The crowd outside the Kenosha courthouse erupted into scenes of chaos, shouting and pushing on Friday as Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges.
Supporters of the teenager waved signs and proclaimed victory over loud speakers for gun control activists, self-defence and conservative causes - some of which had nothing to do with the violence that unfolded on 25 August 2020.
Simultaneously, relatives of Jacob Blake, whose shooting in the back seven times by police prompted the protest that drew in Mr Rittenhouse, called for justice for the victims and a more fair legal system that they hoped would have seen him behind bars.
People from both sides of the divide began descending on the courthouse following the verdict as passing cars honked loudly - most in support of the Illinois teenager - and security forces beefed up with cruisers, a hovering helicopter and officers clad in balaclavas with their names and service divisions blacked out with duct tape.
One woman, screaming and emotional, suffered what appeared to be a seizure on the freezing cold steps of the courthouse. At least one person present with EMT training complained to The Independent that he could not reach the woman to give as she was encircled by officers and eventually whisked off in an ambulance.
April Johnson, 27, and her 33-year-old sister, Andrea, brought their three children to the courthouse after hearing about the verdict that left them “frustrated and angry,” Andrea says.
“This is white privilege,” she tells The Independent. “This is so impossible that this boy is not guilty at all ... Everybody’s gonna think that they can do stuff like this - walk around with guns, for one, and shoot people.”
She adds: “First of all, even [if] I was just in court for a driving license [offence,] can’t no African American stand behind a judge and lean over and get that close” - referring to a now infamous-photo of Rittenhouse viewing evidence from behind his trial judge’s shoulder.
She continues: “I brought my kids so they could see this is reality - this is what goes on right now.
“Basically, we have to protect ourselves. I don’t even want to talk, I’m so irritated.”
Schools shut down in Kenosha a day before the verdict and the downtown Kenosha streets were abandoned as the local community and nation waited nervously for the verdict.
“I think people are staying away from the courthouse, because they want to be safe and smart,” local business owner Michelle Reber, 42, told The Independent on Thursday.
“I think we’re all very concerned about what’s going to happen [to] our business and our fellow businesses and our fellow community.”
Immediately following the verdict, local businesses were deciding what to do. No one had been boarding up in the runup to the verdict - but the acquittal on all charges had the properietors of cafes, eateries and other premises texting each other, deciding whether or not to close down.
At least two people told The Independent they had friends driving in from out of state to take to the streets of Kenosha in protest of the verdict.
Mr Rittenhouse, a white Illinois native, had been charged with five felonies for allegedly shooting two people dead last year with a semiautomatic weapon when he was 17.
The case, presided over by Judge Bruce Shroeder in Kenosha – just over an hour north of Chicago along the shores of Lake Michigan – has attracted national and international attention.
It is the latest chapter in this Wisconsin city for a drama which first started on the steps of the courthouse in Kenosha, a majestic building on a sprawling square just minutes from the picturesque waterfront.
It was from here that a local private investigator put out a call last summer, amidst racial unrest following the police shooting of an unarmed Black man, for armed citizens to gather and protect Kenosha. And it was that call that brought a 17-year-old from neighbouring Illinois to the normally quiet working-middle-class city halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee.
On Friday, it was at the courthouse where it all ended, as teenager Kyle Rittenhouse learned his fate after he shot three people, killing two, on a tumultuous night last August. He walked away scot-free.
Everyone involved in the Rittenhouse shooting was white, but the incident has become a flashpoint topic across the board – with groups from Black Lives Matter, antifa, Second Amendment advocates and libertarians all using Kenosha and Mr Rittenhouse as rallying cries.
The Illinois teen, an aspiring police officer, was charged with five felonies in connection with his actions on 25 August 2020, when he came to Kenosha – just over a half hour northeast of his town in Antioch, Illinois – in response to an internet call by former city alderman Kevin Mathewson. Kenosha was in turmoil after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old father, had been shot seven times in the back by local police.
Preparing for continued unrest, Mr Mathewson asked “patriots” to meet him on the steps of the Kenosha courthouse to defend the city, which has a population of roughly 100,000 and, as of the 2010 census, was 77 per cent white and 10 per cent Black.
Mr Rittenhouse drove himself to Kenosha with an AR-15-style weapon – an assault rifle he was too young to legally own at the time – and a first aid kit. He joined the white vigilantes as protesters swarmed the streets, set fires and destroyed businesses and properties. Locals were sheltering at home or fleeing to friends further outside of the city; helicopters were circling, tear gas was being deployed and reports of self-deputized armed groups with “long guns” were reverberating over police scanners.
Mr Rittenhouse was among them.
At some point, in response to warning shots fired in the air, he panicked as a figure lunged at him and shot the man four times. That set off a tragic chain of events, as others attempted to tackle the teenager and grab his weapon; two more people were shot in the process.
Mr Rittenhouse was allowed to leave the scene – still armed with his gun. There were reports of local law enforcement not only thanking the white vigilantes but offering them water. When Mr Rittenhouse finally turned himself in, he was questioned and eventually charged in the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and the wounding of paramedic Gaige Grosskreutz.
He was charged with one count of first-degree intentional homicide in connection with the death of Mr Huber; that carries a mandatory life sentence. Mr Rittenhouse has maintained that he acted in self defence.
The teen was also charged with one count of attempted first-degree intentional homicide for wounding the paramedic and one count of first-degree reckless homicide in Rosenbaum’s death.
On top of that, he was charged with two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment for firing at an unknown man who tried to kick him in the face and allegedly disregarding the fact that a reporter was standing behind Rosenbaum when he shot him.
Many were in disbelief outside the courthouse on Friday, with one white local - Bill Gregory - wearing a “Justice for Jacob” sign and holding a “Konvict Killer Kyle” homemade placard.
“The ideology of white supremacy ... there’s no place for that here in our community,” Mr Gregory tells The Independent.
He’s backed up by David DeBerge, 65, who’s wandering around with a weathered Bible and a goal of bringing all sides to Jesus.
“That’s why I came: To share truth and faith and hope and love, because this is what’s going to overcome darkness and wickedness,” he tells The Independent.
But New York native Adam, who now lives in Milwaukee and came down to see how the trial turned out, is less hopeful and magnanimous.
“This is such a high-profile trial,” he says. “I was just deeply disturbed when I saw the events that occurred down here last year.
“A lot of the big voices here, they seem like they just want to be heard and they just want their faces in the media somewhere. It doesn’t really seem like a lot of these ‘Free Kyle’ guys and whatnot have any real interest in pushing forward any sort of movement or ideology. It seems like they kind of just want their signs seen and they want to make noise.”
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