The Volokh Conspiracy

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A Reality Check for Progressives on the Rittenhouse Case

The idea that citizens trying to protect a community from rioters are presumptively white supremacist vigilantes doesn't bear scrutiny.


Among the most interesting aspects of the Rittenhouse case has been the reaction of Progressivism, Inc. Judging from social media posts, many progressive commentators believe that Mr. Rittenhouse was clearly a villain even before he shot anyone, because anyone who would come armed to a riot claiming to want to help protect the community from rioters is almost certainly a violent white nationalist using the riot as an excuse for vigilantism. It's not possible that someone like Rittenhouse was motivated by a sense of community responsibility, duty, or other praiseworthy ends.

I have not followed the Rittenhouse case itself very closely, and I have no special insight into what was going on in his mind at the time. But having authored an article on armed self-defense during the riots of summer 2020, I know that the stereotype that many progressives have of those who engaged in such actions is wrong. Consider ground zero of the riots, Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed (from my article, which has the footnotes):

In the city's Lake Street neighborhood—which was at the heart of recent riots—restauranteur Cesia Baires formed Security Latinos De La Lake, a group of gun-toting locals dedicated to protecting the area's Latino community. Baires' group was one of many armed neighborhood watches that sprung up in the Twin Cities. It's not something that I would want," Baires told MPR, "but . . . we were left alone. . . . There were no cops that would come around. So what are we to do? Just stand there and do nothing?" The local NAACP chapter also organized groups of armed residents to guard local businesses during this summer's wave of rioting. In the city's predominantly-Black Folwell neighborhood, "it became . . . apparent . . . that the police weren't available to help. . . . [w]hen protests and ransacking of businesses erupted" in May. As a result, residents "banded  together to protect themselves[,] . . . . sitting outside businesses with guns to make sure outside groups didn't attack." After several Black-owned businesses were destroyed during demonstrations, City Councilman Jeremiah Ellison (son of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison) organized his own group of mostly-Black armed citizens. The group was formed to protect businesses in a neighborhood "considered [to be] the heart of the city's black community." In one incidence of armed self-defense during the rioting in Minneapolis, video footage shows armed volunteers standing outside a tobacco shop to help the storeowners defend the premises against rioters and looters. One gun-toting volunteer explained that while "we definitely don't agree with the looting, but we do agree with the cause for protests."

And in neighboring St. Paul:

When riots erupted in St. Paul, citizens armed themselves and guarded their property from the mobs. Notably, African-American residents were seen protecting local businesses with guns. Various videos taken during the riots show "armed black men standing in front of a store" said to be a black-owned business, as well as a "black gunman" and other "civilians protecting a store."

Or consider Kenosha itself, where the Rittenhouse shootings occurred:

As a wave of riots gripped Kenosha, Wisconsin in late-August, videos surfaced showing armed residents protecting local businesses from rioters and looters. In one such video, an armed man explains, "we're trying to protect the innocent people and . . . the[ir] businesses," while another says, "I'm on your side . . . but you can't burn down your local businesses." Another video shows armed residents protecting a Kenosha car dealership, with one telling rioters, "get the fuck away from these businesses. These people rely on this shit to live." In a third video, an armed citizen tells a journalist, "We're trying to stop [rioters] from hurting their own community."

In these and many other instances, there is not a white nationalist, or a vigilante, in sight. Just people, usually local residents, trying to protect their neighborhoods from chaos and destruction while the police stood down, usually on orders from superiors. Again, I have no especially informed opinion about Rittenhouse. But the notion that only unhinged, violent, white nationalist vigilantes would take to the streets with arms during riots is just false.