White backlash: The Rittenhouse debacle from a Native perspective

During the George Floyd protests, twenty-five people were killed. Most of them were Black Lives Matter protesters. They were not killed by the police, but by white supremacists who traveled to the protests from out of town for the sole purpose of hunting Blacks and their allies. Self-styled vigilantes enforcing America’s caste system, Kyle Rittenhouse fits squarely in this group.

Judge Bruce Schroeder, bending over backwards to humanize the plaintiff and de-humanize the victims, provided the aura of a show trial, as if a lawful slave patrol was on trial on the front porch of a plantation house. Rittenhouse’s defense was funded millions of dollars by white churches and far right political groups. They stood like neighboring plantation owners in the yard, knowing full well it’s the Black protesters, the victims, who were really on trial. The message the verdict sends to the lower castes is clear: next time you will be hunted.

It wasn’t the neoprene gloves that protected him; it was his skin.


White backlash, rage against Black uppity-ness and other revolts and protests by people of color, goes back nearly four hundred years. It typically involves tenfold, or even one hundredfold or one thousandfold, retribution.

One of the first examples was the Mystic massacre of 1637, when the Pilgrims sought retribution in a tit-for-tat conflict with the Pequot. They surrounded the Pequot town in the night, set fire to it, and killed everyone who ran out. As hundreds were slaughtered, mostly women and children, the Natives allied to the Pilgrims shouted “Mach it, mach it (Stop it, Stop it)… it is too furious, and slays too many.” The Pilgrims didn’t stop. Afterward, they sent the survivors into slavery, banned even the word “Pequot”, and attached the word “Thanksgiving” to their harvest meal.

In 1779, George Washington, in the course of fighting the Revolutionary War, torched forty Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) towns and villages, along with their crops, in exchange for the killing of thirty white American colonists by British and Oneida troops. He called it “chastisement”. Today he is known as Town Destroyer.

This word, chastisement, was used for the next hundred years. Sometimes the impetus of a bloody massacre began with the theft of a horse, a cow, or a pig. In 1643 near today’s Jersey City, two missing Dutch pigs led to two murders, one by a Dutchman, one by a Lenape (Delaware). In return, Dutch colonists massacred eighty Lenape women and children, hacking them to pieces and throwing them alive into the river or fire with missing limbs.

Nearly the same thing happened in Eureka, California, in 1860, this time over cattle. The self-styled white militia, the “Eureka Volunteers”, made up of leading men and law enforcement, rowed silently out to Indian Island while the men were away preparing for their annual Ceremony of World Renewal. To avoid the sounds of gunshots, they used hatchets. The official death toll, counted by Major G.J. Raines of the US Army, was one hundred eighty-eight, almost entirely women and children. Everyone knew who did it, but no charges were ever filed. The perpetrators argued they needed to “exterminate” the Indians to protect their “property”, and needed to do it themselves because the state and federal government were not doing it for them.

Eleven years later Norman Kingsley shot thirty of the last remaining Yahi Yana at point blank range while they were trapped in a cave above Mill Creek, California. He had compassion on the children, switching to his 38-calibre Smith and Wesson revolver because his 56-calibre rifle “tore them up so bad.” The starving band, primarily women and children, had stolen a steer.

I could add the assassination of Narbona, a leader elder and chief of the Dine (Navajo) in 1849, in a squabble over a horse. I could fill a book with examples.

Narbona wanted peace more than many of his colleagues. Often, chastisement fell not on the guilty, but on the innocent. From Cache Valley (1863), Sand Creek (1864) and Washita (1868) to a church in Charleston (2015), from Montana (1870), Tucson (1871) and Wounded Knee (1890) to a synagogue in Pittsburgh (2018), white rage has targeted the vulnerable, the soft targets, those committed to peace. Because white terrorists seek not to preserve peace, but to preserve caste. 

Black historians can add Tulsa (1921) and hundreds of other examples.

Modern White Backlash

The election of Donald Trump is often characterized as white backlash. In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trump was nominated and elected to prove that the most detestable and unqualified white man can do the same job as the most intelligent and qualified Black man. Today, the entire Republican Party is openly seeking to destroy US democracy to preserve upper caste privilege.

White backlash has been a menace to civilized society, especially to people of color, for four hundred years. The word chastisement, of course, recalls the punishments for runaway slaves, whose brutal tortures were intended as an example for others. This is the heart of disproportionate backlash. If you stick your neck out, they will come after you and your families and your friends. They will get in a car with their AR-15s and drive from out of state. If they have to, they’ll use child soldiers and have their mothers drive them from out of state. That is the message of Rittenhouse and the thousands of white Christians and Republicans who donated to his cause.

The only people that died in Kenosha were killed by this boy.

About Stephen Carr Hampton

Stephen Carr Hampton is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation, an avid birder since age 7, and a former resource economist for the California Department of Fish & Game, where he worked as a tribal liaison and conducted natural resource damage assessments and oversaw environmental restoration projects after oil spills. He writes most often about Native history and contemporary issues, birds, and climate change.
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