Jeremiah just wanted to find his car and go home, but he was trapped.
A massive line of police in riot gear had just forced him and hundreds of other protesters out of Kenosha’s Civic Center Park and into the street. After that, there was nowhere to go. Soldiers and cops blocked one end of the road. White guys with big guns blocked the other.
It was past 11 p.m. local time Tuesday, the third night of protests after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Jeremiah had received a text from a friend saying a bunch of protesters had their tires slashed. He wanted to get to his car before vandals did. He decided the quickest path was to cut through a parking lot. As he made his way toward it, Jeremiah saw more armed white men. Two crouched on the roof of a building, sniper style. Two or three others stood guard over the lot. One of them, a babyface with a backward ball cap, raised an assault rifle and pointed it at him.
Jeremiah, 24 and Black, was more annoyed than afraid. He’d been out protesting all summer, more than 90 days so far. He knew about these guys and their scare tactics, and he refused to be intimidated. When the kid started yelling, Jeremiah shouted back: “I’m trying to get out of here. If you’re gonna shoot me, just shoot!”
A few minutes later, Jeremiah saw the same guy pointing his weapon at someone else.
This time, Kyle Rittenhouse fired.
Rittenhouse, 17, has been charged with five felonies and a misdemeanor after shooting three people Tuesday night, two of them fatally. His lead attorney, John M. Pierce of the law firm Pierce Bainbridge, has said he plans to argue self-defense.
That night had felt different from the start.
Among protesters, the rumor spread: Hundreds of white men with guns had answered an online call from a self-described militia group known as the Kenosha Guard and would be waiting in the park to shoot them.
Not nearly that many armed men showed up, but they were impossible to avoid. Some joined the marchers and pledged to protect them. Many protesters still felt more afraid than secure.
Early in the evening, before he became stranded in the search for his car, Jeremiah got into an argument with one of them. Jeremiah was talking to a reporter when an angry woman interrupted, telling him she was tired of people like him burning things down. As he argued he’d done no such thing, an armed man came up and shoved him.