The Thin Blue Line Between Violent, Pro-Trump Militias and Police

Police in Kenosha told armed vigilantes, “We appreciate you guys. We really do.” Then one of them killed two protesters.

Armed civilians outside of a gas station during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, August 25, 2020.
Armed civilians outside of a gas station during unrest in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 25, 2020. Photo: Alex Lourie/Redux

The videos that preceded Anthony Huber’s killing on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, are jarring. Among the most chilling is one from the parking lot of an auto repair shop. Several shots ring out. In the distance, you see the gunman in jeans and a green T-shirt. A man rushes up behind him. The gunman turns. More shots ring out and the man collapses to the ground. The gunman circles a parked car, then comes back to the man laid out on the pavement. He looks down at him and pulls out his cellphone. “I just killed somebody,” the shooter says, before jogging off. The man on the ground twitches and stares up at the sky, gasping deeply as bystanders work desperately to put pressure on his wound. Some cry, others yell for someone to call the police.

In a second video, the gunman can be seen jogging down the center of a two-way street as bystanders yell that he just shot someone. He falls to the ground. A handful of men run toward him; Huber is one of them. The 26-year-old swings his skateboard at the shooter and reaches for his rifle. The shooter pulls the trigger. Huber staggers back, then collapses in the street. A second man, appearing to hold a handgun, takes a bullet in the arm. The gunman rises to his feet and jogs, then walks, toward a column of approaching emergency vehicles. Again, bystanders yell that he just shot people. The gunman, with his hands in the air, is seemingly ordered out of the way and the police move on. In a third video, shot before the killings took place, the same young gunman is seen interacting with law enforcement in an armored vehicle, accepting a bottle of water as thanks for the efforts he and others in a group of armed vigilantes were putting in. An officer in the vehicle says over a loudspeaker: “We appreciate you guys. We really do.”

Hours after the videos were taken, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, the suspected shooter, was arrested on charges of first-degree intentional homicide. By that point, he was miles away, in Antioch, Illinois, despite the fact that he had approached police and several bystanders identified him as the gunman whose shots law enforcement were ostensibly responding to. Rittenhouse is accused of killing Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, a 36-year-old father who leaves behind a fiancée and young daughter, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, a volunteer street medic. The killings came on the third night of protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who was left paralyzed after being shot in the back in front of his children. Like other moments around the country, the response to the police violence has featured large-scale peaceful demonstrations, vandalism, and property damage. Blake remains hospitalized and, according to his father, has been shackled to his bed despite being unable to move.

Heidi Beirich, the chief strategy officer at the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said she was unsurprised when she woke up to the news of violence in Kenosha Wednesday morning. The summer of 2020 has already seen the targeting of Black Lives Matter protesters with a bomb plot in Nevada, the targeted killing of a federal court security officer and the murder of a sheriff’s deputy by a suspected right-wing extremist in California, and a Ku Klux Klan leader driving his car into a crowd of police brutality protesters in Virginia.

“As we’re approaching the election and Trump is hyping fear over the protests and ginning these people on with all this of law order stuff, it’s going to get worse,” Beirich told The Intercept. “I don’t expect this, unfortunately, to be the end of it.”

At a press conference Wednesday, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth offered no explanation as to why Rittenhouse was permitted to leave the scene of the shootings; in addition to being identified as a shooter out after curfew, the 17-year-old was not old enough to legally carry the weapon he did. “I don’t have a clue,” the sheriff told reporters, later adding, “I don’t even know the man’s name.” When asked why law enforcement gave armed vigilantes bottles of water, the sheriff said it was common practice. “Our deputies would toss a water to anybody.”

Hours before the shootings took place, the Kenosha Guard, a local militia group, issued a “call to arms” on Facebook, amplified by the conspiracy theory website InfoWars, urging armed citizens to come out in defense of private property. At Wednesday’s press conference, Beth indicated that the group had sought to be deputized by his office — a request that the sheriff claims he rejected.

Violent Pro-Trump Militias

The events in Kenosha are the latest in a long line of cases in which self-styled vigilantes have gathered under the banner of the “thin blue line” — a flag and movement devoted to the defense of law enforcement and the president — and engaged in violence with counterprotesters while police stood back.

