But within two days, the media’s focus shifted to Kyle Rittenhouse. The 17-year-old had traveled from his home in neighboring Illinois with an AR-15 rifle and, during chaotic protests the night of August 25, opened fire on protesters — allegedly killing two and wounding a third. While some decried Rittenhouse, who is white, as a domestic terrorist, conservative commentators were quick to label him a “patriot” while condemning his victims as “antifa” agents of unbridled anarchy.
The truth, it turns out, was far from that simple or politically convenient. What had gone largely unreported was a fuller portrait of the lives and deaths of Jacob Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and the wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz, and of how the three came to be on the streets of Kenosha that night and in Rittenhouse’s line of fire.
That’s the nuanced story that Washington Post reporters Robert Klemko and Greg Jaffe pursued when they traveled to Kenosha in the aftermath of the violence. They challenge the quick conclusions in a riveting tick-tock: “A mentally ill man, a heavily armed teenager and the night Kenosha burned” paints a revealing portrait of three men who were far from the sinister left-wing foot soldiers described on Fox News.
“Joseph Rosenbaum — depressed, homeless and alone — didn’t belong to either side,” the pair wrote. The 36-year-old “had spent most of his adult life in prison for sexual conduct with children when he was 18 and struggled with bipolar disorder.” That day, “Rosenbaum was discharged from a Milwaukee hospital following his second suicide attempt in as many months and dumped on the streets of Kenosha.” He carried with him a plastic bag with a deodorant stick, underwear and hospital socks.
Anthony Huber, 26, had taken part in only one protest before. He decided to join this one, carrying his cherished skateboard, which had helped him cope with the effects of a a depressing and violent adolescence, and a cellphone to record what would he felt would be “one of the most consequential nights in his town’s history.”
Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, worked as a paramedic after high school but — weary of the violence, bloodshed and drug overdoses — was working towards a degree in outdoor recreation. With summer classes on hold in the pandemic, he took his medic skills to as many as 100 protests in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On this night, he again carried a medical kit, tourniquets and a pistol.
Inspiration from “The Things They Carried”
It’s no accident that those details echo the opening story in “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s legendary piece about the totemic objects soldiers kept close during the Vietnam War. Jaffe had recently re-read the story and had it in mind when he and Klemko sat down to write their Kenosha narrative.
“We thought one way of tying the three together in the opening section would be to describe what they were carrying the night they were shot,” Jaffe told Nieman Storyboard.
At the urging of their editor, Deputy National Editor Lori Montgomery, they held back to first set up the clash between the mostly peaceful protesters and armed “patriots,” and the way the victims were thrust into a churning partisan drama. They quickly referenced the media narrative’s faulty line that the three victims were antifa foot soldiers, then demolished it with status details about the belongings carried by the three men and an elegant nut graf that exposed the truth behind the senseless tragedy.
They reconstruct the moments of the shooting through official records that retraced the characters’ steps that night, and kaleidoscopic videos they tracked down on social media, including Grosskreutz’s live-stream of the events. The jerky hand-held clips show Rosenbaum’s final moments, and the horrific scene when Grooskreutz instructs a panicked journalisthow to tie a tourniquet around his right biceps, which were torn half-off by a bullet:
“That’s not how you use it,” Grosskreutz yelled.
“Help me,” replied the journalist, who started to cinch it.
“Make it tight!” Grosskreutz told him.
“This is going to hurt,” the journalist worried.
“Do it!” Grosskreutz ordered. “Do it!”
In this telling, Rittenhouse, who has been charged with six criminal counts, including first-degree intentional homicide, is a minor figure, but not for lack of trying. “I’d knocked on some doors connected to Rittenhouse days before Greg (Jaffe) arrived in Kenosha and so had another Post reporter,” Klemko told me. “He drops out of high school after ninth grade, and the mom isn’t doing interviews. There’s just not a lot of meat on that bone at the moment. But we do see his story as a priority down the road.”
Social media and street leather led the reporters to Grosskreutz. They also found Rosenbaum’s fiancee and Hannah Gittings, Huber’s girlfriend, neither of whom had been interviewed at length before, and got them to flesh out the details of two lives blighted by violence and mental illness. The final poignant section is set in the skatepark that was Huber’s refuge, focusing on Gittings’ grief and her resolve to roll his skateboard into Lake Michigan as a memorial.
Nieman Storyboard reached out to Klemko, a national security correspondent for the Post, and Jaffe, a national political reporter, to learn about their reporting and writing strategies, how social media both fuels protests and makes them easier to report, and the integral role their editor played. The interview and annotation that follows show a pair of seasoned professionals collaborating to make sense of a mountain of research, field reporting and disturbing videos to produce a multi-layered yet seamless narrative.
The Kenosha protests in August and the killings by Kyle Rittenhouse received wall-to-wall coverage, but yours is the first story I’ve seen to focus so intently on his victims. What was the genesis for your story?
Robert Klemko: I think there’s always a rush to understand the people involved in an incident like this in a cursory way that satisfies that initial interest in the story. But when the reader interest wanes, those harder-to-get details become more trouble than they’re worth for a lot of news organizations. We’re lucky enough to have the mandate to go deeper. We saw the way these people were being cast by either side of the political divide and figured the real story was messier. We were right.
Could you describe the records searches that yielded so much information about Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber?
Robert Klemko: We have an outstanding researcher in Julie Tate, who was able to get her hands on a summary of criminal records for each Rosenbaum and Huber, and documents that detail Rosenbaum’s early life in a pretrial sentencing report. A trip to the courthouse in Kenosha filled in the gaps. Luckily, the courthouse had recently re-opened following the civil unrest. If not for that, this story wouldn’t have been possible in this form, as the court officials were not eager to give us access to charging documents electronically.
