Later On

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American Battlefield: 72 Hours in Kenosha

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Doug Bock Clark writes in GQ:

Kyle Rittenhouse was sprinting away from the scene of an apparent crime when he phoned a friend and choked out, “I just killed somebody. I had to shoot him.” Then he hung up. Men in masks were beginning to chase him. Rittenhouse kept running, his heavy cowboy boots clomping against the pavement, uncertain if he’d have to fire his gun again. He was 17, and for much of his life he’d toyed around with guns and dreamed of being a cop—of keeping order. That was what he’d been seeking to do last August when he carried an assault rifle into downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, swaths of which had been razed during previous nights of rioting. That was what he’d been doing moments earlier, as midnight neared, when he’d confronted a group of vandals and arsonists wrecking a car dealership. He had been trying to get them to stop. One, with a red T-shirt wrapped around his head so that his eyes showed through a slit, had charged the teenager, and Rittenhouse had fled.

“Fuck you!” the man had yelled. Rittenhouse turned to face his pursuer. The man lunged, and Rittenhouse fired at point-blank range. Then he stood over the twitching body, his first aid bag dangling unused at his side. Even before bystanders began futilely trying to plug the dying man’s wounds with a T-shirt, Rittenhouse took off up Kenosha’s main drag.

Three blocks to the north, he could see a line of four armored police personnel carriers: safety, it seemed to him. Rittenhouse huffed along for a block and a half until he encountered a group of racial-justice protesters streaming south, drawn by his gunshots. At first, the throng didn’t pay much attention to the kid weaving through them: With his baby face and his backward American-flag baseball cap, he looked even younger than he was. But soon shouts relayed news of the shooting through the crowd. The barrel of the Smith & Wesson AR-15-style assault rifle he gripped was still hot.

“What’d he do?”

“He shot someone!”

“Get his ass!”

By the time Rittenhouse was within a block of reaching the police, roughly a dozen men were chasing him. One threw a right haymaker, knocking off the teenager’s baseball cap, before peeling away, perhaps intimidated by the rifle. Rittenhouse was a few steps ahead of the pack when he tripped. He slammed down on the asphalt and rolled onto his back, whipping his weapon toward his pursuers.

A tall Black man tried unsuccessfully to drop-kick him, then dashed onward. Rittenhouse seems to have fired twice as the man hurdled over him—and somehow missed, despite their proximity.

Then a white man in a dark sweatshirt, hood up, smashed Rittenhouse with a skateboard gripped in one hand as he tried to grab the rifle with the other. That time, Rittenhouse couldn’t miss—the muzzle of his gun was practically jabbed into the man’s belly. After the blast, the skateboarder staggered a few steps, clutching his chest, trying to keep his life from pouring out.

Now a tall white man loomed over Rittenhouse. His baseball cap read “PARAMEDIC.” In his right hand, he held a pistol. But Rittenhouse, with the bigger weapon, had the drop on him. The man backed up, hands in the air, the pistol’s muzzle pointing skyward. Abruptly the man stepped forward. Rittenhouse squeezed the trigger. The biceps of the arm holding the pistol exploded into gore. The handgun clattered to the street.

A fourth man was backing away, hands raised. Others were ducking behind trees and cars. The hooded skateboarder lay facedown in the street. The man whose arm had been blown open was kneeling nearby, shrieking for help.

As Rittenhouse stood, the lights of the police vehicles illuminated his face—red, white, and blue—and he hustled toward them. He had some minor cuts and scrapes, but he was essentially unhurt. He approached the hulking personnel carriers with his surgical-gloved hands held high and his rifle dangling from a military-style body sling. He wasn’t sure how many people he might have just killed. Certainly, one. Probably, more.

Though portions of the shootings had been captured on at least eight video recordings, Americans who dissected the footage in the coming days wouldn’t agree on what they saw—and the question of what had truly happened that night would become a point of bitter debate in a divided country. Many conservatives would lionize Rittenhouse as a hero, defending property and then himself against a mob. Many on the left would vilify him as a murderous white supremacist. The truth, however, was even more tragic than either side allowed.

This story draws on dozens of hours of video footage, including a comprehensive timeline of crucial events created by syncing 11 livestreams; countless photos; dozens of interviews, including some with participants speaking for the first time; previous reportage; and extensive police and court records. It is the most complete investigation and reconstruction yet of how American order imploded for three nights in Kenosha, until citizens were warring in the streets, and what that breakdown might tell us about the United States’ deepening divisions.

Two days before Kyle Rittenhouse fired his weapon of war, Kenosha police responded to a call from a woman reporting that the father of her children, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was causing a disturbance at her home. When a white officer named Rusten Sheskey arrived, he saw Blake put a child into an SUV; the officer’s lawyer later said that Sheskey believed that the boy was being abducted. A warrant for third-degree felony sexual assault was out for Blake, stemming from allegations made by the same woman earlier that summer, and so Sheskey tried to arrest him. Within minutes, Blake, Sheskey, and two other officers were wrestling on the lawn as a crowd gathered. Videos captured Blake struggling free and limping around the front of the SUV. Sheskey followed a step behind, his service pistol aimed between Blake’s shoulder blades. As Blake opened the driver’s-side door, Sheskey grabbed a fistful of his white tank top. The fabric stretched as Blake leaned inside the vehicle, still facing away. Sheskey fired seven times. The vehicle’s horn blared unrelentingly as Blake’s body draped across the steering wheel. In the back seat, Blake’s three young children screamed.

