Here Are My Contemporaneous Articles About The Kyle Rittenhouse Shootings, Now Unlocked

If you're worried about ideological Balkanization, it's important to understand what happened here

Since the Kyle Rittenhouse trial is underway, I’ve decided to unlock the two contemporaneous posts I did about the shootings — scroll down and you’ll see both of them, one after the other. I wrote about this case twice because it demonstrated, to a disturbing degree, one of my biggest fears about the current media environment: what feels like endlessly accelerating Balkanization. We seem headed toward a point where every major news story generates at least two distinct versions of reality that are summarily adopted as true by many partisans. And the more explosive the story, the more disagreement about the facts.

The Rittenhouse case was a particularly good (or bad) example, because thanks to the number of cameras on-scene, we had a lot of details about what happened fairly quickly. Watching some major media outlets and otherwise trustworthy-seeming figures selectively ignore or tweak those details to fit a preferred narrative worried the hell out of me. It seemed pretty clear, simply from watching the videos and reading the relevant laws and legal analysis, that Rittenhouse at the very least had a decent self-defense case. Not ironclad, but decent. And yet I watched many influential media figures and politicians engage in this weird snowballing act of collective truthiness — they turned Rittenhouse into a monster, into someone who had committed obviously premeditated acts of murder, in a manner that ran dozens of laps ahead of the available evidence. As I argue in the below posts, this sort of distortion can have serious consequences, especially when it collides with the realities of a courtroom.

These posts were much more media criticism than legal analysis — I tried to be fairly modest in my claims about Rittenhouse’s legal situation, sticking more to the available video and how it was (mis)interpreted by some major outlets and figures, and I’m definitely not claiming all the legal points I did make held up over the many intervening months. If you want to see exactly what charges Kyle Rittenhouse is facing, simply click here, and of course if you want an up-to-date understanding of the case itself, you should read more recent coverage.

That being said, I wouldn’t be reposting these articles if I didn’t think they were useful. If you agree, please consider subscribing or giving a gift subscription:

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On The Feeling Of All Hell Starting To Break Loose

What in God's name happened in Kenosha last week?

Jesse Singal

Aug 30, 2020

It’s a grotesquely, quintessentially American story in so many ways. It started with violence, and that violence caused destruction, and that destruction caused more violence, and it’s unlikely things are going to end there.

On Sunday, August 23rd, Jacob Blake, a black man, was partially paralyzed by police. As video shows, a white Kenosha, Wisconsin officer shot him multiple times in the back as he tried to enter his vehicle. Blake had a warrant out for rape and other charges, and his alleged victim had called police after he had shown up at her apartment. Blake did resist arrest, including a tasing attempt, and a knife was recovered at the scene — the video is very difficult to watch. It doesn’t make sense that this was the only way, given how heavily outnumbered Blake was by armed officers. His kids were in the backseat.  

As a result of Blake’s shooting, protests broke out in Kenosha. Clearly, some of them were peaceful, but there was also what appears to be a significant amount of arson and looting. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Antioch, Illinois (about 30 miles away), was alarmed by what happened. According to the law firm now representing him, after Rittenhouse finished up his job as a lifeguard in Kenosha on Tuesday, “he and a friend went to the local public high school to remove graffiti by rioters.” After hearing that some business owners were asking others to protect their property, Rittenhouse stuck around. Someone gave him what The New York Times described as a “military-style semi-automatic rifle,” an AR-15. This small 17-year-old with a big rifle, who according to his social-media posts is a huge fan of President Trump and of law enforcement, was going to help maintain law and order. 

To talk about what happened next we need to all be on the same page, facts-wise. In a crucial piece of journalism piecing together the night’s myriad cell-phone-video clips and giving us perhaps as clear a start-to-finish recounting as we are likely to get of Rittenhouse’s activity (of course the people who were on-scene filming deserve credit as well), the Times notes that at one point Rittenhouse “offers medical assistance to protesters,” and at others he is engaging in some other not particularly eventful hanging-around. (There’s also a very helpful summary tweetstorm posted by Christiaan Triebert, a Times visual journalist. Some of what is in these videos and tweets is echoed in a subsequent charging document we’ll get to.)

