I Was Just 15 Feet Away From a Murder

An interview with the journalist who filmed Kyle Rittenhouse fatally shoot two protesters. It was the third night of protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and 23-year-old Brendan Gutenschwager had stuck around to film what protesters were doing after curfew, even as many more seasoned mainstream journalists headed home.

That’s when he crossed paths with Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Illinois associated with a militia group, who was being chased down the streets by protesters after allegedly shooting someone. Then, as Gutenschwager filmed from the sidewalk, Rittenhouse opened fire again. By the time it was all over, two men were dead and one was seriously injured after allegedly being shot by Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse now faces multiple charges, including first-degree intentional homicide in the death of Anthony Huber and first-degree reckless homicide in the death of Joseph Rosenbaum.

Gutenschwager’s videos have allowed many to reconstruct what happened on that chaotic, deadly night. His reporting has been part of a larger personal project, one that he has undertaken despite not having any formal media training and which has made him a viral media sensation. The Detroit area-based independent journalist first began video reporting on social media during the 2016 presidential election, drawn by the same desire to witness history upfront that fuels many young journalists.

He attended rallies for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and others as part of seeking to understand all sides. Back then he also expressed support for Trump on Facebook and wore a MAGA hat at NYU, which he attended for part of 2016. He cast his first vote for Trump, but got tickets to Clinton’s final campaign night at the Javitz Center, and, in the new year, was on the scene of the Women’s March in New York. By 2019 he was part of NASA Social, and was invited by the space agency to attend the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and a rocket launch at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

This year he’s spent most of the summer traveling around the U.S. to cover the wave of anti-racism protests unleashed by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Other viral videos captured by his Nikon D5600 include: Sen. Rand Paul being shouted at by protesters in Washington, D.C., and scenes from the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks March held in the city in August. He’s been personally financing the trips, he said, and only recently began soliciting donations from people who follow his work online. Media companies such as CNN, ABC, Fox News, and Showtime have also offered to purchase his footage.

Gutenschwager spoke with GEN about witnessing Rittenhouse’s actions, what he has learned from being on the ground at so many of this summer’s most dramatic protests, and how being a white journalist affects the work he has been doing.

GEN: Tell me about what you saw in Kenosha.

Brendan Gutenschwager: Kenosha was a very last-minute thing for me. I was out in Portland when news broke about the Jacob Blake incident. I saw the video, and my first thought was, “Oh my gosh. This could turn into another Minneapolis. This incident looks that bad.” The very next morning, I flew out. That first night, it was kind of similar to Minneapolis in the sense that you had these daytime protests, and they would march through the streets. The government had issued a curfew to try to cut the protests off at a certain hour. But of course, that didn’t stop the protesters. Within a couple hours, they had the police standoff and the tear gas being fired out. Instead of just waiting around that courthouse area and continuing facing off with the police, the crowd basically just mobilized and started moving to the streets. That’s where they were tearing down lampposts and smashing up used cars, burning down certain businesses.

But that Monday night, on August 24, was the last day where there was really burning or looting. I know people have kind of exaggerated and made it sound like it went on for a week. It really just went on for essentially two nights. That third night, there were some dumpster fires, smaller things like that. But these militia groups had come in trying to defend some of the properties there, which was a really bizarre phenomenon that I hadn’t seen before. People were actually coming in from out of state, including, obviously, Kyle Rittenhouse. Now it’s very tense just by virtue of you’re out past curfew. There were standoffs, tear gas fired; they brought out the BearCats — these big heavily armored vehicles — as an intimidation tactic and to push people through the streets.

And at one point, they had pushed the protesters about four or five blocks away, over by these gas stations where you had this mixing of the militia groups and the protesters. The militia groups would talk with the protesters, but at the same time, they made it clear that they weren’t there for them. Their claim was they were there for defending these properties. That dynamic didn’t sit well with a lot of people, to just have these people walking around open-carrying weapons, especially after what had just happened a couple of days ago with the police shooting of Blake.

I didn’t personally witness Rittenhouse’s first shooting. All I know is that people did start chasing after Rittenhouse as a result of those gunshots being fired off, and that is what led to him tripping in the middle of the street, turning around, and firing at those that were closing in on him.

What were you thinking, if you were thinking at all, through that moment? He opened fire, but you didn’t stop filming.

