Crazy people and the discourse
Oh no, a substack with a Kenosha take
Seven years ago, when I worked in the downtown D.C. offices of Bloomberg News, I started to walk home and stumbled across a Black Lives Matter rally. No story in mind, I joined the crowd, initially moving between a line of silent, shield-bearing police officers and the protest itself. After a few minutes, I noticed a white guy, with no shirt and plenty of unkempt hair, repeatedly breaking from the crowd to get close to the police and scream at them.
“Fuck you!” he’d yell. He’d pause for a second to gauge the reaction, then yell a different word or combination of words with “fuck” at the beginning. Within a minute, I saw someone else break from the crowd to reel this guy back in. I filed a few grafs on what I saw, and don’t think I mentioned this sideshow.
Cut to: May 2020. I walked down to protests outside the White House to get a sense of what was happening, whether or not it would make it into a story. (Before I left, I saw him: The same guy, still shirtless, hair still falling onto his shoulders. “Time for a revolution!” he yelled, roaming around a less-crowded section of 16th Street. “Time for a revolution!” A few days later, I noticed that quote, attributed to “a man,” in a New York Times story about the president’s response to “street protests” that were sometimes “resulting in clashes with the police.” The guy yelling about “revolution” and getting ignored, who I’d seen organizers tell to shut up and go away, became one of the voices of the protest.
Why, after months of ignoring this substack, am I returning to talk about a guy I never bothered to interview? One reason is that somebody emailed me about “your short-lived substack” and I got guilted back into posting. The other is that I’ve avoided the Discourse around Kenosha and the Kyle Rittenhouse trial — not part of my beat, not a story I was there to cover — but keep noticing something that doesn’t fit into any larger story about what the 2020 uprising Meant. Create a space for protests too big to be broken up by police, and crazy, violent people will show up and take advantage of it.
We saw this in 2011, when women at multiple Occupy camps became victims of sexual assault. Tonye Iketubosin, then 26, was arrested in New York after allegedly groping a 17-year old girl and raping an 18-year old woman who’d let him sleep in her tent. In Dallas, a 14-year old at the city’s Occupy camp told police that she was raped by a 23-year old sex offender. In Philadelphia, a 25-year old woman reported a rape from a man twice her age who, it turned out, was a sex offender from Michigan.
Those incidents were devastating to the broader Occupy movement, which petered out by the end of the year. The crimes got heavy play on mainstream media, and on conservative media, which was less expansive 10 years ago, they became the entire story of Occupy. (One of Andrew Breitbart’s last public appearances was outside the 2012 CPAC, where he shouted “stop raping people” again and again to protesters outside.) Nine years later, at the Occupy-ish CHAZ camp that took over six square blocks of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the same drama played out: A utopian camp fell apart as people wandered in to start fights and attempt rape.
“We do not want to see what was started with the intention of lifting the BLM message destroyed before us all,” organizers wrote in a memo on a now-deleted Twitter account.
Nothing violent happened with the guy I mentioned at the start of this post, but organizers knew what could happen: a conflict between the police and the at-that-time peaceful marchers. Most people who wind up at protests don’t want that, and there’s a long enough history of law enforcement or political opponents infiltrating protests to discredit them that people are wary of anyone showing up and saying “you know what we should do? Escalate.”
You’ve seen that all year as people who wanted to overturn the 2020 election try to pin Jan. 6 on infiltrators. Ray Epps, the owner of a Western-themed wedding venue in Arizona, headed to Washington and told fellow protesters that “we need to go into the Capitol,” which inspired some people around him to yell “Fed! Fed!” — in other words, telling anyone who might be watching on a live stream that this guy who endorsed what pro-Trump protesters actually did was a federal agent trying to discredit the peaceful protest.
Before the clips of Epps got famous, Trump supporters talked a lot about John Sullivan, a man from Utah who, according to reporting on his life before Jan. 6, got radicalized last summer and started organizing protests that peaceful BLM wanted absolutely nothing to do with. It was Sullivan who filmed the shooting of Ashli Babbitt when she tried to break into the House Speaker’s Lobby, and in the aftermath, a simple story emerged: Any violence on Jan. 6 was caused by Antifa infiltrators, not red-blooded Trump supporters. That wasn’t true, but reporting on Sullivan revealed a malcontent with delusions of grandeur - a guy that nobody wanted to associate with, a threat to any cause he joined. From the Deseret News:
John worked as a successful salesman, his brother said, making more than $200,000 in some years. He paid cash for a Mercedes and was building a house in Sandy, when his political views radicalized.
“He was doing amazing things with his life and he came out and said capitalism is a cancer to Black society, when capitalism literally gave him the Mercedes and the house he was building,” James Sullivan said.
In June 2020, John attended his first Black Lives Matter event, according to Lex Scott, the founder of the Utah chapter of the group. Nobody had seen him before or knew who he was. Sullivan also started his own group, Insurgence USA, in response to the killing of George Floyd and he organized his first protest in Provo.
“His very first protest he held was the one someone got shot,” she said.
What’s this have to do with that Rittenhouse Discourse I’ve been avoiding? Joseph Rosenbaum. The lionization of Rittenhouse on the right has a lot to do with who he shot, and how the deadly scuffle began. Rosenbaum, 36, suffered from bipolar disorder and had been convicted of multiple statutory rapes. Reporting from the night of the shooting made it very clear that Rosenbaum, seen below arguing with armed men, chased after Rittenhouse, followed by a small mob. Rittenhouse’s successful defense strategy showed Rosenbaum roaming around the protests, threatening to murder people, and asked jurors: What would happen if this guy grabbed an AR-15?
I don’t want to do a lot of throat-clearing at what had happened in Kenosha to get to this point. Briefly: Protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake got wildly out of hand, and after a night of looting, people were driving in from outside Kenosha — as far as Seattle — to take sides in a conflict. What conflict? How would it end? That didn’t seem clear then, and it’s less clear now, though the reaction of liberals to the Rittenhouse verdict seems to be that reactionaries with guns will feel emboldened to show up to other protests with guns, and that we might see more incidents like the the killing of far-right activist Aaron Danielson by far-left activist Michael Reinoehl, who was himself killed by U.S. Marshalls.
The normal thing to do on a Substack post now would be publishing my solution for all this, based on something that made me really angry on Twitter. That sounds like a waste of time. I was, however, pretty surprised by tweets, some from elected officials, who reacted to the Rittenhouse verdict by blurring or bungling the facts on the ground. Cramming everything into a “racial reckoning” storyline is going to lead you astray — cramming almost anything into a simple narrative will do that.
Do you have conservative relatives who believe that major cities were completely burned to the ground to the last year and that it’s no longer safe to walk around in the rubble? I bet you do. Have you heard liberals lump in Rittenhouse, who killed two white guys in a street fight, with the Boogaloo Boys who really do want to start a race war? Sure you have, and I bet the Biden campaign wishes it didn’t include Rittenhouse in its video about Trump “refus[ing] to disavow white supremacists.”
No hot take from me. I just kept thinking about the disturbed-seeming people I’ve seen at protests, one punch or thrown bottle away from starting a riot. Because many anarchists and fascists refuse to say their names or explain what they want - doing so would make them instant targets - we never get inside the heads of people who see street violence as a way to bring change. And sometimes the violence gets kicked off by people who aren’t thinking at all.