Paragraph seven details your use of court records, videos and more than three dozen interviews to document the story. How long did you work on it and how much time did you spend in Kenosha?
Greg Jaffe: We were in Kenosha for about eight or nine days total over the course of two trips, and then spent another week or so writing the story, passing drafts back and forth. The first day there we spent a decent amount of time scouring Facebook and trying to figure out where Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum spent their time, who were their closest friends. We also spent a lot of time looking for videos from the night to find people who might have crossed paths with them. Once we had a pretty good list, the remaining time was spent driving around Kenosha, knocking on doors and trying to drop by the places where they spent time — Basik Skatepark, the American Vengeance Tattoo parlor, the Park Ridge Inn. We tried, if possible, to stop by people’s homes. If folks weren’t home, we left notes and business cards asking for them to call us. It doesn’t always work. But this time it paid dividends.
How were you able to track down your sources, especially Rosenbaum’s fiancee and Huber’s girlfriend, and get them to open up?
Greg Jaffe: The biggest challenge initially was trying to find folks and convince them to talk to us. The passage of time helped us a bit. The first few days people were overwhelmed by the loss and the large number of reporters. The other challenge was dealing with a story with a lot of people who didn’t know each other. The night of the shootings was the one thing that connected them.
Robert Klemko: We got lucky a few times. We were lucky enough to meet someone in the motel parking lot who introduced us to Rosenbaum’s fiancé. We were lucky to reach a close friend of Huber’s, who then picked up Huber’s girlfriend and brought her to an interview. Those two were essential to getting the whole story. I think our biggest obstacle was convincing these women and others that we weren’t there to write the surface-y story many others had already written. That’s a conversation most effectively had in person, which is always a challenge to arrange.
The story carries a double byline. How did you divvy up the reporting and writing?
Robert Klemko: We came up with an outline sitting in the living room of a great AirBnB in Milwaukee and worked from there. We went back and forth about how best to weave the narrative action into the backstories of the shooting victims, but we both ended up very happy with the result. It was a nice change of pace in the time of COVID-19 to be able to talk about narrative ideas in person. Being on the same page made the writing and re-writing that much easier.
The story follows two through-lines or narrative streams: a tick-tock of the protest and shootings and the unfolding of the lives of the three victims. It’s a complicated but gripping structure. I wondered how you settled on this approach?
Greg Jaffe: We knew it would be hard to jump back and forth between the three victims’ stories without confusing readers. It’s a lot to digest. So we knew we wanted an opening scene that included all three of them and set up the story. I had Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” which I had re-read recently, in my head. We thought one way of tying the three together in the opening section would be to describe what they were carrying the night they were shot. Initially, that was the lede, but our editor suggested moving it down to the end of the first section before we launched into the story. The next three sections are mini-profiles of each of the three guys: what brought them to the protests and their actions up to the moment they encounter Kyle Rittenhouse. The order is chronological and based on the order in which they are shot. Then the last section is just the aftermath: what’s left for the people they left behind or, in the case of Gaige Grosskreutz, how he makes sense of the aftermath.
How many revisions did the story go through?
Greg Jaffe: Usually when I have to do a big rewrite it is because the structure doesn’t work. But this time it wasn’t a lot of revision. Robert and I passed the first section back and forth a couple of times. The lower sections were easier and didn’t change a lot from the first draft.
What role did your editor play in all this?
Robert KLemko: Lori (Montgomery) convinced us to lead with Rosenbaum, which I think was a great choice.
Greg Jaffe: The story was Lori’s idea. She was really interested in who was causing all the violence late at night at these protests. This story seemed like a way of maybe trying to understand that question. She initially asked me to do it and I asked if I could team up with Robert on it because he had been covering the protests all summer. I felt he would have a better sense of what was different about Kenosha. We talked through the outline with Lori before we started writing, just to get her feedback and make sure we were on the right track. She was heading off on vacation and talked to us on a Sunday morning from her car. We then spent the next week writing, and had a draft to Lori on Monday morning when she got back from vacation. We had originally started the piece with the “Things They Carried” lead. But Lori suggested pulling up a couple of grafs from lower in the piece. She also sharpened the nut graf and a bunch of sentences throughout the piece. But this was one where the general structure held. For me that’s always the hardest part; the thing that breaks me.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions and comments are in red; The Post reporters’ responses are in blue. To read the story without the annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which can be found below the contributors’ list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at the top of your mobile screen.
A mentally ill man, a heavily armed teenager and the night Kenosha burned
Cast by conservatives as a battle between antifa agitators and a right-wing ‘patriot,’ this summer’s deadliest protest-related incident was not quite what it seemed
Joseph Rosenbaum — depressed, homeless and alone — didn’t belong to either side. He had spent most of his adult life in prison for sexual conduct with children when he was 18 and struggled with bipolar disorder. That day, Aug. 25, Rosenbaum was discharged from a Milwaukee hospital following his second suicide attempt in as many months and dumped on the streets of Kenosha. You chose to focus first on Joseph Rosenbaum and his troubled past as a way to highlight one of the central tragedies of that night. Why? What were the sources of information for this paragraph? Greg Jaffe: We felt like his mental state and motivations were news. It’s the confrontation between Rosenbaum and Rittenhouse that seems to kick off the violence that night. The sources of information from that paragraph were court documents from Arizona, police reports from Kenosha that detailed his suicide attempts and finally an interview with his fiancee who told us about where he had been the day he was killed.
