Voices: Outside the Rittenhouse trial courtroom in Kenosha, tensions are simmering

·3-min read
Kyle Rittenhouse was just 17 when he shot three people at a protest in Kenosha  (REUTERS)
Kyle Rittenhouse was just 17 when he shot three people at a protest in Kenosha (REUTERS)

Outside Kenosha County Courthouse, the biting Wisconsin wind whips a black POW-MIA flag as hundreds of media representatives gather across the street. We’re all here for the ongoing trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who drove from neighboring Illinois with an assault weapon last year and shot three people, killing two and wounding another.

In the melee stand two people, barely three feet apart. Ashley, 26, has flown from California in support of justice for the victims shot last year by Rittenhouse. Almost twice her age, 51-year-old Brandon – who also flew in from California — holds a handmade red, white and blue sign exhorting people to “Grow a pair & stop resisting arrest.” It’s fair to say they come from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.

Neither has a clue they’re both from the West Coast. Neither is interested in listening to what the other has to say. Ashley is sporting flawless black curls, her mask obscuring her face as BLM-centric pins cover her jacket in the brutal cold. Brandon – who responds with “negative” to many questions, despite spending no time in law enforcement or the military – is losing his hair and also freezing.

As jury deliberations continue for a third day in the trial of a white teen who opened fire at a protest over the shooting of a Black man in this sleepy Wisconsin town, the divisions in America are represented in the crowd of onlookers outside. Brandon insists that Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense and should have throngs of protesters in his corner. Ashley notes that many who said they supported Rittenhouse have now seemingly abandoned the cause. They haven’t even spoken to each other, and both have been here for more than 24 hours.

Bishop Tavis Grant is planted with his own sign right next to Brandon. He tries to describe the absurdity of the past three days. It’s about 1 degree Celsius — or 33 degrees Fahrenheit — here, where we stand one hour away from the city of Chicago. My phone shut off in the middle of an interview because of the bitter cold. The weather has probably kept much larger, expected groups of protesters away.

“We’ve come to know the opposition, and we’ve come to know their position, and we’ve come to live and let live,” Bishop Grant says. “There’s been no violence, per se, on the steps of this court, and there’s been no violence, per se, since that night.”

There was a scuffle yesterday, however, and there was another person who turned up with a gun. The McClockseys – a Missouri couple who infamously pointed weapons at BLM protesters last year and one of whom is running for Senate – also briefly turned up this week.

Several Kenosha-area schools have transitioned to virtual learning in advance of the verdict, terrified of unrest that hit the area last year. One business owner, Michelle Reber, says it was “like a war zone” last year – and people are afraid. No one is boarding up ahead of the verdict, mostly because everyone wants this to simply go away. People in Kenosha are “tired and angry,” says a local barista, adding that residents are torn between ignoring the racial uproar, joining advocacy campaigns and… hoping everything just blows over.

A five-minute walk from the courthouse, Wisconsites are gathering at one of the swankiest coffeehouse-eateries in town. (There’s not a lot of choice.) They’re showing off photos of a dealership set on fire last year and the frenzied attempts of business owners to board up their premises. Some are loudly supportive of former president Trump.

“It’s a human race issue; it’s not a black and white issue,” says Brittany, a trainee nurse living in Kenosha who’s originally from Chicago.

“Destruction might have to happen; sometimes that’s necessary ... to draw attention to the cause,” she adds.

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