Some weeks ago, the liberal literary magazine Harper’s Weekly, of New York City, published a story about a dreary town in ‘Flyover Country’ (a derogatory term for parts of the U.S. between the cosmopolitan coastal cities) called Kenosha, Wisconsin that no one who is anyone had ever heard of (at least, the author by his own admission had not, until being assigned to cover it). The story could just as well have been told by a clever algorithm: Wisconsin matters because it matters for the Electoral College maths, which decides the fate of America and the world.
Trump won it narrowly in 2016, and it is competitive again. Kenosha is in Wisconsin. It once boasted a bustling industrial economy that provided good, stable, blue-collar jobs. Now it does not. It used to be reliably “blue.” Now it is not. It is “postindustrial”, in the far western end of the “Rust Belt”, tucked inconspicuously in the general metropolitan area stretching between Chicago and Milwaukee. There under grey skies lives the elusive and euphemistic White Working Class, driven mad by misery and poised to deliver Wisconsin and the White House to Trump once again.
In fact, as a city of 100,000, Kenosha was never particularly obscure to Midwesterners, nor for that matter to anyone with a serious interest in the problem of de-industrialisation or the history of the class struggle in the United States. It was once known to many as the site of a major sit-down strike that helped win the war to establish the United Auto Workers; now Kenosha is known again to everyone as a theatre in the war for Black freedom. On 23rd August, Kenosha Police Department officer Rusten Shesky fired seven shots at point-blank range into Jacob Blake’s back, with four connecting. A neighbour caught the attempted murder on video, which went viral. By the evening of the 23rd, people in Kenosha had risen in rebellion.
With the police department apparently caught off guard, the demonstrators seemed to more or less have the run of the place. Police defended the courthouse and the police headquarters, but lacked the capacity to prevent the torching of garbage trucks they had placed as barricades, looting of shops, destruction of car dealerships, and so on. The second night of the uprising saw the Kenosha Department of Corrections office burned right to the ground. That same night, the uprising expressed itself in Madison as well, where a handful of demonstrators, under cover of a much larger sympathetic crowd, broke out windows at the courthouse, vandalized downtown banks, and especially targeted the headquarters of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce – the largest capitalist lobby in the state, and an organization who bears no small responsibility for Kenosha’s misery. The graffiti read, “You have stolen more than we could ever loot”.
The continuity with events earlier this year is clear enough. What began in Minneapolis carried on in Kenosha, without the light ever going out in places like Portland and Chicago. But the third night of Kenosha’s uprising marked a new and disturbing development. On 26th August, 17 year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled 30 miles north to Kenosha from the nearly all-white, relatively affluent village of Antioch, Illinois, armed with an AR-15-style rifle. He was one among many armed right-wing vigilantes who travelled to Kenosha from across the region with the stated aim of “protecting property,” and the actual aim of acting out a violent fantasy. Rittenhouse’s dream came true: while defending a car dealership, he shot a demonstrator in the head; as others attempted to disarm him, he shot another in the chest, and a third in the arm. Only the third man lived. When Rittenhouse approached the police line to turn himself in, they allowed him to leave. He was back home in Antioch before he was arrested and charged.
Elements of these events also bear clear parallels with dynamics that have played out in other cities throughout the year. The collaboration of the police and vigilantes is well-known in Portland, for instance. The same dynamic was clear in Kenosha, where although the sheriff formally declined to deputize citizens, the police were seen to be thanking the vigilantes, giving them water, and, of course, refusing to arrest Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse is also not the first vigilante in America to target left-wing demonstrations; James Alex Fields rammed his car into the anti-fascist rally in opposition to the “Unite the Right” gathering in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer almost exactly three years ago. What has changed is the popular elevation of a vigilante to the status of a hero or martyr, in what might be the darkest turn yet for the reaction since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.
What distinguishes Rittenhouse from Fields? Fields was radicalized by the white supremacists of the alt-right online message boards, and was clearly associated with neo-Nazi tendencies. Trump was forced to condemn, however haltingly, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Rittenhouse, on the other hand, comes from squarely within the mainstream of anti-BLM reaction.
To my knowledge he is the first right-wing terrorist to emerge from that reaction, shaped by it as early as his pre-teen years. The symbols displayed on his social media are the typical symbols of the culture of police-worship that emerged since 2014 – “Blue Lives Matter” slogans, “thin blue line” flags, and so on. Rittenhouse would have turned 11 that year. He is a former member of a youth police cadet program, and aspired to become a police officer – and I suppose he may yet, if he avoids conviction. To his admirers, he did not attack a ‘peaceful’ demonstration, but acted as a good American in the face of an unruly mob. He was not unprovoked, like Fields, but acted in self-defence against violent rioters.
The slogan “Free Kyle” is being raised on social media, and reportedly among BLM counter-demonstrators. It is conceivable that Rittenhouse’s example will be considered or adopted by others in light of his construction as a hapless patriot only eager to restore peace to Kenosha. This is especially plausible because defences for Rittenhouse are not fringe on the right. Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson, with the highest-rated show in US cable-news history, told nearly 5 million viewers that: “Kenosha has devolved into anarchy because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it. People in charge from the governor of Wisconsin on down refused to enforce the law. They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn… How shocked are we that 17 year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
Republican Party leaders themselves have offered similar apologetics. Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos argued that Democratic Governor Tony Evers pulled the trigger himself when he declined assistance from the White House, the agencies of the latter badly tainted by their lawless repression of the Portland demonstrations. Like Carlson, he raised the spectre of the threat to property on a Wisconsin radio program: “People are literally dead because folks have had to take to themselves to try to protect their own property.” Democrats, it should be said, have been less than forthright in their condemnation of the attack on the demonstrators, still hoping to ride the fence between supporting the movement and condemning the “violence.” Their reticence cedes space to the right to define the situation.
As it stands now, it appears that the BLM demonstrators are undeterred. The movement was gifted an immense moral victory from out of left field, as it were: NBA players organized a strike in the middle of the playoffs, with the Milwaukee Bucks – favored to win the championship – taking the lead, and the action spreading to other professional athletic leagues. The course of the 2020 uprising continues to confound expectations.
Our Harper’s reader may interject: That’s all very interesting, but what does this mean for the election? Liberals fear, and the right hopes, that the BLM uprisings can produce a reaction that will give Trump another term, legitimizing a ‘law and order’ program. Polling does not seem to suggest that the uprisings have had an impact on the relative levels of support for Trump and Biden. Biden, in fact, often articulates a law and order program himself, to the extent he manages to articulate anything at all. The uprisings are producing a generation of committed leaders of the left and opponents of the forces of the state. Perhaps little Kenosha holds the key to Wisconsin’s ten electoral votes, perhaps not; but in 2020 it has already made history.