It’s one pre-mayhem moment, also captured on video, that really sums up the evening, and rather morbidly: “About 15 minutes before the first shooting, police officers drive past Mr. Rittenhouse, and the other armed civilians who claim to be protecting [a car] dealership, and offer water out of appreciation.” That’s America right now: police thanking a 17-year-old with a terrifyingly deadly weapon for protecting a car dealership. We’re a developed nation?

Then, the mayhem. The charging document, based on an interview with a witness and all those videos, states that the chain of events which led directly to the shootings began when a protester started chasing Rittenhouse. Video clearly shows that as he is being chased, someone else fires a handgun into the air. So from Rittenhouse’s perspective, he’s already being chased and he hears a gunshot. “Rittenhouse turns toward the sound of the gunfire as another pursuer lunges toward him. He then fires four times with his assault rifle, and appears to shoot the man in the head,” explains Triebert. 

After Rittenhouse shoots his pursuer, there are three more shots. Then Rittenhouse calls a friend, says “I just killed somebody,” and starts running again. There are more pursuers, at least one with a handgun. Rittenhouse trips and they catch up to him and begin assaulting him, at which point Rittenhouse again opens fire. “One person appears to be hit in the chest, while another, who is carrying a handgun, is hit in the arm,” notes Triebert. There are more shots. Rittenhouse walks away from the scene, hands up as police race by him in their vehicle, appearing to try to surrender. (Some journalists and Twitter commentators found it suspicious that Rittenhouse was able to walk right past the emergency vehicles headed toward the scene of the second shooting, but from my inexpert perspective, if you watch the video it is clear that there was complete chaos at that moment. The first priority of the emergency responders, police and medics alike, appeared to be getting to the scene of the shooting to deal with injuries and, presumably, to ensure the shooting wasn’t ongoing.) According to his lawyers Rittenhouse turned himself in that night, back in Antioch.

During this brief spasm of deadly violence, Rittenhouse killed a 26-year-old, a 36-year-old, and wounded a third victim. He is facing a bevy of weapons and murder and reckless endangerment charges. This whole thing is a tragic catastrophe.


A couple points aren’t getting the attention they deserve at the moment, in part because so much journalism and commentary is geared toward making Rittenhouse out to be the embodiment of all evil (I’m sorry, but he isn’t) or some sort of heroic anti-antifa martyr (I’m sorry, but he isn’t).

One point is simply that this sort of unrest has a tendency to escalate, and fast. A man was shot in the back by police, then part of the city burned, and now two people are dead. Just like that. In the race to pretend this is all about one ideology or another, people are losing sight of the fact that chaos and violence have their own logic, and that there is a certain type of person who, when violence manifests itself, will want to insert himself into that violence, one way or another. If you read this excellent blog post, you will see that several of the people involved in this tragedy had serious criminal histories. This does not lessen the tragedy of what happened and should have no impact on how we gauge the morality or legality of Rittenhouse’s actions; my point is simply that violent scenes attract violent people, and that this is a trans-ideological phenomenon.

Rittenhouse did what he did. He pulled the trigger, repeatedly. But again: He was there in the first place because part of Kenosha burned. Part of Kenosha burned because Jacob Blake was shot in the back. And on and on and on. Even after this chain of events was set into motion, any of a million things could have halted it. As Andrew Vaillencourt, the author of the aforementioned blog post, notes, “No matter how much bourbon I throw at my higher-order thinking centers, I keep returning to the same conclusion. To be blunt, it should not have been possible for this intricate a chain of stupidity to have as many links as it does. Multiple systems failed in a very specific order to produce this outcome, and several people demonstrated astonishingly low levels of forethought in their actions” (emphasis his). And the reason this mattered — the reason people are dead — is because things were so out of control.

We know from millennia of human history what happens when chaos and violence and destruction become the norm. These forces are not easily contained. In a country that really has enjoyed a longstanding, blessed dearth of political violence by any conceivable world-historical standard — our other issues notwithstanding — it is exceptionally important to keep in mind just how fragile this sort of peace is.

