A ‘call to arms’ that filled Kenosha with combat weapons

Residents confront protestors near the Kenosha County, Wis., Courthouse during a third night of unrest. Kevin Mathewson issued a call to arms to citizens when rioting as well as clashes between police and protesters began Sunday night after a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of his three children. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The man who called gunmen to gather on the streets of Kenosha, Wis., Tuesday night — culminating in the deaths of two people and an injury to a third — says he did so to keep the city safe. Despite the deaths, he believes they made it safer.

Kevin Mathewson is a former Kenosha alder who in June created a Facebook page called “Kenosha Guard — Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property.” On Tuesday, he posted a “call to arms” as a page event.

“Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out [sic] City tonight from the evil thugs? Nondoubt [sic] they are currently planning on the next part of the City to burn tonight!”

In a subsequent public post, under the identity of the page, Mathewson addressed Kenosha’s police chief, Daniel Miskinis:

“Chief Miskinis, As you know I am the commander of the Kenosha Guard, a local militia. We are mobilizing tonight and have about 3,000 RSVP’s. We have volunteers that will be in Uptown, downtown and at the entrances to other neighborhoods.”

Despite characterizations in those posts and elsewhere, as Mathewson described the Kenosha Guard in an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, it is little more than a Facebook group with an indeterminate number of self-appointed members.

“I started the page, I am the admin of the page, but it’s a very loose organization. You know, there’s no meetings, there’s no bylaws — the Second Amendment and individual freedom,” Mathewson said.

‘I don’t know him’

Mathewson said he has never met Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old from Antioch, Ill., who was arrested Wednesday in connection with the shooting deaths of two people Tuesday night in downtown Kenosha and the hospitalization of a third. In the interview, Mathewson was quick to distance himself from the suspect.

“He was a child that had no business carrying a gun, so I wonder who condoned him leaving another state to come here carrying a gun without questioning that,” Mathewson said.

With regard to the shootings themselves, he said, “I don’t want to take the position if what he did was self defense or not, because we don’t have all the facts. But state laws are very clear: You have to be 18 to possess a long gun and 21 to possess a pistol.

“I don’t know him, he’s not affiliated in any way with me or my Facebook page that I know of. Never met the guy,” he continued, calling it “always a tragedy when anybody loses their lives, even if it’s in self-defense.”

Authorities have not tied Rittenhouse to a specific militia group, and it’s not clear whether he came to Kenosha Tuesday because of the Kenosha Guard’s post, although it drew widespread attention.

“Our effort has made national media,” stated the post addressed to the Kenosha police chief, linking to the extremist rightwing website InfoWars.

Facebook group ‘very loose’

Mathewson is a freelance private detective who works for area lawyers and has a wedding photography business. He was often outspoken and controversial in his two non-consecutive terms on the city’s common council. He resigned his seat in 2017 after moving out of the city to the adjacent community of Somers.

“He’s always liked controversy, and if there’s any controversy to be found, he will find it,” said Ald. Jan Michalski, who is still on the council and was a member during Mathewson’s time in office. Michalski described him as someone who would “pick fights.” But he said he was not aware of Mathewson’s association with the Kenosha Guard page, adding that he doesn’t engage with social media.

Mathewson said the Facebook page is “very loose, very loose — the page is open to anybody, anybody could like the page, anybody can see all the comments, anybody can comment. So there’s not like an application process or approval process. So technically anybody could claim they’re a member.”

Mathewson, however, said he is the only one who controls the page itself and the only one who can, and did, issue a call to arms.

Later in the interview he returned to that question. “There’s really not ‘my group,’ right?” he said. “I can’t give a list, ‘Here’s members of the Kenosha Guard.’ So, the Kenosha Guard is basically me sending a message that we need to take control of our city. So, technically, there’s no members.”

As of Wednesday, the Kenosha Guard Facebook page had been taken down, but another Mathewson Facebook page, associated with his former role as a Kenosha alder, includes videos and commentary also referring to unrest in Kenosha and pictures of Mathewson and others with weapons, guarding a residential area.

“There’s no way to really know” how many people came downtown with guns Tuesday night, said Mathewson. He was downtown early in the evening before dark, when there were “at least 30 to 50 of us.”

Mathewson started the page in June, “when we had businesses being destroyed and looted for the George Floyd incident,” he said. Although interest was slow initially, it took off, reaching 4,000 page followers.

Deputizing armed civilians

Tuesday’s event came together on the fly.

