Jeremiah just wanted to find his car and go home, but he was trapped.
A line of police in riot gear had just forced him and hundreds of other protesters out of Kenosha’s Civic Center Park and into the street. After that, there was nowhere to go. Soldiers and cops blocked one end of the road. White guys with big guns blocked the other.
It was past 11 p.m. local time Tuesday, the third night of protests after a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Jeremiah had received a text from a friend saying a bunch of protesters had their tires slashed. He wanted to get to his car before vandals did. He decided the quickest path was to cut through a parking lot.
As he made his way toward it,Jeremiah saw more armed white men. Two crouched on the roof of a building, sniper style. Two or three others stood guard over the lot. One of them, a babyface with a backward ball cap, raised an assault rifle and pointed it at him.
Jeremiah, 24 and Black, was more annoyed than afraid. He’d been out protesting all summer, more than 90 days so far. He knew about these guys and their scare tactics, and he refused to be intimidated.
When the kid started yelling, Jeremiah shouted back: “I’m trying to get out of here. If you’re gonna shoot me, just shoot!”
A few minutes later, Jeremiah saw the same guy pointing his weapon at someone else.
This time, Kyle Rittenhouse fired.
That nighthad felt different from the start.
Among protesters, the rumor spread: Hundreds of white men with guns had answered an online call from a self-described militia group known as the Kenosha Guard and would be waiting in the park to shoot them.
Not nearly that many armed men showed up, but they were impossible to avoid. Some joined the marchers and pledged to protect them. Many protesters still felt more afraid than secure.
Early in the evening, before he became stranded in the search for his car, Jeremiah got into an argument with one of them. Jeremiah was talking to a reporter when an angry woman interrupted, telling him she was tired of people like him burning things down. As he argued he’d done no such thing, an armed man came up and shoved him.
“Be ready,” Jeremiah recalls the man saying. “If you come toward us, we’re gonna open fire.”
The attitude of law enforcement was different that night, too, several people who have attended numerous protests told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. On Sunday and Monday, police had allowed demonstrators to linger in the park. But on Tuesday, what seemed like hundreds more cops than before stood shoulder to shoulder and forced them out. Several armored vehicles rolled through the grass.
Jeremiah later watched a video shot late Tuesday night that shows a law enforcement officer in an armored vehicle giving bottles of water to a group of armed men that included Rittenhouse. The officer thanks the men for their help, though they are clearly civilians in violation of the city’s 8 p.m. curfew.
“We appreciate you guys,” the officer on the video says. “We really do.”
In another clip, an unidentified armed white man in a baseball cap and a ballistic vest – an unofficial uniform of the self-styled militias – says this: “You know what the cops told us today? They were like, ‘We’re gonna push ‘em down by you, ’cause you can deal with them and then we’re gonna leave.'”
Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth has said he did not deputize citizens and would never do so. Police Chief Daniel Miskinis didn’t respond to the Journal Sentinel’s question about whether he was cooperating with the Kenosha Guard.
Whether the statement on the video was true or not, Jeremiah believes that was the plan.
“They were pushing us to the area where the alt-right group was at,” he said of law enforcement. “We were cornered.”
Jeremiah saw the shooter flee, too, and he could tell the teen was scared.
“He knew he messed up,” Jeremiah said. “He panicked. Even his people knew what he did was wrong. They were all shouting at him, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ I saw it in their faces. I saw it in their body language.”
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