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Punishment, Self-Defense, and Kyle Rittenhouse

If you’ve kept up with the news or even have any social media at all, you’ve undoubtedly heard the name Kyle Rittenhouse countless times by now. If, by chance, you haven’t, I’ll give you the rundown.


Rittenhouse, then 17 years old, traveled from Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a protest. The protest was in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was left paralyzed after being shot by a police officer. Rittenhouse didn’t come to protest, though. As the demonstration turned violent, he answered an online call for “patriots” to come “protect our lives and property” by doing just that, armed with an assault-style rifle.


Rittenhouse shot three of the protestors, killing two: Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. Both men were unarmed but engaged with Rittenhouse; Rosenbaum chased and threw a plastic bag filled with hygiene products at him, and Huber chased and hit him with his skateboard.


Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges: first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree attempted intentional homicide, and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment.


The case sparked controversy around what the right to self-defense means. The verdict indicates that Rosenbaum and Huber were deemed enough of a threat to Rittenhouse to justify murder as self-defense — even though they were the unarmed victims of his shooting attack. To me and many others, this verdict signifies how the assumptions of violent intentions that are thrust upon Black Lives Matter protestors by police, the media, and the right, are justification enough for murdering them.


This is reminiscent to me of “gay panic” defense strategies, in which a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is used as justification for the perpetrator’s violent reaction, including murder. In other words, gay and trans people are seen inherently as threatening enough that someone can justifiably murder them in the name of defending themselves from their “advances.” While this is outrageously blatant homo/transphobia, only eight states had passed bans on this defense as of 2019.


Narratives about what kind of people are threatening permeate our understanding of self-defense. This makes the designation inconsistent and subjective, given with ease to those who are aligned with the system of power — like Rittenhouse — and taken from those who are victims of it — like Black sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown. This inconsistency shows that “self-defense” has effectively become a pass to condone and excuse violence against marginalized people. As “religious freedom” has become an excuse for people to discriminate against LGBTQ people, self-defense is the excuse for reacting erratically to fear of marginalized people.


The Rittenhouse case, and other “self-defense” cases like it, perfectly reveal the shortcomings of equating punishment with accountability. Outside of a punitive framework, Rittenhouse’s intentions don’t really matter in the slightest. Intentional or not, those men are dead, and that’s in and of itself is tragic.


The problem is when perpetrators are forced to embrace defensiveness over accountability in order to avoid a sentence of confinement, mistreatmic, systemic abuse, and social rejection that’s associated with a felon status. When we force Rittenhouse to ardently defend instead of understanding, owning up to, and learning from his mistake, we make the conversation about why he did what he did instead of what he actually did — and what he actually did was preemptively end the lives of two young men and deeply hurt all the lives those men touched. In other words, Rittenhouse and others on the side of the defense distanced themselves from Rosenbaum and Huber’s humanity. In the words of Kariann Swart, Rosenbaum’s fiancée, “… in this case, it feels like the victims’ lives don’t matter.”


Because their humanity was not honored by Kyle, the judge, or the jury, the best way we can honor it now is by remembering them as they were — human beings who tragically lost their lives. The following was originally reported by NPR (


Joseph Rosenbaum was 36 years old and leaves behind Swart and a daughter from a previous relationship, of whom he was fighting to get custody. Rosenbaum struggled throughout his life, experiencing homelessness, molestation, prepubescent drug abuse, and mental health issues. He spent most of his adult life in prison. While Swart pressed charges against Rosenbaum for assaulting her during a fight, she was open to reconciling things and remembers him as “goofy,” saying “he’d make you laugh out of nowhere.”


Anthony Huber was 26 years old and leaves behind his girlfriend Hannah Gittings, who was at the protest with him, and his parents, who said they were “heartbroken and angry” over the acquittal. Like Rosenbaum, he also struggled with his mental health and spent time in jail. But he was also artistic, an avid skateboarder, and a friend of Jacob Blake, and according to his obituary, he “died a hero fighting for a cause he believed in.”