What’s so simple in the moonlight by the morning never is.
The night of the shooting, bands of armed white men dotted the landscape before we even arrived in Kenosha. Police roadblocks along I-94 barred easy access to the small Wisconsin city and forced us off the highway early, to hack it through backroads. Passing through sleepy, darkened suburbs miles from any sign of protest or rebellion, we were struck by the silhouettes of men armed and outfitted for combat, alongside makeshift checkpoints and roadblocks, and an otherwise eerie quiet. These would-be vigilantes were in for a boring night. By the time ours was over, though, we’d have seen comrades gunned down in the street by an armed vigilante operating with the explicit approval of the local police, and the tiny Midwestern city of Kenosha become a fierce political battleground for the unfolding political crisis in the United States.
For the two evenings before Kyle Rittenhouse murdered two demonstrators and injured a third, Kenosha had been something entirely different. Immediately following the barbaric shooting of Jacob Blake, locals quickly took the streets. After initially gathering around the location of the shooting, a crowd formed in Civic Center Park in front of the Kenosha County Courthouse. A video from earlier in the day showed an officer getting a brick to the head. When we arrived, this antagonistic tone, and the willingness to fight back, had only grown. It was a tribute to summer’s enduring spirit of open revolt. What began with the mass response to the murder of George Floyd would not be ending any time soon.
As in Portland, the downtown courthouse became the central focus of anger. As centers of white supremacist “justice” and punishment of the poor, where extortionate fines and fees are collected, callous sentences meted out, and lives destroyed to nourish a class of parasites who live off the so-called “justice system,” courthouses are obvious targets in themselves. Before the rebellion, Kenosha was perhaps most famous for the 2004 murder of Michael Bell, a white man, which brought considerable public attention to the Kenosha Police Department’s internal culture of covering up for cops who kill, and even led to a bipartisan bill requiring outside agencies to review police killings in Wisconsin. Another scandal a decade later furnished an inside look at its rotten business of “justice” in the lakeside city, when, in a rare move, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court investigated Kenosha District Attorney Robert Zapf’s withholding evidence that Kenosha PD Officer Kyle Baars had planted evidence on one of the defendants in a murder trial, including a bullet. The final report of the court’s investigator depicts in stark language a police department covering up evidence planting all the way up the chain of command to the chief, and a district attorney playing along. Similarly, a 2015 scandal surrounding Officer Pablo Torres shooting two people in ten-days under suspicious circumstances – the latter, fatally, on his first day back after going on leave for the former – ended with Torres exonerated by none other than DA Zapf and promoted to detective. These are only the stories that grabbed headlines, there must be countess more. And while it’s unlikely these insults were needed – on top of the injury of daily violence and degradation under American policing and courts – to single out the courthouse for attack following the shooting of Jacob Blake, they provide all the more evidence that we shouldn’t ask why Kenosha and places like it go up in flames, but should wonder instead what took so long.
Approaching the courthouse we saw sanitation trucks engulfed in flames, galvanizing and exciting the crowd. The police’s attempt to block the roads by commandeering the city’s infrastructural resources had backfired. Instead, it later proved a strategic asset as an appropriated barricade for the protestors. People graffitied the walls of the courthouse, and were met with cheers of encouragement. Minutes later the building was covered in slogans, including “Be water, spread fire” and “They kill us because they fear us, honor the dead.” We then watched as the courthouse windows were smashed and someone threw a large cement brick through the door. These acts enlivened the crowd, and if any voices called for “peace,” “nonviolence,” or “de-escalation,” we didn’t hear them over the clamor for vengeance.
More and more people were showing up to the park. Some went right to the courthouse, where protesters passed out surgical masks to protect the participants from Covid and identification. Others posted up in the windowsills of the high school across from the courthouse, taking part by being present. Passengers hung out of windows of passing cars bumping music, providing a soundtrack for the frenzy. People were filling in the nearby streets. No age or race monopolized the gathering’s composition.
Back at the courthouse, the escalation continued. Molotov cocktails exploded around the building. While the crowd loved this, the police did not. A small band of cops emerged to extinguish the flames, while others approached, clad in riot gear, firing “less-than-lethal” munitions, such as tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bang grenades. Like many sleepy towns across the US, Kenosha revealed an astonishing supply of military equipment, including multiple armored military vehicles commonly known as BearCats.