Days before the killings in a Wisconsin, a so-called Back the Blue rally in Gilbert, Arizona, saw armed pro-police demonstrators beating counterprotesters while law enforcement looked on. In the run up to the confrontation, which are now a weekly event, supporters of the rally posted violent fantasies online and death threats against their critics. Days later, police in Portland stood by as gun-toting men waving “thin blue line” flags brawled with leftist protesters in the city’s streets. The clash came just weeks after Portland authorities acknowledged that a former Navy SEAL who had boasted about infiltrating “ANTIFA” was under investigation in connection with the detonation of an explosive device near protesters. Pro-police protests New York have also devolved into violence.


Trump Supporters Rush to Defend One of Their Own Who Killed Protesters in Kenosha

Mike German, a former FBI agent who went undercover in far-right groups in the 1990s and who is now at the Brennan Center for Justice, noted that law enforcement’s tendency to back off in the face armed right-wing protests was evident in altercations during Trump’s 2016 run for office, and has continued throughout his administration. “To see the police continuing to treat these far-right militants as friendlies is troubling,” he said. During the 1990s, German explained, law enforcement understood that the most violent members of right-wing groups, those with criminal records that exposed them to risk of arrest, did not show up at public protests. That’s no longer the case.

“There are people who have been engaged in protests in Portland for years now,” German said. “They’re well identified. I know them and I don’t live in Portland. Several of them are under court orders not to attend another protest because of the violence they’ve already perpetrated. And yet, they can engage with the police as if they’re auxiliaries. It’s really astonishing — people can point guns at people in broad daylight and not be arrested.”

Data collected by the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right and shared with HuffPost Friday charted nearly 500 instances of right-wing extremists gathering in response to Black Lives Matter protests since the police killing of George Floyd in late May, leading to 64 cases of simple assault, 38 vehicle assaults, and nine cases of shots fired at demonstrators resulting in three deaths.

Among the myriad factors contributing to the political violence and unrest the country is now witnessing is an inversion of the relationship between some elements of the armed right and the federal government, Beirich argued. “The anti-government movement is no longer anti-government in the sense that the federal government is no longer its enemy,” she said. “Trump has changed that calculation — the militias, the larger anti-government world, is essentially a pro-Trump political formation.” German, who published a report this week on extremist infiltration of law enforcement agencies, described the increasingly public alignment of the far right, police on the ground, and the White House as “a widening of the umbrella” for extremist groups.

“The president has identified the Black Lives Matter protests and so-called antifa as the enemy and that sends a message to the police as to who to go after but also to these groups,” he said. “So these groups and the police seem to have aligned on a common enemy, but law enforcement is making a very big mistake if they think that because they are enemies of your enemies, they are your friends. They are not your friends, as they have demonstrated and as they will continue demonstrating as law enforcement tries to regulate their violence.”

PORTLAND, OREGON, USA - AUGUST 22: Alan Swinney, a Proud Boy, fires sting-balls at counter-protesters as Right-wing demonstrators, many armed, clash violently with Black Lives Matter and Antifa counter-demonstrators, in Portland, Oregon, United States on August 22, 2020. (Photo by John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Alan Swinney, a member of the right-wing extremist group Proud Boys, fires sting-ball grenades as far-right demonstrators, many armed, clash violently with Black Lives Matter counterprotesters, in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 22, 2020.

Photo: John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A Surge of Far-Right Extremism

The election of Barack Obama was followed by a surge in right-wing extremist activity that then exploded under President Donald Trump, Beirich explained. “There’s been this slow drumbeat of one white supremacist attack or militia anti-government attack, and then another, and then another,” she said. “It just kept accelerating into the explosion that we’ve seen lately.”

In Obama’s second term, the surge in right-wing activity became intermingled with a visible pro-police movement that took hold in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Rittenhouse came of age during this critical moment. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed News reported that the teenager had a front-row seat at a rally Trump held in January, and was part of a cadet program at a local police department that provided ride-alongs and firearms training. Speaking to Vice News on Thursday, former classmates described Rittenhouse as a “ride or die” Trump supporter who loved “triggering the libs.”

