In 1816, Andrew Jackson, then a general in the Army, took it upon himself to unilaterally invade Spanish Florida. His target was a fortified community of Choctaws, escaped slaves, and Black former British Royal Marines. Dubbed the “Negro Fort,” this community drew runaways from as far away as Virginia, infuriating Southern planters and inspiring fears of broader slave revolts. Jackson’s force of soldiers, Creek allies, and opportunistic settler militia accordingly leveled the place and sold the surviving Black people — regardless of their prior national citizenship or legal status — into slavery. When press and congressional critics of President James Madison questioned U.S. operations in Spanish territory, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams cited a letter from a Georgia plantation owner decrying “brigand negroes — a set of desperate and bloody dogs” who make “this neighborhood extremely dangerous to a population like ours” and proclaimed Jackson’s campaign an act of “national self-defense.”
Two centuries and change later, Americans watch the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old from Illinois who last year took it upon himself to cross a border and patrol the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during the unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man. Responding to a 911 call about a “domestic incident,” a white police officer shot Blake seven times in the back. As the community erupted and Gov. Tony Evers declared a State of Emergency, the Kenosha Police Department dug in. For his part, Rittenhouse, an avowed supporter of Blue Lives Matter and a would-be police cadet, self-deployed in his capacity as a private citizen armed with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15.
Walking with other militia through the streets of Kenosha on the night of Aug. 25, Rittenhouse & co. received a warm welcome from police, who tossed them water bottles and told the group, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” At some point, Rittenhouse and one protester, Joseph Rosenbaum, had a heated confrontation that culminated in Rosenbaum chasing and throwing a plastic bag at him; Rittenhouse shot and killed him in a used car lot. A crowd chased Rittenhouse as he fled the scene; he shot again, killing a second protester, Anthony Huber, and wounding another. His lawyers insist he acted in “self-defense” after the first protester reached for his gun.
The impulse to reconstruct that night’s chaos as though watching a 21st century Rashomon is a trap.
Contemplating events like these during a trial, the aperture inevitably tightens to microseconds. Who was where when, who moved how, and who “reasonably” thought who was going to do what? The jury of Rittenhouse’s peers — 11 white people and one person of color — will presumably bring these and other questions to bear as they scrutinize that night’s events. Meanwhile, observers are free to speculate and judge in light of their own hypotheticals, projections, fantasies, and fears. What choice could Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, have had in those frenetic instants? What would you have done? But the impulse to debate these questions, like the impulse to litigate the idiosyncrasies of Wisconsin’s self-defense laws, or the impulse to reconstruct that night’s chaos as though watching a 21st century Rashomon, is a trap.
Instead of indulging those impulses, we must widen the aperture. We must interrogate what made Rittenhouse’s decision to insert himself and his gun into the situation imaginable in the first place. And not just imaginable narrowly as a choice for him, but as a story that’s legible for the rest of us, one way or another. Rather than fixating on the case’s narrow specifics or elevating its outcome into a singularly decisive referendum, we need to ask what makes the entire nightmarish story feel so uncannily familiar, even inevitable.
Despite the universal language of the Second Amendment or theories of Natural Law, armed “self-defense” has never been a truly open-to-all-comers franchise in American life. As the scholar Caroline Light has powerfully documented, American legal history is replete with laws and rulings that have first and foremost protected claims of “self-defense” by propertied white men over and against those of indigenous persons and other people of color. The European roots of American self-defense law in English Common Law enshrined the right of individual men to protect their homes qua “castles.” What that meant on the beachheads and in the homesteads of settler colonial expansion in North America was that white men could lawfully exercise lethal violence against indigenous people and African slaves. These people, for their part, had no legal right to defend themselves, and their resistance was regularly criminalized and punished by death at the hands of authorities.
