The Kenosha Tinderbox

Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old American boy, is on trial for two murders and one attempted murder which allegedly occurred in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during a period of unrest in the United States last year. His defence is that he was armed because of the unrest and was protecting private property (not his property, but a carpark in another city and another state 30 miles (45km) from his home). His lawyers contest that the people he shot needed to be shot in defence of that property, as well as his own life. A jury of his peers will decide if this teenager is found guilty of a heinous crime or is a hero who was upholding his constitutional rights.

But the entire saga, as it unfolds shows how dangerously vulnerable the US really is and how far it has come from its 250-year-old constitution, designed to help people to protect themselves from insurrection and imminent danger. Let’s start with an anecdote.

Imagine if you can, being a visitor to a country you’ve never visited before and being picked up by a friend who is a native of that country. He meets you at the airport, shakes your hand, gives you the appropriate hug which is customary in greeting visitors in the west, takes your bag as you walk together to the carpark and you get into his car chatting about the flight and your plans for the next few days

Leaving the carpark, you take the freeway into town, still chatting; it’s good to catch-up. There’s a lot of work to be done which is the main reason for the visit but there are some exciting days ahead with visits planned to the famous part of town for nightlife and live music, you’re going to do some sailing on the lake and everything looks great for a really interesting few days with friends and colleagues.

Then he asks you:

“Can you open the glove box and hand me my weapon?

“Weapon! What weapon?”

You gingerly open the glovebox and inside you see an automatic pistol, it’s not in a holster, it’s just sitting there, doing nothing, not harming anyone (yet) but it’s a sinister development you weren’t expecting. You pick it up, not used to handling weapons you don’t really know how, you’re a little afraid so, just as gingerly, you use two fingers, lift the grip on the handle, afraid to drop it because you don’t know if it’s loaded, you have no idea if there’s a safety mechanism and you don’t know if it can go off when dropped. Carefully you hand it to your friend and he takes it and places it nonchalantly between his legs. At the next red light, he picks it up, slides back the top and chambers a round — now you’re sitting just inches away from a genuine lethal weapon. He places it back down between his legs and you ask:

“Do you always have a gun in the car?”

His answer surprises you: “I don’t have one, I have three; this is just the most convenient”.

This is a true story, a good friend of mine relayed a couple of days ago. The incident took place in Chicago, just three years ago. And so it is, driving into Chicago from the airport, there is a part of the city that is so dangerous that people who live there and know the region well, feel unsafe driving anywhere in that part of town without a loaded and cocked gun, ready to defend themselves against their fellow citizens.

What’s worse, is that this situation isn’t getting better. Kyle Rittenhouse doesn’t come from, nor did he go to Chicago, but since the true story of the arrival in the USA took place there, this is a good place to look at how things in the USA are going so badly wrong.

Gun violence in Chicago in the first 7 months of 2021, skyrocketed, increasing by 15% over last year[1]. 445 is the number of homicides in this one city between New Year’s Day and the 30th July, this was almost exactly the same in 2020 but an enormous increase on 2019 when “only” 290 people were murdered during the same period.

Whilst the number of murders is shocking and should be totally unacceptable it hides and even more frightening statistic, during this same period of time, there were 1,973 shooting incidents in Chicago and 2,471 victims (meaning more than 2,000 of them didn’t die and are living with the consequences of, and medical expenses related to, having been shot). This number represents a massive increase of 63% on 2019 figures.

The Chicago police department loves to show how low the figures were in 2019 but fails to mention that there were COVID-19 restrictions and various lockdowns so these massive increases are not evidence of a surge in crime they are — remarkably — evidence of a return to normality. A normality where there were 445 murders in 212 days and an average of 11.6 people per day requiring hospital treatment for gunshot wounds.

Estimates for the USA vary widely but there are many millions of guns in private hands[2], probably close to 400 million. According to Wikipedia[3], there are also around 200 organised militias in which groups of people are armed and trained to follow a certain political path, the largest of which, the “Oath Keepers”, has approximately 38,000 members and a great deal of sympathy towards Kyle Rittenhouse.

With Kyle Rittenhouse, the US government is very much between a rock and a hard place. Should this young man be convicted, these right-wing, pro-gun, anti-government, (mostly Trump supporting) groups, such as the Oath Keepers, who are organised into disciplined fighting bodies, will quite literally, be up in arms because they believe Rittenhouse is a scapegoat for a soft, left-wing, liberal government. Should he be exonerated, we can expect the same kinds of mass demonstrations and civil disobedience which led to him being out that night and armed.

Whichever way this trial goes, it will be an unfavourable result and the USA is going to have a big problem on its hands and a lot of firepower which may be directed inwards.

[1] https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/chicago-gun-violence-461-shootings-reported-in-july-up-15-from-last-year/2575176/

[2] https://www.thetrace.org/newsletter/how-many-guns-do-americans-own/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_militia_organizations_in_the_United_States

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Jerry Grey

I’m British born Australian living in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write mostly positively about my China experiences