Late-night hosts are supposed to interview celebrities, do goofy stunts for our amusement, and generally make us feel like we’re staying up to catch a really cool party we’re sort of invited to. But, increasingly, late-night hosts have become our first responders to truly awful, unfathomable events, the traditional mid-afternoon taping schedule feverishly reshuffled to accommodate news that breaks just before the cameras roll.
Since this is America, 2021, Friday afternoon sent your favorite host and his/her writing staff a gut-punch of an impossible-to-ignore national tragedy, in the form of a Wisconsin jury’s not guilty verdict for one Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse is the then-minor who, during the Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, had his mother drive him across state lines where he, with an illegally procured AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, shot three protesters, killing two. The protests, if you recall, were in response to the police shooting of now-paralyzed Black man, Jacob Blake.
With her earlier Peacock streaming time, it was Amber Ruffin who found herself the first host called upon to react to the jury’s decision. Having sent out a typically endearing tweet earlier in the afternoon promising an even goofier than usual Amber Ruffin Show tonight, Ruffin perhaps felt the need to get out in front of what’s going to be the chief topic for all those other writers rooms and hosts. Putting out a Twitter video from her 30 Rockefeller Plaza studio desk, Ruffin’s introduction said simply, “In case you needed to be reminded of this after today’s verdict.”
In the video, Ruffin headed off any idea that she’d be addressing the white Republican politicians gleefully offering the freed Rittenhouse a job. Or the braying white trolls flooding that same Twitter platform with stupid memes and sneering contempt for anybody who thinks it’s indeed a national tragedy that a Wisconsin court has now set a precedent for heavily armed right-wing white supremacists to straight-up murder people they don’t like in the street. Or even to wishy-washy other politicians, like, it has to be said, President Joe Biden, who’ve adopted a head-shake and plea for calm as appropriate response to this latest bloody travesty of justice.
No, Ruffin addressed her viewers, who, excepting the reliable hate-watchers looking to post remedial middle school insults whenever the subject of America’s hard-baked systemic racism gets mentioned, are in angry mourning tonight. Calling her opportunity to publicly speak on these all too frequent injustices something she doesn’t take lightly, Ruffin visibly gathered herself before stating, simply, “You matter.”
You should watch the clip yourself, as Ruffin, after hugging her arms and choking back the emotion threatening to overwhelm her throughout, tried to ground herself and her viewers in some sense of shared moral reality. “So, I can’t believe I have to say this but,” began Ruffin, before taking a very long pause and stating, finally, “It’s not okay for a man to grab a rifle, travel across state lines, and shoot three people and then walk free.”
Continuing to speak slowly and deliberately, Ruffin went on to remind viewers that it’s also not okay for the legal system in America “to be so blatantly and obviously stacked against people of color,” and that it’s not okay “for there to be an entirely different set of rules for white people.” Still, Ruffin explained that she wasn’t talking to Kyle Rittenhouse, “that racist judge,” or even speculating on “how fucked up that jury must be.” Instead, she, speaking straight to those of us crushed once more by how little the justice system even tries to hide its deadly double standard, echoed her opening statement, noting emphatically, “I can’t believe I have to say this, but you matter.”
So with the weight of another horrible day in America sitting on a whole lot of shoulders on Friday, and with the sickening thought of white supremacists across the country emboldened in their violent thuggery by this farcical trial, Ruffin reminded everybody who cared to listen, “You matter so much.” Acknowledging that, “As soon as you start to get a sense that you do, a man will grab a gun he shouldn’t have in the first place, and travel all the way to another state just to quiet you,” Ruffin yet urged her audience not to forget. You matter. Black lives matter. You matter.