Two armed protesters stood directly in front of the first BearCat to arrive until it backed away. Approaching again, the police fired on the crowd. The protestors responded with rocks and fireworks from behind the torched sanitation trucks. As the night wore on it became clear that the police could do little else than protect the courthouse. Sensing this, the crowd directed its attention to the property in the immediate vicinity. To the west of the courthouse, protestors took down the Dinosaur Discovery Museum’s large outdoor dinosaur statue, amid the kind of debate and ad hoc deliberation which would recur at many sites of destruction. The high school’s windows were smashed and graffitied. The used car lot to the southeast then went up in flames. It was almost 3 am when we left the crowd, which had gathered to watch the blaze. A fire like that acts as a smoke signal; we knew there would be more tomorrow.
By the second night Kenosha was national news and the National Guard had been called in amid great fanfare. But the people were undeterred. The crowd returned to the courthouse, now protected by a line of combative riot police and BearCats. The protesters were also prepared. There were significantly more masks in the crowd, but this was only the minimum preparedness. We saw shields and umbrellas, along with helmets, goggles, and other protective gear. Laser pointers menaced the band of cops guarding the courthouse. We even saw Portland inspired leaf blowers to combat the tear gas. The global crowdsourcing of essential protest gear – from Hong Kong to Santiago and countless places in between – allowed many of us to protect ourselves and those around us from police violence.
It seemed at first like the night was going to be a long battle at the courthouse. The police repeatedly fired rubber bullets and tear gas, and made near constant use of the LRAD. One of us took a rubber bullet directly to the torso from point blank range, and nearly two weeks later, a sizeable bruise remains alongside lingering pain. Volunteers ferried chunks of concrete and brick back and forth from the ruins of a nearby church, and eager revelers broke large pieces into small to hurl at the police line. But this band of well-equipped police was able to hold a large angry crowd at bay, and spare the courthouse the fate that befell Minneapolis’s Third Precinct three months ago. Thus repelled, however, the crowd hit the streets.
The courthouse may have been the real prize, but like the night before, the large multiracial crowd was willing to settle. It dispersed from the courthouse and unleashed on the city the fury it was unable to visit upon the police and courts. The few cars that survived at the nearby used car lot torched the night before were immediately smashed to bits and set afire, as if it were unfinished business. Businesses were smashed open, and their shelves emptied. The atmosphere was positively carnivalesque and almost wholesome. One woman walking by with an armful of stuff said “I don’t even know what I took!” Much ink his been spilled drawing upon abstruse philosophy and political theory to justify looting, but we find it an act that speaks for itself and doesn’t need us to chase after and rationalize it. As looting spread along with arson and general mayhem, groups of teenagers knocked over lampposts along the route of a jovial yet ferocious riot. The sound of glass breaking was ubiquitous. “Some people can sound like cars,” writes Kuwasi Balagoon. “Some can imitate a fire engine. But to hear the sound of glass breaking, glass must be broken.”
It was somewhat bittersweet to see businesses like low-end used car lots and small boutiques smashed up and set on fire. Alfredo Bonanno likens the earliest eruptions of insurrectionary violence to “a blow of the tiger’s claws that rips and does not distinguish” – while leaving the task of distinguishing to organized revolutionaries. But even making such allowances, we must ask ourselves: what was being smashed and looted? Knowing what we do about America’s fucked up justice system and suffocating structural racism, it’s tempting to imagine many of the revelers were smashing up nothing less than an open air prison, patrolled by the pigs who shot Jacob Blake, administered by the rotten court system that wastes the lives of young people of color with no hesitation, and defined by the kind of stupid everyday interpersonal violence that accompanies life under such a tyrannical regime.
Accordingly, the flame that burned the hottest was the Department of Correction’s probation and parole office, which went up in a great plume of smoke that was like perfume to our nostrils. “Get the PO building!” someone called out as the crowd approached. The mood was exuberant. Graffiti scrawled on the building rhetorically calling to “abolish” it was superseded in short order by an act of proactive abolition. We can only imagine how many hours of people’s lives have been wasted by this probation and parole office, with its sadistic punishment thinly veiled by the trappings of humanist “rehabilitation.” Perhaps with this in mind, revelers wasted no time in reducing it to a smoldering pile of rubble. Good fucking riddance!
