MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
His bail was set at $2 million. It was paid largely by wealthy right-wing donors. And for now, he's free. He is Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with the shooting deaths of protesters in Kenosha, Wis., this summer. His many conservative supporters portray him not as an accused killer, but as a patriot, defending the city from violent leftists. Terrorism analysts say this is mythologizing and it is dangerous. NPR's Hannah Allam is following the case.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi, there.
KELLY: Remind us the basics - who Rittenhouse is, how his case came to be such a political lightning rod.
ALLAM: Yeah. Rittenhouse is a teenager from Illinois who traveled to Kenosha as a self-appointed guard for local businesses. This is during the chaotic aftermath of the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in August. So Rittenhouse shows up with a semi-automatic rifle that he wasn't legally allowed to be carrying at 17. And prosecutors say he ends up shooting three people, two of them fatally. Rittenhouse says that he acted in self-defense. And although he isn't tied to a specific group, this is a teen who was steeped in the pro-police Back the Blue movement, and that was enough for activists on the left to paint him unequivocally as a militia member or a white supremacist and for many on the right to portray him as an upstanding defender of law and order.
KELLY: And who are the people who are defending Rittenhouse?
ALLAM: It's a mix. There are prominent wealthy conservatives who contributed to the $2 million bail, some grassroots supporters who see this as a Second Amendment issue, a due process issue. Then there's the conservative political machine that immediately saw an opportunity here and cranked up the rhetoric. All the way up to the White House, Trump himself has spoken sympathetically about Rittenhouse. And then you have far-right and extremist groups like the Proud Boys, some of the militia groups, and they see Rittenhouse as a hero because they see violence directed at protesters on the left as justified. And that leap is an escalation that worries terrorism analysts. Here's Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland professor who studies radicalization.
ARIE KRUGLANSKI: He's a - the kind of white knight in shining armor that is defending against those who allegedly are attacking society, attacking white America. And in addition to adulation that he's being paid, it reinforces the idea that there is an enemy out there that needs to be defended against.
KELLY: Let's focus on this fact. Kyle Rittenhouse has now been released, as we said. What's been the reaction from his supporters?
ALLAM: Well, it was a victory for them, of course, although, I mean, he does still face homicide and other charges. He's due back in court in December. But, you know, if Rittenhouse was a lightning rod before, now with a Democratic administration coming in soon, support for him is really turning into a purity test, even within the MAGA crowd.
So perhaps the best illustration of this is what happened to a conservative-owned coffee company called Black Rifle Coffee. Basically, around the time Rittenhouse was released, a photo of him in a Black Rifle coffee T-shirt goes viral. The company issued a statement saying they have no ties to Rittenhouse and they don't want to profit off a tragedy. Cue the backlash. And this coffee company that's popular with Trump supporters is suddenly trolled as a liberal patsy. Rival coffee companies step in, say they support Rittenhouse. And now they're swamped with orders and sold out of T-shirts. So, yes, the tribalism over this case now extends all the way to your morning coffee.
KELLY: NPR's Hannah Allam, thanks for your reporting.
ALLAM: Thank you.
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