His confrontation hours later with Kyle Rittenhouse, a heavily armed teenager who had answered the call for “patriots,” kicked off a chain of violence — the deadliest of the summer — that left Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, dead. A third victim, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, lost a chunk of his right biceps but survived. Next up is the shooter, the second fatal victim and a man seriously wounded in the gun attack. You pack a lot of information in this graf. Given all you learned about them, was it difficult holding back to produce a snapshot of the victims that you unpack in the rest of the story? Greg Jaffe: The tricky part of the story is that there are three separate stories we were trying to tell. So we knew we had to be disciplined and not overwhelm the reader. I feel like the mistake I always make is trying to tell too much of the story in the first section.
Within hours, the three men and the teenager who shot them were assigned roles in the country’s churning partisan drama. On the right, Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz were cast as antifa foot soldiers, bankrolled by shadowy forces and determined to set fires and spread anarchy. On the left, the three shooting victims, all of them White, were celebrated as anti-racist martyrs battling armed vigilantes who had coalesced to support police departments accused of racism and brutality. You then effectively summarize the roles the three shooting victims were assigned by the events of that night. Robert Klemko: I think we felt a sense of urgency to get into this aspect of the larger narrative around these guys because it answered the question of why we were even writing this. It felt critical to frame the story as the ‘real story’ of the Kenosha victims, and give the reader a sense we were correcting an existing narrative, not digging up graphic details about these peoples’ lives for our own entertainment.
The fight has spilled into this year’s presidential campaign, with President Trump blaming left-wing extremists for the violence in Kenosha and elsewhere. “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa,” he fumed during Tuesday’s debate. Former vice president Joe Biden called antifa “an idea, not an organization” and accused white supremacist groups of fomenting unrest. You step back briefly to describe how the violence in Kenosha and elsewhere became a flashpoint in the first presidential debate. Why? Greg Jaffe: I think we just wanted to show how the night resonated weeks later. Also it is such a newsy time, that anything that can peg a story to the day’s news helps.
The real story of the Kenosha shootings offers a different view of the sometimes-chaotic protests and counterprotests that have shaken American cities this summer. The confrontation between Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum, and the bloodshed that followed, was more accidental than political — the product of anger, alienation and a tragic, chance encounter between a mentally ill man and a heavily armed teenager. How hard was it to sum up the theme of the story in a nut graf of just 61 incisive words? Why did you focus on Rosenbaum? Robert Klemko: That was tough. I give Greg and Lori a lot of credit for condensing what we started with. It’s a sweeping story and there’s a lot to think about — from the way we assign unrealistic partisan roles to very real, very un-partisan people, to the pure randomness of what happened and how people spill through all these holes in the safety net and end up on the streets during a frantic, emotionally-charged situation like a police brutality protest. Why Rosenbaum? That was the best, new info we had. He gets out of the hospital that day and helps set this whole thing in motion. He has to be up top — or at least that’s what Lori told us!
This story is based on court documents, videos from the demonstrations and interviews with more than three dozen of the victims’ friends and relatives. Some of them, such as Rosenbaum’s fiancee and Huber’s girlfriend, spoke at length for the first time, providing the most comprehensive account to date of Rosenbaum’s and Huber’s often painful childhoods, past encounters with police and paths to the protests that night.
Each of the three shooting victims was drawn for different reasons to the demonstrations that erupted after the Aug. 23 wounding of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a White police officer. Their lives, forever linked by the bullets from Rittenhouse’s assault-style rifle, had proceeded along different routes, and each carried objects that shed light on their journeys and motivations.
Grosskreutz, who attended close to 100 protests this summer, carried a medical kit, tourniquets and a pistol.
Huber was attending his second protest. He carried his skateboard, a source of joy and affirmation during a depressing and, according to court documents, violent adolescence, as well as a cellphone to document one of the most consequential nights in his town’s history.
Rosenbaum had never attended a protest, and seemed caught up in this one almost by accident. He carried a clear plastic bag containing a deodorant stick, underwear and socks that the hospital had given him upon discharge following his suicide attempt. In the seconds before he was shot, Rosenbaum threw the plastic bag at Rittenhouse and chased him behind some parked cars. This powerfully detailed section brings to mind ‘The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien’s book based on his Vietnam War experiences. Is it possible you had it in mind when you wrote it? And what were your sources for the specific details of the objects carried by each man? Greg Jaffe: We very much had the O’Brien short story in our mind. I had read it recently while writing a story about a platoon in Afghanistan, and it seemed like it would work really well with the story to help make each of the three victims stand out in the reader’s mind. The sources were videos from that night and interviews with Rosenbaum’s fiancee, who told us about the bag, Huber’s girlfriend, who was with him that night, and a direct interview with Gaige Grosskreutz.
“Oh, he got a gun! ” a woman screamed of Rittenhouse. “He got a gun!” How do you know this? Were you able to identify the woman? If so, why didn’t you identify her? Greg Jaffe: She’s audible on one of the videos from that night that captures the seconds before the shooting. But we don’t know who she is. The one big advantage we had in telling this story is that there’s so much video. So many people were livestreaming.
‘I want to fix things’
Hours after he was released from the hospital, Rosenbaum stopped by a pharmacy in Kenosha to pick up medication for his bipolar disorder, only to discover that it had closed early because of the unrest.
He visited his fiancee, who was living in a cheap motel room, but she told him he couldn’t stay the night. She had pressed charges against him a month earlier after a fight in which he knocked her down and bloodied her mouth. If Rosenbaum violated his no-contact order, she warned, he could be sent back to jail.
“I want to fix things,” she recalled him telling her. “I want to get myself right.”
