As Kenosha, Wisconsin, continues to reel from the police shooting of Jacob Blake, residents are increasingly turning their anger to so-called outside agitators who some say invaded the city to sow chaos amongst the protests—and even kill demonstrators.
“They [outsiders] tore up our neighborhood, this is our neighborhood, this is where we shop at. These are not Kenosha people,” Lonnie Stewart, 60, told The Daily Beast. “They’re coming to Kenosha, Wisconsin to destroy our city.”
Immediately after a Kenosha police officer shot 29-year-old Blake in the back several times as he tried to get into a van with his kids on Sunday, the Wisconsin city descended into fiery unrest against police brutality. Buildings burned, and cars were razed as activists decried yet another act of police violence against a person of color.
That alone provided new fodder for the “outside agitator” narrative—that rogues from out of town have used protests across America over wanton killings by cops as an excuse to riot or incite violence. Those claims haven’t always been baseless, though they are most often used as a premise to crack down on activists. This week, they were also in keeping with the be-very-afraid spirit of the Republican National Convention, which has ignored police violence except to dunk on the unrest that follows it.
But after two nights of tense altercations between police in tactical gear and residents and regional activists who defied citywide curfews, hoards of heavily-armed counter-protesters arrived in Kenosha to murderous effect on Tuesday. Police say 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a Blue Lives Matter fanatic carrying a military-style semi-automatic rifle, killed two people and injured a third after traveling from Illinois to co-mingle with other armed vigilantes looking to protect the city.
Prosecutors filed five felony charges against him on Thursday, including first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree reckless homicide—as well as a misdemeanor charge of possession of a deadly weapon.
Residents say not all “outside agitators” are created equal—and they want the far-right hordes who have taken to cheering on Rittenhouse as some kind of hero to know that.
“I was terrified when I heard that news and I really had hoped it was just talk and that they wouldn’t actually do anything,” Angie Aker, a 41-year-old Kenosha native, said of armed groups. “Kenosha is a peaceful place. It still has a small-town feel to it—almost everybody knows everyone or is only like one or two degrees of separation. There isn’t usually any of this widespread chaos.”
Right-wing media have predictably emerged as staunch defenders of the teenager, even justifying his deadly alleged actions as a necessary evil.
“Kenosha has devolved into anarchy, the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said Wednesday night. “People in charge, from the governor of Wisconsin on down, refused to enforce the law. They stood back and watched Kenosha burn.”
“So are we really surprised this looting and arson accelerated to murder?” he continued. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would? Everyone can see what was happening in Kenosha. It was getting crazier by the hour.”
Rittenhouse appeared on multiple videos taken throughout the night as the peaceful demonstration veered toward something more sinister. The Lake County Public Defender’s Office, which is listed as representing the teenager, declined to comment.
Attorney Lin Wood, who represented Covington Catholic graduate Nick Sandmann, had a team gearing up to provide support to Rittenhouse, his assistant told The Daily Beast. The lawyers have also established a defense fund on the teenager’s behalf.
In one gut-wrenching video, an armed man matching Rittenhouse’s description tripped over on a street before firing at people who seemed to be making an attempt to disarm him. During the exchange, one person was shot in the head and another in the chest around 11:45 p.m. and never got up. Another video appears to show the teenager firing several shots—before getting up and walking toward police vehicles with his hands up in apparent surrender.
A third video appears to show him running away and holding his rifle, where he is heard apparently uttering into his phone, “I just killed somebody.”
While authorities have not yet released any names, family and friends have identified Anthony Huber, 26, of Silver Lake, and Joseph “Jojo” Rosenbaum, 36, of Kenosha as the two who were killed, according to several local media outlets. Friends also say Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, was shot in the arm during the incident and was expected to survive. Grosskreutz was in Kenosha with the social justice reform group the People's Revolution Movement of Milwaukee, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
“I had to watch my friend die on Facebook, I had to watch my city burn down,” Marcus Starks, a 35-year-old Kenosha native, and friend of Huber, previously told The Daily Beast.
He proceeded to turn his ire to Rittenhouse, the new vigilante prince of the far-right.
“That boy had no business being here, let alone with open carry,” Starks told The Daily Beast, adding, “If you’re gonna close this town, close it all the way down.”
