Rittenhouse says he had no idea hand gesture was racist and blames former lawyer for Proud Boys photo

·3-min read

Recently acquitted teenage shooter Kyle Rittenhouse has disavowed the far-right Proud Boys paramilitary group, saying photos taken alongside them were set up by a lawyer he subsequently fired.

In an interview to be broadcast in full on Wednesday night, Mr Rittenhouse – recently acquitted on multiple charges including intentional homicide – also claimed not to have known that a hand gesture he made is used as a shibboleth among violent white supremacist groups.

The incident in question occurred in January at a bar in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, just after Mr Rittenhouse had entered his not guilty plea. In CCTV pictures entered as evidence by prosecutors, Mr Rittenhouse can be seen posing with another man while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “free as f**k” and giving the “OK” hand signal.

As Mr Rittenhouse told it to NewsNation host Ashleigh Barnfield, the sign’s associations were unfamiliar to him, the photoshoot was not his idea, and he did not know the affiliation of the men he posed with.

“I didn’t know that the OK sign was a symbol for white supremacy, just as I didn’t know that those people at that bar were Proud Boys. They were set up by my former attorney who was fired because of that, for putting me in situations like that with people I don’t agree with.”

The OK gesture has been appropriated by racist groups in recent years. The idea was originally a prank started on the online forum 4Chan, some of whose users wanted to see if they could use social media to manufacture a panic about the sign’s supposed “secret” meaning for white supremacists. The confected idea unexpectedly caught on, and some of the most conspicuous figures on the American far-right have been seen using it in public.

The prosecution against Mr Rittenhouse originally intended to introduce the photo as part of its case, and to also point out that he travelled to Miami after entering his plea to meet with the Proud Boys’ national president.

However, the judge in the trial, who has come in for intense criticism from those who wanted to see a guilty verdict, forbade the prosecution from showing the photo to the jury or making any other Proud Boys-related arguments in court.

The picture was, however, referenced by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki this week as she insisted that Joe Biden would not apologise for including Mr Rittenhouse in a campaign ad that accused Donald Trump of encouraging white supremacists and violent right-wing groups. Mr Rittenhouse has described the ad as a form of defamation.

Mr Rittenhouse has become something of a hero among right-wingers disgusted by the racial justice and anti-police protests that unfolded last summer. It was at one such protest that he arrived with an AR-15 having seen a callout from self-proclaimed “militia” members planning to assist the police in bringing “order” to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. His participation ended with him shooting several people, two of them fatally.

However, despite the fact that he has the broad support of many on the right – both mainstream and extreme – Mr Rittenhouse has since his acquittal shared some views that have surprised and appalled his erstwhile sympathisers.

Speaking to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who sent a camera crew to follow him during his defence team’s preparations, Mr Rittenhouse insisted: “I’m not a racist person. I support the BLM movement”. Many hardcore onlookers were furious, some suggesting that he had “scammed” them from the start.

In the NewsNation interview, Mr Rittenhouse was asked if he regrets going to the Kenosha protest.

“I wouldn’t say I regret – I definitely regret going there, I don’t regret defending myself,” he replied. “I regret making the decision to go there, but – what I’m trying to say is, if I could go back, I would not have gone there.”

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