Two videos. Two men. Two police responses on the streets of Kenosha.
In the first video, taken Sunday afternoon, a Kenosha police officer fires seven shots at point blank range from behind 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man, as Blake attempts to enter a gray SUV. A woman witnessing the scene can be heard screaming over and over: “Don’t you do it! Don’t you do it!”
Police have said Blake had a knife though it cannot be seen in the video. Blake remained at Froedtert Hospital as of Friday, paralyzed from the waist down, according to a lawyer for his family.
In the second video, taken Tuesday night, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old, approaches officers shouldering an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle after allegedly shooting three people. Rittenhouse raises his arms in a gesture that appears to be surrendering, or possibly signaling that his hands are not on his weapon. Witnesses shout: “Hey, he just shot them! Hey, dude right here just shot them!”
Four armored vehicles, lights flashing, pass Rittenhouse, and several police cruisers can be seen nearby. No one stops Rittenhouse. He was charged Thursday with intentional and reckless homicide.
The differences between the two videos have prompted a fierce national debate over race and justice.
To some, the videos show clear racism.
In the Blake video, less than three minutes elapse from the time police arrive on the scene to the moment Officer Rusten Sheskey shoots Blake. Those viewers say police made an inadequate effort to de-escalate the conflict or settle it by other means.
In the Rittenhouse video, gunfire is heard after the city-imposed curfew, and a white teenager with an AR-15 semiautomatic walks past law enforcement vehicles. No one stops him, despite the cries from witnesses trying to alert police that he has just shot people.
To others who view the two videos, the blame lies not with Rittenhouse, but state and local authorities who allowed the protests in Kenosha to devolve into anarchy, leaving citizens to defend property and themselves.
Still others say it is too early to draw conclusions from video of the Blake shooting. They say Blake did not follow orders from the officers and reached into a vehicle where, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, a knife lay on the floor.
The Kenosha Professional Police Association issued a statement Friday saying Blake was armed and wanted on an open warrant. The union also said he was tased twice by officers to no effect.
The Blake and Rittenhouse videos have their limitations and ambiguities, as brief snapshots of longer incidents always do. Neither shows the viewer what happened in the minutes before the video opens.
The Blake video does not show what happened when police arrived, and displays little interaction between Blake and two officers prior to the shooting; any police orders to Blake cannot be heard.
The Rittenhouse video is just one of a number involving him. But it’s unclear whether any of the officers in the video taken after the gunfire recognized him as he approached their vehicles.
Experts on race and justice weigh in
The contrast between the two scenes is neither new nor surprising, said Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the book, “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”
“How long are Black people supposed to drop to their knees and put their face to the dirt because a police officer wants to play gun and cop? We’ve been doing this for 400 years,” Browne-Marshall said after viewing the video of the Jacob Blake shooting.
“I’m deeply concerned,” she said of the second video, showing an armed Rittenhouse being allowed to pass police. “This is not implicit bias. These disparities demonstrate blatant racism.”
Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and a former FBI agent, said it was “certainly fair” to compare the two videos.
“Obviously, each circumstance will have its own surrounding facts that need to be addressed. But there’s no doubt that there’s a stark difference in the way law enforcement reacts to a white suspect vs. a Black suspect.”
German has worked undercover in domestic terrorism cases involving white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups and has lobbied on civil rights and national security issues for the ACLU.
He called the lack of police response to Rittenhouse, “astonishing,” even if the officers did not see who had fired the shots.
“They know there was a shooting, and there’s a person walking toward them with a rifle,” he said. “It’s odd that they would not at least try to ascertain that person’s identity. He’s trying to surrender.”
Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, watched both videos and said, “We need to know more about both incidents — but perhaps the best explanation for the different treatment stems from the fact that they’re different situations.”
Palmer stressed that the night of the video involving Rittenhouse “was chaotic.”