Such people, who could literally be property, had a claim to exist only insofar as they did not threaten the order of property, an order which put the white man at its center, or, more precisely, made whiteness itself a defensible commodity. On a continent where ever-expanding colonization inevitably meant that settlers would claim territory that was already populated by indigenous people, this meant that the mere presence of non-white others living and thriving nearby was seen as an existential threat, resulting in vicious cycles of what the historian Philip Deloria has called “defensive conquest.” Much as how, for that Georgia planter, the existence of the Negro Fort was a threat that had to be eliminated, any given settler could inflict violence, preemptively or otherwise, in “defense” of their homestead. After all, as settlers, they were merely standing “their” ground on land that they themselves were invading.
Indigenous people and African slaves had a claim to exist only insofar as they did not threaten the order of property, an order which put the white man at its center.
As Light and others have demonstrated, the racial exclusions underwriting the “natural” right to self-defense had gendered dimensions as well. Enslaved Black and indigenous women had no legal right to resist torture and sexual violence by slavemasters, and courts and private citizens vigorously punished those who did. Meanwhile, white women had no legal right to defend themselves against rape and other abuse by their husbands, who, under the legal doctrine of coverture, effectively held sovereign power over their wives’ bodies. Women could defend themselves against violence by other men only insofar as, legally speaking, they were protecting their husbands’ proprietary rights of sexual and reproductive access to their own bodies. Today, even as self-defense law has become more nominally color- and gender-blind, the actual record of disparities in cases of stand your ground and justifiable homicide is stark. The right to armed self-defense may be universal, but certain persons occupy less defensible positions than others; some, as activist, organizer, and writer Mariame Kaba has said of Black women specifically, effectively have “no selves to defend.”
This is the history that underwrites today’s talk of Rittenhouse as defending himself, property, community, order, and the like. This is the history that made Rittenhouse’s choices leading up to that night in August imaginable for him, and that makes it possible for so many Americans to imagine themselves in his shoes or to express pride in him as though he was their own son. It’s the same history and context, too, that fills in the blanks when commentators like noted memoirist, venture capitalist, and Ohio Senate hopeful J.D. Vance speak in generic yet lurid abstractions about how Rittenhouse was merely defending “his community” from subhuman “thugs” and “wolves.”
And it’s the same history and context that reveals Rittenhouse as but the latest iteration in a long line of American men who have decided to insert themselves and their guns into situations in which they somehow find themselves compelled to kill. More than mere vigilantes defending themselves, these are men who, in killing, supplement formally legitimate authorities and vindicate an entire hierarchical social order by exercising their prerogative to assert ballistic control over space and dispose of the bodies of others. Their number includes George Zimmerman, who in 2012 chased and killed Trayvon Martin, the three men who chased and killed Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery last year (“he was trapped like a rat,” one proudly told cops afterwards), and more than a few police officers too.
Sure, in some cases such killers get convicted, despite the odds. And, sure, sometimes they aren’t even white. A crucial part of how the system works, after all, is not just that concepts like “self-defense” are ostensibly universal, but that, in a nation full of guns and socially imaginable opportunities to use them, individuals are widely invited - and sometimes compelled - to take their chances. George Zimmerman in a very real way got to be white because he killed Trayvon Martin, and after spending the money he got auctioning the pistol he used to do it now autographs bags of Skittles and sells Confederate flag art. Marissa Alexander, the Black woman in Florida who fired a warning shot at her abusive husband, got sentenced to 20 years and served three. Michael Reinoehl, the white antifascist who shot and killed a far-right Trump supporter during clashes in Oregon, was later killed by police. The system abides.
Such violence has historically been a condition of possibility for the entire American enterprise — so what does it mean to expect “justice” in that light? The outcomes of any given court proceedings are what they are, not least since all Americans, killers included, have a right to a fair trial. All Americans have that right, or at least in the same sense that all Americans equally enjoy recourse to armed self-defense: as a principled right to try their chances in practice. Whether acting out of considered choice or compelled desperation, everyone equally has a chance to find out whether they will be an exception that proves the rule or one just another instance of it. That all this tends to favor those left standing when the gunsmoke clears — and has since the very beginning — is probably a coincidence.
Patrick Blanchfield is a freelance writer and Associate Faculty Member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. His book, Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence is forthcoming from Verso.