From the outside, these scenes must have seemed dreadfully dangerous to anyone living nearby, much less out on the street. This relies on two common misconceptions about riots. The first is that rioters often target the personal residences so cherished by working white people whose entire lives are sunk into their homes – hence, the brave sentinels we beheld outside town standing guard against a largely imaginary threat. The second is that riots are pure lawlessness and hence dangerous to be in or around, perhaps especially – in the imaginary of the average Fox News viewer – for white people. This could not have been further from the reality we experienced in the eye of the storm. The mood was festive and people worked together across the lines of race, gender, and age. There was a kind of overriding ethics. Imperatives issued from all sides: “Stop filming!” and “Don’t burn that one, there’s an apartment above!” At one store a group of armed men told the crowd to keep moving: “Not this store…but I don’t care if you hit the one down the street!” For the most part these were obeyed, and the only interpersonal violence we saw involved people unwilling to stop taking incriminating photographs.
Requests rang out – “Someone burn this one! Someone better burn this one!” – as locals found a more direct means of settling grievances than leaving a bad Yelp review. In this vein, many of the places which elicited excitement included the predatory paycheck loan office. Similarly, revelers smashed open a bank with great enthusiasm, but finding no money, contented themselves with setting a fire inside. Outside, the crowd attempted to break open an ATM. A few helpful volunteers emptied the clips of their guns onto it from close range, but no money was found. Cars driven by revelers snarled traffic, with one brave driver refusing to budge for a police BearCat, and instead drove as slow as possible to allow a crowd to escape a hail of pepperballs (paintballs filled with pepper spray) that ricocheted off apartment buildings – the only attack on residential property we saw that night!
The rioting Monday night ended when the crowd ran out of city to ransack and allowed itself to grow thin enough that the police felt comfortable moving in, firing pepperballs and forcing the crowd to scatter down alleys and into backyards. As small groups took off in every direction, we forfeited the advantages of numbers which had kept the police at bay for hours, as the power of the collectivity degenerated into the curse of the monadic individual. From there the evening became a dispiriting game of cat and mouse between heavily armored police vehicles and small bands of retreating revelers on foot. Hotly pursued by a BearCat, we ducked behind a house near the courthouse to change our clothes. The house’s owner, a younger Black man, emerged to see what we were doing – armed with an AR-15 and pistol strapped to his leg, clad in a bulletproof vest. When we told him what we were doing, he relaxed and told us we were welcome. He watched out for us while we changed, and told us when the coast was clear. Despite this oasis in a fraught terrain, we were nonetheless isolated and vulnerable. The magic spell of the riot was broken. But almost unbelievably, when the smoke from dozens of structure fires had cleared, there had only been six arrests. It’s amazing the shit people can get away with when you roll with a big enough crowd!
The following night, the night of the shooting, a call had gone out on Facebook for wannabe militia types to play Call of Duty in real life. We witnessed tense standoffs all night, with an ad hoc militia a few dozen strong pointing their weapons at protesters. The scene immediately preceding the shooting was a three-way showdown between police BearCats trying to clear the street, militia clustered around a gas station, and a crowd, smaller than the previous night but nonetheless dedicated, testing the limits of the possible against the threat of live fire. We saw incredible courage on the part of a multiracial crowd staring down and even clashing with armed paramilitary who were pointing guns at all of us with great fear in their eyes. It must have been the first time many of them tried this kind of shit on American soil, but we don’t doubt that some, like the police clad in their military costumes, brought with them experience terrorizing poor people of color abroad.
