Before Tim got home on Friday I called him and said, “We are not going to talk about it. I am making supper and we are going to have a quiet weekend. We can’t do anything about it anyway except live our kindest lives possible and we are already trying to do that.”
“Agreed,” Tim said, without even bothering to ask what the “it” we weren’t going to talk about was.
We both understood the “it” was the Rittenhouse verdict.
Tim did come home. I put on a lovely mix of instrumentals and we enjoyed a quiet dinner of some of the best spaghetti I’ve ever made. No one yelled. No one cussed. We talked about his week and then he read the first two chapters of my new novel aloud, a thing we have done ever since I was a local columnist. Back in those days, the kids would pile on our bed on Saturday mornings as Daddy read Mama’s latest column. I often wrote about our family so it was always a treat to hear them groan or laugh over what I had written.
On Friday, however, Tim and I spent the evening talking about the new novel and how I was trying to address bigger questions of how our society mistreats people we deem “less than” , in particular poor people.
I come from a long line of poor people. Appalachian people. People who could grow the most abundant gardens along a craggy hillside but who lacked the skillset to read a C.S. Lewis children’s book. People who likely never read a novel in their entire lives. My grandfathers were both illiterate. And I never knew my Granny Leona to read anything other than the Bible, letters and the Sears Catalogue. My Granny Ruth died when I was only 3 so I have no idea how much she could read, or if she could read at all. It bemuses me at times that I grew up to become a writer, given my family’s background.
But this notion of how we mistreat the poor, actually how we often abuse the poor, is a theme in the new novel I’m working on. As Tim and I were talking about the implications of what it means to be poor in America, it occurred to me that what happened in Kenosha this week was about so much more than a flawed judicial system and a judge who worked hard to see a white boy freed from murder charges.
One only has to ask: Would this same judge have worked this hard to see a black teen set free had he brought an AR-15 out in the public and murdered two people?
Everyone knows the answer to that question is a resounding Never. That alone makes the judge’s actions racist in nature.
But, some argue, the men Rittenhouse killed were white, so it can’t possibly be a ruling about racism.
Unless all those who worked to get this angry white boy off on these charges would have done the exact same thing to get a black teen off on the exact same charges, this case is about racism.
But it isn’t just about a racist judicial system or a racist judge.
It’s about a judicial system and a judge and a jury driven by a belief system that regards the lives of some worthy and others unworthy.
During the Vietnam War, there came a time when we needed more men on the front lines. So President Johnson signed a “New Man Standard” rule that lowered the standards for those who could be drafted. That allowed the military to draft men who had criminal records, and young men with lower than average IQs. Some of these men would have qualified as “mentally disabled.” The military gave those men a specific identification so that their superiors would know that they were in the “below average intelligence” group. These men died at a higher 4:1 ratio than the average soldier. They were literally “cannon fodder” primarily used for the TET offensive.
And those who made that decision were okay with it because these men were regarded as “less than” productive citizens. They were going to be a drain on whatever community they lived in, so why not put them to good use: make them heroes? Give them a chance at glory? And in the process hopefully save the lives of men who were regarded as better people.
The jury and the judge made the same sort of calculations about the men Rittenhouse murdered.
They were not deemed by either the judge or the jury to be worthy individuals. They were a drain on society. Take the first person Rittenhouse murdered: Joseph Rosenbaum was cast as a child molester. He had been released from the hospital only a short while before he encountered Rittenhouse strutting about with his AR-15. Rosenbaum was hospitalized for attempted suicide. Who could blame the judge or the jury for deciding that sending Rittenhouse to prison for shooting the unarmed Rosenbaum at point blank range not once but 4 times was doing Rosenbaum a favor? Obviously, the 36-year old Rosenbaum had a shitty life. His mom was imprisoned when he was only 13. His stepdad reportedly sexually abused him, messing him up good. He went on, as many who have been sexually abused do, to abuse others and then on to a life of self-medication for his PTSD with alcohol and drugs. As far as the judge and jury and many media outlets were concerned, Rittenhouse helped Rosenbaum out. Rittenhouse sent him on to glory or wherever it is people like him go when they are dead.
