The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict revealed a stark divide in how Americans view race, political violence and guns: For partisans on the right, the verdict vindicated Rittenhouse as a hero who stepped forward to help protect property as police lost control, and who used justified deadly force to defend himself — a symbol of law and order against a backdrop of urban chaos.
On the left, the verdict is seen as a green light for white vigilante violence against Black racial justice protesters and their allies — both an extension of state violence and a reminder of law enforcement’s systemic failure to protect people of color. The violence meted out by Rittenhouse, resulting in the deaths of two men and injury to a third, is also viewed as the inevitable and tragic result of a country awash in guns. Consequently, the idea of adding more guns to protests is widely considered anathema by progressives.
Activists in the armed left embrace the first part of the equation wholeheartedly, but hold a more complicated view on the second question, placing less emphasis on the number of guns at protests and more on who’s carrying them. To be sure, the armed left is a decidedly small minority within the broader progressive movement, compared to the political right, where bearing arms is woven into veneration for the Second Amendment.
While armed leftists insist on reserving the right to carry firearms in self-defense at protests, there’s little evidence that the Rittenhouse verdict has prompted them to take a more aggressive stance. The lack of mobilization on the part of the armed left stands in contrast to perennial claims raised by the far-right actors and the conservative media ecosystem that “antifa” poses the greatest threat of violence, which are contradicted by all available evidence.
“I have not seen any credible threats or statements of intent to respond with violence as a response to the verdict, which is important to note,” said Matthew Kriner, a senior research scholar at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Why don’t we see reciprocity in real time? One of the things that keeps coming up with the armed left is they have taken an intentional stance of non-proactive engagement. They don’t want to proactively engage with someone, but they will defend themselves.”
Grandmaster Jay, the supreme commander of the Not F*cking Around Coalition, a Black paramilitary that came to prominence when hundreds of its members paraded with rifles in the streets of downtown Louisville, Ky. in support of Breonna Taylor in July 2020, told Raw Story that, if anything, the Rittenhouse verdict is likely to make armed leftists more cautious.
"I don't think folks need to become more assertive," said Grandmaster Jay, whose real name is John Johnson. "We'll see situations that those individuals that choose to arm themselves will probably give a little more thought, whether they be protesters or militia. As far as folks provoking situations, thinking you can gamble on hiding behind self-defense, that would be foolish."
Speaking about the Rittenhouse shootings, Grandmaster Jay said he would like to see "synergy between the militia and the protesters," lamenting that the focus on outrage against racism and police violence — the cause for upheaval when the shootings took place — got lost during murder trial.
Four other leftist gun activists who spoke to Raw Story echoed Grandmaster Jay's assessment, adding other reasons that they don't expect an escalation on the part of the left. They view guns as only one limited option among an array of tools for collective defense at protests. And they're conscious that structural racism means they are more constrained than their right-wing counterparts. But they insist that organized armed community defense needs to remain on the table as an option for responding to situations like the one in which Rittenhouse fatally shot two men and injured a third.
Gun control advocates, unsurprisingly, view any introduction of additional guns to protest zones with alarm.
"Armed intimidation at demonstrations is a direct assault on the First Amendment and on the ability to keep our communities safe," Justin Wagner, the senior director of investigations at Everytown for Gun Safety, said in an email to Raw Story. "The gun lobby wants us to believe that guns everywhere will make us safer, but the research is clear: Guns at demonstrations make violence more likely."
One reason the Rittenhouse verdict is unlikely to move the needle is because it was utterly unsurprising to African-Americans in particular and leftist activists as a whole, who were already acutely aware of racial disparities in law enforcement and the court system.
“Everything is working according to plan — according to the plan this country is established upon, how everything was set up,” said Haikoo-x, a Durham, NC resident who is a member of the Panther Special Operations Command, a Black armed formation. “I see through the thinly veiled attempt to say this was not a racial case…. We know for a fact that if a Black man or Black woman defended themselves in the same way, we would not be experiencing such a verdict at this juncture.” Haikoo spoke on condition that his real name not be published because of his experience receiving threatening social-media messages from white supremacists.
The baseline for left-wing political violence is already statistically low, and armed leftists and experts alike say there’s no indication that the Rittenhouse verdict will be a tipping point for an uptick in mobilization.
A recent report co-authored by Everytown's Wagner found that the “vast majority” of armed actors at protests over an 18-month period from January 2020 through June 2021 were “right-wing groups, like the Three Percenters and the Proud Boys.”