If the notice to appear drawn up by the Antioch Police Department is accurate, Rittenhouse was born on January 3, 2003, late in the 18-month window between the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. He came into the world just a few weeks before the Department of Homeland Security, and he was likely still in elementary school when the “thin blue line” flag that he included in the background of his Facebook profile became the symbol of a movement forged in reaction to Obama-era police brutality protests.

Posts Rittenhouse made on social media indicate that his worldview was drenched in a militarized culture that has animated large swaths of the country after nearly two decades of war and the emergence of law enforcement as a powerful cultural and political constituency. Embedded in that worldview is a “tactical” community with its own symbols and language, built around the idea of constant threat, good guys versus bad guys, and the sacred role of guns in maintaining social order. In a video taken before Tuesday’s killings, the teenaged Rittenhouse can be heard articulating his role at the protest in terms that echo the language of modern American police, which consistently strives to center police officers’ willingness to run toward danger.

“People are getting injured and our job is to protect this business, and a part of my job is to also help people,” Rittenhouse told a reporter from the right-wing website Daily Caller. “If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle because I need to protect myself, obviously, but I also have my med kit.”

If Rittenhouse forged his political identity online in the past half decade, and it appears he did, he would have encountered a largely unchecked universe of blended pro-police and right-wing ideas, memes, and imagery, Beirich noted. “Just remember that none of the social media companies in this kid’s lifetime had really dealt with the issue of militias on their system,” she said. “He would have been exposed to every militant idea — the need for war, arming yourself — all that stuff would have been widespread where kids like this guy lived.”

Online support for Rittenhouse has exploded since his arrest, with fundraisers and “Free Kyle” memes spreading widely against the backdrop of a profoundly fraught political moment.

Enrique Tarrio (L), chairman of the alt-right group Proud Boys, speaks with a police officer during the End Domestic Terrorism rally at Tom McCall Waterfront Park on August 17, 2019 in Portland, Oregon.

Enrique Tarrio, chair of the Proud Boys, speaks with a police officer during the End Domestic Terrorism rally at Tom McCall Waterfront Park on Aug. 17, 2019, in Portland, Ore.

Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

From the beginning, Trump courted the hard-right edge of American law enforcement, gathering endorsements in his 2016 run for office from unions representing Border Patrol agents, ICE officers, and the Fraternal Order of Police. That courtship has continued into 2020, with the NYPD’s Police Benevolent Association, which represents 24,000 officers, throwing its support behind the president. In Philadelphia earlier this summer, a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and the local police union also featured members of the Proud Boys, a right-wing street-fighting gang that often shows up at pro-police protests to brawl with leftists.


Protesters in Multiple States Are Facing Felony Charges, Including Terrorism

The killings in Kenosha came one day after a couple from St. Louis, Missouri, who used guns to threaten a Black Lives Matter protest outside their mansion, appeared as speakers at the Republican National Convention. The couple’s message, and the message of the Republicans and the Trump administration as the president seeks reelection, is that the protests that have roiled the country are a threat and that Americans, when threatened, are entitled to defend themselves. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his millions of viewers Wednesday night. Referring to Rittenhouse on Twitter, Ann Coulter, the far-right commentator whose political views Donald Trump is known to consider as bellwether for his base, added: “I want him as my president.”

“That’s the message that’s going to be pounded every day until November 3,” Beirich said — and it should be deeply troubling. “When political figures and public figures take advantage of fraught situations in this way it always ends in violence.” Beirich added, “I can’t think of anything more irresponsible than what the RNC and Trump are doing. It’s unbelievable.”

The bullet that took Anthony Huber’s life pierced his heart, tearing through his aorta, his pulmonary artery, and his right lung. On Wednesday night, Huber’s partner, Hannah Gittings, put out a call to friends to meet at the local skatepark in Kenosha; a GoFundMe launched in his name soon raised thousands of dollars for the family he left behind. In addition to being a talented and known figure in the local skate scene, Huber’s friends remembered him as a “peaceful person” and a “defender” who “put his life on the line for others.” Gittings told a local CBS affiliate that he was the smartest, kindest, and most loving man she ever knew.

Join The Conversation