Editor’s Note: Van Jones is a CNN host and founder of Dream Corps. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
Verdicts in criminal courts should make communities safer and our streets less dangerous. But the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager accused of killing two people and shooting another during a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020 will almost certainly do the reverse.
Are we moving toward a nation that condones White vigilante violence?
It is unavoidable that many on the far right will see it that way. It sends the signal to others that they are free to launch armed attacks to impose their version of the law – and then claim self-defense. The likely impact of this verdict will be to turn the American political landscape into even more of a “wild, wild west” scenario.
Perhaps worse – this outcome potentially validates a dangerous, new pathway to celebrity status in America. Given the support we’ve seen for him, it wouldn’t be a complete shock to me if Rittenhouse action figures went on sale in America before Christmas.
I agreed with the prosecutors: no citizen should deliberately catapult himself into harm’s way, kill people to get out of the danger they themselves created and then claim self-defense. That said: honest people can disagree about whether Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim was reasonable, based on the evidence.
But nobody can argue that Rittenhouse was entirely blameless in this situation. For example, he brandished and used a weapon that his friend purchased for him because he was underage. And yet he won’t even do time for the gun charge because of the judge’s narrow ruling on a poorly written gun statute? Not only is that hard to stomach – it’s also a green light to every other would-be hero out there to head out to patrol the next protest with their own weapon.
This decision sends signals to Black people as well. One, that there are two Americas. And two, that the system seems to be rigged against us.
It is hard to avoid the racial implications here. White men in the United States seem uniquely free to “take the law into their own hands” – and to use unspeakable levels of violence to impose whatever vision of “law and order” they have concocted in their own minds. Some seem to have granted themselves the authority to “break the law in order to enforce it.”
It was behind the fervor at the deadly “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
And it crescendoed infamously on January 6 – when a frenzied mob of mostly White men attacked the seat of our democracy.
But what if armed Black men decided to “take the law into our own hands” – and started storming buildings and killing civilians in the name of our vision of justice? It’s inconceivable. US society allows only White men on the right to behave this way.
For me personally, Friday’s verdict really stings. That’s because I have seen so many young Black men sentenced to decades behind bars – young men who haven’t killed anybody. I have seen Black youth serve massive amounts of time for relatively minor drug offenses.
No Black person could show up anywhere in the United States armed with an AR-15 and shoot down three people – and then get acquitted and hailed as a national hero. So the jury’s decision to free this young man is an especially bitter pill to swallow.
Decisions made in a court of law can be used to constrain social violence – or validate, license and accelerate it. A single verdict in a local courtroom can have national consequences and long-term ramifications.
This verdict is a seed. It will bear fruit in the form of a grimmer, bloodier American political landscape.
Unless something changes, the door is open for many more young White men to walk out of courtrooms, with blood on their hands and smiles on their faces.