Entitled "Armed Assembly: Guns, Demonstrations, and Political Violence in America, the report was jointly released in August by Everytown and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED. The report found that the number of protests involving the presence of firearms spiked in the three-month period following the death of George Floyd, accounting for more than half of the total. But the report notes that almost 84 percent of the armed demonstrations associated with protests against racist police violence included armed groups or individuals who showed up to oppose racial justice protesters.
Underscoring Wagner's point, the report found that demonstrations where firearms were present were almost six times as likely to turn violent or destructive. Sam Jones, a spokesperson for ACLED and one of the report’s co-authors clarified in an email to Raw Story that the report doesn’t assert a causal relationship between the presence of firearms and protest violence, but he said the correlation is cause for concern.
“The data do suggest that adding more guns to an already volatile situation like a political protest could elevate the risk of violence, and especially deadly violence,” Jones said. “Our data also indicate that demonstrations with counter-demonstrators on both sides, in general, are more likely to turn violent than demonstrations that take place on their own, so if these begin to increasingly take the form of multiple opposing armed groups looking to resolve their disputes in the streets, that’s a dangerous trend. But right now, that violence — armed or not — is predominantly connected to one set of actors: far-right militias and militant social groups.”
Left-wing community defense vs. right-wing accelerationism
Violence at protests has far more to do with the actors than the weaponry, in the view of Matthew Kriner, the scholar at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism. With a few exceptions, he said, people involved with the armed left tend to use firearms in a defensive posture.
“In the American context, there’s a very intentional framing and engagement protocol that is restrained self-defense and community-oriented defense focused,” Kriner said. “That’s in stark contrast to the right-wing discourse of militias and boogaloo that openly talk about using guns to start a civil war.”
Beginning around 2016, Kriner said, a number of far-right groups emerged that embraced accelerationism — the idea that violence can hasten societal collapse and open the door to a new social order.
“What we saw from 2016 onwards is that there are very particular actors that intend to bring the level of antagonism and the temperature of protests up in the hopes of instigating violence and with the intent of framing violence as being between the left and the right,” Kriner said. “That’s something accelerationists have been strategically deploying. You can look at the Proud Boys, Rise Above Movement, Patriot Prayer and now the boogaloo. Those are groups that are coming to events with the intention of witnessing violence and responding, or instigating violence.”
As an example, Kriner cited Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnis’ decision to create a ranked hierarchy within the organization in which members are required to commit an assault to obtain the top rank. He added that there’s no equivalent on the left of a group codifying premeditated violence.
The Not F*cking Around Coalition, or NFAC might be a possible exception as a left-wing group that embraces accelerationism, Kriner said.
Kriner said that NFAC’s social media “echoes of a similar vein of rhetoric as boogaloo in terms of willingness to use violence against law enforcement, in their case, because of the historical mistreatment of African Americans.” He added that there are a “small number within the NFAC arena that are willing to take violent steps,” citing Othal Wallace, a former member who shot a Daytona Beach, Fla. police officer in the head.
Grandmaster Jay rejected the notion that NFAC's ideology is accelerationist, telling Raw Story: "We've never espoused any statements where we said we were opposed to the police or let's attack the police. Its always been opposition to police brutality."
In describing NFAC's ideology of racial separatism, Grandmaster Jay rejected the term "Black ethnostate," but he said, "One of the things I teach, what has always been taught throughout history is that every race on earth has a home. Black Americans do not have a home." He added, "It is incumbent that we have a place that we can call home the way that the white race can call home."
(The Huey P. Newton Gun Club, another Black paramilitary organization, is similarly linked to Micah Xavier Johnson, who killed five Dallas police officers during an ambush at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2016. Co-founder Babu Omowale said Johnson was a familiar face at community events in Dallas, and his fellow co-founder Yafeuh Balogun reportedly posted on Facebook after the officers were killed: “I will not ever disown the brother as most have. He shall be celebrated one day.”)
Notwithstanding his assessment of NFAC, Kriner and other analysts emphasize that on the whole, armed protests are far more likely to become violent when they involve far-right actors.
“The key point here is not just the presence of firearms, but also the types of armed actors that are present,” Sam Jones of the ACED told Raw Story. The data shows that 20 percent of demonstrations involving Proud Boys turn violent, Jones said. In contrast, the report found that 16 percent of demonstrations involving the presence of firearms by any party turned violent or destructive.
