Four people are dead. One criminal trial is pending, while a second will never take place. And amid all that death and uncertainty, the two shooters at the heart of the incidents are enjoying spectacular martyr status on the right.
Jake Gardner, an Omaha, Nebraska, bar owner, who shot and killed a Black man during local Black Lives Matter protests in May, died of suicide this week, according to his lawyer. This just days after Gardner was indicted for alleged manslaughter, use of a firearm in commission of a felony, attempted first-degree assault, and terroristic threats in connection with that incident.
As news of Gardner’s death broke, right-wing commentators were quick to valorize him as the victim of leftism run amok. It’s the same playbook many on the far right—up to and including the president of the United States—employed in defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old accused of murdering two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.
The body count is growing. And rather than pumping the brakes, some on the right are holding up Gardner and Rittenhouse as models to follow.
“These tropes of righteous violence and lawlessness are hardly new,” said Michael Pfeifer, a professor of history focusing on collective violence at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noting a long tradition of ideologically motivated violence in the country. But, he said, those tropes “do seem to emerge at times of profound cultural conflict, for example over race.”
The racial justice protests that emerged after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police in May appear to be one such conflict.
Details around Gardner’s killing of 22-year-old James Scurlock remain murky, bound up in hotly contested cell phone footage and court documents that might never see the light of day. A minute-long confrontation caught on video shows Gardner and his father standing outside one of Gardner’s bars on May 30, after unknown persons broke one of the bar windows. The sometimes-chaotic footage appears to show the elder Gardner shoving a protester, a protester shoving him back, Jake Gardner flashing a gun and firing shots, Scurlock jumping on his back, and Gardner shooting Scurlock in the chest.
A local prosecutor initially declined to charge Gardner, characterizing the shooting as an act of self-defense. The decision sparked outrage, with some locals accusing Gardner of harboring racist sentiments. Former colleagues, friends, and patrons accused him of discriminating against Black customers or using the n-word in conversation, with one former Black employee telling Yahoo News that Gardner had become violent with him during a dispute over pay and answering “I might be” when asked if he was racist. (Neither Gardner nor his attorneys responded to those allegations.)
Last week, a grand jury overturned the local prosecutor’s decision not to press charges against Gardner, and a special prosecutor announced that the jury had decided to indict Gardner based on evidence from his phone, his Facebook account, and footage from inside his bar. The special prosecutor announced that “there is evidence that undermines [Gardner’s self-defense claim]—and that evidence comes primarily from Jake Gardner himself.”
Gardner’s attorney, Stuart Dorner, announced his death in a press conference, pointing to the stress of the pending criminal case. “The grand jury indictment was a shock to him,” the lawyer said. “He was really shook up.”
With Gardner dead, the public might never learn what the grand jury reviewed. Dorner, who has spoken on behalf of Gardner’s family after his death, did not return a request for comment. But in some corners of the internet, Gardner was already an icon of self-defense, and now was veering toward a new tier of far-right esteem.
Shortly after Gardner’s death was announced, far-right commentators blamed it on the left. Figures like Ann Coulter implied that the left had pressured local officials into appointing a “black prosecutor” in the case, leading to Gardner’s death. Others piled on that same prosecutor, and launched sexist slurs and legal threats against a state senator who had called for prosecution. Conspiratorial sites like InfoWars and the Gateway Pundit lept to Gardner’s aid, with the Alex Jones flagship site claiming that Gardner was “railroaded by Marxist discrimination.”
In this crowd’s telling, Gardner was an upstanding business owner defending his bar from rioters (or, in the preferred stylings of some Twitter users, “BLM terrorists”). Some even invoked language typically used to memorialize Black people killed by police, tweeting that people should “say [Gardner’s] name.”
The outpouring of outrage on the right mirrored that toward Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Blue Lives Matter fan who traveled interstate to participate in an armed group patrolling Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, ostensibly to protect property—and allegedly shot and killed two people. As was the case with Gardner, footage of Rittenhouse’s brawls is murky. The first man he is accused of killing, Joseph Rosenbaum, appears to have thrown a plastic bag at him. Rosenbaum’s death appears to have prompted other protesters to attempt to disarm him. Rittenhouse then allegedly fatally shot another, who was trying to take his gun, before non-fatally shooting a third.
Rittenhouse has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide, reckless homicide, attempted homicide, underage weapon possession, and reckless endangerment. That has only served to invite a surge of funds and support in his direction, ranging from a recent $50,000 donation from a gun group, to disturbing comments from a conservative commentator celebrating that Rittenhouse (a teen) had “a couple of pelts on the wall” and was therefore “gonna have to fight off conservative chicks with a bat.” The same commentator claimed Rittenhouse would become rich from suing people who accused him of racism. Rittenhouse’s legal team has raised more than $700,000 in his defense, despite the resignation of a Twitter-prolific attorney who was millions in debt.
Even Donald Trump Jr. weighed in, characterizing the killings as the follies of youth. “Maybe I wouldn't have put myself in that situation—who knows?” Trump Jr. said. “We all do stupid things at 17.”
Casting anti-protest figures as unfairly persecuted icons is not a new move, even if it does seem to be veering even further off the deep-end in this latest phase of the Black Lives Matter era.
St. Louis, Missouri, couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey made national headlines when they pulled guns on Black Lives Matter protesters who passed through their gated neighborhood in June. Though the couple faced criticism (and criminal charges) for waving weapons at the peaceful marchers, they became the subjects of idolic memes on the right, and were invited to speak at the Republican National Convention.
In a case with striking ties to Gardner's, another man recently accused of racism was retconned into a martyr of leftist persecution after his death.
In 2017, 33-year-old Andrew Dodson marched in a torchlit white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where racists famously chanted “Jews will not replace us.” After that march, he returned on the rally’s second day, during which a neo-Nazi murdered an anti-racist protester with a car. Dodson discussed the incident with the Atlantic using his own name, calling the anti-racist crowd “damn communists.” Nevertheless, he also blamed the left when his name was attached to pictures of him marching, and when he subsequently lost his job.
When Dodson died in March 2018 (no cause of death has been publicly identified), the far right seized on his passing as a case martyrdom, with white supremacist Richard Spencer calling it an act of war. To hear some, like troll-turned-congressional candidate Laura Loomer, tell it, the left had all but pulled the trigger. “Left wing insanity is killing people,” Loomer tweeted of Dodson.
Pfeifer, the John Jay history professor, noted that such thinking extended back to the American War of Independence.
“Conservative media are using this longstanding American trope of vigilantism as righteous to defend right-wing lawlessness and galvanize conservatives and the right even as they tar their ideological opponents (Black Lives Matter, etc.) as lawless,” he told The Daily Beast.
In Gardner’s case, his death marks the sudden end of a criminal case that his lawyers said would vindicate him—and Scurlock’s family said might bring justice and closure.
A lawyer for Scurlock’s family announced that they were still gathering facts about Gardner’s death, and would issue a statement later on.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741