When he posted the event notice that same day, “I think there were 6,000 that hit the ‘interested’ button and over 1,000 that committed to going last I looked,” Mathewson  said. Other militia-style groups also were in Downtown Kenosha Tuesday night, he said, and some armed people have been there every night since Sunday, although he had not posted about the unrest before Tuesday.

Mathewson said he left downtown before dark and returned to his own residential neighborhood. “I just kind of hung out at the entrance to my subdivision so I wasn’t in the thick of things at night,” he said.

Like him, others who responded to the event took up posts in groups outside area subdivisions around the city, he said: “We’re talking at least a few hundred that were outside, armed and trying to help the community.”

“It would be nice to have a well-regulated militia,” he said, but “we didn’t have enough time to really prepare and organize — just a general call to arms.”

The message he sought to convey, he said, was “Hey, are you a patriot? Do you want to defend our city, grab your gun, go outside, defend your neighborhood, your home, your store. Let’s supplement the police because they’re outnumbered.”

“And that’s why I think we were appreciated,” Mathewson said, when some people on the street started throwing rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police. “Those officers are scared and I think that’s why we’re welcomed so warmly — Giving us water, telling us thank you.”

At a news conference on Wednesday, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said he had been asked about deputizing armed civilians. Beth did not state what group or individuals had specifically made the request,  but said that he opposed the idea.

“Once I deputize somebody they fall under the constitution of the state of Wisconsin. They fall under the county of Kenosha, they fall under my guidance, they have to follow my policy, they have to follow my supervisors,” Beth said. “They are a liability to me, and the county and the state of Wisconsin.”

If the person who fired the fatal shots had been deputized, he said, “that would have been, in reality [a] deputy sheriff who killed two people,” Beth said. “And the liability that goes with that would have been immense. … There’s no way that I would have deputized people.”

In his interview, Mathewson — who has clashed with Beth over the department’s handling of deputy misconduct allegations — criticized the sheriff’s rejection of deputizing armed civilians, although he also acknowledged that “you can’t just go around deputizing people because you’ve got to vet somebody — who has the time? But the conversation should have to happen.”

Mathewson said he talks regularly with Miskinis, the Kenosha police chief, however.

He made the Kenosha Guard post on Tuesday that directly addressed Miskinis because “I wanted to make at least that communication — reaching out,” he said. “Maybe he had advice for us. Maybe he needed us in certain places.”

There was no response, he said, “and I don’t blame him because there’s probably liability issues. If he responds, people can say it’s condoning the militia.”

Miskinis declined to directly answer questions at Wednesday’s news conference about his department’s officers’ interactions with militia members seen on videos that have circulated on social media.

‘We don’t need the government’s permission’

Mathewson continued: “But by definition, we don’t need the government’s permission. We don’t need to be told — we can do it. In fact, the Constitution tells us we can do it. And the Second Amendment was put in there for instances like this — when we’re at war and under siege.”

On both the now-defunct Kenosha Guard page and Mathewson’s own public page, some who posted comments about the Tuesday night shooting deaths praised the gunman. Others, however, told Mathewson that he bore responsibility for the deaths. A MoveOn online petition is calling on authorities to charge Mathewson as an accessory to the killings.

Mathewson rejected the accusation.

“Nobody is responsible for somebody’s behavior except for that person,” he told the Wisconsin Examiner. “This was a child who had no business carrying a gun. To suggest that I in some way am responsible for the death simply because I asked my fellow countrymen to arm themselves and defend themselves against murdering, scumbag, criminal looters is preposterous. I had nothing to do with that. I did not inspire that.”

Mathewson said that he believes the presence of dozens of armed people downtown Tuesday made the area “definitely more safe.”

“I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of a criminal who wants to burn a building down,” Mathewson said. “I’d probably want to do it away from armed people —  probably want to do it somewhere where it’s just criminals, not citizens carrying weapons. Certainly if I was a criminal I would not want to attack somebody carrying a gun, that’s for sure.”

He rejected the suggestion that the two deaths Tuesday night, the first fatalities in three nights of unrest, contradict the idea that armed militia members made the city safer.

“No — we’re very fortunate that no one was killed on nights one or two … Buildings were torched with apartments above,” he said. “And that’s an inherent risk of loss of life right there.”

He added: “People who disagree with the Second Amendment, they don’t realize that the fact that people can be armed in itself is a deterrent.”

At the city-county news conference, however, Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian offered a very different assessment.

“No, I don’t need more guns on the street in the community, when we’re trying to make sure that we keep people safe,” Antaramian said. “Law enforcement is trained, they’re the ones who are responsible. They’re the ones we have faith will do their jobs to make sure it gets done. And it would be beneficial and helpful to everyone to realize that.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd