Kyle Rittenhouse is going to nursing school. That is, if he doesn’t take a congressional internship instead. The eighteen-year-old vigilante murdered two protesters and grievously wounded another in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year during the protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges on Friday in a contentious trial overseen by bigoted judge Bruce Schroeder. It came out in the trial that Rittenhouse is currently an online student at Arizona State University with the intention to become a nurse.
He is in fact not an admitted student to ASU’s College of Nursing, but a non-degree-seeking online student taking general education courses. Did Rittenhouse lie on the stand? Well, he may intend to one day become a nurse—or possibly he said as much to lend nursing’s credibility and honor to his shameful existence for a play at jury sympathy. He did lie to a reporter the night he killed two people, telling them he was an EMT. All this could mean that Rittenhouse admires health-care professionals and sees them as having respect and moral high ground he’d like to borrow. But Rittenhouse may well intend to become a health-care professional, and if he wants to be a nurse, nursing needs to pay attention.
Nursing and Society
Nurses in the United States are revered by the community, considered the most trusted professional in the country for nineteen consecutive years. Nursing has long been viewed as a stable, caring, and honorable profession. Schools of nursing are started in universities with charitable or social-justice-focused missions, especially religious institutions with adjoining hospitals. Nursing is also a formidable force in the labor movement, pushing the health-care industry and society as a whole to more just, humane policy through labor strikes and collective action, especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, as an industry, nursing is also deeply embedded in war and US imperialism. Health-care professionals are also embedded in US policing and the prison-industrial complex, seen clearly in the murder of Elijah McClain by police and paramedics in Colorado. Health care and the nursing profession has evolved through every civil and world war by leaps and bounds, cementing the idea of the noble nurse-soldier who plays their own role in helping the nationalist cause. Rittenhouse would likely imagine himself to be a nurse in that tradition, a nationalist “hero” entering a noble profession, selfless and righteous, ready to put down his AR-15 and pick up his stethoscope.
The US military also subsidizes health-care training for recruits, and thus there are many nurses in the workforce who are former and current military. While what is considered “criminal” and what consistutes “murder” in the context of war is much debated by some, there can be no doubt that the legal acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse does not change what he did: carry an illegal automatic weapon across state lines to knowingly participate in white nationalist militia actions in violent collusion with the police against civil rights protestors. Kyle Rittenhouse is a murderer and a white supremacist. Is there a place for him in nursing?
Early in my nursing career, Mike Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. As many chalked up the murder to “bad apples” in US policing, I kept coming back to the parallel example of nursing as a community of professionals united in their public service. What do nurses do with our “bad apples,” and do they “spoil the whole bunch”? I hoped that if there were an epidemic of killer nurses murdering patients with impunity—patients they were paid and entrusted to protect and serve—then the nursing community’s response would not be to close ranks and defend the murderers among us but to oust them unceremoniously and make sure they never again had power like ours to abuse. At least that’s what I hoped nursing would do, though the “bad apples” of health care are dealt with in a variety of ways as the Sackler-supported professional peddlers of oxycontin have proven.
Throughout the Movement for Black Lives and the subsequent public sea change about US policing, people have wondered, “If there are good cops, where are they and why aren’t they speaking up?” The good/bad binary is not especially useful, though, when dealing with institutions rotten to their core like police. What kind of an institution is nursing? What values do we espouse, and what values do we enact? What will “good” nurses do if Kyle Rittenhouse becomes our colleague?
Nurses are revered by the larger community because most people have at some point either been lovingly cared for by a nurse or had a nurse provide compassionate care for a loved one. Nurses spend the most critical, memorable, and terrifying moments of people’s lives with them, comforting and caring for them, explaining big things in gentle ways, and making instant coffee for the mom who’s slept beside her dying twenty-six-year-old son in a plastic-covered armchair for literal weeks. At least that’s what I did in my first semester as a nursing student, intimidated by the gargantuan task but trying my best as I blundered through a clinical rotation on the oncology unit.
To be an oncology nurse one must have certifications to administer chemotherapy, so as students who barely knew how to miter a bed corner, we were mostly just trying to keep up with the seasoned staff nurses as they performed high-level tasks. A young man dying of AIDS had been on the unit for months as every system in his body progressively failed. My first clinical lesson was how to be compassionate toward a person in miserable pain, a person so irritated and bothered and overwhelmed with medical attention that he snarled at whomever entered his room. He was a Black closeted gay man. How will Kyle Rittenhouse treat Black patients dying of AIDS who are mean to him? How will Kyle Rittenhouse define compassionate care and his professional duty?
Fight Racism at Work
Should nurses fight to keep Rittenhouse out of our profession? Yes. We should fight like hell to keep white supremacists out of everywhere, especially caring professions. How? There are many groups of nursing professionals who control the entry of students into the profession. It is their responsibility to prevent Rittenhouse’s licensure. Arizona State University faculty can organize to keep him out of the program. ASU nursing students can organize to keep him out of the program. And if he seeks admission to a different program, the students and faculty can similarly bar his entry. Hospitals and clinics can deny him clinical rotations. The Illinois State Board of Nursing can deny him licensure.
The specific political strategy of any of these campaigns needs to be debated and decided within nursing communities to make sure whatever precedents are set do not backfire on civil rights protesters, as campus free-speech fights have potential to do. As a vital part of the labor movement, nursing can now more visibly move into the great tradition of fighting racism and xenophobia within its ranks and unions. Doing so will allow us to emerge more powerfully in solidarity and better prepared to engage and win the campaigns on which all of our lives depend.
Breonna Taylor actually was an EMT. Taylor wanted to go to nursing school, too. So did Rekia Boyd. Taylor was murdered by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, while sleeping in her bed at home. Rekia Boyd was murdered by an off-duty cop in Chicago while walking down the street with her friends. Like Rittenhouse, the police officers who killed them are still at large. But unlike Rittenhouse, Breonna’s killers were never tried for murder. I don’t know what kind of nurses Breonna and Rekia would have been. By all accounts from their family and friends, they were kind, loving, friendly women called to service. As such, I would’ve welcomed them into the profession and supported them through the difficult, beautiful, and demanding work we do.
If Kyle Rittenhouse was coming on shift, I would worry about handing my patients off to him. If Kyle Rittenhouse called a code, I would wonder if maybe he had done something to cause it. If Kyle Rittenhouse were my student, I would distrust his ability to provide nonjudgmental care. If Kyle Rittenhouse were my boss, I would quit. Nursing cannot allow this person into the profession, not because of a murder conviction or lack thereof, but because he is an unrepentant racist who has no regard for human life.