I was scared; I’m not going to lie. My biggest fear was that the gun could go off in any direction, including directly at me. He was in the middle of the street, and I was just on the sidewalk. When you start filming, you have no idea what’s actually going to unfold. It’s not like I knew that’s what I was about to film. I thought at most we would see some kind of struggle, people maybe would take the gun and run off with it. Or he would just go and run off with it. I certainly did not expect that at all.

At a certain point, I realized that I was so close that if there was going to be a gun going off in some direction, I was probably already too close — to where if I turned and ran, it wasn’t going to help. Also, I realized that what was happening here was a critical moment. Almost all the mainstream news had all gone home, gone to bed. Things had kind of quieted down at that point. There weren’t really more of the direct police-to-protester interactions. But I saw the way people were milling about. I did still see a lot of people with weapons. I remember just thinking, “This isn’t over yet tonight. I don’t know that people are just going to fizzle out and go home.”

After Rittenhouse had shot those individuals, he got up. I was one of the first people he looked at, and we made eye contact for a solid second or two. And that had to be one of the most fearful moments. If he was angry that I just filmed this, would he turn to me next? Thankfully, that isn’t what happened.

What happened after he walked away?

I continued filming. One of the BearCats came southbound and asked if there’s somebody injured. Rittenhouse pointed to the people he just shot, and they just kept going. I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life. I was shocked that they didn’t basically rush out and immediately apprehended him because, in my head, I’m thinking, “You guys did just see all that, right?” They were right there. I don’t know if they genuinely weren’t paying attention and didn’t know that it was that guy that had just shot people or if they just didn’t care. But they went right past him and just went down to the injured people. Ultimately, one of them was dead in the street.

Rittenhouse walked up to a different police vehicle. They didn’t seem too happy with him getting that close to the vehicle. Although again, and I have to call it out, it was a massive double standard. Anybody else from the protest group that had gotten anywhere near that close to a police vehicle was getting most likely tear-gassed if not pepper balled.

At that point, I turned my attention toward what was going on back in the middle of the road with people that were down. A man had his arm partially blown off. It’s a very, very tough thing to witness. Within a couple of minutes, there were quite a few police there. They had brought the caution tape to cordon off the area for a crime scene. That was when it really hit me, like, “Wow, I was just basically 15 feet away from a murder.” I stuck around for probably 25 minutes or so after that. There was a woman there that asked, “Well, do you have a suspect in custody? Because we all saw him do it, and so we assume that you’ve already apprehended him.” And they said no. And I remember thinking, “Yeah, because you just let him walk right past you.”

Kenosha was not your first time at anti-racist protests this summer. When did you start traveling around to document them?

The George Floyd incident really was the catalyst for just a mass protest movement on a scale that I have not seen before. My very first protest related to any of that was near my hometown in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That ended up being one of the biggest protests I had seen in the southeast Michigan area. I remember being taken aback by that — the George Floyd incident didn’t happen in Michigan nor was he from Michigan. And yet there was so much emotion behind that incident and how people felt about it that even multiple states over, people were having these mass protests and solidarity. This was so early on that I don’t think anybody understood what exactly it would become. But seeing that in and of itself that week was remarkable.

My first inclination after was that I needed to somehow get over to Minneapolis because what was happening there was truly mind-boggling. It would be, like, protests during the day. Then in the evening, once it was past curfew, it would turn to riots. I made arrangements with a friend to go out to Minneapolis four days after George Floyd’s passing. I was just running around from scene to scene, place to place, intersection to intersection, trying to cover it all. I wanted people that have an accurate depiction of what was happening at these protests and what was happening in Minneapolis. It was never more than two hours of sleep at night because there was just so much to cover. Once 8 p.m. hit and it was officially past curfew, protesters were still out. It was just unbelievable what I saw. With the police coming in, the tear gas and rubber bullets and the people going through the streets, burning down buildings and smashing up cars. It definitely energized me in the sense that I knew this was a worthwhile story to be covering. Something that people needed to see and hear about. I did Minneapolis. And then from that point forward, I was very tuned in to try to find out where these protests were happening and how I could get myself out to them to try to cover.

You identified as a Trump supporter in 2016. Is that still the case, and how does that color your coverage?

I will say this in regards to that: I don’t let it color my coverage now. I have taken my political opinions private, even things may have been different previously before I worked professionally. But I prefer not to discuss any of that publicly in the interest of retaining neutrality in my coverage. I don’t publicly endorse any candidates anymore. I don’t affiliate myself with any specific party in the interest of maintaining that neutrality — just to preempt some of that.

Some people believe the way that you’ve been approaching these protests has been kind of similar to what some right-wing trolls do, which is finding the most incendiary possible scene and record that. How do you respond to this perception?

If that’s how they’re perceiving it, then they’re only seeing some of the tweets because I make it a point to also post speeches from these protests. Moments that capture what people in the movement are saying, what their goals are, what their ambitions are with the movement, as well as those moments that are more incendiary and are a little bit more dramatic in the sense that they catch a lot of eyes. Maybe those are the ones that are more susceptible to go viral, but I put out all sorts of coverage regarding these events. And so if people think that it’s been sensationalized, my guess is that they are simply just not looking at my full feed and the full portfolio of what I’m really saying and what I’m covering.

That is something that I do think about. I don’t want to only put those things out and imply that that is all that happens at these protests. I make it a point to make sure in the middle of us covering these moments where people are caught on fire or whatever, other things like that are happening. We’re also bringing attention to the voices that are speaking at these protests and to what is being said.

Why do you think that the moments that go viral are usually the ones that are those more tense? Do you feel this is because some on the right have a vested interest in amplifying those? Or do you think its because of what we’ve known for a long time — that’s the type of thing that sells?

I think that’s the nature of the internet, or media in general, really. Even the 1800s newspapers sensationalized all types of things, and those would be the things that drove newspaper sales back in the day. I’m not saying that that’s good or bad one way or another, I’m just saying that there is a legacy. I believe you just see that carried out in the age of the internet in the form of certain things going viral, certain other things not going viral. And people really sharing and reposting those moments that are more dramatic and more incendiary.

What places have you gone to this summer?

The main ones have been Minneapolis, Kenosha, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, and D.C.

What have protesters told you?

A common theme throughout is that they do not like when there’s federal government intervention in these cities. They’re trying to bring things more and more localized. Instead of having your traditional police departments, they are trying to switch to more community-based solutions and community police.

They’re also upset with the level of militarization. I think a lot of people didn’t realize just how militarized these police forces were until 2020, when all of a sudden you’re in the streets of Kenosha and out come these BearCats. They’re not from the federal government, these are actually owned by the county.

And just, of course, in general, the racial inequalities. They just feel that minorities, people of color, just have not had the same opportunities as other people in society and that they would like to see some kind of correction to bridge that gap. That’s not even necessarily reparations, to be honest. There’s only been a handful of times that I’ve really heard people calling for that. Usually, it’s more they would like to see certain things that basically would just make it easier to build up a life on your own.

You are doing this independently. Even freelancers who are working alongside or an organization have protections — but you don’t. How do you handle that?

I just kind of threw myself into these things and did my best on my own. The vast majority of the protests I’ve covered, I’ve been totally solo. There’ve been moments where I wish I had more protection, both physically and with editorial connections. But there has been the kindness of strangers. In Minneapolis, the National Guard saw me filming. I identified myself as press, as somebody that was just there covering things. They immediately shot me with a rubber bullet. It’s not something that caused permanent damage, but it definitely hurt quite a bit. I was basically limping for about an hour through Minneapolis because at the time, they had cut off any access to where my car was parked. These total strangers at a house ended up taking me in and helping me with ice packs, snacks, and water. There’s many small stories like that, not just in Minneapolis but in other cities that I’ve covered as well.

As a white journalist, have you thought about your position as you report on the anti-racism protests? The protections it might afford you but also the lens that it gives you?

The times where it mostly crosses my mind is when I’m very close to those police lines in those tense moments. I do wonder because — I’ll just be quite frank — I don’t see very many journalists of color out there compared to how many I see that are white. Would I be treated differently by the police if everything was equal — covering things the exact same way that I am, still out with the exact same camera equipment, exact same bag, everything — but if I weren’t white? I thought about that even more too after the Kyle Rittenhouse incident. People were out past curfew and had already been tear-gassed for hours at that point. After all of that, a white man is still able to just walk right up to the police with a gun open, and it’s fine. Would there be a different dynamic if it were a person of color? I think there’s a very good possibility that that would be the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *