The Rittenhouse trial

November 30, 2021 09:46
Kyle Rittenhouse testifies at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Photo: Reuters

The Kyle Rittenhouse case has split America asunder. Conservatives are of the view that not only was Kyle innocent, he was, in fact, a hero – one who had sought to uphold American values of property rights, citizen independence, and the autonomy of those who had been deprived of options and protection during the raucous ‘riots’ that rocked America in the summer of 2019. Progressives, on the other hand, loathe Kyle – they see him, especially in light of the recent verdict, as a typification of everything wrong with the American judicial system, as well as an epitome of white, unbridled privilege. Liberals, as usual, would hop to the defense of institutions and systems, whilst lamenting the embedded racism within the masses – including members of the jury. One sees what one wants to see – that’s the state of contemporary politics, most particularly the case in America, a society defined and pried apart by ethno-religious and racial tensions.

It is imperative that we break down the controversy surrounding this case into several distinctive, albeit interconnected, claims. The first revolves around whether there exist procedural grounds for us to question the validity of the verdict. The second concerns whether the media coverage and reporting of the case has been justified. The final question, then, revolves around what we are to learn from this particular incident, and the ensuing fracas. These are three separate questions – conflating them would be a category error, one with grave implications. The relentless politicisation of the case in the media could not possibly be conducive towards the genuine upholding of the rule of the law – especially given the false equivalences drawn across all three questions here.

First, on procedural justification. Judge Bruce Schroeder has certainly drawn the ire – and scrutiny – of many a courtroom commentator. Judge Schroeder was temperamentally impetuous, aggressive, and vociferous in his interference – cf. his outbursts, e.g. “Don’t get brazen with me”, “I have no idea why you’d do something like that.” (to the counsel), and “That’s absolutely untrue.” – though one may, correctly, argue that a vicious personality need not be procedurally defying. More worrisome, perhaps, were Schroeder’s blatant interventions, such as his ignominious weighing-in on whether those shot by Rittenhouse could be called “victims” – apparently, because Rittenhouse had asserted that he was defending himself against the “rioters”, it was therefore not in order for the courtroom to employ language suggesting victimhood in relation to… those shot and killed by Rittenhouse. Or consider, instead, Schroeder’s granting of the defense motion to throw out the gun and weapons charge. None of these amounted to gross or apparent violations of any legal protocol – to be fair to Schroeder, he did not break any rules or regulations governing what he was not permitted to do. Yet the precise means by which he opted to exercise his discretion rested upon questionable normative and empirical grounds, which – whilst insufficient in rendering his ruling void – more than suffice in justifying the raising of a few eyebrows towards his ruling. A due and thorough investigation is probably needed, but to recall and/or sanction Judge Schroeder, as a change.org petition calls for? That seems excessive.

Second, on the media coverage. I’m no legal or media communications expert, and certainly no expert on the case here. Armchair commentators and pundits often tend to portray polarising legal cases in language and ways favourable towards their own stance – full-stop. Hence it was relatively unsurprising, then, to see headlines such as “Kyle Rittenhouse wasn’t convicted because, in America, white reasoning rules” (The Guardian) or “Kyle Rittenhouse recounts Kenosha riots, reacts to media portrayal of trial in first interview since acquittal” (Fox News), blasted across American media. If anything, that Rittenhouse hadn’t been officially adopted by the Trumpist faction of the Republican Party as their New Darling does – and should – come off as more of a surprise. Irrespective of where one stands politically or ideologically, one proposition should come off as relatively conspicuous and indisputable: in 21st century America – as with 20th century America, or American before then – politics comes above the law in the mass’s interactions with the law. Whilst the court room may well succeed at keeping politics out of the sentencing and ruling components, it fundamentally lacks the wherewithal and capital to prevent the overt politicisation in public media and discourse, by conniving and thriving media outlets. The Rittenhouse trial’s reporting has hence been far less about the facts, and far more about what readers from either of the two major political camps in America would want to read, or would expect, from an outlet that they subjectively deem to be credible.

Third, on upshot. What are we to learn from this particular incident? How are we to make sense of the Rittenhouse trial? Rather than directing most of our outrage and emotional energy towards a singular figure (as tempting as it may be), I suggest the actual takeaway rests with the need for engendering and implementing systemic reforms – reforms to gun control laws, to the way courtrooms interact with the world and public at large, and to regulations governing civilian deployment of force in upholding “law and order”. We need a domestic just war theory – in light of the surge in uncivil and civil disobedience across the world. Much of the theorisation and analytical construction here remains work in progress – and it behooves all parties to work jointly in ensuring that America’s future is minimally just and fair for all ethnicities.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review