In the minutes after a jury acquitted 18-year old Kyle Rittenhouse on all counts, jubilation lit up on social media spaces where far-right extremists gather.
In one Telegram channel for the far-right Proud Boys, some noted they had taken the day off work to await the verdict. “There’s still a chance for this country,” wrote one. In another channel, a member stated that political violence must continue. “The left wont stop until their bodied get stacked up like cord wood,” he wrote.
Rittenhouse himself is not known to be a member of an extremist group. But the trial, which from its beginning became a cause and rallying cry among conservatives who champion gun rights, has been particularly alarming to extremism researchers.
As it played out against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized nation, experts of far-right movements say opportunists found a growing audience for their violence-fueled messaging that targets the left. Now that a jury has found that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, those concerns are recentering on the question of whether it may embolden others to engage in political violence.
“This might be interpreted across the far right as a type of permission slip to do this kind of thing or to seek out altercations in this way, believing that there is a potential that they won’t face serious consequences for it,” said Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council. “I worry that that might end up being interpreted by some people as a proof of concept of this idea that you can actually go out and seek a ‘self-defense situation,’ and you’ll be cheered as a hero for it.”
Holt said the verdict also prompts questions about whether far-right extremists may become more visible at public demonstrations.
“Broadly speaking, the far right has been a bit reluctant to turn out in person for things, especially on larger national scales or on issues with a lot of national attention,” he said. “But this could change that dynamic.”
Experts acknowledge that it’s too early to know how the verdict may change dynamics at demonstrations and protests, or whether it will prompt more right-wing activists to bring firearms to those gatherings. But for at least one far-left activist who advocates for the use of guns for self-defense, that risk appears no different from what she says she and other leftists already face.
“Extremist [right-wing] groups already felt there was a license to do this kind of thing,” said Bianca Wright, who affiliates with the Puget Sound Socialist Rifle Association. “They’ve felt that their violence against dissenters is justified and even so, our numbers at demonstrations continue to rise.”