The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse is emboldening far-right groups across the extremist spectrum, and experts are warning it may inspire more racially motivated violence in the future.
As a jury on Friday acquitted 18-year-old Rittenhouse of five felony charges after he killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and seriously wounded Gaige Grosskreutz during a protest over police brutality against Black Americans, his fans on the extreme far right celebrated online. They held him up as “the hero we’ve been waiting for” and called him a “saint” — a title that they often give to racially motivated mass murderers and right-wing terrorists.
“The ‘saints’ of the far right include the Charleston, Christchurch, Poway, Pittsburgh, and El Paso shooters … and now they also include Rittenhouse,” Alex Newhouse, deputy director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told BuzzFeed News.
The Proud Boys, “boogaloo boys,” subscribers to the QAnon mass delusion, Christian Identity fanatics, illegal militant groups, a neo-Nazi political party, and accelerationist terror groups were among those BuzzFeed News found heaping praise in channels and chats on social messaging apps Telegram, Gab, and Discord. “Hail Rittenhouse!” someone wrote in a white nationalist group with more than 50,000 followers.
“Our patience has its limits,” read one message scrawled over a photoshopped image of a gun-toting Rittenhouse with red eyes. Another image showed a sketch of the teenager wielding an assault rifle against a backdrop of the Black Sun symbol (also known as a sonnenrad) used by Nazi Germany. Beside him are the words “fuck antifa” and a swastika. It was shared across several groups that in other times would have been ideologically at odds with each other.
Rittenhouse’s exoneration is bringing together a potentially dangerous mix of right-wing actors who’ve seized on the moment.
“This is a particularly emphatic example of the growing unification under extreme anti-government accelerationist goals that is occurring among the American right wing,” Newhouse said. “Even in 2020, the Proud Boys were pitted against the ‘boogaloo boys’ and some neofascists in support of the Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent riots. Now, they have all rallied around Rittenhouse as a person who walks the walk of revolutionary [and] accelerationist myth; he actually went out onto the streets and took violent action against protesters.”
A handful of Republican members of Congress also rushed to praise Rittenhouse on Friday, and at least one offered him an internship.
“Hard to describe how chilling it is to see members of the GOP and open white supremacists come together to celebrate a vigilante killing two people and getting away with it,” Cassie Miller, an extremism researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center, tweeted.
Attorneys for Rittenhouse did not respond to requests for comment.
His acquittal comes as the US is grappling with a resurgence in far-right violence that has plagued the country since Donald Trump’s presidency. The Department of Justice and the FBI have said the top threat facing the US comes from racially or ethnically motivated violent domestic extremists, like the ones applauding Rittenhouse. History shows in moments like this, punctuated with acquittals like his, are often followed by more violent acts, experts said.
“There’s precedent for acquittals like this to be used in inciting to and carrying out further violence,” Newhouse said.
He pointed to the Greensboro massacre in 1979, when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party shot and killed five antiracist activists in the North Carolina city. Emboldened by the killings, membership in the KKK and Nazi groups reportedly rose in the aftermath, and members went on to commit more acts of racial violence.
“Already, the far right is using Rittenhouse’s full acquittal as tacit approval of at least vigilante violence — and, in many cases, they’re calling for the expansion of anti-leftist political violence more broadly,” Newhouse said.
On Telegram, some far-right extremist groups called for armed citizens to go out to the streets on Friday night in a show of force.
“They are making a point to say ‘load up your guns and be ready to shoot,’ another escalation from even last year,” Newhouse said.
While it’s unclear whether these online calls will gain steam, historian Kathleen Belew, coauthor of A Field Guide to White Supremacy, suggested the acquittal alone was enough to inspire IRL action.
“It has never taken more than a whisper of approval to fan the flames of militant right action, and the Kenosha acquittal is a shout,” she tweeted.