“There’s clear indicators of accelerationism across the board on the right,” Kriner said. “The Proud Boys are often willing to embed themselves in spaces, openly wearing colors alongside MAGA activists. They’re willing to push the envelope in terms of what kind of violence is feasible.”
‘An excuse to have a Rittenhouse moment’
Haikoo-x showed up week after week for protests against racist policing in Graham, NC in the summer of 2020. Responding to George Floyd’s killing, the protesters focused on a Confederate monument in front of the county courthouse that served as a vivid symbol of the racism entrenched in local law enforcement and the court system. Haikoo and other racial justice protesters encountered continuous online threats and physical confrontation from neo-Confederates who wanted to preserve the monument, back the police and show their support for Donald Trump.
The far-right counter-protesters always came seeking an excuse for violence, Haikoo said.
“The white supremacists I’ve come across, many of them had weapons,” he said. “Knives have been found on them. They made sure of their Second Amendment rights. I’ve been sent pictures of loads of firearms in regards to taking me out and in regards to taking my comrades out. They don’t mind flashing their firearms and making intentions known, and even doing their best to find themselves in the personal space of protesters, especially Black men, so they can cause a ruckus and have an excuse to have a Rittenhouse moment.”
“The real rule is the unspoken one — is no firearms by Black people and allies at protests,” Haikoo told Raw Story. “That’s what the regulation means.”
If it were legal, Haikoo said, he “would be carrying every time” he attended a protest in North Carolina.
“That could cut down on some of the violence,” he said. “You have some white supremacists that are really looking to hurt Black people. Some are just trying to intimidate. A lot of that intimidation has caused riots. You’re not going to walk up on me as fast when I have an AR-15 strapped to my side. That could be de-escalation. The goal is never violence; it’s organized force.”
On Oct. 31, 2020, Haikoo stood with other Black racial justice activists on a stage near the Confederate monument in Graham as city police officers and county sheriff’s deputies set upon protesters, along with children, disabled people and journalists, with pepper fog, disrupting a march to the polls on the final day of early voting and making dozens of arrests. “I had people screaming and crying at me to please hide myself and please get off the podium,” Haikoo said, recalling how his comrades were concerned that the deputies would use the chaos as a pretext to shoot him.
A couple weeks after the police violently shut down the march to the polls in Graham, Haikoo traveled from North Carolina to join an armed march with other Black activists in Dallas. Haikoo marched as a member of Panther Special Operations Command, alongside members of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club and the Fred Hampton Gun Club, part of a constellation of armed Black formations inspired by the original Black Panther Party. “At the end of the day, we’re all Panthers,” Haikoo said. “It’s one big organization with different pockets.”
The march route took the activists through predominantly Black neighborhoods and, in Haikoo’s words, “allowed us to speak to people on how to properly arm themselves in a way that as much as possible is beyond reproach.
“It was an opportunity when we marched through to see that we have our people that care about us,” he said. “We have people that are willing to march out there — a bunch of Black people with guns and fearlessness in their stride. We got to give people hugs. [We were] talking to people in tears that didn’t know Black Panthers existed, that there were people really invested in marginalized communities.”
The open carry question
Armed leftist groups have periodically used open carry as a tactic to counter far-right mobilization. Two of the most dramatic examples come from 2016 and 2017, during Donald Trump’s campaign for president and his first year in office. Notably, they did not occur during the past 18 months that have been marked by upheaval over COVID restrictions, racial reckoning and election disputes.
The Huey P. Newton Gun Club, named after the Black Panther Party founder, was founded in 2014 in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which also kicked off the first wave of Black Lives Matter activism. In April 2016, as the Republican primary amped up anti-Muslim sentiment, armed members of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club joined forces with the New Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam to confront rifle-wielding members of the Bureau of American-Islamic Relations.
“When they decided to come to south Dallas — that’s a largely African-American community — that’s how we got involved,” co-founder Yafeuh Balogun told Raw Story. “We didn’t think they should show up with guns. Come and talk, or communicate with pen and paper.
“I always say when I talk about it that it wasn’t the Huey P. Newton Gun Club; it was really the community that ran them out of Dallas,” he added.
