A historian of white power reacts to the Rittenhouse verdict: ‘a bonanza for the far-right’

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wooHen Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted last week of a charge of killing two people during an anti-racism protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a decision that was celebrated by far-right politicians and pundits across America. Several Republican lawmakers offered Rittenhouse internships, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson called her “a sweet kid.”

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Kathleen Bellew, historian of American white power movements and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, argues that Rittenhouse’s trial, being read as a victory by more mainstream constituents of the right, has potential. Serve as a rallying cry for the growing militant vigilante against American racial justice protesters.


Bellew spoke with the Granthshala about how perpetrators of right-wing violent action in America have been empowered by decisions like Rittenhouse How the outcome of the case should be read in the context of, in the past, and growing extremist social movements.

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Kathleen Bellew is a historian of American white power movements. Photograph: Brian McConkey / Harvard University Press

On Friday, when Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of all charges, you tweeted: “It has never taken more than a whisper of approval to fan the flames of extremist right action, and to be acquitted of Kenosha is an outcry ” What did you mean by that,

There have been several acquittals and partial verdicts that have been taken by the white power movement and extremist groups as a sign that they can continue their activities unabated. i’m thinking about acquitted in Greensboro trials at the state, federal and civil levels, [when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party shot and killed five marchers in an anti-Klan rally organized by the Communist Workers party in 1979]MILF I acquitted seditious conspiracy case 1987-88 . In [after an all-white jury acquitted 13 white supremacists who were charged with plotting to overthrow the US government and kill federal officials] and partial prosecution Timothy McVeigh After the Oklahoma City bombings, where instead of prosecuting a movement we convicted just one of the few conspirators, that was it.

I think Kenosha is having a more important moment. This is not my place to second guess our judicial system. I believe in the rule of law. I believe in jury trial. But we know from the historical record that each time such an event occurs, it is triggered by renewed activity by the white power movement, often with imminent casualties. Kenosha has been watched not only by extremists, but by a whole group of people on the right. It’s a moment that animates not only the fringes we’ve seen before, but the mainstream components as well.

On the topic of fringe and mainstream, I don’t find myself using the term extremist too often because it seems as though we are seeing fringe beliefs become more mainstream.

I am a historian. The period I studied is the 1980s and 1990s, and during that time period the white power movement didn’t really think it had any chance of entering mainstream politics. But clearly that is no longer the case. There was just a story going on how At least 28 elected officials Are current or former members of the Oath Keepers, an extrajudicial militia group, a private army. The idea that we can elect officers from a private army is deeply, deeply worrying.

To clarify for readers, who may scoff at using the term militia: all legal militia activity was incorporated into the state’s National Guard units in the Dick Act of 1903. Everything else is extralegal. All 50 states have laws on the books that limit private armies. And yet here they are. We have selected officers who report to these groups.

are at least 10 people who participated Elected to office in rebellion on 6 January and now in the GOP. We are no longer talking about someone who has questionable quotes or a person who said something reprehensible a long time ago. We are talking about the movement of people who are acting in concert. It’s a very different thing. We need to think not only of the threat of mass casualties, which has been imminent for the past several years, but also the threat to our democratic system.

In 2019, there were mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, El Paso, Texas and Poway, California. In each of these cases, the alleged shooter posted a manifesto on the message board 8Chan. In October 2018, before the shooting of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooter posted on the social media site Gab. Kyle Rittenhouse used social media to find community in his extremist beliefs. use of social media Is A connecting piece between these shoots. As a historian, do you see these events as intertwined?

Kathleen Bellew's book Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America
Kathleen Bellew’s book Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Photo: Harvard University Press

We regard acts of politically motivated violence by people affiliated with the extremist right and white power movement as individuals or the work of certain bad actors. You’ll often see the phrase “lone wolf terrorism” although I haven’t seen that used as much around Kyle Rittenhouse. It’s a more complicated story, partly because he was a child at the time of the shooting and partly because the way the organization worked was somewhat different than usual. It was a kind of flash mob called for more than an organized action by a coherent group met earlier through Facebook. But that doesn’t mean it’s not conceptual.

What we have to remember is that first, the idea of ​​Lone Wolf came from the white power movement in the 1980s, which aimed to confuse everyone as to what the movement was all about. It follows an action called “leaderless resistance” which is effectively SAIL-style terror and is both meant to divert public attention away from what is just an interconnected social movement.

So when we think of Charlottesville, Charleston, El Paso and Pittsburgh and other communities that have been affected by this violence, we usually refer to El Paso as anti-Latino violence, Charleston to anti-black violence and Pittsburgh to anti-Semitic violence. see as. , but they are all acts of white power violence. And by putting these stories together, I think these communities can more effectively engage in efforts to tackle this problem.

What is the role of social media platforms as curators of news and as gathering places for communities perpetrating violence?

One thing worth remembering, what people often don’t do, is that white power activists have been using social network activism with pre-Internet computer-to-computer message boards since the early 1980s. they were a network called Liberty Netty, which he founded by distributing millions of dollars of stolen money to groups across the country and then instructing them to obtain Apple computers and then instructing them how to set up and use this network. And the network, in 1983-84, not only had things like assassination targets and ideological content, they also had things like personalized advertising. It’s small compared to the juggernaut that social media has in all of our lives today, but it’s important to remember that these activists have been decades, if not generations, of using technology. He was an early adopter, if not a pioneer, of this type of work.

It would be a mistake to think that they would not be able or willing to manipulate a space like this.

We talked about how the acquittalf Rittenhouse creates a backdrop for permissiveness for people with hateful beliefs, but how does that play out looking ahead?

I would say there are two main components. One is what is happening with the law and court action surrounding gun ownership, where we actually see the needle moving back and forth until the weapons without any hindrance, every time such decisions are made. that increase approval.

The other part of this concerns white power and extremist right-wing groups that are essentially opportunists. They are looking for a window and it is a big window. Because what it does, it not only allows them to mount shooting similar to those done in Kenosha, it also allows them to mobilize an area of ​​the right-wing mainstream to see if they can do it elsewhere. which gives sympathy to the Rittenhouse story.

This is kind of a case. And we must also adjust to the decisions that are coming out of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting and in Charlottesville Kessler Civil Action, which I am sure will read along the same lines.

Editor’s note: A jury on Tuesday found key organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, responsible for $25m in damages to counter-protesters under state law. The jury remained at odds over whether the organizers violated federal civil rights law.

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