Rittenhouse case, Arbery death trial reflect deepening political and racial divides – USA TODAY

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The courtroom is the latest place where the nation’s yawning political and cultural chasm is on vivid display. 

Two criminal trials, one centering on Kyle Rittenhouse‘s shooting of three people in Wisconsin and the other on three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, reflect deep divides over race, guns and even basic politics. In a third case in Virginia, more than two dozen people face civil charges stemming from the white nationalist Unite the Right rally in 2017, which became an even larger point of cultural contention when then-President Donald Trump refused to condemn the participants.

“The fact that these three trials are happening at the same time – these are hot spots of division – really helps tell the story of the last couple of years,” said Oren Segal, vice president of anti-hate group ADL’s Center on Extremism. “What these cases have in common is that they address the normalization of violence in this country, the left-right divide and, in some cases, the extremism and hate. … Race is always part of that.”

The trial of Rittenhouse, 18, has drawn the most attention of the three cases, possibly because of his youth; his decision to testify, rare for a defendant; and the circumstances of the shootings. Although Rittenhouse and the people he shot in August 2020 are white, the shootings happened during a protest after the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police. No charges were filed over the incident, which left Blake severely injured.

Polarizing political and media personalities, including Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News hosts, have taken up Rittenhouse’s cause. Fox’s Sean Hannity provided a sympathetic forum for Rittenhouse’s mother, Jeanine Pirro, calling him “a good kid,” and Greg Gutfeld said Rittenhouse took on law enforcement responsibility, making sure “these violent, disgusting dirtbags weren’t roaming the streets.”

Liberals such as civil rights leader Al Sharpton, NAACP President Derrick Johnson and U.S. Rep Cori Bush, D-Mo., said white privilege and racism are pivotal in the Rittenhouse case.

Nothing in the case appears beyond dispute. When Rittenhouse cried last week while testifying on the witness stand, observers on social media disagreed over the genuineness of his tears. 

Before the shooting, Rittenhouse strongly supported President Trump and Blue Lives Matter, which expresses support for police. Video showed Rittenhouse at the front of a crowd in January 2020 at a Trump rally in Iowa, and he met early this year with members of the Proud Boys, an extremist group the FBI has linked to white nationalism.

Judge Bruce Schroeder prohibited such information from being presented to the jury. He said lawyers could address the people Rittenhouse shot  – he killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 28 – as “looters” and “rioters” but not “victims.”

Kyle Rittenhouse judge has gotten his share of criticism: Can a judge be removed from a case? Not likely

Rittenhouse embraced by those who oppose Black Lives Matter protests

The trials unfold as the nation confronts a rise in political division; the growth in the white supremacy movement; the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people; and the massive Black Lives Matter and social justice protests that gained prominence in 2020. 

After a video went viral showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killing Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes in May 2020, many Americans condemned the display of excessive police force, and Republicans and Democrats supported racial justice and condemned police brutality against people of color.

President Trump and his supporters in the GOP pushed back against the protests, arguing the USA is not a racist nation and focusing on a few violent incidents to claim the mostly peaceful demonstrations were a threat to society.

“It was not, at least in the beginning, as much of a political football,” Segal said. By contrast, he said, Rittenhouse is “a convenient figure for those who wanted to oppose the protests that we saw around the country.”

In Brunswick, Georgia, three white men – Greg McMichael, his son Travis and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan – are on trial in the murder of Arbery, a Black man who was out on a run, in February 2020. The Georgia defendants claim they were making a citizen’s arrest. Critics call it a “lynching.”

In Charlottesville, where hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched with tiki torches while yelling racist and antisemitic chants, extremists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, Christopher Cantwell and other defendants argued that they acted in self-defense and that their rally was protected by the First and Second Amendments.

More: Defendants in Charlottesville civil trial blame police for violence at 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally

White privilege, vigilantism at center of legal cases

Incidents such as a Georgia defense attorney’s objection last week to “Black pastors” sitting with Arbery’s family have become more fuel on the fire of social division, experts said.

“To some extent, they’re exacerbating” it, said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center, the policy and research arm of an organization dedicated to reducing gun violence.

Thomas sees a parallel between Rittenhouse and George Zimmerman, who successfully argued self-defense in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old killed in 2012 while walking home from a store with snacks. Both Rittenhouse and Zimmerman had guns, and both altercations resulted in death.

“The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial should have taught us some things about this, and it doesn’t seem to have changed things at all,” she said.

‘Chased down’ and killed: Trial over Arbery’s death reveals ‘painful’ similarity to case that launched BLM

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers put about 500 National Guard troops on standby in case of unrest after the verdict in the Rittenhouse trial. Jury deliberation is scheduled to begin Tuesday after final legal arguments were made Monday in the trial. The defendant faces multiple charges, including an intentional homicide count that is the state’s equivalent of murder, which could carry a life sentence.

