Skip to main content

Another vigilante escaped justice. What now?

john a. powell, director, Othering & Belonging Institute | November 19, 2021
Kyle Rittenhouse is comforted by his lawyer as he was acquitted of all charges at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 19, 2021.

Kyle Rittenhouse reacts to his acquittal of all charges at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (AP Photo)

Today, another vigilante escaped justice.

Somehow, a jury in Wisconsin found that Kyle Rittenhouse was justified in driving across a state border and killing two protesters, wounding a third, and firing on a fourth with a semi-automatic rifle.

I can’t help but feel a great sense of unease about what this verdict will produce, both in terms of legal precedent, as well as social unrest. What makes the situation more tragic is that the killings that evening in Kenosha took place against demonstrators who themselves were protesting against the police shooting of Jacob Blake, another victim who received no justice.

My fear is that this verdict will further legitimate the racialized vigilantism we’ve long been witnessing across the country, whether on the border with Mexico, or in our towns and cities where our fellow citizens are being radicalized and encouraged to join militias and white supremacist groups.

As we know from the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, a failure to convict is tantamount to the state telling its citizens they have the right to go out looking for trouble and kill anyone they deem as suspect or threatening, even if the victims are unarmed and minding their own business.

As the Rittenhouse trial concludes, we’ll again be holding our breaths to see what happens to the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia for the crime of jogging while black. And while a guilty verdict would allow us to breathe a momentary sigh of relief, this too has the potential to further polarize a heavily armed country inching toward a new civil war.

Those who support the killers in these trials believe them to be heroes who are protecting the rights and freedoms supposedly being taken from them. A guilty verdict in Georgia would support their belief that the system is rigged against white people, and that the government is here for the benefit of people of color. This could lead to more guns, more vigilantism, and more violence.

But this doesn’t mean a grim outcome is inevitable in every case. This week I was surprised and somewhat encouraged to hear that the most prominent of the Jan. 6 rioters sentenced to prison has apparently changed his views on what led him to descend on the Capitol, and has begun a “healing process.”

We’ll have to wait and see if his sincerity is real, but I don’t believe anyone is irredeemable. Expressions of regret by perpetrators of crimes are a first step to allow the victims and their families to begin healing too.

But what happens to the country after the disappointing verdict in Wisconsin today, and whatever the jury decides in Georgia, depends in part on us too. We have at least two choices. Either we can continue to demonize, denounce and cut off communication with those who don’t share our beliefs, which will produce predictable outcomes. Or we can find ways to hold on to our values while allowing the possibility of engaging with our opponents.

Can we acknowledge the fears and anxieties of those who take up arms and use violence against people and groups they deem to be the enemy? If we understand that part of the appeal of joining militias and adopting an ideology like white supremacy is due to a sense of isolation and wanting to belong, can we resist the temptation to further aggravate those feelings? Can we offer them membership to another world, a world we co-create and where everyone belongs?

I believe this is the more effective way to disarm vigilantes. And while we must stop the violence, no one’s humanity should be put into question.

If Rittenhouse and the men who killed Arbery found it within themselves to engage in self-reflection and soul searching, however unlikely, would we be willing to facilitate their healing so that we, ourselves, and our society, can heal too?

Last year the man who gunned down 51 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand faced the victims’ families in court. For three days straight the world listened as the families told heart wrenching stories of losing loved ones. Some of them cursed the killer and wished him dead. Yet somehow others found it within themselves to forgive him.

At the end of the trial, when given an opportunity to make a statement, he remained silent. He offered no remorse, but he also didn’t use the opportunity to promote his hateful ideology, as many had anticipated he would.

There are several complications as we address these heinous acts of violence that take place both in our country, and around the world. How do we stop them? How do we hold the individual responsible while holding on to their and our humanity? What is it about our societies and structures that make these acts so frequent that they cannot be simply reduced to bad actors?

It is not just a problem with the bad apple, there is something wrong with the tree and possibly the soil. How do we critically and honestly look at our country, and yes, it is our country, while acknowledging and holding it to its best ideals? This calls for a different way of communicating, doing, and being.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we should bridge with those who want to kill us because of our identities, beliefs, or for any other reason. We cannot risk our lives or put ourselves in a position where we could be physically harmed in this moment of heightened tension.

What I am saying is that if we pause for a moment, temper our emotions, and signal our willingness to sit down with our perceived opponents, we may be surprised to discover that some of them may be willing to sit down with us too. We have to be brave enough to leave the door open to create the possibility to bridge with those brave enough to bridge with us.

We may never know whether or not the moving testimonies of the families in New Zealand had any bearing on the conscience of the killer as he sat in the docket listening to their stories of suffering. But they may have. And if some of the families found it within themselves to forgive a white supremacist mass murderer and, in effect, recognize his humanity, can’t we at the very least find it within ourselves to see the humanity of our neighbors who hold different beliefs?