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A sobbing Kyle Rittenhouse already won — even before his trial is over

If convicted, he'll become a right-wing martyr. If he is freed, it's a message to others like him that prison won’t be in their future.

Kyle Rittenhouse, in an unusual move for a defendant, took the witness stand Wednesday. He cried. His defense team then made a motion for a mistrial with prejudice, which means Rittenhouse couldn’t be retried. But whatever the court rules, he has already won. 

He’s charged with ​​reckless homicide, intentional homicide and attempted intentional homicide for shooting three people (killing two of them) who were protesting the police shooting of yet another Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last summer. The protest followed many George Floyd-inspired ones that erupted across the world calling for police accountability and justice for Black lives. White allies, like the ones Rittenhouse shot, were among the protesters. Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty.

The truth is that too many white Americans probably see themselves in Rittenhouse.

If Rittenhouse is convicted, he will likely stop being a right-wing mascot and become a right-wing martyr. If he isn’t convicted, he will set a precedent for others like him to pick up guns they shouldn’t have and thrust themselves into the middle of unrest they should avoid — confident in knowing that prison won’t be in their future.

To his supporters, and even many of his detractors, Rittenhouse isn’t a monster. Not really. He was a young, dumb kid hyped up on the Foxification or Fox News effect of American discourse on the Black Lives Matter movement in a country that fetishizes guns — for show, for sport and for killing — not a white supremacist, like, say Dylann Roof. Not really. He wore no hoods and didn’t wrap himself in the Confederate flag. He’s a patriot who tried to bring calm to chaos because, as Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson told us at the time of the shooting, the adults around him wouldn’t “maintain order.” He was so nonviolent that police officers greeted him and those like him like fellow guardians of the community before he killed anyone.

He didn’t open fire until absolutely necessary. It was “self-defense,” his supporters have told us outside the courtroom and his lawyers have argued inside the courtroom. Had “criminals,” whom many of us prefer to call Rittenhouse’s victims — though the judge said they can’t be called that during the trial — not rushed him, had not provoked him, they would be alive and he would never have been charged. None of his decisions before the moments he pulled the trigger seem to matter. He defended himself. That’s all.

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I mean, look at his red, tear-stained face on the stand, so compelling that the judge stopped the trial for 10 minutes to allow Rittenhouse to compose himself. His tears tell the story. 

A “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict in a lone case can’t fix what ails us.

Those protesters made him shoot them. It was their fault, and only theirs, not Rittenhouse’s. He was trying to do good, to protect this dying nation.

And that’s the same nonsense claim people have been using throughout the U.S.

Predominantly white voters were trying to defend their freedom, so they flocked to an open bigot like Donald Trump and stormed the U.S. Capitol. Angry parents, most of them white, are storming school board meetings demanding an end to critical race theory lessons to protect white children from feeling “guilt” about America’s violent racist history and how it has created the foundation of inequity we still see today. Politicians and local officials — again, many of them white — have stoked this by framing the teaching of race and books that explore its context as something constituents should defend their communities from.

The truth is that too many white Americans probably see themselves in Rittenhouse — afraid of anyone, whether white or of color, who wants to live in a more equitable country — even if some don’t want to say so out loud. 

So many things have pointed to their being “scared” as Rittenhouse was described to have been during the protest and in the aftermath of the shooting. Frightened of losing the country their hardworking salt-of-the-Earth parents and grandparents built. Of becoming a minority among minorities. Of being displaced as the de facto right way to be a real patriotic American, of being able to define just what that means. But it wasn’t just fear that convinced Rittenhouse that he had a right — a responsibility, even — to take a gun into the middle of unrest that didn’t directly affect him. It was an entitlement, as well. An entitlement to make and uphold the rules, to make America great again.

Rittenhouse’s story is a microcosm of what America is facing, a perilous journey toward becoming something the world has never known: a fully functioning multiracial, multiethnic democracy emerging from the blood of slaves, the genocide of Native Americans and the notion that all men are created equal. No matter what you’ve heard or what you’ve been told, we aren’t there yet. We weren’t there on July 4, 1776. We weren’t there in 1865 in the smoke, ashes and shadow of the Civil War, and not even in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act a half-century ago. 

If he is freed, the status quo of America’s flawed criminal justice system, in which white offenders are less likely to be convicted, can remain just a little bit longer, the inevitable merely delayed, if not denied. If he’s imprisoned, those sympathetic to his plight have even more reason to use him as an example of how their way of life could be threatened if they don’t fight, and hard. His supporters have basically guaranteed those outcomes.

This is why, regardless of the verdict — in this case and others that are forcing the nation to grapple with what it means to be Black and white in America — it’s up to the rest of us to guarantee different outcomes. We need to make sure the disparity in who is afforded life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is honestly and continually discussed (regardless of how uncomfortable it is for people to confront the truth) and see to it that those tenets of American democracy are extended to those who have historically been left out.

If you care about saving this democracy from the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world, you shouldn’t look to a judge and a jury. Because a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict in a lone case can’t fix what ails us.