There needs to be a seriously thorough probe of what happened in Kenosha Tuesday night. How did this escalate to a running gun battle in the streets? Which authority figures failed, and how? Why did no one on his ‘side’ — meaning police or his fellow vigilantes — notice that such a young-looking 17-year-old had an AR-15 and tell him to get the hell out of there? (Rittenhouse was charged with a misdemeanor for carrying the weapon despite not being 18, but there’s some ambiguity in light of a quirk of Wisconsin state law which appears to allow under-18 possession of long guns unless certain other conditions are met as well — for what it’s worth, PolitiFact notes that “Whether Rittenhouse violated Wisconsin law by possessing a firearm underage is the subject of ongoing litigation.”)

It was all such a heartbreaking disaster. And there are other victims, in addition to the deceased and their families: Kenoshans themselves. No one wants this sort of thing in their city. There’s a reason rich people pay huge sums to put themselves at a far remove from anything like this ever happening in their communities. It’s absolutely corrosive to the soul of a place, to everyone’s sense of safety and stability. It’s not fair. People come to America in droves to escape exactly this.


The other thing I’m worried about at the moment is the possibility that, in part because of skewed and ideologically motivated media coverage that strips context from both the Blake and Rittenhouse shootings, there will be shock and surprise if Rittenhouse is acquitted of most or all of the charges against him, no charges are even brought in the Blake shooting, or both.

People are not going to want to hear this, but a post on the legal blog Simple Justice makes relatively strong, if somewhat circumstantial, cases that the shooting of Blake could be legal and that Rittenhouse’s shootings were self-defense, which would moot many of his other potential legal problems. (The post mentions a rumor about Blake having a gun, but he did not, according to this USA Today fact-check, which also discusses some of the ambiguity about whether Blake had on his person a knife that was recovered at the scene.)

This does not mean either act was morally right. It just means that neither case is as legally straightforward as some are making them out to be, which could lead to legal outcomes that certain members of the public — having imbibed ideologically driven media accounts that exaggerate here and downplay there in an attempt to stay within eyeshot of the party line — could find outrageous.

It has been particularly disturbing watching mainstream outlets ignore the fact that the chain of events which culminated in the two killings during the protests did, in fact, begin with someone chasing Rittenhouse and Rittenhouse looking back at the sound of gunfire to see someone lunging at him. 

Vice, for example, ran this account by Tess Owen:

Hours later, after a confrontation between protesters and militia men, Rittenhouse opened fire, according to bystander video from the scene.

On Tuesday night, Rittenhouse joined up with a crew of pro-cop vigilantes and militiamen who had been standing guard by a gas station. He was shown on video palling around with police officers, who thanked him for being there and gave him a bottle of water — even though it was after the 8 p.m. curfew.

First he allegedly killed a protester, by shooting him in the head. Then he tried to run away, while talking on the phone: “I’ve just killed someone,” he said in video captured on a cell phone.

A crowd of protesters then chased Rittenhouse down a street, a scene captured from multiple angles on cell phones. He tripped, fell, and just as two protesters came toward him, he sat up, aimed, and opened fire. He appeared to shoot one person in the chest, killing them, and injured a second with a bullet to the arm.

It is depressing that this was published in a major news outlet. The single most important detail in any ambiguous shooting — what happened immediately prior — is left out entirely. Readers are kept ignorant (or maybe the better phrase is “protected from”) the reality of the initial shooting, which is that there is, at the very least, a non-ridiculous self-defense argument to be made. “Rittenhouse shot someone who was lunging at him after he heard a gunshot nearby” gets transformed to the more ideologically digestible “he allegedly killed a protester, by shooting him in the head.” This is one of those situations where a sentence is simultaneously true in a narrow, literal sense, and yet also deeply misleading.

Whereas Vice simplified things by simply not quite telling readers what happened, Slate took a different route: pretending the self-defense claim is some ridiculous, dangerous right-wing talking point rather than an at-least-arguably reasonable interpretation of events.