She was open to reconciling. “I just want you to be you,” replied the fiancee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has received threats to her life. Do I assume correctly that Rosenbaum’s fiancee was the source of this section? Were you able to obtain medical records to identify his diagnosis of bipolar disorder? Greg Jaffe: Our interview with the fiancee was the source along with court documents. His bipolar diagnosis is included in the court documents from his sexual conduct conviction; the suicide attempts and mental health problems are chronicled in the police reports from his suicide attempt. What was the nature of the death threats against her: phone calls, texts, etc.? How did her critics identify her? What were your ethical considerations in agreeing not to use her name? Greg Jaffe: People found her because Rosenbaum’s Facebook posts were public. Her name was also in the police reports as the victim from Rosenbaum’s domestic violence charge. It was such a supercharged environment and people were saying awful and threatening things about everyone involved in this case that I felt it was a reasonable request.
The weeks leading up to Rosenbaum’s death had been as chaotic as his life. Raised in Texas and Arizona, Rosenbaum met his father only twice and told his mother that he was molested by his alcoholic stepfather “on an almost daily basis,” according to court documents.
When he was 13 his mother was sent to prison for two years, and Rosenbaum was sent off to a group home, where he began using heroin and methamphetamine, according to court documents. By 18, he was in prison for sexual conduct with five preteen boys, the children of people who had taken him in after his mother told him to leave her house, according to a presentencing report. He spent most of the next 14 years behind bars. What court records did you rely on to describe Rosenbaum’s troubled background? Greg Jaffe: Our staff researchers, Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins, found the initial reports about the 2002 arrest in the first week or two after the shooting. I am not sure how they found them. We’re lucky in that the Post has been willing to spend money on a team of staff researchers who are great at navigating public records and databases.
Not long after he was released in 2016, he met a woman in Arizona and fathered a child, but the relationship didn’t last. When the woman fled to Kenosha, Rosenbaum chased her. How do you know this? Greg Jaffe: Some of this is chronicled on Rosenbaum’s Facebook page. In talking to Rosenbaum’s friends we were able to identify the woman and get some of the details of the story, some of which we were told off the record and were not able to include.
Sometimes, he posted pictures of his daughter on Facebook. “That is my lil princess,” he wrote in September 2019, a few months after arriving in Kenosha. “She is a daddy’s girl all the way i miss her so much.”
Three months later, he wrote that he was still struggling to see his child. “I got to fight to get custody,” he posted. “I’m trying to get her back.” Social media has become a crucial part of a journalist’s toolkit. How helpful was it in reporting and writing this story? Robert Klemko: Facebook and Instagram were essential. It gave us a picture of the relationships the deceased maintained and who would be good sources if we weren’t able to reach the principals. It’s always a surprise how much people are willing to share on public Facebook pages.
At the time, he and his new fiancee, who he met in a Wisconsin hospital, were braving the winter in a tent they had pitched in an overgrown lot behind an abandoned department store. This is so desperately sad, as is most of this tragic stors? What was the emotional impact on you as you reported and wrote? Greg Jaffe: It’s terribly sad. Rosenbaum’s fiancee is a nice person who has been through a lot of hardship. I was mostly stunned that they could survive in the cold that way. I walked through the abandoned lot looking for their campsite. I mostly remember thinking that she’s a tough lady. Rosenbaum had bought her engagement ring at Walmart and proposed on one knee in the middle of a busy sidewalk.
“That was Jo Jo; he was just goofy,” said his fiancee. “He’d make you laugh out of nowhere.”
They spent their days at nearby fast-food restaurants where the staff sometimes gave them free meals. At night Rosenbaum, his fiancee and her cat huddled under piles of blankets. “We lived off of each other’s body heat,” she said.
In the spring, the police confiscated their tent, so they slept for a while behind dumpsters in town. Eventually, the county’s social services department helped them get a room at a cut-rate motel, where a sign by the front desk offers $2 condoms and one in the room warns “no refunds after 10 mins.”
Rosenbaum did odd jobs for the owner, who complained in an interview about his shoddy work. Aside from one supervised visit, he never saw the child for whom he had moved to Kenosha. In June, he attempted suicide by overdosing on pills. A month later, his fiancee confronted him after finding pornography on his phone. Rosenbaum body-slammed her, according to police, who took him to jail and then released him. This is the first mention of the police as a source. Why did they cooperate with you? Greg Jaffe: This was based on public police records. The police didn’t talk to us, but we didn’t ask. There were two Kenosha police reports which were each three typed pages. So there was a lot of detail. I called Rosenbaum’s public defender several times to try to make sure I wasn’t missing something, but she didn’t return my calls.
One week later, Rosenbaum called a suicide crisis line. Police found him vomiting and having convulsions outside a McDonald’s. He spent a few days in the hospital followed by a few more days in jail for violating the no-contact order with his former girlfriend. Then he was sent for more treatment to the mental hospital in Milwaukee.
Two hours before he was killed, Rosenbaum left his fiancee’s motel room and caught a bus for downtown, where a second night of protests had erupted. Rather than quoting from a police report, you rely on narrative summary to recount his last days? Why? Greg Jaffe: It’s just such a wrenching period of time. I wanted to lay it out as simply, sparsely and clearly as I could. The details kind of speak for themselves.
“He wasn’t down there as a rioter or a looter,” his fiancee said. “Why was he there? I have no answer. I ask myself that question every day.”
In videos from that night, Rosenbaum often appeared agitated. When a member of the Kenosha Guard, a self-proclaimed militia, pointed his gun at him, Rosenbaum became enraged and dared the man, who was White, to kill him. “Shoot me, n—–!” he shouted. Several protesters rushed to calm Rosenbaum. How many videos were you able to obtain and how did you get your hands on them? I noticed that you linked to several open source videos, either on YouTube, Twitter or Reddit. Greg Jaffe: There was so much video from that night on social media because so many people were live streaming. Some of it we found just by googling. In one or two instances, people we interviewed pointed us to their livestreams. The video is really important, but it also doesn’t tell the whole story and can be misleading. It doesn’t show motivation or tell us anything about who these people were. Sometimes I think we see a video and we think we know the whole story and the whole person. That’s wrong. But it is hugely helpful in establishing basic facts.
