Rittenhouse acquittal raises worries about vigilantism, racial equity

Photo by Sean Krajacic/The Kenosha News via AP

The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, an 18-year-old who killed two people after bringing an AR-15-style rifle to a protest against police brutality, does little to deter future vigilantes while refreshing frustrations about racial inequity under the law, say three Northeastern professors.

“I am deeply disappointed in the jury verdict. It sends a message that individuals can arm themselves and as private citizens intervene in public protests,“ says Jack McDevitt, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern and the director of the university’s Institute of Race and Justice.

Rittenhouse’s defense argued that he was protecting himself when he shot three men, killing two of them, during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Aug. 25, 2020. The unrest was sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was left paralyzed after he was shot by a white officer. Rittenhouse testified that he went to the event to help protect private property.

A jury of 12 deliberated for three days before pronouncing Rittenhouse not guilty on all five counts. He was facing charges of first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree attempted intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment.

“I worry that the verdict may also contribute to a lack of trust in the legal and criminal justice system, particularly for communities of color who often resort to peaceful protest to highlight these very injustices,” says Carlos Cuevas, a professor of criminology at Northeastern who serves as the co-director of the university’s Violence and Justice Research Lab.

The acquittal did more than just send a troubling message about vigilantism, says Richard O’Bryant, the head of Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute.

I understand that young people can make bad decisions and you don’t want it to destroy their lives. That being said, when you do something as severe as killing somebody, I think accountability has to be first and foremost. And this verdict feels like there’s no accountability,” says O’Bryant.

More importantly, he says, the disheartening verdict chills the progress sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement: “It’s been a long two years that we’ve gone through since the killing of George Floyd, and these trials bring back the pain of what everybody has been going through.”

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