In that piece, Mark Joseph Stern, one of the site’s leading lights on legal issues, makes this argument: “Indeed, the argument for self-defense boils down to this: If civilians try to seize a weapon from a gunman who just shot somebody in the head, that gunman has a right to shoot them. If this theory were legally correct—thankfully, it isn’t—then a person who tries to grab a mass shooter’s gun may be legally killed by the shooter himself” (emphasis his). Of course this leaves out the crucial bit, which is that the first shooting may have been an act of self-defense.

If, for the sake of argument, this turns out to be true — that Rittenhouse has a decent self-defense claim for the first shooting — then the following things can all be true at the same time about what followed:

(1) From Rittenhouse’s point of view, he shot someone in self defense, and then people began chasing him. When they caught up to him and began assaulting him, he shot them in self-defense.

(2) From the point of view of the people chasing Rittenhouse, all they knew was that Rittenhouse just shot a protester and was trying to get away. That is, they would have had no way of knowing that the first shooting was in self-defense, and would have simply viewed themselves as attempting to prevent the escape of — and to hopefully disarm so as to prevent further shootings on the part of — someone who had just shot someone.

(3) Authorities could look at (2) and theoretically determine that no charges should be filed with regard to either the assaults on Rittenhouse (by people who thought he had just shot someone but didn’t realize he had done so in self-defense) or Rittenhouse’s decision to open fire (since from his point of view, it was yet more self-defense).

A situation like this is messy and hard to untangle, because during a crucial moment the different actors have conflicting understandings of what’s going on. But the point is that, contra Stern, we can believe (1) - (3) without believing that a mass shooter, as usually defined, has a right to shoot his pursuers, because a mass shooter didn’t shoot anyone in self-defense. That is, if Kyle Rittenhouse had opened fire on his first victim just for the hell of it, the nature of any subsequent shootings of people pursuing him would be quite different.

Anyway, the point is the Slate article, like the Vice article, doesn’t reflect a sincere effort to fill readers in with all the necessary information they would need to understand and think through this situation. There is obfuscation afoot.

This worries the hell out of me. People aren’t stupid. There is already widespread distrust of mainstream media, and when stories like this one are covered in this manner, it undoubtedly drives people elsewhere, either to established right-wing news sources or to random YouTube weirdos, or what have you. You need to write about these stories in a complete and honest manner. It doesn’t make you a Trump supporter to provide the full context and to leave some ambiguous moral gaps for readers to fill in using their own values and judgement.

I can’t believe I even have to say this.


Questions? Comments? Predictions about how bad things are going to get? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The image of Kyle Rittenhouse attempting to surrender comes from The New York Times via Storyful.


Kyle Rittenhouse And The Problem Of Left-Wing Epistemic Closure

This is an uncomfortable case for many on the left, but the facts matter

Jesse Singal

Dec 4, 2020

Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who killed two people and wounded a third during the unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin this summer, appears to have a pretty decent self-defense case.  

Now, depending on your political orientation, this might make you uncomfortable. It might feel gross to even consider this claim as something that could potentially be true. But the available evidence tells a story amenable to the idea that Rittenhouse did, in fact, shoot in self-defense, in all three instances.

No one has looked into the events of that night more closely than the Washington Post, which recently published a minidocumentary focused on how Rittenhouse came to cross paths with Joseph Rosenbaum, the first person he shot and killed. 

The Post’s reporting confirmed what the available video already appeared to show. Namely that Rosenbaum, who had just been released from a psychiatric institute that day and who had an almost unfathomably traumatic, violent life, chased Rittenhouse a fair distance, without any apparent provocation on Rittenhouse’s part, before closing in on him at around the same time someone nearby discharged a firearm. Rittenhouse shot a guy who was attempting to lunge at him. 

Under Wisconsin’s self-defense language, one could pretty straightforwardly argue this qualified. As the Chicago Tribune explained in September:

Wisconsin statute allows a person to shoot in self-defense if the person “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.” In other words, attorneys said, a man can fire to repel a serious threat but can’t kill someone who is throwing pebbles at him, for example.

