What do George Floyd and Kyle Rittenhouse have to do with armed civilian combat? Evidently, quite a lot

Gun Rights

After two days at the 2024 National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas this weekend, I was ready to call the gun advocacy organization a changed institution.

At first, the imagery, rhetoric and workshop topics seemed less misogynistic than those I’d seen at the 2018 meeting — the last time the NRA met in Dallas. This time, greater emphasis seemed to be placed on the use of guns for hunting and sport-shooting. There seemed to be less emphasis on the archetype of the civilian warrior who displays toxic notions of masculinity via his guns.

I was feeling relieved at what seemed like a new day for the NRA. Then I attended the workshop titled “Riot and Violent Protest Survival.”

‘When is it appropriate for me to run over or shoot protesters?’

With about 100 participants packed in, this workshop drew the largest crowd of any of the workshops I attended throughout the weekend. As we waited for the speaker to begin, we were entertained by a slideshow of memes.

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One featured the character of Perry from the television show Scrubs with the caption “Guns offend you? Let me write you a prescription for two testicles.” Another featured naked Barbie and Ken dolls, complete with non-descript body parts, with the caption: “It was then that Barbie realized she was married to a Broward County school cop.”

The audience of mostly men guffawed with each new meme that tied guns to masculinity.

As the workshop began, the speaker introduced himself, defined the unique threat posed by protesters (their only intention is violence), and asked that the group steer clear of political conversations before sharing that his interest in the subject was prompted by the racial justice protests of 2020.

As a concealed-carry instructor, that summer some of his clients began asking questions like, “When is it appropriate for me to run over or shoot protesters blocking traffic?”

In response, the instructor decided to come up with a tactical plan for himself and to share that plan with others. Repeatedly we heard that he was not a legal expert and that we should each come up with our own rules of engagement and know what our triggers are before we find ourselves in the midst of a violent protest.

Then, abandoning the call for remaining apolitical, the instructor showed a video clip from March 2020. In it, Sen. Chuck Schumer, at a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as the court heard arguments about Louisiana’s restrictive abortion law, said to the justices of the grassroots movement on reproductive rights: “You have released a whirlwind and you will pay the price.”

The instructor paused for dramatic effect and then solemnly asked, “How can you make a Supreme Court justice pay the price?” Someone behind me yelled out, “With a bullet.” The instructor nodded and somberly added, “This is the world we live in.”

In this May 25, 2020 file image from Minneapolis city surveillance video, Minneapolis police are seen attempting to take George Floyd into custody. The video was shown as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presided on Monday, March 29, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in the death of Floyd at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis. (Court TV via AP, Pool, File)

The murder of George Floyd and its aftermath

Before getting to what was said in the NRA workshop, here’s a review of the actual facts of two cases relevant to the “riots” and “protests” being discussed.

On May 25, 2020, a convenience store clerk called 911 after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, purchased cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Police officers arrived and approached Floyd, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. After knocking on the window, officers asked Floyd to open the door several times. He finally did, and six seconds later one of the officers pulled out his gun, ordered Floyd to put his hands up, and pulled him out of the car.

Two of the officers placed Floyd in handcuffs and walked him to their squad car. He protested being put in the car, saying he was “claustrophobic.” He resisted by crawling out the other side of the car and said he was going to lay on the ground instead. While he laid on the ground handcuffed, three officers knelt on him, including Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for a total of 9 and a half minutes.

Minneapolis police officer pin down George Floyd, including placing a knee on his neck. (Video capture)

At the 6-minute mark, after Floyd had cried out repeatedly that he could not breathe and wept for his mother and then went still, bystanders pleaded with officers to stop. Officers checked for a pulse, found none and continued to kneel on him for another 3 and a half minutes.

The next day, the Minneapolis Police Department fired all four officers. Three days after that, Chauvin was arrested and initially charged with third-degree murder. Eventually, he pled guilty to second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison. The other officers were convicted on federal and state charges and sentenced to between two and a half and five years in prison.

During the trial of three officers, a trainer for the Minneapolis Police Department confirmed that the officers did not follow the department’s training and policies regarding use of force, and that once Floyd was on the ground and handcuffed, the officers should have moved him onto his side.