Ironically, the militia types tended to function as an armed version of the liberal “peace police” you meet at many leftist demonstrations. They rhetorically presented themselves as allies of the movement but defenders of private property, and were willing to intercede forcibly on the behalf of objects, even if it put human lives at risk. They stood guard over piles of rubble, extinguished dumpster fires, and guarded businesses they had no connection to. Interestingly enough, one of them told us to “go burn down the police station, we’d be fine with that.” We didn’t get a chance to find out if this was a bluff. After a series of tense skirmishes in which their weapons were pointed at unarmed people, and threats exchanged from both sides, the militia’s zealous protection of other’s businesses proved, as many of us had guessed, to be a pretext for opening fire. The story of the shooting is well documented and has since been dissected from every angle. But in the heat of the moment we had no idea what was going on. Shots echoed – lots of them. A seemingly unrelated motorist pulled up and sprayed some of us in the face with a fire extinguisher. A crowd gathered around the body of Joseph Rosenbaum, attempting to provide first aid, as a group of young Black women cried that he was already dead. We heard other shots which turned out to be the shooting death of Anthony Huber, and the wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz. At the time it sounded like an all-out attack from all sides.
While the right-wingers had been the only ones flaunting their weapons during skirmishes throughout the night, once the shooting began, guns appeared in the hands of many of the young locals. It’s unclear if any of them shot back. The small crowd of heroes who chased down the gunman or provided emergency care to the victim were in the minority however. Most folks either pulled out guns for self-defense, or just retreated and scattered down side streets, or both.
The journey back to the car was far more terrifying than any of the BearCat chases from the previous nights. We didn’t have that far to go, but the echoes of gun shots ringing from who knows where made every space of open terrain feel like unwelcomed exposure. After crossing an empty lot we hid behind the side of a car only to see a lone white man driver spot us, pull his car around and stop right by the car we were hiding behind. To our left an armed Black man was walking towards us with a determined gait. We kept moving. We didn’t feel any kind of fight or flight response – we felt present, alert. Thinking was for later, movement was for now.
We tried to drive away from all the gun fire, but even this proved difficult. When we finally found a way out we pulled over to rest by a park. We were about to head out when a bunch of cars turned down the street ahead of us. They just kept coming. We thought maybe traffic was being diverted down this street, but that didn’t make any sense. One car turned around and the Black driver yelled something at us. Though we were unable to make out what it was he said it was enough for us to know we were unwanted. We turned around so as to not disturb what we were now terming a caravan. We’d gone a few blocks and were stopped at a red light when an SUV with multiple Black passengers approached us. “What were you doing back there?” the driver asked us through the window. “What are you trying to do?” We let them know we were just trying to head out of town, that we had gotten lost. “We’re on your side,” we added. Just then a big truck with two huge flags – “Join or Die” and the thin blue line – drove up to the light and took a right. “Like, we are not with them,” we told the driver. After quickly eyeing us one last time the SUV ran the red and sped off to the right in what seemed to be hot pursuit.
In hindsight, there was a stark difference between how the police and the militia managed the crowd. The police, largely hanging back in their BearCats and episodically firing gas, flash grenades, and pepper balls, rallied the crowd a la Portland to hurl objects, shout taunts, fortify behind dumpsters and other tactical barricades found in the street, and otherwise hold their terrain. By contrast, one militia man opening fire accomplished what the police could not, and dispersed a large crowd and initiated a game of cat and mouse like the night before, only with far more police and National Guard troops posted in the dark, and fewer of us. Since the rebellion kicked off in late May we have witnessed a tactical maturation in the streets, especially around the need to “stick together!”, as the command is often echoed across crowds thinning and becoming vulnerable to police assault. However, the shooting served to disperse much of the crowd. It’s up for debate whether this is a good thing, or whether we need to socialize a collective practice of holding ground amid gunfire. This will be a difficult discussion between cities facing these questions, and will require most of all that bravado be left at the door.
We returned the following night. We had to. Kenosha was on edge. The crowd was the smallest yet and heavy with press who flocked like vultures to the scene of carnage. There were at least thirty cameras in a crowd of roughly 100. Two groups of inexperienced organizers feuded for the direction of the march, led the same chants we’ve heard for countless hours all summer, in marches that drag on uneventfully for hours until all but the most dedicated slink off and go to bed. The previous nights’ tactical militancy seemed a million miles away. Sensing no threat to order, the cops and Guard troops stayed out of the streets and staged in the dark nearby. The energy was gone. We paused at the spots of each murder for a moment of silence, and heard from Anthony Huber’s grieving partner. Her words were a powerful homage to a man we had walked alongside the night before, and who died facing down a mass shooter armed only with a skateboard.
