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After Rittenhouse verdict, activists fear for their safety at future demonstrations


The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse is also forcing activist leaders to consider what the verdict might mean for their own safety at future demonstrations for racial justice. NPR's Adrian Florido spoke with protest organizers across the country.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The first thing Melina Abdullah felt after Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted was sadness and rage on behalf of his three victims. Abdullah, who's a leader of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Los Angeles, also felt deep concern.

MELINA ABDULLAH: If the system is going to, in a sense, condone the murders committed by Kyle Rittenhouse and the victims were white, what does that mean for me as a Black organizer, right?

FLORIDO: It's a question activists everywhere have been grappling with since Friday's verdict, shaken by the prospect that it could embolden vigilantes to further violence against racial justice protesters.

ABDULLAH: One of the intents is to scare us out of protests. We absolutely have to really take seriously these kinds of threats, and we can't be shaken out of our activism.

FLORIDO: Abdullah says, though, many movement leaders she's spoken with since the verdict have said they are worried.

ABDULLAH: There's been no talk of going home. There's been no talk of not protesting because vigilantes might come.

FLORIDO: Instead, she says, they're considering new ways to protect their safety. Angela Lang is with the Milwaukee-based group called Black Leaders Organizing for Communities. She's been mobilizing protests for 14 years, but only started worrying for her safety last year as more armed vigilantes started showing up.

ANGELA LANG: The threats felt a little bit more imminent. They felt a little closer. And I think what happened in Kenosha put a lot of us on notice, as well.

FLORIDO: She says her organization has adopted new safety measures, as have many of her friends and colleagues.

LANG: Adding cameras, making sure that our doors are locked if we're the only ones in the office and people can't just wander upstairs. A lot of us have own personal individual safety plans - don't take the same route home, you know, two nights in a row - all of these certain things we think about.

FLORIDO: After the Rittenhouse verdict, she says, they're likely to take more such measures. Erin Heaney is national director for a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, which organizes white people to become protest allies. One reason is because police and vigilantes, she says, respond less aggressively when there are white people in a crowd. The fact that Rittenhouse was acquitted despite his victims being white, she says, drives home the threat that nonwhite protesters face if the verdict emboldens more vigilante violence.

ERIN HEANEY: It reaffirms the need for those of us who are white to be putting our bodies on the line and also, you know, doing the long haul organizing.

FLORIDO: She says many of the white people her group organizes are new to racial justice work. And though many are shaken by Friday's news...

HEANEY: One thing we are seeing is that, like, many, many new people are finding our organization and, you know, signing up saying, I want to do something - really just, like, in the last couple days. So I think there is a risk that people are going to be more scared. But I also think that the news also is moving more people into wanting to fight for racial justice.

FLORIDO: For some protest leaders, though, there is also a fear that no amount of solidarity may be enough to prevent further violence. Toshira Garraway leads Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence - a Minnesota-based group that holds regular protest marches. Not long after Kyle Rittenhouse killed the protesters in Kenosha, Garraway started hiring security for her own protests.

TOSHIRA GARRAWAY: Some of my security is armed, and some of my security is not armed. I realize that people with hatred, people with their difference of opinion - they will come out and try to kill us.

FLORIDO: That fear, she says, is now more real than ever.

GARRAWAY: It's proven that it can happen through Rittenhouse situations. And if they are white, if they are a white, privileged person, they can walk free for taking your life.

FLORIDO: She says she wishes it hadn't come to this, but she wants to keep marching for what she believes in, she says, without fear of being shot down. Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.