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Jury selection begins in murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse for Kenosha shooting

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse began this morning. Rittenhouse is the 18-year-old from Illinois who killed two people and injured a third during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wis. That was last year. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and is covering this trial.

Hi there, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So just to reiterate what I just said, Rittenhouse killed two people. That is not in dispute here. But what is fascinating is that in the 14 months since those killings, he has achieved a kind of folk hero status among many on the right. People wear T-shirts that say, free Kyle. There have been fundraisers to raise money to help fund his defense. How did that come to be?

YOUSEF: Well, Mary Louise, the lionization of people that are involved in violence has always happened in particular circles of extremists. The difference here is that Kyle Rittenhouse has been embraced by a much, much more mainstream swath of the right. And I think that ties to the fact that as a country, we're in an era of unprecedented polarization. You know, the interesting thing here is that Rittenhouse himself hasn't spoken publicly since those events occurred. But in that vacuum, other people have fashioned narratives around him that kind of further their own ideologies. One person that spoke to me about the mythologizing that's happened around Rittenhouse is Arie Kruglanski. He's a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland with a focus on extremism.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: What is unique about the Kyle Rittenhouse situation is that it can appeal to a wider audience because it touches on this iconic image of the fighter, protector of the people, the superhero that comes bravely to the assistance of others.

YOUSEF: You know, another person put it to me this way. They called Rittenhouse, quote, "an empty vessel on which the far right has poured in all their deepest, darkest fantasies and desires about carrying out acts of vigilante violence."

KELLY: Well, let's just return to the facts, to what we actually know of what unfolded back in August 2020 and how that might play into what the Rittenhouse defense is likely to be, what his lawyers plan to argue in court.

YOUSEF: So you'll remember, Mary Louise, that that summer, there was nationwide civil unrest tied to the police killing of George Floyd. In Kenosha, there was another incident, a local incident that prompted much civil unrest. This was when police responded to a domestic incident and a white officer ended up shooting and paralyzing a Black man named Jacob Blake. This set off several nights of protests, looting and arsons.

And there were some conservative calls on social media for people to come and protect businesses there. And this is apparently what Rittenhouse - he did when he traveled from Illinois to Kenosha on August 25. And he really was walking into a kind of tinderbox, Mary Louise. You know, there was gunfire, physical confrontations. And ultimately, Rittenhouse killed two men and injured a third with a semiautomatic rifle. And his case that he will be pleading during the trial is that he acted in self-defense.

KELLY: I want to go back to something you said, which is that we're living through an era of unprecedented polarization. And that feels important here as the backdrop and in terms of thinking about what the stakes are for the outcome of this trial.

YOUSEF: The stakes are enormous. You know, this trial may signal to those who support vigilantism whether or not they will find legal protection for violence that they might commit in the streets. One person that spoke to me about this was Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

DEVIN BURGHART: Unfortunately, what's happened in the last year is that the rhetoric has moved beyond even the kind of rhetoric that existed around Kyle Rittenhouse when he committed those acts in the streets of Kenosha. Now there are more and more activists talking about going on to the streets and committing mass acts of political violence.

YOUSEF: And that squares with the data, Mary Louise. Survey results released just this morning from the Public Religion Research Institute, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Washington, found that almost a third of Republicans support political violence as a way to solve this country's problems. That's compared with 11% of Democrats.

KELLY: Reporting there from NPR's Odette Yousef.

Thanks, Odette.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.