“You’re going to get us all shot,” one of them recalled telling him.
At 11:45 p.m., Richie McGinniss, a reporter with the conservative Daily Caller, spotted Rosenbaum, his T-shirt wrapped around his head, chasing Rittenhouse down the street. It’s unclear what provoked the confrontation, though Rittenhouse’s attorneys speculated in a video released last week that Rosenbaum may have mistaken the teenager for a similarly attired member of the Kenosha Guard he confronted earlier at the gas station. Here, for the first time, you time-stamp an event in the story. How can you be sure of the time? Greg Jaffe: This is in a livestream video and I think the video was timestamped. This time was also listed in some of the initial news accounts in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other publications.
Rosenbaum pursued Rittenhouse down Sheridan Road and into the parking lot of a car dealership that would soon go up in flames. He threw his hospital bag at Rittenhouse, missing him, and charged at the teenager. Did you retrace their steps? Greg Jaffe: Yes. Robert and I walked the steps during the day and again in the evening when it was dark. I also re-walked the scene with Lauren Justice, who was the photographer on the project, looking for small details or memorials that might help tell the story of that day and the aftermath.
Someone nearby fired a shot. “F— you!” someone else screamed. Rosenbaum tried to grab Rittenhouse’s rifle, and the teenager — who was just feet from Rosenbaum — began shooting, striking Rosenbaum in the back and groin. Another bullet grazed Rosenbaum’s head. In the seconds after the gunfire, Rittenhouse is caught on video trying to call a friend for help.
Rosenbaum sprawled on the ground between two cars. McGinniss pulled his own T-shirt off and searched for the wound.
“Put pressure on it!” a young woman begged.
“Where?” McGinniss asked. “Where’s the hole?”
“It’s in his f—ing head!” the woman cried. Here you’re able to introduce dramatic quotes into the story. In the cacophony of voices from that night, how and why did you settle on these exchanges? Greg Jaffe: This came from the video from that night. We wanted something that showed just how terrifying it was that night. McGinniss, the Daily Caller videographer, deserves credit for being really fearless. You can see it in the video. The brief exchange just drove home the horror for me.
Rosenbaum, his eyes open and nose bloodied, lifted his skull slowly off the pavement as if trying to speak. Then he lowered his head and shut his eyes for the last time. What videos show Rosenbaum’s injuries and final moments? Greg Jaffe: There were several very graphic videos from that night that show Rosenbaum on the ground fighting for his life. I think we found this brief excerpt on a video posted to twitter. I spent a few hours just googling to watch as many videos as I could find. It’s not normally the sort of stuff I would watch, but it felt important to this story. Videos from the scene that night buttress the reporting and writing of your story. How different would the story have been if you didn’t have access to them? Robert Klemko: It would’ve been incomplete. Without social media videos, the only record would be surveillance videos from the neighborhood, which would have been very difficult for us to obtain, and word of mouth. Having covered these protests all summer, I know it’s very tough for some people to remember precise details and timestamps in frantic moments, so we had to have video to believe a lot of these details.
By then, Rittenhouse was jogging down Sheridan Road, chased by a crowd of demonstrators, including Huber with his skateboard. This is such a vivid, dramatic scene. How were you able to separate Huber from the crowd of running protesters? Robert Klemko: Hannah Gittings, Huber’s girlfriend, is a source of much of the Huber narrative. She’s a little bit of a bystander most of the night, hanging behind when Huber breaks into a sprint or interacts with someone. In speaking with her, she was very precise on a lot of details and seemed to have a good handle on the timeline from memory and her own personal reconstruction of the night in conversation with friends who were there. Much of that is owed to her belief that the police funneled the protesters towards the self-styled ‘militia’ men.
On the night he was killed, Huber sat on the porch of his childhood home with his girlfriend of five months, Hannah Gittings. They smoked cigarettes, charged their phones and talked about
Blake had been a friend of Huber’s. Two days earlier, Blake had ignored commands from police responding to a 911 call, fought off Taser shocks and attempted to climb into his car. As a bystander recorded the scene, Officer Rusten Sheskey fired seven rounds into Blake’s back and side, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Police said they recovered a knife that Blake was carrying from the floorboard of the car; Sheskey has not been charged with a crime. This is the first time you describe the events that led to the protests in Kenosha. Why choose this moment to do so? Robert Klemko: It felt like the time, because Huber knew Blake, and there wasn’t a great urgency to do it before then given our feeling that most everyone reading this associates Huber with Blake. The argument could be made it should’ve happened higher in the story.
Blake and Huber weren’t close enough to share cellphone numbers, but they had friends in common and had smoked marijuana together, friends said. When Huber learned Blake had been shot, “he was in a f—ing state,” Gittings said. Why doesn’t the Post spell expletives in full? Robert Klemko: This is a family newspaper, sir. Greg Jaffe: This is an argument we always have. If the president or prominent politician says it, there’s a tendency to spell it out. Otherwise it is an argument that happens above us and we aren’t a part of. We tend to spell them out in drafts and then let editors to argue about it.
They talked under the moonlight about how police shootings had been happening for decades in America, and how the difference today was the ability to record it and instantly broadcast it to the world. How crucial to the fight for racial justice has real-time video from protesters and other sources become? Robert Klemko: You have to have it. People don’t seem to be moved by police brutality unless there’s video and the same goes for violence at protests.
So that became the mission: Documenting the protests for posterity. They sketched out a plan on the porch of the crumbling, paint-chipped house that had been the source of so many problems in Huber’s life. The colon is an effective, economical device for summing up their mission. It’s the only time, I think, that you use one. Robert Klemko: This is one of my sentences. I like the colon because it’s easy. Greg, not so much. That’s why he gets the big bucks. Greg Jaffe: Robert has spent much of his career as a sportswriter. I feel like it is a sportswriter thing, but I liked it, too, for exactly the reasons you state.