It did not matter to the jury that Rosenbaum wasn’t armed at all, or that the plastic bag he “threw” at Rittenhouse only held a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and mouthwash, the sorts of things one gets discharged from the hospital with following a suicide attempt.
The bottom line is that the jury determined that Rosenbaum’s life was worthless. Much like those “New Man Standard” soldiers we sent to Vietnam as cannon fodder.
Rittenhouse’s second victim was Anthony Huber. Huber was a Kenosha local. He came from a big extended family, with six siblings. He had a criminal record of domestic violence with a brother and a sister. One report I read said he’d kicked his sister and tried to strangle his brother. I don’t know about you but I had similar kinds of fights with my own brother growing up, only I was on the receiving end most of the time. Huber suffered from bi-polar disorder. I’d wager that Rittenhouse might suffer from it as well. Bi-polar disorder is not uncommon among those who have suffered trauma of some sort. There is video footage showing Rittenhouse beating the shit out of a girl, yet, media and numerous politicians have concluded that Rittenhouse’s life was far more valuable than Huber’s life. Huber, after all, was armed. He chased Rittenhouse down and struck him with a skateboard – his weapon of choice. He didn’t stand a chance against an equally angry white boy armed with an AR-15. Rittenhouse shot him once in the chest and killed Huber. His family is grief-stricken. They say their son died a hero, fighting to protect others from the armed gunman. The jury obviously didn’t see it that way.
Here’s the thing I do know: If Rosenbaum and Huber had been youth pastors at a local church, come out to protest police brutality and the wrongful death of a young black man, a friend, the way Anthony Huber did, the jury would not have been so forgiving of Kyle Rittenhouse. Had Rosenbaum been a child molester who happened to also be a youth pastor at the local Baptist Church, the jury would have worked to protect Rosenbaum, to consider his “redemption”. Had either Rosenbaum or Huber been men who believed upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior and who had overcome a lifetime of adversity and were at that protests because the Love of God compelled them to defend those deemed “lesser than” the jury would have likely sent Rittenhouse to prison, which is exactly where he should be today.
But he isn’t.
I do not, however, consider Kyle Rittenhouse a free man. He, in fact, will never be a free man. He will never know what it is like to walk into a room and not be pre-judged. He may, indeed, become a rising Republican star, but he will worry whenever he is in a crowd that someone there may want to shoot him down like a dog, the way he did Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum.
Kyle Rittenhouse will suffer from post-traumatic disorder the way Rosenbaum did. His dreams will be haunted by the men he murdered. He will spend his life looking over his shoulder because the thing about vigilante justice and those who believe in it is that it works both ways: An eye for an eye. A bloodied chest for a bloodied chest.
I have known men who have killed others. I have known men who were absolutely justified in the killing of others. Police officers who have gunned down those seeking to do harm. And I have witnessed their own unraveling as a result of that. One officer ended up in prison himself after self-medicating with meth. Another became an alcoholic who lived with depression every single day afterwards.
I have had good friends who served in Vietnam, who did the killing their country asked them to do. I have born witness as it destroyed these veterans once they realized that they had killed young men with hopes and dreams, with families who loved them. Much like their own.
Life will not go well for Kyle Rittenhouse. The slaughter that began that night is not over yet.
Republicans will continue to exploit Kyle Rittenhouse and his family to advance their own political agendas. They will use him up until he no longer serves their purposes. He will glory in that attention until the moment he realizes he is being used. He will come to hate them, too. And they will always fear him, an emotionally unstable kid with a history of white male anger.
None of this will bode well for anybody.
And Judge Schroeder, who worked so hard to set the young boy free, will come to rue the day he did.
Mark my words.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the forthcoming Murder Gene, May, 2022.