In a separate video seemingly shot at the boarded-up gas station where Rittenhouse appeared in a Daily Caller video, an individual resembling Rittenhouse is seen chatting with police officers and other vigilante guards. Rittenhouse, whose social media accounts are rife with support for pro-police causes and his affinity for guns, also was interviewed by a Daily Caller reporter before the shootings.
“So people are getting injured and our job is to protect this business,” Rittenhouse replies in the video posted on Twitter after being asked what he’s doing at the protest. “And part of my job is to also help people. If there is somebody hurt I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle because I need to protect myself obviously. I also have my med kit.”
The Kenosha Police Department said Friday nine people were arrested for disorderly conduct on Aug. 26 after officers received a tip about “suspicious” vehicles with out-of-state license plates meeting up in a remote parking lot. Cops followed the vehicles—which included a black school bus, a break truck, and a tan minivan—to a gas station where some people were attempting “to fill multiple fuel cans.” The vehicles contained items like helmets, gas masks, protective vests, illegal fireworks, and suspected controlled substances, cops said.
A Facebook spokesperson said Thursday that none of Rittenhouse’s accounts were reported prior to the shooting. Nor did the company find any evidence that suggested the teenager followed a self-declared militia group, the Kenosha Guard, on the platform—nor was he invited to their event for Tuesday evening, according to Facebook.
Still, he seemed to establish himself quickly on the scene. And while outsiders often show up at BLM protests purporting to keep peace, they have also shown a remarkable capacity for—deliberately or otherwise—inciting violence.
One of the first prominent instances of property damage tied to George Floyd-era protests, in which a masked man smashed windows in Minneapolis in late May, appears to have been the work of a white supremacist disguised as an anti-fascist, investigators later claimed in an affidavit. Meanwhile, even as initial reports suggested most or all arrests at the Minneapolis-area chaos were from out of state, nearly all of those people were later revealed to be locals.
This week, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was one of the first on the far right to fervently defend Rittenhouse, stating on his show Infowars Wednesday that the violence was just an act of self-preservation against what he described as “a community overthrow of the country.”
“I told you they’re going to ratchet this up toward the election and try to make the whole thing racial. But it’s not—it’s about a globalist takeover,” Jones said.
Jones was among several right-wing pundits defending Rittenhouse’s actions. The Gateway Pundit, a conservative blog, wrote multiple articles based on the extremely graphic videos, seemingly justifying Rittenhouses’s actions as self-defense.
In a post now taken-down by Twitter, Ann Coulter declared Rittenhouse should be her president. A contributor for Turning Point USA, a right-wing pro-Trump student organization founded by Charlie Kirk, defended the actions as a “justified shooting,” while former Major League Baseball player Aubrey Huff tweeted on Thursday that Rittenhouse is a “national treasure.”
Unrest in Kenosha was also an implicit theme during the third night of the Republican National Convention—even if no one appeared to explicitly embrace Rittenhouse’s alleged actions. Vice President Mike Pence condemned "the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country.”
“The violence must stop whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha too,” he added. Even Donald Trump Jr. has inched toward Rittenhouse's defense: The president’s son on Thursday liked a tweet from far-right conspiracy-theorist Mike Cernovich about the teenager’s “Mostly Peaceful Self Defense Initiative.”
Aker, the Kenosha native, said even “pockets of libertarians” in the city were defending Rittenhouse. “In their minds, and the way I’ve seen them talking about it, they’re hailing Rittenhouse as a hero,” she told The Daily Beast.
“I think the armed militia agitators, while they don’t represent a lot of Kenosha, showed the world the cooperation that is going on between white racist citizens, the children they’re grooming for violence and hate, and law enforcement,” she added. “It’s been more under the surface until this situation, and this really forced it into plain view. It’s probably a good thing that we’re talking about it and seeing it for what it is now. That’s the only good thing to come out of all this.”
Officials on Wednesday were already anticipating—if also perhaps inviting—more chaos with a different kind of outsider: Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced National Guard troops from Arizona, Michigan, and Alabama, were being deployed to assist local law enforcement as a city-wide curfew remains in place.
“Our town not finna be the same no more,” Elicia Pavlovich, a 29-year-old Kenosha native, told The Daily Beast. “It’s never been like this. Never. Seeing this sight, it just hurts me.”
—With reporting by Grace Del Vecchio