Huber said his mother was a hoarder, according to Gittings and Huber’s friends. The layers of garbage and cat feces that accumulated in the house had been a source of constant stress for Huber, who also was battling a bipolar disorder that went undiagnosed until he was an adult.
In 2012, Huber brandished a butcher knife and threatened to “gut” his brother “like a pig” if he didn’t clean the house. The family told police that Huber choked his brother with his hands for 10 seconds before letting him go and retreating to the skate park. Convicted of strangulation and false imprisonment, he was placed on probation but violated the terms and was sent to prison in 2017. When he came home, he got into another argument over the state of the house. This time, he kicked his sister, and went back to prison on a charge of disorderly conduct in 2018. This graf neatly sums up Hubers criminal past. What were your sources? Robert Klemko: Kenosha county charging documents derived from police reports. Plus I had a conversation with one of the responding officers whom I had coincidentally met during unrelated reporting.
Huber’s mother declined to comment for this story, but Huber’s family issued a statement describing him as a hero. Why did you sum up the family’s statement instead of quoting from it? Robert Klemko: From what we’d learned about Huber’s relationship with his family from his closest friends, the statement didn’t feel especially tethered to reality. Hannah’s version of Huber’s relationship with his family agreed with our reporting while the family’s statement didn’t.
Upon release from his second prison stint, Huber met Gittings at The Port, a Kenosha bar. He told her he was seven years sober from heroin, the same drug Gittings had recently decided to quit. As an alternative to shooting up, he offered a hit from his vape pen loaded with DMT, a psychedelic.
“He had just gotten out of prison and was having a hard time finding a job that doesn’t make you want to f—ing kill yourself every day,” Gittings said. She was coming off the breakup of her marriage. Both were on the verge of homelessness, sleeping on friends’ couches
Huber helped Gittings stay off heroin. “I totally credit my sobriety to him,” she said.
They spent much of their free time at Basik Skate Park in Kenosha, where Huber had been a mainstay since he was a child, skating through bloody forearms, elbows and palms. “It was his life” Gittings said. “It was his escape. That’s all he ever did to get out of that disgusting house.”
Then, in May, came a stroke of luck, Gittings said: Huber’s mother was evicted, and Huber’s uncle, who owned the house, offered to let Huber stay there until it could be sold. Gittings couldn’t guess how many bags of trash were hauled out — Huber did much of the work by himself — but friends described the house as “unrecognizable” by the time Huber and Gittings were done scrubbing the muck-stained floors. How did you track down his friends and convince them to talk? Greg Jaffe: We found some of them through Hannah. Others through Facebook and still others at the Skate Park and the tattoo shop where Huber spent time. Hannah helped with some introductions. Robert Klemko: We went to the skatepark when they were holding a memorial skate event for Huber and just introduced ourselves to a bunch of people. Ultimately, a friend we identified on Facebook who works at a tattoo shop brought us to Gittings.
“We made that place livable,” Gittings said. Cleaning it out after so many years of anger, frustration and decay was “such a redemption for him.”
After Blake was shot, Huber attended the first night of demonstrations. The next morning, they headed to the beach with Gittings’ 3-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, skipped rocks and gazed out at Lake Michigan. The last poignant phrase demonstrates the power of threes. Was that a deliberate choice? Robert Klekmko: Yes. A late-night breakthrough. Greg Jaffe: I didn’t write it, but I liked having a quiet moment in a story so full of action and expletives.
Huber’s friends said he didn’t talk much about politics or activism, but they weren’t surprised he took to the streets. “I wouldn’t say he was political,” said one close friend, “but I think he definitely hated racists.”
Huber was part of the crowd at the gas station trying to calm Rosenbaum down after a self-styled militia member pointed his gun at the protesters. And he was standing just down the street from the car dealership when Rittenhouse fired the shots that killed Rosenbaum.
“Stop him,” a voice screamed as Rittenhouse jogged down Sheridan Road, according to Grosskreutz’s video footage.
“Get his a–!” someone else yelled.
Huber told Gittings to take cover in a nearby alley. “I tried to grab him,” Gittings said. “I tried to stop him.”
But Huber, skateboard in hand, adrenaline pumping, was already gone. Here you mix real-time dialogue capture on video (whose?) with Gittings’ recollection. Why? Greg Jaffe: The video is actually shot by Gaige Gruesskreutz in the few minutes before he’s shot. This was a scene we used to transition from Huber’s story to Grosskreutz’s story. So mixing Hannah’s memories with Grosskreutz’s video made for a natural transition. Again, we were blessed with lots of real-time video. The last sentence, ending with “was already gone,” strikes me as foreshadowing Huber’s fate. Did you have that in mind when you wrote it? Robert Klemko: Yes. It’s the last time she gets to be with him alive.
‘Like a war zone’
Rittenhouse was now jogging down Sheridan Road with Huber and a handful of others in pursuit. He passed Grosskreutz, who was standing on the sidewalk, live-streaming the increasingly chaotic scene.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Grosskreutz asked without emotion as Rittenhouse, his rifle hanging off his shoulder strap, approached. “You shot somebody?”
“I am going to get the police,” Rittenhouse replied.
It took a few seconds for Grosskreutz to realize what was happening. “Who’s shot?” he asked. Seconds later, Grosskreutz gave chase, his pistol drawn.
In a recent interview, Grosskreutz said he had been attending protests since late May, when George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody. He had grown up in a working-class neighborhood just outside the Milwaukee city limits. His mother was a dental assistant and his father did not work, he said. After high school, he had spent a few years as a paramedic, but the steady diet of gunshot wounds, drug overdoses and poverty wore on him. So he decided to attend Northland College, a small liberal arts school where he majored in outdoor education.
When his summer internship in Milwaukee was curtailed because of the pandemic, Grosskreutz decided to focus on the protests. He joined a new group, the People’s Revolution, which was calling for an end to police brutality, and he used his training to provide basic medical aid to the marchers and others. He and some friends outfitted a black pickup truck with a red cross and packed it with gauze, water, tourniquets, bandages and quick-clotting agents. What a decent thing to do. Did you ever see his first aid pickup? Why did you choose this point to step back to describe Grosskreutz’s life path? Greg Jaffe: I didn’t see Grosskreutz’s pickup but one of his friends described it to us. And then I asked him about it when we did a sitdown interview. I think we wanted to use the action to link the three people who were the focus of the story. I also liked shifting it there because it creates a bit of suspense. It’s just before the most harrowing moment for Grosskreutz; the reader wonders what’s going to happen. It’s also a good place to pause and explain how he got there that night.
Grosskreutz, a gun owner with a concealed-carry permit, brought a pistol to most of the rallies. As the summer progressed, the protesters were frequently joined by self-described pro-police militias whose members carried rifles.
Some of Grosskreutz’s fellow protesters bought their own firearms for protection. Grosskreutz said he never felt threatened. But the night he was shot felt different from earlier marches.
“For lack of a better term, it felt like a war zone,” he said.
That evening, crowds had gathered around the Kenosha County Courthouse chanting anti-police-brutality slogans and berating officers. Police used stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and armored vehicles to disperse the crowds, and Grosskreutz provided medical aid to an 18-year-old woman who had been hit in the arm by a rubber bullet.
After dark, police began pushing the protesters away from the courthouse toward the armed pro-police groups, who had taken up positions to defend businesses on Sheridan Road. Some trained their guns on the protesters as they passed. A few of the protesters began lighting dumpsters on fire. It seems as if, once again, the police exacerbated a tense situation that led to violence. How did the police justify their actions? Robert Klemko: They haven’t directly addressed the allegation that this was part of a larger plan. Greg Jaffe: It was also never clear to us whether this was intentional, or whether the police were just pushing the protestors away from the courthouse and unknowingly driving them toward the militia. I think this will be a subject of much litigation.
“Gunshots,” said Grosskreutz on his live-stream video, moments after Rittenhouse fired on Rosenbaum. Rittenhouse passed, then Huber. Grosskreutz fell in just behind him.
After a few yards, Rittenhouse stumbled and fell to the ground. An unidentified man ran toward him and delivered a flying kick. Rittenhouse fired at him but missed.
Then came Huber, who swung a skateboard at Rittenhouse’s shoulder and reached for his rifle. Rittenhouse fired again, hitting Huber in the chest.
Last came Grosskreutz, who ran toward Rittenhouse with his pistol drawn. Rittenhouse raised his rifle and shot. A bullet tore through Grosskreutz’s right biceps.
“Medic!” Grosskreutz screamed as he stumbled away. “I need a f—ing medic!” The videos linked to this story are disturbing. How painful was it to watch them over and over to document the story? Robert Klemko: They’re hard to watch, for sure. You really have to disassociate your feelings from something like this as best you can and just try to get the details right.
He was kneeling on the side of the road when live-streaming independent journalist C.J. Halliburton approached.
“I have a tourniquet in the bag,” Grosskreutz told him. The journalist dropped his camera and slipped the tourniquet over Grosskreutz’s arm, fumbling with the strap.
“That’s not how you use it,” Grosskreutz yelled.
“Help me,” replied the journalist, who started to cinch it.
“Make it tight!” Grosskreutz told him.
“This is going to hurt,” the journalist worried.
“Do it!” Grosskreutz ordered. “Do it!” The dialogue between Grosskreutz and the journalist is vivid and extraordinarily dramatic. Why did you cut away from the scene here? Greg Jaffe: I felt like it captured something about Grosskreutz’s personality. He was more paramedic than victim in that moment, which is why I liked it. The video continues on for another 30 seconds or go. He and CJ Halliburton talk about securing his loaded gun, which is sitting on the road, and then Grosskreutz is loaded into a police armored vehicle and taken for treatment. But the goal was to capture Grosskreutz’s personality. And I felt like that snippet told me the most about Grosskreutz. He’s a medical professional and tough.
‘Just another cog’
In the days that followed the shooting, conservatives proclaimed Rittenhouse a victim of leftist mob rule. “Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” asked Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Why did you quote Carlson and not cite any comments from liberal commentators? Greg Jaffe: At this point we were trying to tell the story of the three victims and how they were being characterized. The left tended to focus on Rittenhouse, describing him as an out-of-control vigilante. The right was more focused on Grosskreutz, Huber and Rosenbaum. They were called all sorts of stuff that wasn’t entirely true. I felt like the Carlson quote captured the essence of the right’s POV.
The next day, Rittenhouse was charged with reckless homicide and illegal possession of a dangerous weapon; he is being held near his Illinois home while fighting extradition to Wisconsin. Trump opined on the charges at a White House briefing. Compared to Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz, Rittenhouse amounts to a minor character in the story? What was your reasoning? Robert Klemko: It had a lot to do with the difficulty of the target. I’d knocked some doors connected to Rittenhouse days before Greg arrived in Kenosha and so had another Post reporter. He drops out of high school after ninth grade, and the mom isn’t doing interviews. There’s just not a lot of meat on that bone at the moment. But we do see his story as a priority down the road.
“He was trying to get away from them,” the president said of Rittenhouse. “He was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed.”