As bystander video of the incident went viral, protests affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement erupted across the United States and around the world. While the overwhelming majority of protests were peaceful, violence did erupt in some places. In places like Portland, Ore., antifa joined the Black Lives Matter protests and set fire to buildings and other property and clashed with police. In these instances, rather than holding antifa responsible, far-right media portrayed the violence as being more pervasive than it was and linked it directly to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project in a report published in September 2020, “In more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests are reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10% of the areas that experienced peaceful protests.”

Kyle Rittenhouse, at left in backwards cap, walks along Sheridan Road with former Army infantryman Ryan Balch in Kenosha, Wis., in this Aug. 25, 2020, photo. Before midnight, he used his Smith & Wesson AR-style semi-automatic to shoot three people, killing two. (Adam Rogan/The Journal Times via AP)

Nevertheless, images from locations like Portland played repeatedly on far-right media. Then-President Trump sought to have antifa, the left-wing anti-fascist, anti-racist group, labeled a terrorist organization. But threat assessments conducted by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies each determinedthat “antifa poses a relatively small threat in the United States, particularly compared to violent white supremacists and anti-government extremists such as militia groups.”

The fact that the majority of protests were peaceful and the majority of protesters were unarmed is an inconvenient truth for people who want to engage in armed conflict — people like Kyle Rittenhouse.

Rittenhouse, age 17 in the summer of 2020, was too young to legally own the AR15 he would later shoot three protesters with. So he had his 18-year-old friend purchase it for him. Rittenhouse then drove 20 miles, crossed state lines, picked up the gun and attended the protest in Kenosha, Wisc.

Days before, a Kenosha police officer had shot a Black man in the back seven times. The protests in Kenosha had turned destructive and businesses were being damaged. Rittenhouse, looking to enter the fray, was captured on video before the shootings. He was patrolling the streets of Kenosha alongside militia group members.

He also was interviewed by the conservative website The Daily Caller and explained why he was there, because “people are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business.” Hours later, Rittenhouse had shot three protesters, killing two. He was charged with murder, but after taking the stand and making the case that he feared for his own life, he was acquitted. He has since become the hero of hard-core gun-rights supporters.

The NRA version of reality

In the workshop, we received a far different version of reality. In this alt-right version of events, the summer of 2020 never should have happened because Derek Chauvin and the other officers did nothing wrong on May 25, 2020.

According to the instructor, that particular knee-to-the-neck tactic is regularly used by police officers to control suspects who are bigger than them until help arrives. And, because the officers were seen as doing nothing wrong, then obviously the protesters — all the protesters — who came out in 2020 were malevolent actors.

The protests had nothing to do with Floyd’s murder, he said. People just wanted a reason to riot. These people, according to the instructor, are evil terrorists (or, as he said multiple times, “walking dead zombies”) and their only motivation was and is to harm good, law-abiding citizens and their property.

Any future protest movement should be approached as urban warfare since there is no way to know when a protest will turn violent.

For the instructor and the 100 or so attendees in the room who nodded along in unison, any future protest movement should be approached as urban warfare since there is no way to know when a protest will turn violent.

Rioters and violent protesters will try to provoke law-abiding citizens into responding and then catch it on video, the group was warned. The protesters will use an actual injustice or a fabricated one to get emotions up. Their goal is to generate outrage. They will gather in large numbers. They will hide their identities with masks and hoodies. Some of them will carry weapons, but since you won’t know who is carrying weapons, all are to be treated as hostile. Avoiding or escaping a confrontation with protesters is always the best option because even rolling one’s eyes or yelling “is very likely to quickly — if not immediately — go to deadly force,” the instructor warned.

The instructor reminded us that in most jurisdictions it is legal to use deadly force to stop deadly force. But you can only use deadly force in situations that a “reasonable” person would deem to be a threat. Would a reasonable person fear for his life and therefore be justified in killing first? If protesters are blocking your truck, the answer is no. But, then again, if protesters are blocking your truck, you can also make the case that you are being held against your will, so if you then see something that could be taken for a weapon, who is to say fear isn’t reasonable at that point?

Protesters argue outside the Kenosha County Courthouse, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisc., during the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial. Rittenhouse is accused of killing two people and wounding a third during a protest over police brutality in Kenosha, last year. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Glorifying Rittenhouse

It was at this point that the instructor introduced Kyle Rittenhouse, heroic armed citizen, as a case study in confronting rioters and violent protesters.