The law also contains caveats to the right of self-defense.

Several attorneys said the case could come down to whether Rittenhouse provoked attacks. The law states that a person who “engages in unlawful conduct of a type likely to provoke others to attack him or her” can’t make a valid claim of self-defense unless “the person reasonably believes he or she has exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm.”

I’m not saying this is an open-and-shut case, but it seems, on its face, reasonable that Rittenhouse may have felt he risked “great bodily harm” at the hands of Rosenbaum, and then at the hands of the two other people he shot, both of whom were pursuing him: Anthony Huber, who Rittenhouse shot and killed after Huber struck him with a skateboard, and Gaige Grosskreutz, who was holding an actual handgun when Rittenhouse shot and wounded him. (To be fair, the Trib also includes, further up, an attorney who says he is skeptical of a self-defense claim here, but he doesn’t explain why Rittenhouse wouldn’t think he risked “great bodily harm” at the hands of his pursuers.)

None of that is to say that Huber and Grosskreutz were wrong to be chasing Rittenhouse, of course — perhaps from their vantage point all they knew was that Rittenhouse had just shot someone, and they wanted to prevent him from shooting others — but the point is that one needn’t squint nor twist the facts here to believe Rittenhouse has valid self-defense claims. First, he was getting chased by one guy, who he shot after that guy lunged for him. Then he was getting chased by two other guys, one of whom struck him with a skateboard and the other of whom had a handgun out, who he also shot as they closed in. There is no point in this sequence at which Rittenhouse was not responding to immediate threats.

But wait!, you might ask. Didn’t he have an illegal weapon? Yes, but it doesn’t matter. One of the charges Rittenhouse faces is unlawful possession of a dangerous weapon while under the age of 18, but that’s a misdemeanor in Wisconsin, and it has no bearing on the self-defense claims. He could be acquitted of the murder and assault charges he is facing but convicted of the misdemeanor.

I want to be really clear that I think it was a damn catastrophe that Kyle Rittenhouse was out there that night, toting a giant weapon, in the first place. He’s a child. He should not have been anywhere near such a potentially violent scene. It doesn’t matter that he wanted to help protect local businesses, or that he cleaned up graffiti earlier in the day. The presence of an inexperienced 17-year-old with a weapon like that greatly increased the probability of a tragedy occurring, and that’s exactly what happened. Of course, Rosenbaum shouldn’t have been there either — he was a mentally ill man with a history of violence caught on camera trying to antagonize someone else earlier in the night. This whole thing was a tragedy. But that doesn’t bear on the question of whether Rittenhouse has a reasonable self-defense claim, and it appears he does.

***

Some mainstream outlets, the Post foremost among them, have done a reasonable job reporting on what happened in Kenosha that night. But as I complained about shortly after the event itself, others botched this story. Rather than carefully report and analyze the available evidence so as to attempt to reconstruct exactly what happened and when, they embraced a rightside-norms approach to this story, doing everything they could to paint Rittenhouse in as evil and murderous a light as possible and to downplay or erase the possibility of a self-defense claim or any other nuance or mitigating factors.

Vice’s article, for example, was completely ridiculous — just a total abrogation of basic journalistic standards. It falsely presented the situation as having been sparked by a standoff between protesters and militia men that led to Rittenhouse “allegedly kill[ing] a protester, by shooting him in the head,” ignoring the fact that Rosenbaum was chasing Rittenhouse and they were a fair distance from any sort of ongoing confrontation between the two groups. 

Slate’s initial article was better, but not by much — while it initially described the exchange between Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum accurately, it also included a paragraph that was deeply misleading about the actual order of events (as I pointed out at the time in the above-linked-to post).

Anyway, fast-forward a bit. Last month Rittenhouse was released on $2 million bail raised via donations (his family does not have much money). This was met with outrage by a wide swath of progressives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

In this view, the only real explanation for Kyle Rittenhouse being released on bail is structural racism, privilege, white supremacy, and so on. It can’t just be that the judge looked at the case, factored in variables like Rittenhouse’s lack of a criminal record and close ties to the community, and decided that while the bail should be set very high, there should be bail set nonetheless — and that despite the charges against him, he didn’t appear to be too dangerous to release. (You can read more about Wisconsin bail policies here.)