According to the police, Sheskey fired his gun after seeing Blake twist toward him, short-bladed knife in hand. (Blake would later tell investigators that he was putting the knife away when Sheskey shot him.) The aggressive action that Sheskey alleges isn’t discernible on the videos, however, in which Blake is partly obscured by the car door. Indeed, what many people saw was a retreating Black man gunned in the back by a white police officer. “You did not have to shoot him, bro. He was getting in his fucking car,” a bystander who’d been filming the altercation shouted at Sheskey. “I’m posting this shit on Facebook.”

A few minutes later, that video popped onto the Facebook feed of Nick Dennis, a 37-year-old Black Kenoshan who lived nearby. He immediately drove to where Blake had been shot. Soon the normally quiet stretch of low-rent apartment buildings became crowded with locals chanting for justice. By evening, several hundred people, Black, white, and brown, surrounded police officers cordoning the crime scene, and some began challenging the officers to take off their badges, put down their guns, and fight.

Relations between Kenosha’s largely white police force and its minority residents had long been tense. “I think society has to come to a threshold where there’s some people that aren’t worth saving,” the region’s white sheriff had mused two years earlier, when four Black people accused of shoplifting were arrested following a high-speed car chase. “We need to build warehouses… and lock them away for the rest of their lives.” The sheriff later apologized for the comments, but residents like Dennis resented the police force for what they felt was a long history of abuse, especially officers shooting people in questionable circumstances without facing charges.

For most of Dennis’s life, he’d tried to avoid confronting the police. In his twenties, he’d racked up multiple charges for dealing marijuana. But after finishing 18 months in prison in 2013, he trained as a machinist, got a good job, and focused on his sons. He received only traffic violations from then on, and even if he felt like the stops were petty harassment, he endured them, believing that a tall and muscular Black man like himself was always one misinterpreted gesture away from having his life derailed. He felt powerless to challenge the system. But earlier that summer, the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer, and the subsequent nationwide racial-justice protests, catalyzed a profound transformation in him. “I felt myself crying,” Dennis said of watching video of Floyd’s murder. “I hadn’t cried in years. I could only think if it was my sons.” That’s when Dennis began joining Black Lives Matter marches.

Now he’d come to the site of Blake’s shooting, hoping to join a peaceful demonstration. But as the evening dimmed into night, he watched as people pushed past flimsy police tape and men began jumping on the hood and windshield of a police cruiser. After one cop was knocked out by a thrown brick, the rest retreated, and Dennis marched with the crowd through residential neighborhoods toward police headquarters, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” As the protesters neared the police station, they found the roads crammed with cars bearing still more protesters, some waving Black Lives Matter signs. Authorities had parked unmanned municipal garbage trucks sideways in the streets, creating a hasty barricade, but the masses overran them and made their way to the three-story station. Wearing a black face mask decorated with a fist raising its middle finger, Dennis recorded himself on his phone amid throngs of protesters, declaring, “We’re gonna turn this bitch up!”

In front of the police building, several dozen cops in riot gear, most of them white, formed a wall with shields and batons. At first the crowd only insulted them; then someone got to throwing small firecrackers. Soon people began to lob bigger incendiaries, which made explosions that sounded to Dennis like artillery fire, and the police retreated inside. He was furious, too, but wouldn’t participate in violence.

With the police bottled up, there was no one to check the crowd. It rampaged into the neighboring Civic Center, a square of neoclassical governmental edifices arranged around a tree-filled park, built before Kenosha’s once prosperous factories had been decimated by offshoring, and which now seemed grandiose for such a small, hardscrabble city. People busted windows at the courthouse. They tried to set the Register of Deeds building on fire. They tore down a statue of a dinosaur outside a natural history museum. It seems a young white man set the garbage truck barricades on fire with rolled towels soaked in gasoline.

Dennis livestreamed much of what was happening from his cell phone. As he saw it, he was confronting America with the wages of what the police had wrought, in their shooting of Blake. In immersing himself in the next three nights of chaos, he would regard himself as a witness and an activist. When he could, he tried to prevent illegal acts and keep others safe; he warned people away from the burning garbage trucks, afraid they might explode. But he realized that something more powerful than himself had been unleashed.

Videos showed hundreds of people of diverse ethnicities and ages packing the park. Though probably dozens of them engaged in vandalism and arson, most, like Dennis, were simply bearing witness; some were even cheering, seemingly celebrating. It wasn’t just fury at the shooting of a single man that fueled the destruction: It was

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 March 2021 at 1:54 pm

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