World·Analysis

Kyle Rittenhouse becomes poster boy for armed self-defence after Kenosha shooting

Accused Kenosha gunman Kyle Rittenhouse has emerged as the latest conservative cause célèbre in a highly politicized campaign over gun rights in the U.S. and the perennial debate about armed citizens defending themselves.

Conservative groups take up accused killer's cause in fight over gun rights, personal protection

A shrine at an intersection in downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, memorializes Anthony Huber, right, and Joseph 'JoJo' Rosenbaum, who were fatally shot during protests on Aug. 25. The accused gunman, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, has become a conservative cause célèbre. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

A small shrine at an intersection in downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, memorializes Anthony Huber and Joseph "JoJo" Rosenbaum, two men who were shot dead at close range during an ugly, chaotic night of protests and rioting late last month. 

The accused gunman, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who was seen at the protest toting an AR-15 rifle, faces two charges of intentional homicide and one of attempted homicide.

Rittenhouse has emerged as the latest conservative cause célèbre in a highly politicized campaign over gun rights in the U.S. and the perennial debate about armed citizens defending themselves.

"This is 100 per cent self-defence," said John Pierce, one of Rittenhouse's lawyers last week in an interview with Fox News. "He was in imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death" after a "mob" chasing his client was "hunting him down like prey."

Pierce, along with fellow lawyers Lin Wood and Lawson Pedigo, established the #FightBack Foundation in late August to "check the radical left's lies and intimidation," says its website. The foundation has taken in over $600,000 for Rittenhouse's legal defence, Wood said in a tweet. 

The foundation says the "far left" control the media and city governments, and it bemoans the "deep state" and "fake news."

'Forced to take 2 lives'

Other conservative groups have taken up the cause.

The National Association for Gun Rights, a conservative advocacy group, is also raising money for his legal defence.

The group Republicans United at Arizona State University has pledged that half of all funds collected this semester will be donated to the #FightBack Foundation to help defend Rittenhouse, who was "defending his life."

A Christian crowdfunding site is separately raising more funds — over $450,000 as of this week.

GiveSendGo says Rittenhouse was attacked by "multiple members of the far-leftist group ANTIFA" and "was forced to take two lives to defend his own."

As of Sept. 8, a campaign on the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo had raised $477,749 of its $500,000 goal to help fund Rittenhouse's legal defence. (givesendgo.com)

Based on video footage of the protest and the shootings that circulated on social media, all are adamant that Rittenhouse was acting in self-defence.

Deceased were 'peacefully protesting': police chief

Seth Kjerulf, a friend of Huber's, says he's seen the footage.

Huber, an avid skateboarder, "tried hitting [Rittenhouse] with the skateboard," Kjerulf said. "I think he did get contact with them, but he was basically just trying to get that gun out of his hands. That's all he wanted was that gun out of his hands."'

In downtown Kenosha, a mural painted on plywood shows Huber with a halo and a skateboard.

Rosenbaum, who "appeared to be unarmed," according to the criminal complaint filed by the state of Wisconsin, was following Rittenhouse. He threw a plastic bag at him but missed, and then got "in close proximity" to Rittenhouse. An autopsy showed "JoJo" had five gunshot wounds. 

"We've had two people lose their lives senselessly while peacefully protesting," Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said at a news conference on Aug. 28.

WARNING: This image contains graphic content that may be disturbing to some readers:

A man with his skateboard, right, was shot in the chest during clashes between protesters and armed civilians in Kenosha on Aug. 25, on the third day of protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a police officer. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

'There is no hero in this'

According to his lawyers' account, Rittenhouse was in Kenosha, some 35 kilometres northeast of his home in Antioch, Illinois, to "deter property damage and use his training to provide first aid to injured community members" but was taunted and threatened by a group following him.

Pierce has appeared on Fox News to defend his client and recently tweeted out a live phone call with Rittenhouse in jail, thanking his supporters "from the bottom of my heart" and saying he'll "be out of here soon."

"Kyle Rittenhouse will be acquitted," said Pierce. "He will become a symbol of the heroic individual American who at certain times in history must say, 'Don't Tread On Me.'" Last week he stepped down from the board of the #FightBack Foundation, to concentrate on Kyle's defence, he said.

"I don't think anybody is a hero in this," said Clyde McLemore, founder of the Black Lives Matter Lake County (Illinois) chapter. He said he encountered Rittenhouse that night with a group of armed men and asked Rittenhouse to walk with them to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the event that sparked the Kenosha protests; Rittenhouse declined.

WATCH | Conservative groups take up Rittenhouse's cause:

Gun-rights and armed-self-defence advocates have turned Kyle Rittenhouse, charged with intentional homicide in the shooting deaths of two protesters in Kenosha, Wis., into their latest poster boy and are raising money for his defence. 2:38

"I know we got two dead bodies right now," McLemore said, referring to Huber and Rosenbaum. "We got another one that's paralyzed from the waist down with seven shots," he said about Blake. 

"There is no hero in this."

Oscar Escobar, of Kenosha, is not against owning guns and says he "believes in protecting your family and yourself and … your business." He was worried about his bar getting damaged or torched during the rioting.

But he says people shouldn't be so quick to judge based on the video footage, and let the case be heard. 

"You bring guns to a riot, it's this disaster that is going to happen real quick as we can see what happened on that night," he said.

In Antioch, near the fire station where Rittenhouse was briefly a  junior cadet, outside a donut shop where he was a customer, Chris Burgh says everybody is talking about the shootings. 

"I think it was pretty stupid," Burgh said.

"I get that [Rittenhouse] wanted to help people, but what he did was wrong. He should have just left it to the Kenosha police and everybody else down there to handle it."

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

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