Kenosha, Wis., dominated headline news in late August, due in part to the actions of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Illinois, who was arrested for allegedly killing two protesters and injuring a third. To some observers he acted in self-defense, to others he acted in the name of white supremacy.
The pieces of the story that remain consistent, regardless of one’s politics, is that two families are grieving and a child is again being charged as an adult in Wisconsin.
As the CEO of a national advocacy organization, the Campaign for Youth Justice, I have spent the past seven years advocating for states to change their laws and practices toward the treatment of children who are charged, sentenced and incarcerated as if they were adults. Much of my ire has been directed to Wisconsin – one of only three states that still considers every 17-year-old as an adult in the eyes of the law, regardless of their crimes (Georgia and Texas are the others). The state has charged and sentenced three children younger than 12 as adults in the past six years.
Unequivocally I stand against these practices – as brutal, human rights violations, that undermine public safety and our nation’s century-long belief in the ability of children to be rehabilitated.
So in the case of this 17-year-old child, I stand my ground. Kyle Rittenhouse is still a child – a child who has been alleged to commit senseless and avoidable pain and death, but a child nonetheless. He is also a child who, by some news accounts, has received the benefit of this doubt – that he acted in self defense, that the police provided him with water and gratitude earlier that night, that he was allowed to leave the state and turn himself in later, that he is currently being housed in an age-appropriate youth detention facility in Illinois (a “benefit” that won’t be extended once he arrives in Wisconsin, where he will be placed in an adult jail). Treatment that many say, and to which I agree, would likely not be extended if he were Black or brown.
This case cuts to the soul of the conflict in our country. It is why we are having these protests to begin with. They test our moral compass and the type of future we are building for our children. There are many values that are challenged: Our sanctity of childhood and the belief that every person is more than the worst thing they have ever done; our call to end the structural racism that, had Kyle been Black, would have led law enforcement to presume his carrying of a weapon was an act of aggression and not self-defense, and that easily could have led to his injury or death. Our desire to live out the practice of restorative justice and healing even in the face of unspeakable loss and tragedy; to seek peace and not just punishment.
I believe we can rise to this challenge. Wisconsin legislators can use this tragedy as a point of self-reflection to examine the way it treats its children. Law enforcement can examine their behavior in response to a white armed child versus a Black one. Let us not let this moment of deep pain and loss turn us into a society of retribution. We have endorsed that failed strategy for far too long.
These are difficult things to ask of us, a nation-divided right now. But they are questions we must wrestle with if we are to ever evolve into a country that is better than the worst thing we have ever done.