Minds are made up about Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old gunman charged in the killing of two protesters in Kenosha, Wis. Graphic amateur video of the chaotic scene and early reports from authorities tell a partial story, and politics fills in the blanks.
On the left, the suspect is portrayed as the embodiment of today’s domestic terrorism threat: A cop-idolizing wannabe militiaman who allegedly traveled across state lines to confront protesters with a gun he was not legally allowed to possess. On the right, the teen’s actions instantly were justified as self-defense, the natural end to “Democrat cities” letting radical leftists maraud through the streets.
Extremism researchers say they’ve watched with alarm as misinformation, sloppy labeling and political divisions shape the public narrative about Rittenhouse. Part of the problem, they say, is that he appears to fall into a hard-to-define category of gunman that’s increasingly showing up at protests: the self-styled vigilante.
Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, calls the volunteer gunmen “armed vigilante groups,” though he stresses that “group” is a bit of a misnomer because they’re often pop-up, local factions without the organization of, say, established militias.
“They’re sort of like guys in the neighborhood,” Pitcavage said. “And they tend to be culturally conservative. They tend to be right wing. They’re not typically extremists, although there’s nothing that could exclude some extremists being among them.”
Even if they don’t fit into a neat extremism category, analysts say, Rittenhouse and armed volunteers like him are still considered dangerous, symbolic of the broader threat of gun violence at protests.
HuffPost, citing data from researcher Alexander Reid Ross, reported that white vigilantes and far-right actors have shown up to oppose Black Lives Matter protests in the United States at least 497 times this year.
Rittenhouse is emerging as the poster boy for that phenomenon. Outraged by the shootings, activists rushed to pin him with various far-right ideologies. Hundreds, probably thousands, of social media posts describe him as a militia member or a white supremacist. Some have referred to him, without evidence, as part of the misogynistic incel movement.
Reporters and researchers across the country are digging into Rittenhouse’s background and, so far, they’ve come up with no clear-cut evidence of ties to antigovernment militias or to the “boogaloo boys,” armed men in Hawaiian shirts calling for violent revolution.
Social media accounts linked to Rittenhouse portrayed a police booster aligned with “Back the Blue,” pro-cop activism widely seen as a racist response to Black Lives Matter. But as of Friday there was no indication of Rittenhouse’s membership or support of groups categorized as traditional hate or extremist groups.
The kind of violence witnessed in Kenosha is straining Americans’ vocabulary for what they’re seeing. The murkiness of protests – and the growing presence of armed activists on the left – make it difficult to distinguish who’s who among gun-toting people at the scene. Do we call them vigilantes? Counterprotesters? Militias? Violent extremists?
“I think the confusion understandably comes from different groups having similar appearances and some shared goals, especially in a moment like this,” said Amy Cooter, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who’s written extensively about militias and related “Patriot Movement” groups.
Take, for example, the widespread linking of Rittenhouse to the far-right militia movement, based on rather slim evidence. Rittenhouse had been seen mingling with apparent members of a group calling itself the Kenosha Guard. Researchers said it’s likely an ad hoc formation in response to the protests that erupted this week after police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back as his children watched.
As in other cities, armed volunteers began organizing in Kenosha, ostensibly to protect local businesses from what they see as out-of-control leftist mobs.
“Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from the evil thugs?” the Kenosha Guard posted Tuesday on Facebook. “No doubt they are currently planning on the next part of the city to burn tonight.”
Pitcavage said Facebook took down the Kenosha Guard’s page before he and other researchers could study its members or mission in depth. Pitcavage said there is no confirmation that Rittenhouse answered the group’s call for volunteers or had ties to that or any other group at the scene.
Facebook has said it has not found a connection between the Kenosha Guard and the shooting, but removed the group because it violated newly introduced policies aimed at militias and other groups tied to violence.
Even the group’s “militia” description appears to come from a single mention from an organizer.
“The word ‘militia’ has several different meanings,” Pitcavage said. “It can mean a group within the specific militia movement, but it can also be more generically used for any armed paramilitary group. And some people, although they shouldn’t, use it even more loosely for any armed group.”
This collapsing of terms is frustrating to extremism analysts who are fastidious about the categories and context of the incidents they study. J.J. MacNab, a researcher who regularly tweets about militia and vigilante cases, was conspicuously silent as debate over Rittenhouse snowballed on social media, hardening into two camps: Those who see a racist domestic terrorist versus those who justify the killings as self-defense.
MacNab, who in July warned a congressional hearing about the threat of armed groups at protests, popped back up on Twitter on Thursday afternoon. She explained that her “radio silence” came from wanting to wait out the flood of false information. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she wrote.
“I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve stepped away from the internet for a bit, but yesterday’s online duel to the death to control the narrative of what happened Tuesday night was downright creepy,” MacNab tweeted.
Kathleen Belew, another prominent researcher of paramilitary groups, likewise vented on Twitter about the loosey-goosey way commentators are talking about the Kenosha shooting.
“Would people like a working definition of some terms? (Militia, vigilante, extralegal, revolutionary?) Very muddy usage round and about,” tweeted Belew, a historian of the white power movement who teaches a course at the University of Chicago called “American Vigilante.”
Dozens of Belew’s followers eagerly took her up on the offer, and the scholar spent much of the afternoon tweeting out the academic definitions she uses. She started with the underlying ideology of “popular sovereignty,” the idea that the power to rule belongs to the people, not the state.
Next up was militia: “A group that uses paramilitary weapons, training and activism in articulation of local sovereignty and in opposition to the federal government.” Then, vigilante: “an actor that articulates popular sovereignty through violence.” She went on to discuss paramilitary activities, domestic terrorism, white power groups and death squads.
After finishing the thread, she invited questions. It didn’t take long for Belew’s measured definitions to bump up against the many unknowns in Kenosha.
“Is the Kenosha Guard a militia then if they are in opposition to the federal govt?” one of Belew’s followers asked.
“Very good question,” Belew replied. “To answer it, we would need a comprehensive look at the group’s membership, actions, and ideology. I don’t have that at hand.”