A teenager charged with shooting and killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this week was just one of an unknown number of armed civilians roaming the city’s streets that night.
Gun-bearing counter-protesters have become a fixture at the protests for racial justice that have swept across the US this summer. Researchers have documented hundreds of incidents of intimidation or violence since late May, when Minneapolis erupted into protests and riots over a police officer’s killing of George Floyd.
But experts who study far-right extremism worry that this week’s killings in the small Midwestern city of Kenosha mark a troubling shift from displaying weapons at a demonstration to showing a willingness to use them.
“It feels like a threshold has been crossed,” said Joe Lowndes, a political-science professor at University of Oregon who studies rightwing politics. “My fear is that it is going to be a catalyst for more of this.”
Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Antioch, Illinois has been charged with first-degree reckless homicide and first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and attempted intentional homicide for shooting Gaige Grosskreutz, 26. He has not yet entered a plea, according to the court docket.
Mr Rittenhouse had previously posted on his Facebook page that “Blue Lives Matter”, a pro-police rallying cry. He also belonged to a “public safety cadet” programme for youth interested in law enforcement.
The Daily Caller, a conservative news site, interviewed him on Tuesday night as he stood in front of a business that had been burnt on the second night of unrest after a police officer shot and paralysed Jacob Blake Jr.
“People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business, and part of my job is also to help people,” said Mr Rittenhouse, wearing a backwards baseball cap and fingering a rifle strapped to his chest. “If somebody’s hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle, because I need to protect myself, obviously. I also have my med kit.”
Some of the armed civilians circling protests this summer have said they are there to prevent violence and protect property, according to Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right. He has documented nearly 500 incidents of intimidation or violence by armed civilians across roughly 300 US counties this summer.
Their identity and affiliation is often unclear. There are relatively large, loosely organised militias, such as the Oath Keepers. But more often, rightwing vigilantism takes the form of self-identified affiliation with the anti-government “Patriot” movement, which spreads its message using social media and other online forums, rather than formal organisation.
One self-described militia, the Kenosha Guard, posted a Facebook message on Tuesday afternoon asking if there were “any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight against evil thugs?” The post was publicised by InfoWars, a far-right conspiracy website.
After the shootings, Facebook took down the group’s page. Before that, the Kenosha Guard posted a message saying it was “unaware if the armed citizen was answering the Kenosha Guard Militia’s call to arms”.
Rightwing vigilante groups have become increasingly mainstream and openly aligned with President Donald Trump and the Republican party, Mr Lowndes at the University of Oregon said. The Oath Keepers recruited volunteers to protect the president’s supporters at a Minneapolis rally. And Mr Trump has made quashing unrest and restoring “law and order” central to his increasingly incendiary re-election campaign rhetoric.
Tucker Carlson, a host on the conservative Fox News network, appeared to excuse Mr Rittenhouse’s actions on Wednesday: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
Mr Lowndes said appeals to a strong, armed figure needed to protect the polity has a long, dangerous history, frequently tied to fascist movements. In the US, that has taken the form of “claiming to represent forces of order, and of volunteerism, and of civic obligation, and doing the right thing”.
“Trump has already said over and over that he doesn’t trust the outcome of this election and won’t necessarily accept the outcome,” he said. “What does it look like then in the street?”
“I’m not predicting violence on election day or the days afterwards, but the conditions are there that have not been present before,” he added.
An index from the group GeoQuant predicts social instability will rise through to the end of the year in the US. The company uses software to analyse news for factors suggesting social unrest, including health risks, ethno-religious tension and political violence.
Mark Rosenberg, chief executive, said in the past five years the US has slipped among the 75 nations the company tracks. “We look more like Hungary these days instead of Australia,” he said.
The number of incidents of intimidation or violence by armed civilians at Black Lives Matters protests had been consistently high since May, said Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.
Mr Burghart’s organisation, which uses different research parameters than Mr Ross at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, has documented 187 incidents between the end of May and July 5. They track 800 paramilitary groups. “Taking up arms to enforce their political will is a deeply disturbing sign for any democracy that it’s beginning to fray”, he said.
Kenosha authorities seemed to extend a mixed reception to armed civilians. Video from Tuesday night shows law enforcement offering bottles of water to a group flouting the city’s curfew, including Mr Rittenhouse. A voice over a loudspeaker says: “We appreciate you guys. We really do.”
However Kenosha county’s sheriff, David Beth, said he rejected a suggestion to deputise civilians to patrol the city. “I’m like, ‘Oh, hell no,’” he said on Wednesday, after the shooting. “And what happened . . . is probably the perfect reason why I wouldn’t.”