Meanwhile, the now defunct Redneck Revolt emerged in late 2016 and early 2017 to confront the rising threat of the alt-right, a rebranding of white power extremism that sought to ride Trump’s coattails into mainstream acceptance. On Aug. 12, 2017, when hundreds of white supremacists from across the United States swarmed into Charlottesville, Va. for the Unite the Right rally, a contingent of armed leftists took up positions with long rifles outside a nearby park where an opposing group held a permit to provide respite for counter-protesters. Mitchell Fryer, who participated in the defensive formation, recalled that a group of young men in white shirts and khaki pants from Identity Evropa — an organization recently found liable for conspiracy to commit racial, ethnic and religious harassment and violence — walked up on the Redneck Revolt group, stopped momentarily to take stock, and then turned and walked away.
As a safety precaution, Dwayne Dixon, who also participated in the effort, said members carried rifles with empty chambers although they had ammunition on hand. That was to avoid anyone misfiring, or getting shot by adversaries who might try to wrest away their weapons.
“We were effective in what we hoped to do in a really historic moment that won’t ever be reenacted,” Dixon said. “These decisions were risky, but they were risky for us.”
Despite Redneck Revolt being named in a lawsuit by the Georgetown Law Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection that was ultimately resolved when they signed a consent decree agreeing to not return to Charlottesville as a paramilitary, Dixon said he still feels confident they made the right call.
White supremacists rained down horrific violence on Charlottesville during Unite the Right, including punching, kicking and hurling lit torches at counter-protesters and ramming through them with shields, culminating with James Fields accelerating his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of nonviolent marchers, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. In contrast, Redneck Revolt did not fire a shot, and there is no evidence members engaged in any violence. Fields’ lawyer called Dixon to testify as part of an attempt to build a case that her client “felt he was in danger” before he drove his car into the crowd, but the jury rejected the argument and found Fields guilty of first-degree murder.
Six days after the Unite the Right rally, Dixon carried a semi-automatic rifle in downtown Durham, NC in response to a rumor that the Ku Klux Klan was coming to the city. Dixon was cited for violating the state’s law against bringing a dangerous weapon to a demonstration, but the charge was dismissed by a judge who agreed with Dixon’s lawyer that the law is unconstitutional.
Since then, neither Dixon nor Fryer have participated in any open-carry actions.
“I’d open-carry if the situation calls for it,” Fryer said. “I haven’t found another situation since Charlottesville outside of a couple instances on private property where that was the case.”
Dixon said that in light of the Rittenhouse verdict he has no appetite for any escalation of firearms use by the left.
“I don’t think that’s a trajectory I’m interested in pursuing,” he said, explaining that the volatility of the current historical moment in the United States and the endless complexities of social fault-lines and conditions give him pause.
“I would want to explore other modes of deterrence, not just simply carrying rifles,” Dixon said. “That moment and those tactics, they’re effective — in my case, that was 2017, and hasn’t been since.”
Over the past four years, Dixon noted, leftists have utilized an array of tactics to provide for community defense at protests, including bicycles and shields to create barriers, and flanking marches with vehicles in front and back.
“I think we have archives to draw on,” Dixon said. “The part that would be occupied by visible carrying of arms would be small.”
Fryer, who left Redneck Revolt before the group dissolved, started a project called Armed Margins to provide firearms and self-defense training to people who traditionally have barriers to access, including people of color, LGBTQ people and other progressive allies. They said they have seen plenty of open carrying by leftists over the past couple years, but they worry that many activists bringing guns to protests are creating unnecessary risks and don’t understand the legal framework of self-defense.
“There’s people out there doing community defense,” they said. “The left isn’t having appropriate conversation about what are good practices and what aren’t.”
Fryer described a livestream they monitored in which a group of leftists with long guns was attempting to direct people from the opposing side out of a parking lot. When the person went in a different direction one of the leftists came up and slammed their rifle into the driver’s window. Fryer declined to disclose the date and location of the incident because they don’t want the person to be doxed and harassed, but cited it as a cautionary story about a situation that could have easily gone horribly wrong.
“What’s not recognized is that in stand-your-ground states, vehicles and homes are known as special places,” Fryer said. “In the legal protections of stand your ground, within self-defense you’re granted quite a few presumptions that cannot be argued in court. I believe it’s the presumption of deadly harm on the part of the person who is trying to forcefully enter the vehicle. The other is the presumption of reasonable fear of serious injury or death.”As the number of armed protests surged in the three months after the killing of George Floyd, armed confrontations between opposing actors rose apace. Notably, Gaige Grosskreutz, the third man gunned down by Kyle Rittenhouse, testified that he was unintentionally pointing his own gun at Rittenhouse when the shooting occurred.Earlier in the summer of 2020 a Black Lives Matter supporter named Garrett Foster who was carrying an AK-47 when he was fatally shot by a driver trying to pass through a crowd of protesters in downtown Austin, Texas. Daniel Perry, an Army sergeant who was moonlighting as a rideshare driver, has been indicted for murder in the case. Whether Foster raised his rifle before Perry shot him is in dispute.
