Two horrifying shootings last week, half a country apart, may not seem to have much in common. In Kenosha, Wis., a white teenager who came to the city ostensibly to help protect businesses from looting has been charged with killing two Black Lives Matter protesters. In Portland, Ore., a man seemingly affiliated with a right-wing group is dead after clashes there.
But there is an alarming common denominator: They both happened in a country with a president who is stoking white grievance to a rolling boil — and where too few people in responsibility are pushing back. President Trump is not responsible for either shooting, but he is responsible for the combustible racial climate that he continues to fuel with one inflammatory tweet after another.
Ever since the protests against police violence sprang up this spring, the president has been eager for ways to distract the public and shift the focus to the minuscule number of protests that have turned violent. To be clear, there is no excuse for burning buildings. But for the president and right-wing media figures to exaggerate looting and lump all protesters with those fringe elements is clear scaremongering.
That drumbeat of fear helped create the environment in which 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a Trump supporter who reportedly had attended a Trump rally in the front row earlier this year, somehow felt it was necessary for him to travel with his weapon from his home in Antioch, Ill., to Kenosha, the site of protests against the shooting of Jacob Blake. And it’s the environment in which a caravan of Trump supporters felt it was necessary to brawl with Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland.
Trump needs to tone down his rhetoric before the tension on the ground in cities like Portland and Kenosha intensifies. Unless he shows a level of statesmanship that would be out of character, Trump’s planned visit to Kenosha Tuesday will only make matters worse. Since he’s not likely to change his tune, it’s even more important that his fellow Republicans, along with the police and law enforcement officials Trump often claims to be defending, go to extra lengths to distance themselves from the president’s rants.
Most importantly, state and local law enforcement officials and police unions around the country must clearly and unequivocally denounce vigilantism and vow to hold those who engage in such reckless behavior responsible to the fullest extent of the law. Those vigilantes often express support for police and claim to be acting to support law enforcement — more reason for police leaders to reject them as loudly as possible.
Both federal and local law enforcement officials have been on notice about the threat of such militia groups amid the protests that have taken place across the country since the killing of George Floyd, in May. Though President Trump has repeatedly condemned protesters and left-leaning antifa activists as a threat to the safety of Americans, a federal intelligence bulletin distributed to local law enforcement agencies instead identifies white supremacists, militia extremists, and groups “who advocate a belief in the superiority of the white race [and] have sought to bring about a second civil war, often referred to as a ‘Boogaloo,’” as the greatest public safety threats during protests.
Such armed individuals and groups have become a staple at protests across the country, and their presence has spurred violence in places like Louisville, Ky., during protests of the killing of Breonna Taylor, and in Oakland, Calif., where a federal security officer was killed by a suspected Boogaloo follower during protests of Floyd’s death. Online calls for armed counter-protesters to travel to Kenosha preceded last Tuesday’s shooting there.
President Trump has egged on vigilantes. When Mark and Patricia McCloskey pointed firearms at protesters who marched through their affluent St. Louis neighborhood, they were charged with a felony. They were also rewarded with a prime speaking spot on opening night of last week’s Republican National Convention. After a pro-Trump caravan, which included armed members of right-wing group Patriot Prayer, clashed with counter-protesters in Portland over the weekend, spurring violence that left one member of that group dead, Trump again fanned the flames of division in a flurry of tweets in which he called the caravan “GREAT PATRIOTS!” while denouncing a video of protesters in Washington, D.C., as “Disgraceful Anarchists” who are “stupidly protected by the Radical Left Dems!”
As for Rittenhouse, according to WBEZ, his since-deleted Facebook page had numerous posts in support of law enforcement, including a photo of him posing with other young white men holding firearms that was captioned: “Duty. Honor. Courage. Blue Lives Matter.”
Yet after the shooting, Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis suggested that protesters being “out after the curfew” were to blame for the violence.
Groups including the ACLU and the NAACP have called for Miskinis’s resignation, and the ACLU also called for the removal of Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth after video showed deputies fraternizing with armed counter-protesters before the shooting. Even tacit acceptance of vigilantes has no place in a modern police force.
Clearly, there’s no help coming from the White House — none of the efforts to promote healing and reconciliation that past presidents considered part of the job. Until law enforcement leaders across the country give a full throated condemnation of such groups and heed the warning issued by federal intelligence officials about the threat they pose, such acts of violence are bound to continue.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.