The Pathetic Life And Death of Joseph Rosenbaum

The Pathetic Life And Death of Joseph Rosenbaum November 20, 2021

Like many who commit aggressive violence, Rosenbaum was both victim and victimizer.

Note: This post discusses violence and sexual abuse, and for the sake of accuracy quotes unexpurgated the use of a vile racial slur and other curse words. Sensitive readers should be advised.

The word “pathetic” has two very different senses. It may refer to something which arouses sympathy or pity — the tender emotions of pathos. Or it may refer to that which is so inadequate that it arouses contempt or scorn.

To understand what happened what happened in Kenosha on August 25, 2020, we must look at the life of Joseph Rosenbaum in the tension between these two meanings.

Rosenbaum The Monster

Arizona prison record of Joseph Rosenbaum, Fair use of government record.

It is true that Rosenbaum was a deranged felon, a registered sex offender, a convicted child rapist who had spent most of his adult life in prison and racked up a long list of violations there, many violent. He had both an open domestic violence case and a bail jumping case against him when he died, and his fiance had taken out a no-contact order against him after he (allegedly) attacked her.

He was caught on camera acting aggressively that evening, setting fires, arming himself with a chain, and screaming “shoot me, nigger!” at armed citizens. According to an eyewitness he said that he would “kill [you] motherfuckers, motherfucking niggers and cut [your] hearts out.”

Given this, it is truly amazing that some on what passes for a left in the US are trying to claim him as a heroic protester against racism. No. He was a fundamentally violent and disturbed person who came by accident into a volatile situation.

Finally, for reasons that will remain known only to himself — perhaps a variant on “suicide by cop”, perhaps a delusional belief that it was a heroic act, perhaps a wholly irrational manic episode — Rosenbaum went after Kyle Rittenhouse, a dimwitted and dishonest 17-year-old who had come downtown with a former employee of an Indian-American owned car lot, to protect what was left of that business from rioters and to act as a street medic.

Rittenhouse was carrying a rifle, which a loophole in Wisconsin law apparently meant to encourage teens to learn to shoot animals for fun permitted him to do. Rosenbaum ran after Rittenhouse as Rittenhouse fled, and — perhaps unintentionally — cornered him, and apparently attempted to take his rifle, leading to a fatal shooting which has been ruled (correctly, I believe) self-defense.

In the ensuing confusion Rittenhouse was attacked by several dimwitted if courageous and well-intentioned bystanders, and killed one and wounded another in shootings which have also been ruled self-defense (also correctly, I believe).

photo of Joseph Rosenbaum
Via Fair use.

Rosenbaum The Wounded Child

This account of Rosenbaum as a deranged felon making bad choices that lead to his death is absolutely true. But it is not the complete truth.

Like many who commit aggressive violence, Rosenbaum was both victim and victimizer. As a child he had no relationship with his father, was molested by his stepfather, and was sent to a group home at age 13 when his mother went to prison. There he started using heroin and meth. At some point he returned or tried to return home to live with his mother, but she kicked him out. At 18 he was in prison for sexual conduct with five preteen boys — the children of people who had taken him in.

At some point he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had been homeless in recent years, living first in a tent with his fiance, and then behind a dumpster when police stole their tent. Eventually, social services found them a room at a cheap hotel mostly used by sex workers — until his fiance found porn on his phone, they argued, and he body-slammed her and was taken to jail.

He had made at least two suicide attempts in the months leading up to that August 25 encounter.

On that day, Rosenbaum had just been discharged from a Milwaukee hospital following the second suicide attempt. He tried to pick up medication for his bipolar disorder at a local pharmacy, but it had closed early due to the rioting. He visited his fiance, who had pressed domestic violence charges and had a no-contact order against him; she (justifiably) made him leave.

Failure Piled On Top Of Failure

Dumped into a riot zone by our pathetic-in-the-inadequate-sense mental health care system, unable to obtain medication that might have helped stabilize him, without even (as far as I can tell) a place to stay the night, perhaps Rosenbaum lost himself in an external chaos matching his inner one.

The object he threw at Rittenhouse just before the shooting, originally believed by some viewers to be a firebomb, was a plastic bag of toiletries, underwear, and socks, which the hospital had given him upon his discharge. This was the last thing that Joseph Rosenbaum came into possession of in his pathetic-in-both-senses life, a wholly inadequate anti-poverty package.

He was not, in any sense, a good person. But can we imagine how he could have turned out better in a nation which protected him as a child, treated his disordered mind? Can we find some tender feeling for him as a human being, even as we hold sympathy for the children he violated, and acknowledge that his behavior meant a significant chance that he would eventually either kill someone or be killed by someone?

Even as I think that Rittenhouse was legally justified to shoot him in self-defense, when I think of that bag the hospital gave him as the last thing he ever owned, I find myself moved to pathos.

There was a long chain of failures that led to the shootings in Kenosha that night.

Rosenbaum should have been helped as a child, supported in healing from the trauma of abuse. Failing that, he should never have been allowed to live unsupervised after proving himself a danger to others and incompetent to manage his own life.

The Wisconsin legislature should never have drafted a law allowing 17-year-olds to carry rifles on city streets.

Jacob Blake should not have (allegedly) committed sexual assault. Rusten Sheskey and his fellow Kenosha Police should have been able to de-escalate the situation when they responded to a domestic incident involving Blake rather than shooting a man walking away from them.

Intellectuals and pundits should not have normalized the destructive rioting of the summer of 2020, and people in Kenosha should not have engaged in such rioting in response to the Blake shooting.

Rittenhouse should never have been given a rifle, and Rosenbaum should not have been discharged from a mental hospital into a riot zone following a suicide attempt.

But here we are, in a pathetic nation, unable to take the most basic care of our citizens, hanging between the urge to feel contempt and scorn for our failed institutions and the widespread ignorance and irrationality of our citizenry (both “Red Tribe” and “Blue Tribe”), and the urge to feel sympathy for so many suffering people — even, if our hearts are strong enough, those guilty of horrific crimes.


Kenosha County Case Number 2020CM000836 State of Wisconsin vs. Joseph Don Rosenbaum.

Kenosha County Case Number 2020CM000903 State of Wisconsin vs. Joseph D. Rosenbaum.

Klemko, Robert, and Greg Jaffe. “A mentally ill man, a heavily armed teenager and the night Kenosha burned”., 3 Oct 2020.

Piwowarczyk, Jim. “Joseph Rosenbaum: Sex Offender 2002 Arizona Criminal Complaint”. Wisconsin Right Now, 11 Mar 2021.

Piwowarczyk, Jim. “Why We’ve Decided to Tell You the Criminal Records of the Men Shot in Kenosha”. Wisconsin Right Now, 12 Mar 2021.

Rogan, Adam. “Did Car Source ask for armed help during Kenosha unrest? Witness testimony differs. “Kenosha News, 9 Nov 2021.

Sexton, John. “Things Joseph Rosenbaum allegedly said and did on the night he was shot.” HotAir.


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