After Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, one of the first people to capture what was happening with protests was Koerri Elijah. He doesn’t have a news van, but he has a skateboard, an iPhone, and as a Kenosha resident, a working knowledge of the streets.
And one of the tens of thousands of people who watched his livestreams was fellow “citizen journalist” Kristan T. Harris, co-creator of a Milwaukee-based media platform called The Rundown Live. It wasn’t long before Harris was loading up his camera gear and merging onto I-94 south. “I just had a gut feeling. It’s a yearning instinct that pulls – you know when you have a bad feeling? This is more like an energetic, you-need-to-be-here feeling,” says Harris.
Harris and his colleagues are not your typical reporters. Citizen journalists are individuals who make money by branding their own platform and pinning a Venmo or CashApp link to their videos. If they get good footage, mainstream news might pay to license it – Harris says a typical pay rate is $150-$250 per second of footage. In an era when news outlets are tightening their belts and thinning their reporting ranks, they fill the important role of getting a street-level story. The Rundown Live, which he describes as “a collective of citizen journalists,” has sometimes been labeled a conspiracy theory site as it frequently shares content from Alex Jones’ right-wing InfoWars site and similar media outlets.
Over the last few months, Harris has put in an exhausting schedule of citizen journalism, covering the local racial justice and anti-mask protests, as well as the protests and unrest in Minneapolis. “I’m for everyone’s freedom of speech. I just want peace. And I want people to listen to each other,” Harris says.
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Kenosha was attracting farther-flung citizen journalists, too. CJ Halliburton, whose platform is CJTV, had flown from his home in Seattle to Minneapolis, where he met up with Andrew Mercado, aka Mercado Media, to drive out to D.C. to cover the March on Washington. They were in Chicago when they heard about the Blake shooting and did a U-turn.
“The core ideology I maintain is trying to elevate voices, so I’ve been doing a lot of the conflict coverage of the protests – Seattle, Portland, LA, Louisville, Kenosha, St. Paul, all over the place,” Halliburton says. He began, as many citizen journalists have, by wanting to cover what was going on in his hometown, Seattle, after protests erupted after the George Floyd killing. “My focus is finding voices in the crowd I can give a platform to, hopefully it’ll open people’s minds and just kind of getting behind the hysteria in the world right now and hear the voices behind the shouting.”
Detroit-based Brendan Gutenschwager, whose platform is BG on the Scene, was covering protests in Portland, Oregon, but hopped on a plane to Chicago when he heard the Blake news. Gutenschwager has been documenting protests and events since 2015 because, like all of the independent journalists interviewed for this article, he doesn’t trust mainstream media to interpret these critical events, too often repeating authorities’ accounts of what happened.
“The way [the protests] were portrayed in the media afterward was inaccurate or had gaping holes in the story,” Gutenschwager says by phone from Louisville, where charging decisions had been announced in the Breonna Taylor case. Two weeks later, Gutenschwager was in Wauwatosa covering the protests related to the police shooting of Alvin Cole.
BY AUG. 25, Kenosha had been burning for three days. Buildings and car lots had been torched, and police faced off with protesters, filling the streets with tear gas. A Facebook event created by a group called Kenosha Guard, a sort of ad hoc militia, had called for armed citizens to defend Kenosha businesses and property. One of the people who arrived was 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Antioch, Illinois.
Footage shot by citizen journalists pieced together the terrifying events that followed.
Harris was walking around, trying to find militia members to interview, when he stumbled across some by the Kenosha courthouse. He talked to a couple of them, including Kyle Rittenhouse, at 10:04 p.m. “I’m Kyle, by the way,” Rittenhouse told the camera – a bit of information that Internet detectives would use later that night to identify him before the police or media did.
“I got a very bizarre vibe from him, cause he seemed like he was excited to be there,” Harris says. “How I would describe it is he was eager to play Call of Duty. I had bad vibes, and I even say that in the video.”
“I’ve just felt something inside of me that’s inspired to go out there and do it.”
— BRENDAN GUTENSCHWAGER
Harris was moving back and forth between groups of protesters, militia and police and would capture Rittenhouse on camera again in a clip that would be heavily circulated and provoke outrage. At 11:33 p.m., Harris took video of a police officer handing out bottles of water to militia and saying, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” Harris’ Rundown Live footage would be viewed hundreds of thousands of times live and millions afterward, including by CNN, Fox News and NBC audiences.
CJTV and BG on the Scene were also livestreaming. “It was dark on the streets because the riots had knocked over a lot of the lamp posts,” Gutenschwager recalls. “People were carrying weapons – you saw crowbars, baseball bats, wooden beams, things like that. It was a tense scene.”
At 11:48 p.m., protesters captured video on their phones of a confrontation at a car lot in which Rittenhouse appears to shoot protester Joseph Rosenbaum in the head. Rittenhouse runs away but comes back and tries to make a phone call. “I shot somebody,” he says as he runs away from a gathering crowd.
“I heard the gunshots, so I started to run toward them to see what was going on. I saw a man on the ground,” Gutenschwager says. “A couple people were saying ‘Hey, he just shot someone, he killed somebody,’ so I started videotaping. I saw [Rittenhouse] had people following him, trying to apprehend him or get his gun.”
Halliburton and Harris had both heard the gunfire, too, and ran toward the scene.
“I started running down the street toward where the gunshots were coming from, which is where Kyle Rittenhouse came into my scope. There was a group chasing him,” Halliburton says. “And what’s crazy is he looked at me, and his eyes were super wide, he was full-on terrified and he said, ‘I didn’t shoot anybody, I didn’t shoot anybody.’ He had an assault rifle in his arm. There was a guy with a baseball bat behind him, a group running up on him. All I thought was, this kid looks scared to death and he’s carrying a big gun – if you attack him, he’s probably going to pull the trigger, and as tragedy would have it, that’s exactly what happened.”
Halliburton found himself just paces behind Rittenhouse as he tripped, fell, and was hit by a skateboard by Anthony Huber, who Rittenhouse shot in the chest at point blank range, killing him. He also shot Gaige Grosskreutz in the arm. Halliburton stopped, still livestreaming, to try to help Grosskreutz with his injuries.
“I shoved my camera in someone else’s hands, when I got there, there was someone just standing there taking pictures of Gaige, I kind of shoved him out of the way,” Halliburton says. Grosskreutz had been a protest street medic and told Halliburton he had a tourniquet in his backpack, which Halliburton found and applied to his arm. “It looked like his arm was going to fall off,” Halliburton says. “I’ve never seen that much blood.”
Harris was about 40 yards away. “My first instinct was to run toward it, but I had to slow down and walk and think, ‘Do I want to put myself in this position? Am I safe? And I need to go get that footage … and my mom loves me so, no, I don’t need to go get that footage. And I hope no one died,’” Harris says.
Gutenschwager got the second shootings on video. “My heart was pounding, but I also realized this was something very critical that was happening. I knew someone had to record this and document it.
“When [Rittenhouse] got up, he actually turned and looked at me and we locked eyes for a second. I didn’t know if he was going to shoot at me for having filmed all that. I was very concerned for my life at that moment, but instead he turned his attention away and kept walking forward.”
At 11:51 p.m., after Rittenhouse shot three people, Harris and Gutenschwager both captured another clip that would circulate heavily through the news cycle: Rittenhouse, his hands raised, approaching police as red and blue flashing lights flooded over him. “He shot them!” protesters yell, but the armored police vehicles rolled past him.
“They asked if there was someone injured, and he pointed in the direction of the people he had just shot,” Gutenschwager says. “He just keeps walking and goes home.”
Rittenhouse was arrested at his home in Antioch the next day.
AFTER THE SHOOTINGS, Harris, Halliburton and Gutenschwager were overwhelmed by their own experiences and the flood of media requests that came in. Most of these platforms are operated by one or two people, so they lack a staff to edit, interpret, fact-check or correspond like bigger media outlets do.
“I was being asked to do interviews left and right, and I didn’t do any. At that point I was 72 hours without sleep, I couldn’t differentiate between what I saw and what I had on video and what I heard,” Harris says about the hours and days that followed the shootings. “It was such an important issue being portrayed I didn’t want to be the person responsible for fake news, so I thought the best thing I could do is wait for all the information I could get.”
What’s the reward of running into a dangerous, potentially deadly situation? And what toll does it take?
“There is an adrenaline rush,” Harris says. “Is it addictive? I think it can be. Because I felt like I was alive, like I was contributing toward a cause. I felt like I was influencing the world around us and like I was doing the right thing.”
“People joke and say ‘CJ, you’re pretty much built for this,’ but I don’t know,” Halliburton says. “I was terrified.”
With the possibility of more unrest in the future from the charging and court decisions in the Blake and Rittenhouse shootings, the citizen journalists interviewed for this article said it was likely they would be returning to hit the streets of Kenosha in the future.
“I believe the world deserves to know the truth about what happens in those most tense, hostile moments,” Gutenschwager says. “There’s few people out there brave and willing enough to take that risk to make that coverage happen. I’ve just felt something inside of me that’s inspired to go out there and do it.”