What’s the Difference Between Kyle Rittenhouse and the Police?

Rather than asking whether law enforcement and vigilantes like Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse support or oppose one another, we can see them as different groups who are both performing the same function — policing society.

Police officers arrest protesters after the start of a citywide curfew outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse on August 29, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

“We appreciate you guys, we really do.”

That’s what a law enforcement officer said over a loudspeaker as another officer tossed water bottles to a group of armed white men in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Tuesday.

One of the young men was Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old from Illinois armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. Hours later, Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, and wounded a third.

This isn’t the first time that white vigilantes have violently attacked protesters. According to Alexander Reid Ross, an academic who researches far-right violence, vigilantes have assaulted protesters at least sixty-four times, driven cars into protesters at least thirty-nine times, and shot at protesters at least nine times — and that’s just counting the violence that occurred since May.

Despite the violence, police have not cracked down on right-wing counterprotesters. To the contrary. As Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic has written, police officers have generally provided encouragement to them.

Why are the police so accommodating? One theory is that individual police officers with far-right sympathies have infiltrated otherwise law-abiding police departments. The Guardian recently reported that a former FBI agent had found evidence of white supremacist groups and militias “infiltrating” police forces in at least fourteen different states. This theory assumes that while individual police officers might support vigilantes, the police as a whole do not.

But what if these forces aren’t just infiltrating the police? What if they are the police? Rather than asking whether the police and vigilantes support or oppose one another, we can see them as different groups who are both performing the same function — policing society.

In many countries around the world in the neoliberal era, the official police department no longer has a monopoly on policing. Ordinary citizens arm themselves and volunteer to patrol their neighborhoods, and many police officers are grateful for the assistance. In some ways, it’s a return to an older, less institutionalized model of policing.

“This idea of ‘the police’ as public law enforcement is actually a new idea in the twentieth century,” Jennifer Carlson, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona, told Jacobin. “Policing was [historically] done by groups that were not formalized that were still serving the function of police. We’ve kind of forgotten that, and so I think in some ways we look at these armed groups and there’s a little bit of shock, but it actually is 100 percent in line with American history.”

Carlson has studied the role of guns in American society for over a decade. For her new book Policing the Second Amendment, which will be published on September 15, she interviewed more than seventy police chiefs in Arizona, California, and Michigan to understand how the police view armed citizens.

“The spoiler alert is that through very clear racial tropes, including whiteness, police are generally very much in favor of at least certain kinds of people being armed and even assisting the police,” she said.

According to Carlson, the police have adopted two different approaches to armed citizens — “gun militarism” and “gun populism.”

Under “gun militarism,” the police view gun owners as potential criminals and “bad guys with guns” who pose a dangerous threat to police officers and must be neutralized. This is, generally speaking, the approach that urban police departments take toward black men who own guns. It’s the logic of “stop-and-frisk” and the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.

But under “gun populism,” police see gun owners as potential “good guys with guns,” who can intervene to stop criminals and protect innocent people. This is generally the approach that police officers take toward white men who carry guns, including armed militia members and vigilantes.

To understand why the police appreciate armed vigilantes, it’s necessary to know what motivates those vigilantes to pick up a gun in the first place. Carlson’s first book CitizenProtectors, published in 2015, examines the cultural and economic factors that motivate men in Metro Detroit to carry guns.

Carlson found that many of the men saw themselves not just as gun owners but as “citizen-protectors.” They cast gun ownership and gun carrying as part of a larger moral discourse about what it means to be a responsible citizen and community member.

“It’s this ideal of good citizenship, this definition of good citizenship, that is centered on the willingness to use lethal force to protect oneself, one’s family, one’s community even, and so it’s re-centering citizenship around both the capacity and the willingness to use lethal force,” she said.

The key thing to understand is that citizen-protectors don’t just believe that they have the right to carry a gun; they believe that they have a responsibility to do so. They see themselves as “good guys with a gun,” the heroes willing to step in and use lethal force to defend the victimized in their community.

This is not a niche view. The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood recently wrote about the popularity of YouTube channels devoted to gun violence, which promote this ideology and related ideas like the “sheepdog mindset.” It’s a term that Carlson has also encountered again and again during her research.

“One of the things that you hear a lot about in gun culture and also in police culture is this idea of the sheepdog, the wolf, and the sheep,” Carlson said.

Carlson sketched out the fable: the wolf is the “the bad guy” (often racialized as the “other”), the sheep is the “innocent one, but the one who can’t actually do anything to defend themselves,” and the sheepdog is the hero who needs to step in and protect the sheep from the wolf.

“The sheepdog is usually either law enforcement or it’s the armed citizen,” Carlson said. “So that’s where sort of this expanded notion of defense or protection comes in.”

