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When Kyle Rittenhouse Came to Kent State
The young acquitted murderer is being paraded around campuses to stir up controversy.

  • by Zach D. Roberts
  • for the Palast Investigative Fund and The Progressive

[April 16, 2024: Kent, OH] Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot three people, killing two and injuring the third during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, spoke on April 16 at an event sponsored by the right wing organization Turning Points USA (TPUSA) held at Kent State University in Ohio.

Rittenhouse, seventeen at the time of the shooting, is now twenty-one and makes money as a TPUSA speaker traveling from college to college, stirring up controversy and creating publicity for the group. In a previous speaking engagement — a separate TPUSA event in Tennessee — he was heckled so badly that he had to leave the stage. According to a source with TPUSA, he earns $5,000 for each thirty-minute talk.

Rittenhouse and his family have been fundraising relentlessly for legal costs before and after his acquittal. His mother, for example, appeared on Info Wars in 2020 and begged Alex Jones’ audience for cash. Kyle also lent his name to and appeared in ads for a video game titled Kyle Rittenhouse’s Turkey Shoot, where people could shoot “fake news turkeys.”

Rittenhouse’s speech at Kent State included a shaky retelling of his fifteen minutes of Second Amendment fame, including a mocking impression of his surviving victim: “He’s [Paul Prediger, formerly known as Gaige Grosskreutz] actually here today, ironically,” Rittenhouse said. “He decided to come to counter-protest me. He drove 6.5 hours for this, by the way.” The comment drew laughter from the audience.

Prediger was not in the audience, but he was on campus earlier that day for a press conference with a coalition of campus groups, including the Spanish and Latinx Student Association (S.A.L.S.A.) and Students for Justice in Palestine. While he spoke about the shooting for the first time in years, Prediger focused most of his speech on Rittenhouse. “Kyle has embraced and been embraced by those who peddle hateful rhetoric, who believe in nationalism that excludes those who do not look like or think like them,” he said.

Prediger exited the press conference before the audience of journalists and activists could ask him any questions. TPUSA had a representative in the audience, apparently ready to ask a question. After the press conference, the student groups held a teach-in at Oscar Ritchie Hall, a building that also houses the university’s department of Africana Studies.

In an interview with The Progressive, Yaseen Shaikh, the president of the Kent State chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, says that much of the student body was not happy about having a gun-rights advocate like Rittenhouse on campus. “[Rittenhouse is] really, a vigilante, coming to campus,” Shaikh adds. “And that’s also because it’s an affront to Kent State’s history. Of course, you probably know about May 4, 1970. The National Guard came here and shot several students.”

After the press conference, the line to get into Rittenhouse’s speech began to build on the other side of campus. Hundreds of people who signed up for the free tickets waited in the sun for the doors to open; some who had express passes got in early.

The audience for Rittenhouse was a mix of older alumni, community members, and students. Many had pro-Second Amendment T-shirts on. One even wore a T-shirt that had an image from the video of Rittenhouse carrying his AR-15 with FAFO in capital letters. FAFO, which stands for “Fuck Around and Find Out,” is a popular phrase among militias, Proud Boys, and other rightwing groups.

The hall slowly filled up just moments before Rittenhouse took to the stage with his therapy dog. Many in the room were members of campus groups that, earlier in the day, had decried Rittenhouse being allowed to speak on campus.

There were at least eight black-suited security guards in the hall. Three were stationed near Rittenhouse and five throughout the room. No guns were allowed in the auditorium.

The questions during the short Q&A were mostly friendly, except for one student who asked him if by showing up in Kenosha with a gun in 2020 (which was already tense after two days of unrest), he believed he was actually helping the situation. Rittenhouse responded by citing the number of BLM protesters that also had firearms, gaining applause from his friendly audience.

Audience members were asked to stay in their seats while the exit — which led through an area where dozens of protesters were assembled — was secured. The students from the earlier press conference refused, eventually shouldering through the blocked exit. They were met with cheers from the assembled protesters.

As the pro-Rittenhouse members of the audience left, they were met with jeers from the protesters who had been waiting, holding signs, and yelling “killer.” Many from the audience stuck around to debate with the protesters. Law enforcement stuck around until both sides dispersed to their cars and dorms.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Progressive.

Zach D Roberts is an investigative photojournalist who covers far-right extremism and voter suppression in America. He covered the Unite the Right Rally in Chalottesville and his work there helped put four white extremists in jail. He co-produced Greg Palast's films The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Vigilantes, Inc: America’s Vote Suppression Hitmen (out Fall 2024). Roberts is a Palast Investigative Fund Fellow and Puffin artist grant recipient.

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