Then, in August 2020, only four days after the Rittenhouse shooting, an antifascist named Michael ReinoehlMichael Reinoehl fatally shot Patriot Prayer supporter Aaron Danielson after a protest in Portland, Ore. Reinoehl went on the run, and five days later a US Marshals task force killed him in a hail of bullets.
Matthew Kriner, the scholar at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism said Reinoehl is the only armed leftist that he's aware of "that proactively carried out an assault."
He also said: "Leftists, when they do go armed to protests, there's a valid reason they might want to be armed. When you look at rhetoric by Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, they joke about hunting antifascists in the streets. Antifascists have a valid reason to believe they will not just be assaulted, but be targets of attempted killings."
‘A different set of rules’
Mitchell Fryer, the instructor with Armed Margins, and Yafeuh Balogun, the co-founder of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, acknowledged that bringing additional guns to a setting like Kenosha, Wis. on the night that Kyle Rittenhouse killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber — which can more properly be described as a rebellion than a protest — is risky. But they both insisted that an organized community defense force shouldn’t be off the table.
“What we would have done potentially is attempted to keep those groups from intermingling,” Balogun said. “That would have been the best and most responsible thing is the protection of life. I’ve never been concerned about property. I don’t care if buildings burn. We probably would have been trying to keep the groups separate.”
Taking into consideration that Huey P. Newton Gun Club members would have been embedded “with the progressive element” in a crowd that was angered by the police shooting of a Black man, Bologun clarified: “We wouldn’t necessarily be trying to control people’s First Amendment rights. We would have allowed people to be open about how they feel.”
Fryer also said they could imagine an organized community defense formation playing a constructive role.
“I think the presence of armed people can be a deterrent, especially if those persons are well organized, narrow in their scope of what they’re doing, and comport themselves with discipline,” they said.
Like Balogun, Fryer said they viewed an armed left formation as a potential buffer. But they also said it could have potentially opened a line of communication with the right-wing militia to which Rittenhouse was attached.
“If you’re a person who’s armed up, you can hold a conversation with another person who’s armed up and have dialogue — all kinds of things that lower the temperature,” Fryer said. “It’s harder to shoot someone who you’ve talked to.”
Balogun argued that it was the “intermingling” of opposing groups that allowed Rittenhouse to interact with Rosenbaum, whom he perceived as a threat, leading to first his and then Huber’s death, ultimately concluding with the jury’s decision that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. Fryer said made a similar point — that no matter Rittenhouse’s stated purpose of protecting property or providing medic services, “the way he’s being interpreted is a white agitator who’s pointing guns at us,” not an ally to those expressing their rage at the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
“Hypothetically, you have a community defense group and you hear the Kenosha Guard is out, and they’re adjacent to areas where there’s rebellion going on,” Fryer said. “As militia folks are showing up, they’re establishing communication with them before the militia starts doing unilateral things. Maybe they’ll give you information.” Fryer added that the community defense group might sense that someone like Rittenhouse was inadvertently antagonizing the crowd. They might “get feedback and send that over to the militia, and they rein that shit in.”
But a left-wing version of Kyle Rittenhouse waving a rifle around, and lethally dispatching far-right domestic terrorists under the legal cover of self-defense? That’s not even a fantasy that armed leftists are likely to entertain.
“I don’t think we will see an increase in that from the left because we know we don’t get the same privilege extended to us,” said Haikoo-x, the racial justice activists who faced down violent white supremacists in Graham, NC last year. “Honestly, a black man would get a much harsher sentence. A Black man would be sentenced just for carrying a firearm. We face a different set of rules versus Kyle, America’s sweetheart…. We can’t. That’s out of survival. What that does is it makes it open season for them to have even more justification to kill us. ‘He had a gun.’ ‘He had a violent past.’ They’re going to make a scandal and ruin your name, and say, ‘He wouldn’t have had a gun if he wasn’t looking for violence.’”
Haikoo repeated his assessment that the left is unlikely to escalate in response to a far right emboldened by the verdict, but offered the subtlest of suggestions that it might not be that way forever.
“I don’t think it will increase anything,” he said. “We will not be able to survive doing so, unless we did so in very large numbers. That is something to be determined.”