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The Slippery Slope of Self-Defense

The Kyle Rittenhouse case undoubtedly revolves around racial privilege, but it also highlights an American legal justice system whose outdated self-defense laws give individuals a free pass to get away with almost anything.

Nov 28, 2021

The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict has rekindled discourse along partisan as well as racial lines. While Republicans rejoiced at the acquittal, hailing it as a victory for Second Amendment gun rights and the restoration of self-defense as a legitimate ground for the use of force, frustration among Democrats and the left was prominent. This outrage has highlighted the shortcomings of the American legal justice system but most importantly the selective application of the law towards people of color. Systemic racism is embedded in each aspect of American social life but is most prominent in the criminal justice system. Studies show that Black men between the ages of 18-19 are 13 times more likely to get incarcerated than their white counterparts.
To this backdrop, the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict seems painfully representative of the present status quo in American society, where people of color are demonised and convicted for acts white individuals would get away with. The danger of this is only exacerbated with the consolidation of an attitude where the laws of self-defense apply to white individuals but not to people of color.
Kyle Rittenhouse was in Kenosha to protect private property, which was within his constitutional rights. He killed two individuals and injured another. Video footage used in the trial clearly shows that Rittenhouse was chased through a used car lot by Joseph Rosenbaum, a participant in the protests whom Rittenhouse fatally shot. Rittenhouse was then seen running with protesters after him. Another man named Anthony Huber struck Rittenhouse with a skateboard, and Rittenhouse shot and killed him. Seconds later, Gaige Grosskreutz stepped toward Rittenhouse with a pistol, and Rittenhouse shot him in the arm. The exercise of his right to self-defense was legitimate according to the word of the law because there was a “reasonable assumption of bodily harm in this case”.
From a purely legal perspective, the law as it is codified was applied correctly in this case. This does not automatically imply that the “law” is in line with prevalent norms in society. Self-defense laws are advantageous to alt-right groups because the prosecution’s burden of proof increases exponentially in these cases. Furthermore, state legislatures, like Wisconsin, have self-defense laws that give expansive grounds for the exercise of this right. A self-defense justification permits the use of deadly force when a person “reasonably” believes that they are at risk of death or significant bodily harm.
As the state of Wisconsin does not have a stand your ground statute, people who believe they are threatened are not required to retreat. Such rules can be dangerous when combined with a state’s open-carry law, which allows individuals to openly carry firearms. It allows for situations like the one at issue in the trial, where numerous armed strangers took it upon themselves to maintain order. Self-defense laws typically do not require someone to have good judgment and tend to consider only the moments leading up to the violence, completely disregarding whether the individual had placed themselves in harm’s way.
The problem arises when we put a person of color in Rittenhouse’s stead. I do not think the verdict would have been the same. Bias against people of color during prosecutions in the criminal justice system is an issue of undeniable importance. Republican attempts to valorize white vigilantes who use violence against others are pathetic and it is appalling to see the turn that conservatism has taken in recent times. The verdict in the Rittenhouse case is only likely to aggravate this trend.
The great threat is that there are other “Rittenhouses” out there — young men who watched this verdict and saw how the right has celebrated his actions. There is a real chance that young men out there will want to use this verdict as a precedent to commit horrible crimes and claim protection from the same self-defense laws that acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse but would probably not acquit a person of color. And that is a very slippery slope.
Aarushi Prasad is a Staff Writer. Email her at
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