MILWAUKEE—With jurors slated to begin deliberating on Tuesday about whether Kyle Rittenhouse should be convicted of killing two people and injuring a third last August, Kenosha residents are bracing for how the verdict will impact their already-scarred Wisconsin town.
“I think we’ll probably have the same situation we had last year, if not worse,” Adriana Ornelas, a 35-year-old Kenosha resident, told The Daily Beast.
Rittenhouse, 18, is facing five charges, including intentional homicide, after killing 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber, and wounding 27-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz on Aug. 23, 2020. The shooting occurred on the third day of chaotic protests in Kenosha that erupted after the police shooting of Jacob Blake—and immediately launched Rittenhouse into the epicenter of highly politicized fights over both gun rights and racial inequality in America.
Now, Kenosha residents are terrified that the unrest that resulted in burned cars, busted storefronts, and, eventually, Rittenhouse’s trial may return after the verdict and in the event that he is acquitted, as many legal observers are anticipating.
“People are going to be angrier, and they might decide to take matters into their own hands,” said Ornelas, who was visiting her mother-in-law in Kenosha last August when Blake was shot seven times by a police officer. “I think it will be very dangerous.”
Photos circulating online on Monday showed numerous businesses already sporting boarded-up windows and at least a dozen protesters gathered outside the Kenosha County Courthouse.
Anticipation over the result of the highly divisive trial has also already prompted authorities to brace for the worst. On Friday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers authorized about 500 Wisconsin Army National Guard troops to be on standby in Kenosha ahead of Rittenhouse’s verdict.
“The Kenosha community has been strong, resilient, and has come together through incredibly difficult times these past two years, and that healing is still ongoing,” Evers said in a statement. “I urge folks who are otherwise not from the area to please respect the community by reconsidering any plans to travel to the area and encourage those who might choose to assemble and exercise their First Amendment rights to do so safely and peacefully.”
For John Fox, a 61-year-old Kenosha resident who lived near the scene of the 2020 protests and previously represented the business district as an alderman, said that the idea of renewed violence has him on edge.
“I am feeling, oh gosh, I am feeling hopeful that nothing gets out of hand no matter how the verdict comes in,” Fox, who has since retired, told The Daily Beast, calling last year’s unrest “three days of destruction and death.”
He added: “I just hope that people remain calm and don’t do any damage and don’t hurt each other.”
More than a year later, Fox said he’s seen great resilience and hope as business owners rebuilt and people regained their normal lives. But the memory remains vivid.
“What happened here was a tragedy for Kenosha, a tragedy for our country,” Fox said. “I saw so much bad those nights, but I also saw so much good. People coming together, people helping, people putting out fires.”
After a viral video circulated of a Kenosha police officer shooting Blake, a Black father, seven times, the Wisconsin city descended into chaos. For two days, Kenosha residents were subjected to hostile crowds, tear gas, and mass property damage—and became a microcosm of a national racial reckoning spurred by a plague of police violence.
On the third night of protests, Rittenhouse was among hundreds of people who were on the Kenosha streets after a city-wide curfew went into effect. For Rittenhouse’s defense, the teenager’s decision to fatally shoot two people and injure a third was merely an act of self-defense.
Prosecutors, however, argued to jurors throughout the trial that the then-17-year-old was among a group of self-styled militiamen who set out to protect boarded-up businesses—and was the only one who resorted to killing during the mass unrest.
The teenager spoke in his own defense last week, insisting to jurors that he had no choice but to fire his military-style weapon eight times during the chaotic incident.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, I defended myself,” Rittenhouse said during his day-long testimony, where he broke down crying at one point.
The prosecution and defense team finished closing arguments on Monday, meaning the jury should begin debilitating on Tuesday morning. The 12-person jury, however, will only have to deliberate on five charges—since Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder already dismissed two other low-level charges during the proceedings.
The trial has also provoked strong negative reactions from some in Kenosha’s Black community. For Charisse Henderson, a 44-year-old Kenosha resident who was celebrating her birthday last year a block from the shootings, the trial has shown more about the judge, who has lashed out about media coverage and sparred with prosecutors while on the bench, than it has about the shooter
“Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial, not the victims. (Schroeder) has a Bozo show going,” said Henderson.
In a joint statement to The Daily Beast, the Kenosha Police Department and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department said they are monitoring the trial and are working with local and federal authorities to ensure the “safety of our communities.”
“We recognize that there are varying opinions and feelings that revolve around the trial that may cause concerns,” the two agencies said.