KENOSHA, Wis. — As protesters in Kenosha gathered each night this week to demonstrate against Sunday’s police shooting of Jacob Blake, a growing number of armed civilians began showing up and mixing in among the demonstrators.
The long rifles slung over their shoulders raised eyebrows if not stern words from several protesters, who said the weapons introduced an unwanted dynamic into an already tense situation.
The armed groups said they were there to protect Kenosha residents and their property from rioters and looting, which had wreaked havoc on the small southeastern Wisconsin city for two nights in a row.
Kenosha has seen protests since Sunday night when news broke that Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a police officer. Three officers have been put in administrative leave pending an investigation.
Late Tuesday night, those armed civilians and self-proclaimed militias became the focal point of the fatal shooting of two people. One of the armed groups’ members, Kyle Howard Rittenhouse, was seen in a graphic cell phone video shooting two people, killing one of them and injuring another. Investigators are examining whether he is connected with another victim who was seen in the video being shot in the head and later died.
Police on Tuesday charged Rittenhouse, 17, with first-degree intentional murder in connection with the shootings. The teenager, who is from Antioch, Ill., came to the Kenosha protests Tuesday night with a rifle and general admiration for the police, according to his social media accounts.
Wisconsin is working to extradite Rittenhouse to stand trial in the state. Investigators are looking into how the 17-year-old got a firearm and brought it over the state line. Antioch is about 30 miles from Kenosha.
The incident was a turning point in the three-day protests against police brutality. It has also brought the issue of an increasing number of armed militia groups turning up at Black Lives Matter protests across the nation to the doorstep of Kenosha.
On Wednesday, many Kenoshans were asking, “Who are these so-called militias? And why are they here?”
Who are these militia groups?
As protests against police brutality and racial inequality have broken out across the country, so, too, have the appearance of more armed militia groups.
Some are local groups, who say they are using their Second Amendment right to defend and protect their city. Other groups have been labeled hate groups by organizations monitoring such groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation Leauge’s Center on Extremism.
The different militia groups around the country who show up at protests vary in size and ideology, making it difficult to generalize them, said Amy Cooter, a senior lecturer in sociology at Vanderbilt University, who has done extensive research on militia groups in Michigan and beyond.
Some groups, such as the Proud Boys, have strong ties to white supremacy and neo-nazism and have been active at the Portland, Ore., protests. Some groups openly support Pres. Donald Trump, but not all of the militias are right-wing extremists. And not all members of the right-wing militias share the same ideology, Cooter said.
What most of the groups share in common is a fear of what they see are Antifa-led protests. “Seeing Antifa as the enemy is where almost all militias find commonality,” Cooter said.
“The militia movement we are seeing in recent years is really still an emerging phenomenon that is complicated to understand or define,” she said. “The biggest puzzle is figuring out where their ideology will push people.”
Peaceful protesters stream into Kenosha's Civic Center Park Tuesday night. Hours later, a fatal shooting by an armed civilian left two dead and one injured. (Photo by Sabra Ayres/Spectrum News)
The suspected Kenosha shooter
Rittenhouse was one of many who were armed on Tuesday night in downtown Kenosha.
Wisconsin is an open-carry state, meaning anyone over 18 who can purchase a handgun or rifle can carry it in the open without a permit. In the streets around the Civic Center Park, where protests have begun every night since Jacob Blake was shot on Aug. 23, some residents were seen sitting on their front steps with firearms.
“I’m not part of any group,” said Ronald Grover, 32, as he stood Tuesday in front of the entranceway of his apartment building two blocks south of the central square. In addition to a long-arm rifle, Grover wore a bulletproof vest. Several of Grover’s other neighbors, some of them white and some Black, also held weapons as they sat on their front porches.
“I live here in this building and am protecting myself,” Grover said.
The evening’s protests started out in a similar fashion to the previous nights. At first, they were peaceful with several hundred marching around the city’s downtown area chanting “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace.”
Armed groups of men began gathering in different clusters in Civic Center Park. Some were in full camouflage outfits with long rifles. Others were in t-shirts and jeans with bulletproof vests under their rifle straps.
Some were responding to a Facebook event posted by Kenosha Guard, a group that described itself as a militia in an open letter addressed to Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis and posted on the group’s Facebook page. The letter said the group had “mobilized” people to protect the city.
“It is evident, that no matter how many officers, deputies, and other law enforcement officers that are here, you will still be outnumbered,” the group said in the letter.
The Kenosha Guard event was called “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” and called for citizens to join them to “take up arms and defend our [sic] city tonight from the evil thugs.”
They continued, “No doubt [sic] they are currently planning on the next part of the city to burn tonight!” the post said.