Rittenhouse, the seventeen-year-old white man who shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha, certainly subscribed to this moral ideology. That’s clear from his comments during an interview with the right-wing Daily Caller, conducted hours before the shooting.

“People are getting injured and our job is to protect this business,” he said in the interview. “And my job also is to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle. I’ve got to protect myself, obviously. But I also have my med kit.”

To be sure, the idea of community defense is not inherently conservative. There’s a long tradition on the Left of groups arming themselves to protect their communities from racist and state violence. By some definitions, the Black Panthers could be considered “citizen-protectors.” So could anti-fascist groups that aim to protect protesters from white supremacists.

Generally speaking, though, the citizen-protector ideology is associated with the figure of the white man using lethal force against a racialized other who he views as a threat to his way of life. This is a pattern that shows up throughout American history, from the white settlers who murdered indigenous people who lived near their homesteads to the McCloskeys, the St. Louis couple who brandished guns against Black Lives Matter protesters who dared to enter their gated community.

“It sounds all well and good to be like, ‘I’ll defend myself and my family and my community,’” Carlson said. “But the question is, who’s actually part of that community? How do you actually define it? We know from the scholarship and from these high-profile incidents that how communities are defined is often in racial terms and it’s exclusionary. We don’t have inclusive understandings of community, especially when it comes to crime and law enforcement.”

These understandings of community are shaped in specific cultural and economic contexts. For many of the men who Carlson interviewed in Metro Detroit, the context was one of decline. The shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy had left these men economically and culturally dislocated. The loss of stable, unionized blue-collar jobs precipitated a larger cultural crisis for men who believed their moral worth was tied to their ability to provide for their families. No longer able to be providers, they shifted to a new role as protectors, crafting a new ideal of masculinity focused on using guns to protect one’s community.

“Guns have entered in as one of those tools, as a way to show that you are a good man,” Carlson said. “You are performing a form of what we could call ‘hardened care work.’ You may not be able to provide, or you may not be the sole provider, but you can at least protect your family.”

Specifically, these citizen-protectors want to protect their families and communities from crime, especially urban crime committed by black men. These racialized fears of crime do not just come out of thin air; they are closely linked to the experience of economic decline.

“Economic decline is imagined in terms of, my community is in decline, so there’s going to be more crime,” Carlson explained. “And there were a variety of ways in which that — in my research which focuses on Metro Detroit — intersected with racialized and racist tropes about people coming from Detroit to victimize suburbanites and what have you.”

The nightmare vision isn’t just that black people from the inner city will victimize white suburban homeowners, but that the police will not be able to protect the white people.

“The trope is that the police will just come there to deal with what the aftermath is and write up the paperwork, but that police cannot be there to actually prevent a crime from happening,” Carlson said.

Such fears of state abandonment can take many forms. Perhaps the concern is that declining tax revenues have led to police layoffs, resulting in longer 911 response call times (as was the case in Metro Detroit). Or maybe it’s due to right-wing propaganda about how Democrats have ordered the police not to arrest criminals. Either way, the worry is that police won’t be there when they’re needed.

There’s one important difference between the citizen-protectors that Carlson interviewed in Metro Detroit and many of the armed white vigilantes who have attacked protesters, and that’s geographic scale. The citizen-protectors see themselves as protectors of the neighborhoods that they actually live in. But the vigilantes travel all over the country to “protect” random cities.

Still, both citizen-protectors and vigilantes subscribe to similar ideas about state abandonment. In the aftermath of the Kenosha shooting, right-wing commentators turned to these ideas of state abandonment to justify white vigilantes’ presence in Kenosha. Fox News host Tucker Carlson delivered a particularly reactionary version of this argument during his Wednesday evening broadcast:

Kenosha has devolved into anarchy because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it. People in charge from the governor of Wisconsin on down refused to enforce the law. They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn. So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?

Tucker says that the politicians refused to enforce “the law” so Rittenhouse had to maintain “order.” The slippage between law and order isn’t an accident. While citizen-protectors will often say that they are enforcing “the law” or “law and order,” they do not literally mean that they are enforcing specific criminal statutes. They are not consulting their state’s penal codes before shooting people they find suspicious. They’re enforcing a specific social order.

“That’s the key,” she said. “It’s not so much enforcing the law. It could be law to the extent that vision of social order intersects with law. But I think social order is really what’s being enforced, and a moral order. So not just a social order but a moral order about what are the consequences of certain actions in public space? That’s certainly what is going on with the whole apparatus of gun carry.”

The white men who view themselves as citizen-protectors have an intuitive understanding of what “the law” should be. It’s a specific social and moral order rooted in notions of private property and white supremacy. It feels like the law, whether or not it matches what’s actually on the statute books.