AOC’s explanation makes a lot more sense if you don’t know the specifics of the case — if you believe that Rittenhouse initiated the events that led to the shooting, that he went out of his way to kill people, then of course it’s outrageous that he’s now out there in society. One should be more outraged about someone getting out on bail if there’s strong evidence they instigated fatal shootings than if there’s strong evidence they have a reasonable self-defense claim. He could kill again!

Of course, if you stick more carefully to the facts, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Kyle Rittenhouse is about to go assault or murder someone. Again, this might make you uncomfortable, especially if he isn’t a member of your political tribe — he’s definitely not a member of mine — but in complicated, emotionally fraught situations like this, we should try to stick to the facts. And yes, Rittenhouse is now a right-wing cause celebre. Okay. So what? Does that change what is and isn’t on the video?

***

Back in 2010, the concept “epistemic closure” made a big splash. “First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, [it] has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation,” noted The New York Times. At the time, Sanchez was referring to Tea-Party-era excesses on the right: “Conservative media, Mr. Sanchez wrote at juliansanchez.com — referring to outlets like Fox News and National Review and to talk-show stars like Rush Limbaugh, Mark R. Levin and Glenn Beck — have ‘become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.’” If you think Obamacare can be reasonably construed as a Marxist policy, then you may have an epistemic closure problem.

While I’ve written plenty about right-wing epistemic closure, and while we have the very embodiment of it still slunking around the White House for another month and a half (epistemic closure is a major reason so many of his fans believe he actually won the election, after all), part of the reason I cover the subject of progressive epistemic closure frequently on Singal-Minded is because I really do think it’s a growing problem. 

A major cause of this is the complete evisceration of journalism — an evisceration that has disproportionately hit the small and midsized newspapers most committed to old-school, ‘traditional’ newswriting, a style which certainly has its faults but which also has a natural built-in resistance to epistemic closure. Those who are still employed in journalism are more likely to have jobs where the incentives point toward outrage and tribalism — again, rightside norms rather than accuracy norms. If you’re a journalist or pundit in good standing among your fellow progressives, and you watch the videos and think Kyle Rittenhouse has a decent self-defense case, the last thing you want to do is publicly express that opinion, because 30 seconds after a story like this breaks, it becomes, as that Washington Post video put it, a “litmus test” for people’s tribal identifications. 

Many people are walking around with a false notion of what happened in Kenosha on August 25th in their heads. They have been misinformed by media outlets, pundits, and some politicians. That’s a problem because it leaves them ill-equipped to interpret whatever comes next. The outrage over his (very high) bail is one example. But other, bigger ramifications could ensue. Let’s say I’m right, the self-defense claim prevails, and Rittenhouse is subsequently acquitted of the most serious charges. For those of us who know and have absorbed the full facts, this won’t be all that surprising. For those whose view of the world is distorted by a fog of epistemic closure, it will be shocking, outrageous — He killed three people in cold blood! The only explanation for his acquittal will be white supremacy or some other corruption, because how else could a jury acquit such a monster? And this explanation will serve only to further reinforce people’s preexisting ideological and tribal commitments, driving them deeper into their worldview and toward pundits and journalists who see the world the same way they do. Epistemic closure is a one-way street.

***

One more time: Kyle Rittenhouse never should have been out there. The deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber are tragedies. The wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz is a tragedy. Violence is always a tragedy. This entire night was a catastrophe. None of that is in dispute.

But we need to be able to hold multiple conflicting thoughts in our head at the same time if we’re to make sense of the world in an adult manner. All the above can be true, and it can also be true that Kyle Rittenhouse has a decent self-defense claim. That’s what the evidence suggests, and the more progressives reject the ideal of reviewing evidence in a clearheaded and unbiased manner, the worse off we’ll be.

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Questions? Comments? JFK-assassination-style frame-by-frame breakdowns? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The image of Kyle Rittenhouse’s mugshot is from everywhere.