Kenosha on the Brink: A City Hopes for Peace, and Fears Violence, After Rittenhouse Verdict

Jesse Kline, who identified himself as “Maserati Mike,” arrived outside the Kenosha County Courthouse Wednesday morning donning a purple bowtie, military-grade body armor, and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Inside the courthouse, Kyle Rittenhouse was on trial for using the same type of weapon to shoot three people, two fatally, during civil unrest the year prior.

Nearby sheriff’s deputies instructed Kline to ditch the firearm because he was within 1,000 feet of a school — one of few gun restrictions in Wisconsin — and he complied. But Kline showed up again Thursday, a black Colt-brand rifle case replacing the gun he had brandished the previous day. Later, it will be revealed that Kline is a disgraced Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, who was terminated from the force in 2018 for allegedly stalking and threatening a couple, according to local Missouri news outlet KSDK.

On Thursday, he was pacing along the sidewalk, grinning maniacally as he dodged questions from the entourage of reporters wondering if he was again armed. “All right, I’ll pull it out, I’ll pull it out,” Kline baited, unzipping the case to reveal its contents. Media moved in closer, and one man shouted, “Empty case for the attention!”

The case wasn’t empty, but it didn’t hold a firearm: Kline pulled out a black rubber dildo. “Fuck you guys! Fuck Black Lives Matter!” he screamed.

It’s ugly and it’s trolling, but it’s not deadly — yet. On Friday, a jury acquitted Rittenhouse of all the counts he was facing. The trial is over, the aftermath has begun.

As Kenosha knows, any one of these conflicts can escalate, and all it takes is one for lives to be lost. The city is still haunted by what happened in the summer of 2020. Jacob Blake is still suffering from injuries he sustained after being shot by police. Gaige Grosskreutz, who Rittenhouse shot in a conflict during the ensuing protests, is permanently injured as well. Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum are dead.

More than a year later, the environment outside the courthouse — filled with political and racial tension, angry and opposing protests, throngs of reporters and the provocateurs they attract — is perilously similar to that violent, terrifying stretch that left a city in flames and two people dead.

Kline was among the hodgepodge group of protesters who occupied the marble steps outside the courthouse in Kenosha as jurors reached day three of deliberations over whether Rittenhouse had acted in self-defense. Some were there to support the 18-year-old from Antioch, Illinois, who they considered a hero; others hoped the jury would find Rittenhouse guilty of at least one of the five charges he was facing.

Lifelong Kenoshan Mary Beth Mogensen just hoped tensions outside the courthouse wouldn’t culminate in a tragedy similar to the one that brought them there. “This trial has been a huge weight on Kenosha the last year,” she tells Rolling Stone. “My hands are shaking like they did last year during the protests. I’m just really nervous. It’s tearing the community in half.”

She says she’s barely been able to talk to her six older brothers this past year because they support Rittenhouse’s actions — and she doesn’t. “It comes up often in conversation [in Kenosha],” she says. “People want to chat about it, but they’re scared because they don’t know what side you’re on.”

Ahead of the verdict, scuffles on the courthouse steps were, for the most part, quickly de-escalated by mediators tasked with maintaining the calm. Sheriff’s deputies kept watch nearby, but refrained from interfering unless absolutely necessary, as was the case with Kline. Another unidentified man was arrested by the Kenosha Police Department Thursday for carrying a handgun, which violated the state’s “Gun Free School Zone” law. Two other arrests were made when a 20-year-old man and 34-year-old woman exchanged fiery insults on the courthouse steps. The squabble swiftly turned to a full-blown physical altercation when the two wrestled over a sign and a journalist tried to intervene.

Law enforcement’s hands-off approach to the trial is a stark change from their response to protests that besieged the city a year prior, when Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot in the back seven times by a white police officer outside of his home. Protesters set fire to businesses and smashed windows; law enforcement lined the courthouse perimeter in riot gear, sending plumes of pepper spray into the air when someone dared get too close.

Kenosha County Sgt. David Wright said law enforcement’s strategy during the trial has been to “reduce tension and create an atmosphere of peace.” After dueling protesters quelled tensions with hot slices of Domino’s pizza on Wednesday, Sheriff David Beth continued the act of goodwill the following day by bringing dozens of cookies and cups of coffee to media and protesters alike.

Rittenhouse’s trial has become “The Rittenhouse Trial,” a front in the nation’s forever war over culture and politics. And locally, that has injected new tension, and attracted people who’ve made careers by grabbing the spotlight in ugly situations.

Wright acknowledged the number of reporters present, who largely outnumbered demonstrators, that had been chasing down any sign of strife — some who allegedly went so far as to follow a bus transporting jurors. “I wanted to give you all something positive to cover,” he quipped. Wright said the sheriff’s actions were a better representation of the “kindness and generosity” character of Kenosha.

Clyde McLemore, left, founder of Black Lives Matter Lake County, speaks with Mark and Patricia McCloskey outside the Kenosha County Courthouse while the jury deliberates in the Kyle Rittenhouse case inside, in Kenosha, Wis. Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Rittenhouse is accused of killing two people and wounding a third during a protest over police brutality in Kenosha, last year. (Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Clyde McLemore, left, founder of Black Lives Matter Lake County, speaks with Mark and Patricia McCloskey outside the Kenosha County Courthouse while the jury deliberates the Rittenhouse case inside.

Ashlee Rezin /Chicago Sun-Times/AP

Others, like John and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who rose to fame after pointing guns at racial-justice protesters outside their home last year, capitalized on the trial’s media blitz to fundraise for a U.S. Senate run in Missouri. “This kind of nonsense that’s going on here is not about unity, it’s about division and frightening people and intimidating jurors,” John McCloskey said Thursday while handing out pamphlets plastered with the now-famous photo of the couple wielding guns. The McCloskeys posed for selfies and answered questions, without ever entering the courthouse. Minutes later, they were gone.

“It’s a sad situation for Kenosha. We’re just hoping to maintain a peaceful environment,” said Anthony Davis, president of Kenosha’s NAACP chapter. “I don’t know what the verdict will be, I just hope there’s a just and fair result to this case, that it will bring some peace to this community.”

Peace was what Mark Stach drove two hours from Dixon, Illinois, to help promote. He stood in protesters’ view, across from the courthouse steps, Thursday holding a homemade peace sign. “It’s a simple message,” he said. “I hope they see this sign and think, ‘Maybe we can get this figured out somehow without violence.’ ”

On day four of jury deliberations, Kenoshans, law enforcement, and protesters remained wary of the potential for escalation — though some, dressed in military uniform and body armor, seemed ready to embrace it.

“Ever since Trump, hate has been unbottled and uncloseted,” said Jill Ferguson, from nearby Milwaukee. “This is a precedent-setting case — I have eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild coming. I’m terrified for them.”

Kyle Rittenhouse, Who Killed Two People, Acquitted of Homicide Charges

How the Right Found a Hero in Kyle Rittenhouse