“In that video,” he continued, “it does appear that (police) are saying ‘Injury ahead, get out of the road,’ and they seem more focused on responding to that than to the fact that someone is walking towards them, granted with a weapon, but with his hands in the air.
“They are potentially receiving information about the report of a shooting and they are more focused on getting to that and rendering aid, and in the process, (overlooked) the fact that the person who committed that act was so close, walking toward them.”
Palmer added that there is no indication that police heard or were aware of the witnesses shouting that Rittenhouse had shot people.
Ralph Richard Banks, a professor at Stanford Law School, and director and founder of Stanford Center for Racial Justice, said that watching the Rittenhouse video, “it was hard for me to make out what was going on.”
Still, he added, “It’s hard for anyone to avoid some very sobering conclusions. … While law enforcement is meant to protect, and we think of law enforcement as (having the job) to serve anyone, it’s hard not to wonder if they are protecting and serving some people and see their job as keeping them safe from other people.”
Banks also stressed that it’s important not to lose sight of the larger picture by focusing too much on a single incident.
“There are always ambiguities in what happens in any particular case,” he said. “The evidence that something is wrong with society is the whole run of cases.”
‘We’ve racialized crime’
There are some who may see different issues involved in the two videos: racism and policing in the Blake footage; and gun laws in the Rittenhouse footage.
“I can say it’s fair to compare those videos, but this is a case where you don’t need comparison. It’s so egregious,” said Henry Smart III, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He said the officer shot Blake “like he was a dog, or some kind of rabid animal.”
Smart said the Blake video points to some of the most fundamental problems in American justice, covering every stage in the law enforcement process.
“We’ve racialized crime,” Smart said.
He said the racial disparities begin with the use of 911 to call police when a Black man is involved, continue as vague or inaccurate information is relayed by dispatchers, and finally influence the expectations and mindsets of the responding officers.
Browne-Marshall said the disparities that lead to racist shootings by some police officers are then compounded by the refusal of prosecutors to charge them. The Washington Post’s database of police shootings since 2015 shows that although Black people account for less than 13% of the U.S. population they are killed by police at more than double the rate of white people.
“As long as there are no criminal consequences for police officers,” Browne-Marshall said, “as long as they can act with impunity and prosecutors refuse to do their jobs, these murders will continue.”
Smart said the disparities that start at a 911 call even affect “how we talk about justice. And no matter what Black folks are doing in the incidents, we’re automatically presumed to be in the wrong. We’re demonized.”
Smart said some witnesses reported that Blake had been trying to break up a fight when police arrived, responding to a report of “family trouble.”
If true, Smart said, the police response could send the message to Black children that it is too risky to help their neighbors defuse an argument or deal with a problem.
“You are defiling communities,” Smart said. “You are killing good will.”
It also perpetuates a belief already present in communities of color: that police are to be feared or distrusted.
Smart said not all of the blame belongs with police, because they have been left to deal with the results of systemic racism in housing, employment, and other areas of American life.
“We’ve charged them to take care of America’s dirty work,” Smart said, adding that deep change is also required in communities and policing. “You’ve got to gut the entire system.”
Smart offered some prescriptions for moving toward more equitable and effective policing. For one thing, he said people should consider whether a 911 call is really needed.
“When you call 911,” Smart said, “You are saying, ‘Bring a gun to where I am.’ “
He said other calls should be routed elsewhere and should be responded to by people trained to be “peace officers.”
“Let’s start dispatching police officers without weapons” to address non-emergency calls, he said.
In many cases it would help to have officers paired with social service workers trained in dealing with less serious conflicts, Smart said.
It is not clear whether the anger stirred by the videos of Blake and Rittenhouse will lead to positive changes, or simply deeper divisions. Some suspect that differences between the two incidents will be dismissed by a segment of America, as comparing apples and oranges.
“No doubt they would offer many justifications for distinguishing between the two,” said Banks at Stanford Law School, “but it’s also easy to see that race would be a part of that calculus.”