As It Happens·Q&A

Wisconsin community organizer blames shootings on men who like to 'play soldier'

Deadly shootings overnight in Kenosha, Wis., illustrate the double standard in how police treat Black protesters versus white vigilantes, says a local community organizer.

A teenager has been arrested after 2 people were fatally shot Tuesday night

People yell at a line of police officers during a protest outside the Kenosha County Courthouse after police shot Jacob Blake several times in the back in front of his children. (Stephen Maturen/Reuters)

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Deadly shootings overnight in Kenosha, Wis., illustrate the double standard in how police treat Black protesters versus white vigilantes, says a local community organizer.

Illinois police on Wednesday arrested 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, of Antioch, Ill., on suspicion of first-degree intentional homicide after two people were fatally shot during Black Lives Matter protests. It's not yet clear if he's been charged in relation to one or both deaths. 

The protests began after police shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back several times on Sunday in front of his young children, leaving him paralyzed and fighting for his life, according to his family.

Before the suspect in Tuesday night's shootings was taken into custody, video footage and witness accounts appear to show police allowing him to walk past them with a semi-automatic rifle over his shoulder as members of the crowd yelled for him to be arrested. 

It's something that never would have happened if the suspect was Black, says community organizer Terrance Warthen.

When questioned by reporters on Wednesday about the footage, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth blamed a noisy, chaotic situation in which there were "people running all over the place."

Beth was also asked about footage that shows officers in an armoured vehicle giving bottles of water to white, armed vigilantes who said they were protecting a gas station from looters. One officer can be heard telling the men: "We appreciate you being here."

"Our deputies would toss the water to anybody," Beth replied.

Warthen isn't convinced that's true. He's a board member at Our Wisconsin Revolution, which promotes progressive candidates campaigning for elected office, and a member of Kenosha County's human services committee. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

What are your thoughts on the arrest of this suspect today?

My first thought is that it's still profoundly sad. This is a 17-year-old that had no business being in this state, let alone in this city. We're in this situation as a result of mismanagement and failings at all levels, personal and those of public responsibility.

People are dying, have died. People are injured. And this young person's life is forever altered.

2 killed, 1 injured in Wisconsin shooting 

2 years ago
Duration 5:22
Protests continued for the third night in Kenosha, Wis., over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Gunfire erupted as demonstrators took to the streets, defying a nightly curfew to demand justice. Police say two people were killed in the shooting and one person suffered non-life threatening injuries. 

Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth was asked by reporters today about how police responded to the violence last night. ... What do you make of the Sheriff's responses to reporters' questions.

The same sheriff held a press conference this afternoon and said that they're going to take into custody anyone who violates the curfew, and obviously the curfew didn't apply to everyone equally.

If you were on the street and had a message they didn't agree with, then you were subject to arrest or you were told to get off the street. And you're encouraging a group of people who don't even live here to stand on the street with automatic rifles, obviously, it's a double standard.

What about the handing out of water, and apparent encouragement from these police officers to the people who appear to be vigilantes?

It's not even debatable that there was encouragement and support. Obviously, there was support.

And the idea that, you know, I could have run up to a sheriff's department vehicle during a riot and requested water and gotten a high five or a handshake or "have a nice day" doesn't work at all.

And again, these people don't live here. So you can't use the excuse that they were there to protect someone's property. This wasn't a home. This was a gas station. 

And so do you think these people would have been treated differently had they been Black?

They would not have been there at all. They wouldn't have lasted there a second. That wouldn't have happened. No, they would not have been encouraged by law enforcement to congregate at that gas station on a main thoroughfare with AR-15s or whatever other semi-automatic rifles that they had. 

Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth speaks during a news conference regarding the protests and shootings. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

What do you think is drawing these heavily armed men to your city during these protests?

The opportunity to do it. The recruitment online. I mean, you have these people, unfortunately, that exist anyway. And when given the opportunity, this is what they want to act out. 

You have some people that like to buy this gear and play soldier. And when the police pat them on the back, they assume a level of authority that they don't actually have.

It's ridiculous. You gave people a license to do these things, and that's exactly what happened.

Do you think things will be any different now that this young man has been arrested?

There's nothing that his arrest is going to change. He wasn't really a member of this community. His family isn't here. He lived in Antioch, Illinois, which is a community near Kenosha, but it's still 45 minutes away. This won't change anything in Kenosha.

Armed civilians are pictured here outside the Kenosha County Courthouse on Tuesday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What about the presence of the National Guard? We are told hundreds of members are pouring into your city as we speak. What effect might that have?

I have no idea what the National Guard is going to do when they get here. And neither does anyone else in the city. It's unnerving. And now we're playing this game that no one wants to play.

We are a swing state during a presidential election year, and probably the worst political divide in this country since the civil war. And we're well aware that whatever has to happen to us for people to maintain their power is what's going to happen.

This has to be a pivot point in how we live our lives here. We can't go back to the way things were before Sunday afternoon.- Terrance Warthen, Kenosha community organizer

What is your sense of how people in Kenosha are feeling right now and how they're coping with all of this?

We had hundreds, if not thousands, of people who came to this city not to support the family, not to support this city, not to support our communities, but just to do as much damage as they could. And they seemed unable to be stopped or dealt with.

So everyone is nervous. Everyone is on edge.

But I have to say, for the most part, when the sun came up, the majority of this community got on about their lives or volunteered and went right to work cleaning up.

But for so many people in this city, life will never be the same. We have entire neighbourhoods that have been destroyed. Not just a building or two, or a business or two. There are blocks that are gone and they are in the neighborhood that can least afford it.

So in the short term, yes, you may bring in the National Guard to make things look better on television. But in the long run, what are you going to do with neighbourhoods that have been destroyed? Small businesses that can't start over? To people that are gone? You know, a victim of a police shooting [who is] at the very least looking ahead towards a life as a para- or quadriplegic? The trauma to his family?

I know this flame is going to burn out. But the scars from this are going to reverberate for a generation in this city, and how are we going to manage that?

You've been out in the streets trying to prevent further violence. Will you be back in the streets tonight and maybe tomorrow?

I'll be out trying to encourage peaceful protest, productive dialogue, accountability, communication, and for people to remain as active as they possibly can, not just for today or tomorrow or next week, but for rest of their lives.

This has to be a pivot point in how we live our lives here. We can't go back to the way things were before Sunday afternoon.

And we're already in position as a nation where we couldn't go back to how things were before 2020 anyway, so we may as well bite the bullet and make these changes now and address the inequities that got us here.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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