From the moment he illegally carried his AR15 to Kenosha, Rittenhouse has been a folk hero for gun owners who envision themselves as civilian warriors, or “Sheepdogs,” destined to protect the brainless sheep in their midst. More important, Rittenhouse’s acquittal on murder charges is a green light for those who wish to enter combat with protesters.

Rittenhouse was not held accountable for illegally possessing and carrying his weapon into battle. The fact that protesters tried to disarm him gave him “reasonable” cause to assume they would do him harm. Thus, his shooting of them was judged to be in self-defense.

Our instructor drove that point home by showing part of the video of Rittenhouse shooting and killing one of the protesters. As the video played, we saw Rittenhouse fire his AR15 into the chest of Anthony Huber, who tried to disarm Rittenhouse with a skateboard. We watched as Huber groaned and died moments later. I was the only person who noticeably flinched and gasped at the video.

“According to our instructor, the only thing the 17-year-old did wrong was to admit to shooting someone.”

According to our instructor, the only thing the 17-year-old did wrong was to admit to shooting someone. Recalling the trope of the Revolutionary War patriot, the instructor added, “It’s easy to say to somebody, ‘If you hadn’t been here this wouldn’t have happened.’ But should the militia have just stayed in their houses and let the British march to conquer?”

The workshop concluded with a series of warnings. “Avoid knowingly going to places where protesters are. If you choose to be there, be aware. Watch for groups forming. Look for people holding signs or umbrellas when there’s no rain. Look for people holding shields, leaf blowers, bullhorns and hockey sticks — anything that can be used as a weapon. If traffic backs up, look for a way to get out of there. If you cannot escape, hold off using resistance of any kind until the absolute last resort. Any resistance is very likely to very quickly go to deadly force. You cannot win. All you can do is lose a little or lose a lot if you have to fight this.”

The instructor then shared his own tactical plan. “When I shoot, I will shoot with a hundred percent hits that stay in the body because hits that stay in the body do considerable damage and probably won’t hit anybody else. I’m going to have a hard enough time legally fighting why I shot the guy trying to kill me. But if I miss with one or more, or over-penetrate with one or more and hit somebody 50 yards away, I can’t win that at all.”

“I will escape as soon as I can after I shoot. Get away and try to get to a safe location. Holster my gun if possible, or at least hide my gun under my shirt to keep people from seeing it and from it appearing on video. Remove or change my clothing. Call an ally and say, ‘I need you.’ When asked later, ‘Did the defendant call you?’ ‘Yes, he did.’ ‘What’d he say? ‘He said he needed me and told me his location.’ Why did he need you? ‘I don’t know.’

“What you’re going to say if you call 911 is, ‘A violent mob attacked and tried to kill me.’ Not, ‘I shot somebody.’”

“And then call your lawyer. Make a 911 call after you’ve thought through what you are going to say and what you are notgoing to say and have rehearsed it. Understand that you lead the call — don’t let the 911 operator lead the call. Their job is to pull information from you. Don’t play their game. Don’t give details to anybody. What you’re going to say if you call 911 is, ‘A violent mob attacked and tried to kill me.’ Not, ‘I shot somebody.’”

What now?

I left the workshop shaken by the group’s desire to engage in armed civilian combat. The rest of the workshop attendees left with their worst fears validated by our instructor, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and current weapons instructor. Everyone also left with a blueprint and the permission necessary to live out their most violent combat fantasies.

I don’t know the religious leanings of anyone in the room. But having seen some of the attendees just two hours earlier at the NRA Prayer Breakfast, I presume at least some of them claim the Christian faith.

Jesus was as famous for saying, “Do not be afraid” as he was for eating with society’s outcasts and seeking justice for society’s most oppressed. And the Gospels tell us what happened when Jesus faced a violent mob out to kill him. When Peter drew his weapon and attacked one of the people, Jesus ordered him to sheath his weapon.

Violence only begets more violence. Except when the NRA is telling the story.

Mara Bim

Mara Richards Bim is serving as a Clemons Fellow with BNG. She is a recent master of divinity degree graduate from Perkins School of Theology at SMU. She also is an award-winning theater practitioner, playwright and director and founder of Cry Havoc Theater Company that operated in Dallas from 2014 to 2023.

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