Police

Republicans for BLM and Other Things You Don't Remember About the Summer of 2020

Did you think Kyle Rittenhouse's endorsement of Black Lives Matter was odd? Think of all the unusual stuff you've forgotten.

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I can't say I expected it to happen, but somehow it feels inevitable: Kyle Rittenhouse has endorsed Black Lives Matter. "I support the BLM movement," the culture-war lightning rod declared on Fox News last night. Rittenhouse, whose politics before his trial seemed to be those of a back-the-blue conservative, added that "there's a lot of prosecutorial misconduct, not just in my case but in other cases. It's just amazing to see how much a prosecutor can take advantage of someone."

Rittenhouse, of course, is the teen who went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, during the unrest there last year, where he shot three people, killing two of them; he faced homicide charges, argued that he had acted in self-defense, became a cause célèbre on the political right, and last week was acquitted. Since he made those comments about Black Lives Matter, my social media feeds have been filled with both liberals and conservatives questioning his sincerity. And they could be right: It's not hard to think of reasons why Rittenhouse would be trying to reinvent his public image right now. It might not seem like a great P.R. strategy to alienate your most devoted fans while your most devoted foes continue to hate you, but that doesn't mean it's not a P.R. strategy.

But he could be telling the truth too. The guy just spent a year churning through the criminal justice system, and that's been known to change a person's perspective. And it's easy to forget just how fluid people's goals and loyalties were in the spring and summer of 2020—especially early on, when the George Floyd movement was spilling across the boundaries on our conventional political maps.

For example: There was a time when a majority of rank-and-file Republicans supported the protests.

Officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd on May 25, 2020. Not long afterward, in the first week of June, a Washington Post poll showed 53 percent of Republicans endorsing the protests sparked by the murder. A Pew poll conducted around the same time asked the different but related question of how people felt about the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM did not get a GOP majority, but it wasn't a blowout either: 40 percent expressed their support.

This was after some of the marches had turned into riots. That Post poll even brought that up, asking if people saw the protests as predominantly peaceful or violent. The responses were split down the middle, with 44 percent saying peaceful and 42 percent saying violent. This wasn't a purely partisan gap: 65 percent of Republicans went with "violent," a clear majority but nowhere near unanimity. (I should add that calling the protests violent didn't always mean blaming the protesters. In the same poll, 66 percent of the country assigned responsibility for the violence to neither protesters nor police, but to "other people acting irresponsibly.") And the Post poll wasn't out on a limb by itself. A roughly simultaneous survey by Data for Progress had 44 percent of Republicans declaring that most of the protesters were peaceful.

The protests even had some support from people who armed themselves to repel rioters. That summer saw many temporary, informal, local groups—call them pop-up militias—mustering to defend homes and businesses against arsonists and looters (or, in some cases, against wild rumors that arsonists and looters were about to be bused in to town). In Kenosha, the most famous of these was the Kenosha Guard, which put out a call for "patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from the evil thugs." And Kevin Mathewson, the man who launched the Kenosha Guard, reportedly participated in a June 2 "Kneel for Nine" event to protest Floyd's death. "People were upset about George Floyd and what happened to him," he told The New York Times. "I was one of those folks."

If you have trouble taking Rittenhouse's statement at face value, you might be skeptical about Mathewson's sincerity too. Or maybe you just think we should draw a distinction between how he felt on June 2 and how he felt when Kenosha was exploding nearly three months later. OK: Then let's look at some pop-up crews that were active that first week in June—and who presumably weren't driven by white paranoia, since they weren't white themselves. On June 4, Gustavo Arellano filed a dispatch in the Los Angeles Times about "a scene repeated in barrios across Southern California," where Mexican Americans, some of them armed with wrenches or pit bulls, lined up as protesters passed by. "Residents stood outside their homes and shops to support the message," Arellano wrote, "but also to offer one of their own: Don't mess with us." Pop-up security teams also appeared in Minneapolis' minority neighborhoods, and some of them were explicitly aligned with the George Floyd movement. "They support the protests against police brutality but not the destruction," NPR reported of a group called Security De La Lake. They didn't see this as a contradiction, in part because they suspected that racist agents provocateurs were actually responsible for the violence.

I'm not arguing that this was typical of the pop-up crews, any more than I'd want to suggest that they were all like those small-town conspiracists convinced that George Soros was about to bus in an antifa army. The point is how barren the more formulaic narratives about that summer's conflicts are. Groups like the Kenosha Guard were generally comprised of "guys in the neighborhood," Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League told NPR last year. His sense was that they "tend to be right-wing" but were "not typically extremists, although there's nothing that could exclude some extremists being among them."

The protesters were not typically "extremists" either, if we must use that word. If they were, there must be a lot of extremists out there: Literally millions of people participated in literally thousands of demonstrations against racism and abusive policing in the summer of 2020. The phrase "mostly peaceful" has become a caustic joke on the right, but most of these protests were in fact peaceful. And the ones that did see violence were more likely to see a little of it than a lot of it; sporadic skirmishes were more common than blocks aflame. Riots certainly did break out in several cities, and in one—Portland, Oregon—they became persistent. But the George Floyd movement as a whole really was mostly peaceful, even if you also saw CNN using that phrase in a stupid way.

Republican opinion shifted by the end of the summer. And by the time Joe Biden was president, a lot of that early ideological fluidity seemed forgotten. The moment when the positions really hardened, I suspect, was the Capitol riot. One Republican rhetorical tack was to accuse Democrats of hypocrisy, claiming that they had tolerated the Floyd riots; and this was easier to do if you conflated statements of support for peaceful protests with support for the fires that sometimes followed. Sedition-hunting liberals, meanwhile, started seeing all sorts of flashpoints as either precursors or echoes of January 6. This too left little room for nuanced distinctions.

And so Rittenhouse was embraced as a hero by the sort of people who think Black Lives Matter is a subversive menace, and he was denounced as a subversive menace himself by many Americans on the other side of the aisle. (Outgoing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio reacted to the Rittenhouse verdict by calling for "stronger laws to stop violent extremism.") The one thing they seem to agree on is that there's a vast subversive menace out there, and that the nation's policing apparatus needs to be stronger to combat it—the exact opposite of what protesters were demanding last year. If Rittenhouse's remarks about Black Lives Matter and prosecutors can help break that spell, then I welcome his comments, whether or not they're sincere.