The prosecution claimed Rittenhouse came to downtown Kenosha with a gun, provoked demonstrators and fired after he was chased by a man into a parking lot. The defense argued Rittenhouse feared for his life. 

“I think people on both sides of this issue are feeling really angry and upset about what’s happening in this trial and about the case itself,” Thomas said. “Anecdotally, I’m hearing from both sides, conservatives and gun rights fanatics who are touting Kyle Rittenhouse as a hero and from people who are more moderate or support gun safety saying this shows us the nature of the problem in stark relief.”

Law enforcement’s treatment of Rittenhouse, including police allowing the armed white teen to leave the scene of the shootings, has been raised by those who perceive a racial disparity.

Critics “feel that a Black man who traveled to Kenosha from out of state with that type of weapon would not be treated the same way. So, in some ways, it’s also a white privilege issue,” said Steven Wright, a University of Wisconsin Law School clinical associate professor who worked on civil rights matters for the U.S. Justice Department.

In both the Georgia and Wisconsin trials, verdicts will be delivered by overwhelmingly white juries. The judge in the Georgia murder case said “there appears to be intentional discrimination” in the defense’s exclusion of potential Black jurors, but he was limited in terms of remedy because lawyers cited nonracial reasons. That case has 11 white jurors and one Black one in a county where more than a quarter of the people are Black.  

Trial over Arbery’s killing: Defense attorney fails to get Jesse Jackson removed from courtroom 

Americans divided by race, political leanings

How Americans see the facts of these cases can be shaped by their culture and understanding of racial issues, National Urban League President Marc Morial said. He blames Trump for normalizing and politicizing divides over race.

“The cases are similar: White males who decided to take the law into their own hands, not call the police but to be provocative,” he said. “What is dividing the country is around quote-unquote the right of people to engage in Wild West behavior, citizen’s arrest, bringing a loaded, high-powered, high-capacity, military-style weapon … to a crowded protest and then allege you were there to protect property or somebody’s rights.”

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said racial divisions in the USA are exaggerated. He noted more people of color voted for Trump in 2020 compared with how previous GOP candidates performed with nonwhite voters. 

“A lot of people have a lot invested in seeing America divided along racial lines,” said Gonzalez, who wrote the nonfiction book “BLM: The Making of a New Marxist Revolution.” 

A Pew Research Center survey concluded that political polarization, especially when it comes to racial justice issues, is “the dominant, seemingly unalterable condition of American politics.” It found Republicans are far less likely to note discrimination against Black people compared with Democrats. They are much more likely to observe “a lot” of discrimination against white Americans.  

“There is a sentiment in the country, of some deepening resentment about the march toward a more multicultural nation. You have many communities that have been locked out, left out,” Morial said. “Traditionally, what you’ve had is a table of power overwhelmingly dominated by … white men. And that pressure to change that has created a backlash.

“The nation has to get beyond the divide,” he said. “This kind of divide is not sustainable for the body politic.”

Verdicts could further divide nation

Whatever the verdicts in Virginia, Wisconsin and Georgia, many Americans will continue to argue over gun rights, structural racism and how the legal system treats people from different backgrounds, experts said.

The dangers posed by vigilantism have risen as states have expanded gun owners’ rights and passed “stand your ground” and other laws that increase self-defense protections for those using lethal force, Thomas said. She sees a connection between such laws and policies and people bringing weapons to polling places and government buildings and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

There’s a disparity in the use and success of self-defense arguments, Thomas said.

“There’s a real intense racial divide when you look at the application of these laws to Black and white defendants,” she said. “It’s almost always a white person who’s making that argument and seeming to get away with it.” 

Wright said he sees some positives in how the cases have unfolded, including the fact that the trials are being held at all. The Arbery defendants were charged two months after his death. Two prosecuting authorities initially declined to take action, despite a video of the shooting. 

Wright credits growing public awareness of the mistreatment of people of color, especially after the police killing of Floyd and subsequent racial justice protests.

“African Americans and many people of color already knew these things, and now I think a lot of white Americans are being confronted with these issues,” he said. “People are struggling with it. Some people don’t want to deal with it, some people want to ignore it, some people are OK with it.”

The verdicts, he said, will probably reflect the nation’s divide over whether white vigilantes should be allowed to enforce the law.

“For a lot of African Americans, including myself, the history of white men coming into communities with guns and deciding that they’re going to enforce the law brings up very painful memories of the past,” Wright said. “At least for me, it’s also sort of deeply scary.”