Messages through Facebook to Kenosha Guard on Wednesday morning were read, but not returned. Both the Kenosha Guard page and the event page have since been taken down from Facebook.
Around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night, police began using tear gas thrown from armored vehicles to push protesters back along Sheridan Road, one of Kenosha’s main drags.
The scene was concentrated in about a four-block radius but chaotic. The sound of chanting, tear gas canisters exploding, and police shooting rubber bullets could be heard across the downtown area.
Rittenhouse gathered with a group of other young, armed men in front of a gas station on Sheridan Road, which they said they were protecting. At one point, there was a confrontation between a group of protestors and the armed men.
One of the armed men in a red plaid shirt and a helmet stepped over to the side of the gas station parking lot and motioned with his hand for the others to come to him. The same man in a brief interview with Spectrum News on Monday night had described himself as a member of Kenosha Guard, but refused to give his name. He said he did not want to talk to the media as they would only distort the truth about the local militia’s role.
“Libertarians! Fall in!” he said Tuesday night. The group then headed down 60th Street to respond to what they suspected were rioters making trouble.
After that, video images captured on the scene and posted online show a series of disturbing incidents involving Rittenhouse. In one, he is seen grabbing water bottles being handed out of the turret of a police-armed vehicle. The teenager is at a gas station with other armed men, who claimed they were protecting businesses.
The officer tells him, “We appreciate what you guys are doing. We really do.” That statement would later come back to haunt Kenosha Police Chief Miskinis.
In the next video clip posted online, Rittenhouse is seen on a cell phone leaning over a man with what appears to be a bullet wound in the head. A female voice shouts, “He shot him!” Rittenhouse runs from the scene. The victim later died.
A third clip shows Rittenhouse running down the street as a small crowd chases him. He stumbles and several other people come after him. He fires off several shots as he rolls on the ground, hitting at least two people. One man was killed, the other suffered a non-life-threatening wound to his arm.
Rittenhouse’s role in the other armed groups that were at the protests Tuesday night is unclear and is now a subject of an investigation into the shootings. But researchers with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism found nothing connecting the teenager to any particular extremist group or movement.
“Though Rittenhouse was armed and a self-designated protector of property, he was not wearing typical militia gear or Boogaloo attire,” the ADL said. Boogaloo is a far-right, anti-government extremist movement that has frequently appeared at other protests in the U.S.
However, Rittenhouse’s social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, and two TikTok profiles “indicate that he is extremely pro-police and appears to have been a former police explorer, a career-oriented program for young adults to explore a career in law enforcement," according to a statement from the ADL. “Many of his social posts use the phrase ‘Blue Lives Matter.’"
“The vast majority of extremists are not card-carrying members of a group – and in the case of the shooter in Kenosha, we haven’t found any direct links to an extremist group,” said the ADL’s David Goldenberg, the midwest regional director.
While the shooting Tuesday in Kenosha was shocking, it was unfortunately not the first such incident involving an armed counter-protest group. In June, a member of an armed group calling itself the New Mexico Civil Guard was arrested in connection with a shooting during a demonstration over a statue of a Spanish conquistador in Albuquerque.
A group of armed young men at a gas station in downtown Kenosha Tuesday night, just minutes before a fatal shooting. The man in the plaid shirt told Spectrum News on Monday night that he was part of the Kenosha Guard, an armed local militia now under scrutiny. (Photo by Sabra Ayres/Spectrum News)
In a press conference Wednesday morning, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said he had been asked by a group to deputize armed citizens to respond to rioters in Kenosha. “Oh, hell no,” he said.
“What a scary, scary thought that would be in my world,” he said. “Part of the problem with this group is they create confrontation ... That doesn’t help us."
“Some people might have been comforted by them,” Beth said about the presence of the armed civilian groups. “But I wasn’t.”
When asked why police deputies were seen giving encouraging words to Rittenhouse and other armed citizens while handing out water bottles, the sheriff said he couldn’t speak for one individual’s comments.
But Kenosha Police Chief Miskinis seemed visibly uncomfortable by media questions about the police’s relationship with the militia groups.
When asked if he knew who the groups were, Miskinis said, “Across this nation, there have been armed civilians who come out to exercise their Constitutional right and to potentially protect property.”
The groups were not invited to come to Kenosha, he said.
“I can tell you that I don’t want violence regardless of what side of the issue you are on,” he added. "So showing up with firearms doesn’t do us any good.”
“The term militia is used, but I’ve got no proof that it has any organization to it. It may just be some armed citizens. It’s no different from those of the protesters who are walking around armed, or those who are just witnessing to be armed,” he said.
Rittenhouse will face his first court appearance in Lake County, Ill., on Friday. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Kenosha Police are investigating the case. He is expected to be extradited to Wisconsin, where he will face trial as an adult.