It might be tempting to say that this marks a bright line between the citizen-protector and the police. In the liberal imagination, the police is a morally legitimate actor because they swear to enforce the law, which is authored by democratically elected representatives. Vigilantes are morally illegitimate actors, since they are loyal to their own arbitrary moral code rather than the law itself.

However, this is really a false dichotomy. For one thing, the social order that citizen-protectors enforce isn’t really that arbitrary. It’s generally based on the same traditions that undergird American society as a whole. That’s why vigilantes often garner sympathy, because people feel they’re behaving morally even if they are technically violating the law.

More importantly, it is simply not the case that the police merely enforce the law as written. Like citizen-protectors, the police are also committed to the protection of a social order rooted in private property and white supremacy. In many cases, elements of this social order have been enshrined into law, such that the same conduct that the police view as illegitimate and immoral also happens to be criminal. But police officers will routinely violate laws that conflict with this social order, including laws designed to protect the rights of accused criminals and laws designed to protect protesters’ First Amendment rights.

Back in June, the New Republic’s Alex Pareene summed up the police worldview: “Armed white boys don’t code as a threat to them; ‘anarchists’ and angry black people do (even if the protesters are the ones at least attempting to engage in constitutionally protected behavior, while the roving white gangs are flagrantly violating the law).”

Rittenhouse is exactly the kind of armed vigilante who the police would not regard as a threat. He was clearly on their side — an outspoken supporter of the police who frequently posted “Blue Lives Matter” memes on social media and once previously participated in a police cadet program for high schoolers. He didn’t want to upend the social order that police are committed to defending. He wanted to help them defend it.

The upshot is that both citizen-protectors and police officers are engaged in the same project — the use of force to further certain existing social and economic arrangements.

This doesn’t mean that the police and citizen-protectors always cooperate with one another, though they often do. Police officers, militia groups, and individual armed vigilantes may disagree on the precise contours of the social order and the specific penalties that are justified for violating it. As an institution, the police at least nominally answer to democratically elected leaders. When individual vigilantes go “too far” in enforcing the social order, engaging in flagrant acts of violence that even the police cannot justify, they can lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the police and become subject to arrest.

But for structural reasons, citizen-protectors and the police have a natural affinity for one another. Even when the police and the militia are not working together directly, they are each working toward a common purpose — namely, the defense of the social order.

This may help explain how Kenosha’s law enforcement institutions reacted to the presence of white vigilante groups at the protests.

During a press conference after the shooting, Kenosha County sheriff David Beth said that he had been asked to formally deputize militia groups to patrol the Kenosha protests but that he refused to do so.

The sheriff went on to say that the reason he wouldn’t deputize militias was because then they would “fall under my guidance and my supervisors, and they are a liability to me and the county and the state of Wisconsin. The incident that happened last night where two people lost their lives were part of this group that wanted me to deputize them. That would have been . . . one deputy sheriff who killed two people.”

In other words, Beth is concerned about integrating vigilantes into the formal law enforcement apparatus because he does not want to be liable for their actions. That’s a tactical concern, not a moral one.

Kenosha Police Department chief Daniel Miskinis sounded a similar note during the same press conference.

“Across this nation there have been armed civilians who have come out to exercise their constitutional right and to potentially protect property,” he said. “Am I aware that groups exist? Yes, but they weren’t invited to come.”

It’s another instance of the police distancing themselves from vigilantes while still affirming their fundamental moral legitimacy. The police might not want to deputize vigilantes, but they don’t mind if the vigilantes decide of their own accord to come and provide assistance.

Compare that to the way that the police treat anti-fascist protesters. On the same day that Miskinis spoke at that press conference, Kenosha police arrested at gunpoint a group of anti-fascist volunteers at a gas station. The volunteers were part of “Riot Kitchen,” a collective based in Seattle that cooks and delivers food to protesters around the country. Legally speaking, the Riot Kitchen volunteers had just as much right to be in Kenosha as the white vigilantes. But in the moral universe of the police, the Riot Kitchen volunteers are illegitimate while the white vigilantes are legitimate.

Ultimately, police coordination with armed white civilian vigilantes is a symptom of the problem, not the cause.

It’s not enough to focus our attention on neo-Nazis who want to start a race war or vigilantes who are motivated purely by racial animus. We have to confront the much larger group of white men, both in the formal police force and in informal militias, who believe in using lethal force to defend the status quo.

“They’re defending something bigger than themselves, which is why it’s so appealing,” Carlson said. “That’s why white supremacy isn’t about ‘bad apples’ or individuals. It’s an ideology. It’s a culture. It’s a movement and a thread in the fabric of American society.”