Rittenhouse acquittal: U.S. criminal injustice system, vigilantes, politicians target liberation movements and ideas

December 11, 2021

The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse—who shot three racial justice protesters in Kenosha, Wisc., last year, killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz—was not surprising but nevertheless gave a green light to reactionary, racist killings.

“Rule of law” with equality on paper was an achievement of revolutions and movements, but in practice is limited because it is interpreted by racist, sexist, capitalist police and courts, which in general identify with vigilantes and act as defenders of the system and opponents of the rebellious.

Self-defense is part of that rule of law, and while it was judged to apply to a vigilante who plunged into a protest armed and looking for trouble, it is very often found not applicable to women defending themselves from domestic violence, or people defending themselves from racist attacks, and never applies to people defending themselves from cops with guns.

Days after the acquittal of Rittenhouse, a jury in Glynn County, Georgia, came to the obvious conclusion that Ahmaud Arbery’s murder by three white men had nothing to do with “self-defense.” But the racist criminal justice system made that anything but a foregone conclusion. The district attorney in the first instance deliberately protected the defendants—her cronies—who were only charged weeks after the murder, when the murder video made by one of the killers went viral. At the trial, the judge acknowledged the intentional discrimination that yielded an almost all-white jury but claimed an inability to do anything about it because of Supreme Court decisions. The racist defense lawyer who called for “no more Black pastors” perpetrated the big lie of calling the trial a “public lynching,” when all knew Arbery was the one who was lynched.


What must be recognized is that vigilante violence like Rittenhouse’s is not an exception tolerated by the system but a necessary part of it. This has been true since the creation of the slave patrols that became the model for the U.S. police and the militias recognized in the Second Amendment, precisely because of the threat to the status quo posed by the Black people who revolted or escaped slavery. Their quest for freedom, and the backlash to it, eventually set the stage for a cataclysmic Civil War. Reactionary vigilantes are an extension of state repression of liberation movements—often unacknowledged, but lately, as in the case of Rittenhouse, sometimes hailed by national politicians.

The long history of these counter-revolutionary forces goes all the way back before the founding of the U.S. The Marxist-Humanist work American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard showed not only that that history is pervaded by racism and oppression but that Black masses in motion proved to be the vanguard at each turning point of this country’s development. The Marxist-Humanist philosophical comprehension of what propels our history forward focuses on the relationship between those masses, in their multidimensionality, and the working class, woman as reason, internationalism and freedom ideas.

The last few years’ surge of racist violence—as well as sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Left violence—often left unpunished by the police and courts, is an integral part of the production of fascism advancing in large sectors of political life in the U.S. and other countries.


The rise in violence goes hand in hand with the subversion of democracy through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and capturing and redefining election administration positions; the transformation of the Republican Party into a cult of neofascist Trumpism; the stacking of the judiciary with extremists determined to trample the will of the populace and enable the establishment of permanent minority rule by white Christian masculine supremacy. The minority rule by a plutocratic capitalist elite disguises itself with rhetoric against “elites” and the pretense to represent the masses of whites of all classes. They have been successful enough to create a legal foundation for their permanent rule regardless of the vote, and to create a mass base for fascism.

One horrendous manifestation of that trend was the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., by Nazi, Klan, and “Alt Right” counter-revolutionaries, who yelled slogans straight from 1930s Nazis and assaulted anti-fascists, killing Heather Heyer. (See “Rising U.S. racism challenges all freedom movements,” Sept.-Oct. 2017 N&L and see “Double scourge of fascism and COVID-19 shakes the world: Trump’s coup threatens U.S. democracy,” Jan.-Feb. 2021 N&L for recent developments.)

The ensuing civil trial yielded a verdict days after the Rittenhouse verdict. The finding of 25 defendants liable for violent conspiracy at Charlottesville was powered by the mass outrage at deadly fascism rearing its head both within and outside of the Trump administration. The events of this year show that that threat has not faded just because Trump was ousted—for now. In fact, as in Kenosha, it has been fueled in the last year and a half by a vicious backlash to the multiracial, Black-led uprisings sparked by the police murder of George Floyd.


These uprisings—which spread worldwide, included white youth and were led by many young women of color—are the ultimate target of killers like Rittenhouse. That is why he is being hailed as a hero and his acquittal is being celebrated by all sorts of reactionaries from senators to governors, from talk radio/TV/internet demagogues to a former president. And that is why, this year and last, several states rushed to pass laws criminalizing protesters and protecting drivers who ram them with cars or trucks. These attacks are now part of the fabric of “self-defense” of this decaying capitalist system and its representatives like Rittenhouse.

At the same time, the reactionaries wish to kill the ideas of liberation that are spreading and developing along with the revolt. That is why they have made “critical race theory” and “gender theory” into bogeymen and proxies for all anti-racist and revolutionary ideas; that is why Senator Josh Hawley bemoaned the fictional “decline of men…after years of being told that…their manhood is the problem,” in a not-so-hidden attempt to demonize feminism.

That makes it all the more important to defend freedom of thought, anti-racist ideas, and philosophy of revolution, which is needed to complete those ideas and give direction to activities. As American Civilization on Trial stressed, the social advances that have historically been won were inseparable from the intense revolt, yet “even the greatest actions need the direction that comes from a total philosophy of freedom. What is needed now is to concretize such a philosophy of freedom as the reality for our age.” As we participate in and support the revolts, it is crucial to raise the kind of Marxist-Humanist banner that American Civilization on Trial raised in the context of the whole history of the U.S., whose civilization had been put on trial and found guilty. The point now is to ensure that the revolt moves toward an uprooting that is total from the start, both abolishing the existing oppression and creating a new, human society.

–Franklin Dmitryev, for the National Editorial Board of News and Letters Committees

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