KENOSHA, Wisconsin—Hours after Kyle Rittenhouse walked free Friday, tensions began to boil over outside the courthouse where a jury decided to acquit him of all charges in the shooting deaths of two men during politically charged protests last year.
Those who welcomed the verdict held up a “Free Kyle” sign as they squared off against demonstrators with a “No Justice!” sign, and at least one arrest was made as a small protest began to turn into a shouting match. As police arrived to disperse the crowd, protesters surrounded their vehicles, with one demonstrator chanting, “I’m pissed! I’m pissed!”
Politicians across Wisconsin had urged the Kenosha community to remain peaceful regardless of how they felt about the jury’s decision, and by late Friday, it seemed the city had largely avoided the unrest that many feared would erupt.
But it was clear the city was left fractured by the decision.
“My country confuses me and saddens me,” Madison resident Frieda Schowalter told The Daily Beast. She came to the Kenosha courthouse with a sign paying tribute to the men shot by Rittenhouse, with their portraits alongside the caption “murder victims.”
“I feel really sad, I understand why they were at the protest because I’m really passionate about justice myself and so I could’ve been them. Those could have been my kids,” she said.
“If Kyle Rittenhouse was here to protect property, was Joseph [Rosenbaum], Anthony [Huber], or Gaige [Grosskreutz] breaking a window or stealing something? No. They weren’t.”
Grosskreutz was the only one of the three men shot by Rittenhouse to survive. All three were attending racial justice protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake; Rittenhouse, armed with an AR-15, said he was there to protect property from looters and rioters. The jury ultimately bought his claim that he shot the three men in self-defense as the protest spiraled out of control. Prosecutors—and critics of Friday’s verdict—have said Rittenhouse was nothing more than a trigger-happy teenage vigilante who was looking for trouble.
But many of the demonstrators in Kenosha who turned out to support Rittenhouse on Friday said they welcome the verdict precisely because they saw it as protecting the Second Amendment.
“I watched the verdict and I was pretty happy about him getting released,” said Logan Wolf, a 20-year-old Green Bay resident. “I do believe it was self defense … There is a Second Amendment right and it’s our right to own a gun,” he said.
For those outraged over the verdict, the jury’s decision points to a much deeper, and more disturbing, political reality—one where Rittenhouse got away with killing two men because he’s a young white guy who shares the same far-right stance as those in power.
Alexandra Wilburn, the daughter of Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn, said she was attending the demonstration to protest against white supremacy.
She was arrested for writing a message outside the courthouse but let go after being hit with a $700 fine. Wilburn called her arrest a “show of force” aimed at stopping “peaceful protests against white supremacists.”
Protests over Friday’s verdict were not limited to Kenosha. Larger protests erupted in New York City and Chicago, where demonstrators marched against the racial implications of the verdict. Portland police declared a riot as hundreds of protests took to the streets, some of them allegedly hurling objects at officers.
Columbus, Ohio, also faced a protest, with about 100 people marching to the statehouse to protest the verdict. A video posted to Twitter by The Lantern, the student-run newspaper at Ohio State University, showed the group chanting “indict, convict, send the killer kid to jail.”
The racial factor of Friday’s verdict was further echoed by Black Lives Matter, which released a statement on Twitter condemning the justice system itself for the jury’s decision without mentioning Rittenhouse by name. “Reminder: the system is working exactly as it is meant to,” the statement read. “The system was always meant to protect and uphold white supremacy.”