whether they are destroying property or aggressively going after protesters.” That message would require the cooperation of local police—and a commitment to enforce laws equally. Officers’ hands are often tied in places where open carry is legal, but they can still enforce curfews and other laws regulating protest. State leaders, too, could be doing more to check these paramilitary groups, Southers noted. All 50 states have laws on the books that allow them to restrict militia presence in public places, according to a 2017 report from Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

If there is little change, including in the Trump administration’s rhetoric, the country should expect many more instances of far-right vigilantism to accompany protests and other public events in the future, experts told me. Pete Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University who studies extremist groups, warned that violence could—and likely will—extend beyond Election Day. If the president and his allies don’t turn the temperature down, far-right groups may feel even more emboldened during a second Trump term. And if Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, “a segment of [Trump’s] base will view this as grounds for no other choice but to revolt and revolt violently,” Simi told me. In either scenario, it will be up to local law enforcement to decide whether to prevent violence.

In video footage taken before the shooting began on Tuesday night, Rittenhouse and a few other men carrying weapons and wearing tactical vests strapped to their chests can be seen gathered in the darkness near a cluster of armored police vehicles. One officer, coming in fuzzy over a loudspeaker, orders protesters to disperse. At the same time, another officer tosses water bottles to Rittenhouse and his compatriots. “We appreciate you guys,” he says. “We really do.”