What the Arbery and Rittenhouse Verdicts Couldn’t Tell Us
The judge, Bruce Schroeder, also made headlines for his erratic, seemingly uninformed bluster and his general quirkiness. Some of his decisions seemed biased in favor of Mr. Rittenhouse, such as when he barred prosecutors from calling the people Mr. Rittenhouse shot “victims,” saying that the term was “loaded,” but allowed defense lawyers to call them “arsonists” and “looters” if the evidence supported such labels. But Judge Schroeder is no anomaly. He is 75 years old and the longest-serving circuit judge in Wisconsin. Anyone who has practiced criminal law or even attended a trial knows that plenty of judges are not the objective and omniscient arbiters of popular imagination: They are idiosyncratic and sometimes biased. I’d like to live in a world where judges, whatever their personal quirks, are similarly respectful of indigent clients, but a conviction here would not have made it so.
Convicting Kyle Rittenhouse would have sent Kyle Rittenhouse to prison — that’s all. Laws and legal procedures are not ethical codes and cannot sustain the weight of moral reckonings on a national scale. Looking to these trials to repair social damage, answer a larger question or fulfill some notion of justice is a mistake. Beyond the futility of hope, looking to the criminal system — which was heavily influenced by slave codes and still serves to reinforce racial hierarchies — further centers it in our moral discourse.
Why do we turn to blockbuster trials to satisfy our hunger for justice? Americans are told from birth that punishment solves problems. Retribution is the closest thing we have to a common religion. Redress certainly feels good, like a sugar high; I, too, felt a wave of relief upon reading that Mr. Bryan and Mr. McMichaels had been convicted of killing Mr. Arbery — but it does not make us stronger or healthier as a society.
The fixation on these trials also points to a dearth of justice anywhere else. Police brutality seems like an inescapable part of American life, but convicting Kyle Rittenhouse or even convicting Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Jacob Blake, would not have halted the abuses. Neither can criminal convictions repair the deep racial inequities that lead to Black people being killed by police. George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murder on April 20, 2021. That did not prevent the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl who was shot by police in Columbus, Ohio, the same day.
The injustice extends beyond police abuse. Conspiracy theories exacerbate public health crises. The attack on voting rights by the right leads us ever closer to minority authoritarianism. And urgent warnings of climate disaster have gone unheeded for decades. A win for the prosecution in the Rittenhouse case may have felt vindicating for those on the left side of the culture wars, but it would not have addressed any of these problems.
Neither would it have loosened the hold of racism on our legal system.
To get a sense of the way racism pervades our criminal justice system, I would recommend paying less attention to blockbuster cases and instead visiting a local criminal court on a random day and witnessing the parade of low-income people of color shuffled before the court, most of them accused of minor, victimless offenses. Pay attention as a judge decides, within minutes, how much money will be required for each person to get out of a cage. Listen to the defense lawyer describe the life circumstances of each client. And then ask what can be done. What structures, literal or figurative, must be dismantled, built or changed in order to create the change we seek?
That work is harder, and it’s slower, but maybe one day my clients will not be called “bodies.” Maybe they will be afforded the same dignity and deference given to Mr. Rittenhouse.