After some disagreement over where to march, we set off for “where the rich white people live, to wake them up!” At roughly midnight we undertook an impromptu noise demo in a wealthy Kenosha neighborhood, shining lights in windows and a few brave young men even knocking on doors. The mournful vibe became festive and the procession wound up feeling cathartic. Most interestingly, the militia were nowhere to be seen. While many of our comrades imagined this to be a great victory for them, it’s possible to imagine the opposite… had the soldier boys gotten more than they bargained for? Still, the energy was much different. We chanted the same left chants over and over again, led by two groups of organizers who vied for leadership over the dwindling march. When we stopped at an intersection, a now ubiquitous ritual of formulaic BLM protest marches, one of the groups yelled at us to let the cars pass.
A subsequent shooting in Portland has raised the specter of recurrent gun violence between tiny groups on both sides, sure to skew toward young men, free of pressing financial and familial commitments, and alienating to just about everyone else. Having seen the carnage in Kenosha up close, we are convinced this is the wrong path. But what is the alternative? How can we build active self-defense against armed fascists and the state, without falling into the trap of making our primary political activity an engagement with these forces of repression on their preferred terrain? The answer cannot be resolved on paper, but we can say for sure it will be guided not by what we want to destroy, but what we want to build: communities of solidarity, inclusivity, and radical equality, based on human needs and not the dictates of profit.
This is not to say violence is not necessary. Americans can scarcely resolve disputes over parking spaces without resorting to violence, never mind a radical reconfiguration of society from the bottom-up. We therefore solemnly renounce nonviolence. But we hold that the very humanist tendencies which make many of us useless with guns and ammo are our real weapon, and must be used to formulate an alternative vision of sociality which we both espouse and practice, as we help usher in the new world growing within the shell of the old. This is of course an abstraction, and can only be made concrete in practice. Only consistent engagement in the moment on its own terms, coupled with ruthless critique, can orient our steps through the fraught terrain ahead, in which the fog of war hangs heavy and low.
For better or worse, however, we found no such ambiguity in the revelry of the Kenosha Rebellion. In it we beheld the simple beauty of people standing up for themselves, taking great risks in common, caring for one another, and developing a shared ethics in the streets and on the fly. The new world seemed so close, if only we could keep it going long enough to progress from destruction to creation. But driving out of Kenosha, all was still, save for the occasional silhouette of a rifleman ready to mete out deadly violence against the specter of Black and white revolt now broadcast in living rooms across white flight America. And what remains of the unity we experienced on the streets? Is it lying in wait for its next opportunity to pop up, like the proverbial old mole burrowing deep below our feet? Or will it, devoid of conscious human will acting to forge coherence and consistency over time, linger on in memory like a pleasant dream shared by so many who nonetheless awoke condemned to the state of powerless alienation our society calls individuality? And if this is so, what forms of organization can sustain the dynamic development of a full-fledged insurrection over time, without becoming a fetter to its unfolding?
In the proverbial morning after, it has been surreal and disorienting to behold the Kenosha Rebellion, extracted from its familiar context on dimly lit streets we came to know so intimately, and spread across headlines and cable news the world over. Seeing Trump’s ghoulish figure cutting shadows across the terrain that belonged so totally to the people in the throes of righteous revolt seems like nothing short of the desecration of a sacred space. Looking back to an experience increasingly convoluted by all that has happened since, our experiences in Kenosha increasingly appear like a distant memory, a jumble of exhilaration and heartbreak. Accordingly, we find it ever more difficult to know how to feel in its wake, much less to feel it. Perhaps euphoria and trepidation countervail to produce a dull flatness of affect in which we have been mired since the flames went out. More likely, the profound and radical ambivalence which characterizes the present conjuncture is expressing itself through us. It’s hard to know quite what to make of what happened there and what it portends for the months and years ahead. Far from the eye of the storm, where all was so clear, the chaos of American life makes less and less sense with each passing day.
Dedicated to the memories of Joseph “JoJo” Rosenbaum and and Anthony Huber. Rest in power, comrades!