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Kenosha Police Turned a Blind Eye to US Vigilantes

White Supremacy, Disparate Law Enforcement Threaten Rights

Police in riot gear clear the area in front of Kenosha County Courthouse during clashes with protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, August 25, 2020. © 2020 2020 AP Photo/David Goldman

The Kenosha Police Chief in the US state of Wisconsin responded to a pro-police vigilante killing of two people last month by saying: “Had persons not been out involved in violation of [the curfew] perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened.” His words both excused the shooter and blamed the victims.

On August 25, as protests against police violence gripped the streets of Kenosha following the videotaped shooting of Jacob Blake by police, heavily armed vigilantes came to town, ostensibly to protect property and support the police. Video shows police thanking them and giving them bottles of water, while simultaneously ordering protesters to vacate the streets. The officers’ actions signaled to the vigilantes that they were subject to different rules than the protesters.

Police have inflicted violence on protesters across the United States since people took to the streets following the killing of George Floyd in May. They have fired rubber bullets, beaten people with batons, unleashed tear gas, and assaulted them with pepper spray. They have made mass arrests, sometimes for vandalism or looting, but more often for minor offenses like curfew violations or failing to disperse.

A group of white men, violating curfew and brandishing assault rifles, did not appear to concern Kenosha officers, who acted as though these men were partners. Police did not seem to question whether the 17-year-old among them was old enough to legally possess the gun. Even after witnesses told officers the boy had shot people, they let him walk by them. He drove home to a neighboring town and was not arrested until the following day.

Despite the seriousness of the alleged crime, authorities should treat him fairly, respect his human rights as a child under the age of 18, and not prosecute him as an adult. But the contrast between his treatment by police and that of Jacob Blake and those protesting police violence is stark.

The state attorney general and the US Department of Justice should investigate possible collusion between the vigilantes and law enforcement. Local authorities should look into possible disciplinary infractions by police. Regardless of whether police broke laws or rules, officials at all levels should condemn officers for their tacit encouragement of vigilantism and application of double standards in curfew enforcement.

Further, a white-supremacist culture, emboldened by a president who has encouraged and instigated security force violence against people peacefully exercising their rights to free expression and assembly, poses a grave threat to everyone’s rights. Police should enforce laws equally, not simply against those with whom they disagree.

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