The System Didn't Set Kyle Rittenhouse Free ... BLM Did

Organizations claiming to fight for criminal justice reform keep making rookie mistakes and not really doing the work to protect us from handing courtroom gavels over to white supremacist sympathizers

Senior Editor’s Corner | Dr. G.S. Potter

I didn’t start protesting police brutality when George Floyd was murdered. I didn’t rise up because of Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, or Eric Garner. I started about a decade ago before Johannes Mehserle publicly executed Oscar Grant.  I was just a stupid youth in the eyes of those that showed up to battle after the murder of Idris Stelley. They were the progeny of generations of strategists, protesters, direct action participants, lawyers, policy wonks, and regular everyday people who have stood up in defense of the human beings gunned down by racist cops and the systems that protect them.  It has been an honor to walk in their stoic shadows.   

I’m not the most seasoned mentor or elder in the game, but I’ve been around since before Black Lives Matter.   

On one hand, yes, it’s always encouraging to watch young activism energy. But, I watched the Black Lives Matter movement rise up in a way as if generations of activists and grieving loved ones had never worked together to identify leverage points and create reform before they came along. As a result, I witnessed them make rookie mistakes and repeat time-tested errors, even after they were warned against doing just that.  I watched as they taught a whole new generation of activists that open-ended, short lived protests, national media exposure, and social media influence was more important than voting in candidates that will protect Black bodies from white supremacist guns and gavels.   

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And in doing so, I saw them coopt and neutralize the long-trodden timelines of work that came before them.   

They allowed the window of opportunity to close shut on the George Floyd Police Reform Act.  And, tragically, yes: They set the stage for Kyle Rittenhouse to walk free. 

It is undeniable that elected Kenosha County, Wisconsin Judge Bruce Schroeder played a key role in limiting the ability of the prosecution to do their job at all, let alone successfully. It’s also apparent that Schroeder is a card carrying Trump supporter who was prepared to go above and beyond to protect Rittenhouse from a conviction.  Yet, despite public outcry, despite media attention, despite likes and retweets and protests, it was the power of the judge that ultimately became the most influential factor in the acquittal of a white supremacist that illegally crossed state lines with an AR-15 automatic rifle to scope a Black Lives Matter protest and ultimately kill two people while leaving a third with a permanent disability. 

The part that should leave us all nauseous is that we could have stopped it. We could have prevented Kyle Rittenhouse from walking free.  And, yet, we didn’t.   

Judge Schroeder had decided the outcome of the case before it even started.  He ensured that no stone would go unturned in the effort to protect a white supremacist - and a White teenager he, media and white nationalist supporters all obscenely infantilized - from seeing justice.  We could have stopped him from being in that courtroom. 

But, we didn’t even try.   

Judge Schroeder didn’t win his election because he’s in a comfortably red county.  It wasn’t even because he ran a well orchestrated campaign.  Judge Schroeder, the man that referred to one of the jurors as “a black”, was in the position he was in because he ran completely unopposed.  Multiple times.  See Ballotpedia

This was a failure of both the state, county/local level Democratic Party in Wisconsin (and, also, nationally) and the clusters of organizations that claim to exist as warriors for the creation of true criminal justice reform.  Neither one of them did their jobs to protect Kenosha from handing the gavel to a white supremacist sympathizer.  Both of them left the door wide open for Judge Schroeder to walk through.   

The Democrats cannot continue to allow the party of the Confederacy to continue to advance their hold on judicial seats. Criminal justice reformers cannot continue to turn away from the work of promoting candidates and mobilizing voters for the elections that can literally decide whether or not a white supremacist is handed the scales of justice.   

Schroeder may be a deep red conservative, but Kenosha isn’t a deep red town.   

The population of Kenosha County is just shy of 170,000 people (Kenosha city just shy of 100,000).  Trump won the 2020 election, but only by 3.2%.  That works out to less than 2,800 votes. 

And in the April 2020 elections, where Judge Schroeder ran unopposed (for the third time), a liberal actually unseated a conservative on the Wisconsin Supreme Court with almost 57 percent of the vote. 

If Democrats and community reformers had worked together to put a reform oriented judge on the ballot and organized together to get voters to the polls, there is a good chance that Judge Schroeder would not have been on the bench. If Schroeder wasn’t on the bench, there is a good change that Kyle Rittenhouse would not have walked free.   

Judge Schroeder isn’t what happens when we don’t protest.  He’s what happens when we don’t vote. 

Of course, protest is an important part of social reform.  But it is not the only part as too many people are letting an entire frustrated generation walk away and believe.  Election losers are never really get to create policy - election winners do. If we want to create the systemic change we are demanding, we have to elect the officials that can help usher in and maintain that change on our behalf.  At the very least, we can’t continue leaving openings for white supremacists to assume power without so much as a competitive race. 

In terms of criminal justice or “criminal system” reform, mayors, city council members, district attorneys and judges all play important roles either pushing justice forward or denying it altogether …

  • Mayors often hold the power to negotiate police contracts and appoint police chiefs.

  • City Council members can pass legislation and allocate funds for efforts like eliminating qualified immunity and funding community justice organizations at the local level.

  • District Attorneys can choose who to prosecute and who to let go without charges.   

Not one of these positions is secured through the most retweets or the biggest protests. These key positions of power are secured through the ballot.   

Over 87,000 voters showed up in Kenosha County for the 2020 Presidential election - or nearly 51 percent of the County’s population and 87 percent of Kenosha city’s population. Yet, only 36,000 County voters turned out for the April 2020 judicial election cycle just months before (that’s just 21 percent of the county’s population).  If Democratic voters had been offered a candidate and mobilized to vote, Kyle Rittenhouse may have been brought to justice.  If community organizers were as strategically focused on key elections as they are fixated on media attention, Judge Schroeder might not have his job today.   

While we should be outraged that Rittenhouse walked free, we should also take part of the blame for that miscarriage of justice.  Yes, we do - and as we do, perhaps that’s what it takes to let it sink in so we can immediately regroup and refocus our energy on shrewdly connecting protest to the politics at the polls. We need to identify the positions and points of power that tip and topple the scales of justice and secure them.  Our local efforts need to be as strong as our national efforts.  We need to do everything in our power to prevent white supremacists from holding office.   

Because when we don’t and when white supremacists walk free, we only have ourselves to blame for not doing everything we could have done.