Others hailed the three victims as heroes. In Germany, a Berlin skateboard park was named for Huber. “Never again fascism,” his fellow skaters wrote in German and English on the sign paying tribute to his bravery. GoFundMe pages for Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz raised a combined $251,000. The variety of documentation you employ is impressive. How did you decide what to use and what to leave out? Robert Klemko: There was a lot that hit the cutting room floor. Greg is really good at providing enough sourcing to establish credibility but not so much it slows the story down.
“I did not know JoJo [Rosenbaum], but I will remember his name along with the list of those who have wrongfully lost their lives in support of equality and justice,” wrote one woman, who gave $200.
One man donated the minimum — $5 — so he could blast Rosenbaum as a “child molester and a piece of sewage.”
Rosenbaum’s fiancee struggled to make sense of it all. She hadn’t known about Rosenbaum’s criminal history. “I’m slowly learning who Joe was,” she said.
She started to read a five-page presentencing report from his 2002 conviction for child sexual conduct, You leave yourselves out of the story, but was it one of you who gave her the report to read? Greg Jaffe: She had seen it before we got there. Almost immediately people began digging into these guy’s backgrounds and it was posted online. In our first interview, Rosenbaum’s fiancee told me she didn’t know anything about the conviction for sexual abuse of a minor. So I asked her if she had read the report.
which described in graphic detail the abuse that Rosenbaum suffered as a child and the harm he inflicted on others. But she stopped after a few sentences: She wanted to remember him as a goofy, kindhearted, boisterous man.
“I have to remember him that way or I get too down,” she said. “If he could make you laugh, he’d do it. Everyone has demons they fight. He was trying to get his life back together. All he really wanted was a job, a home and a family.”
In Milwaukee, doctors stitched up Grosskreutz’s arm. A bullet from Rittenhouse’s rifle had torn through a tattoo of a caduceus, the medical staff and snake, on his biceps. I admire the way you describe the impact of the bullet wound to Grosskreutz’s arm without a comment from him. Why? Greg Jaffe: I am not sure. The scar really jumps out at you. Below the caduceus he has the words “Do know harm.” It now reads “Do know ha.” I thought about including that detail. But then I would’ve had to explain why it was “know” instead of “no” and I didn’t want to slow down the narrative. Also I wanted to get to the part that most interested me: What was it like to be a part of this crazy national morality play.
Grosskreutz complained to friends that he sometimes felt like “just another cog in this big political agenda.” He hated that the shooting and its aftermath were being used to widen divisions in the country.
“People are ascribing motives to people that don’t even exist . . . communist, antifa, whatever,” he said in an interview. “I’m just a person. I’m a human being. I was never there to hurt anybody.”
Shortly after the shooting, Grosskreutz called Huber’s girlfriend to offer his support. “We’re bonded for life,” he told her.
She had watched the video of Huber’s final moments before he was shot. The hardest part was seeing how close Huber got to wresting the gun from Rittenhouse in the split second before he was killed. “He almost got it away from him,” Gittings said.
She hopes to use $150,000 from Huber’s GoFundMe to provide for her daughter and to build an indoor skateboarding park to help foster a sport that Huber complained was waning in popularity. Huber’s family had a private funeral for him, but Gittings said they didn’t invite her. Once the police investigation concludes, she plans to hold her own ceremony with the skateboard Huber struck Rittenhouse with. She’ll gather his friends at the end of a pier and roll the board into Lake Michigan. Do you know if she’s been able to fulfill that wish to roll his board into the lake? Have you kept in touch with Gittings or any other sources in your story? Greg Jaffe: It’s a good question. Gittings asked the police detective if he needed the skateboard for evidence and he said he did need it. But he never came to pick it up from her. Right now, Rittenhouse is still awaiting extradition to Wisconsin. I’ve talked to Gittings and Rosenbaum’s fiancee. Both are really nice people and I wanted to make sure we didn’t do anything to make them feel worse. We haven’t spoken again to Grosskreutz. His lawyer is protective of him — understandably. So I contacted her to share the story and I know she shared it with Grosskreutz.
On a warm afternoon in late September, about a month after the shooting, she and a group of Huber’s friends headed off to the skate park that had been his refuge. Gittings had scabs on her knees and bruises up and down her calves from recent falls.
She skated until she was out of breath, took a swig of water and plopped down on the concrete next to her friends. They talked about skating, police-shooting victim Breonna Taylor, the upcoming Trump-Biden debate and a drug-addicted friend who needed to go to rehab. Did you return to Wisconsin to capture this or were you already on scene? How did you learn it was going to happen? Robert Klemko: Greg was in Wisconsin to accompany the photographer. I was in Louisville at this point after the Breonna Taylor charging decision. Greg Jaffe: I went back to interview Grosskreutz (who was out of town during our first trip) and help Lauren Justice (the photographer on this project) track down Hannah Gittings and Rosenbuam’s fiancee. I knew it was a sensitive story so I wanted to help make the introduction and ask some follow up questions. Gittings mentioned they were heading to the skatepark on the afternoon we all met, so Lauren and I asked if we could tag along. I just sat and listened as Lauren took photos. This was just a nice moment.
Ever since Huber’s death, Gittings’ social media feed had been overwhelmed with people writing to either praise Huber as a hero or castigate him as a criminal. One man she didn’t know had sent a message containing taunts about her dead boyfriend, along with a picture of himself exposing his genitals.
“I’m so sorry about your small penis,” Gittings had responded.
She took a drag on a cigarette and began scrolling through her Twitter feed.
“So @hannahgitts thinks she is going to cash in on her ‘boyfriends’ death,” someone had written minutes earlier. “Nothing more than a money-grubbing opportunist. Maybe he shouldn’t have been a communist attacking people and he would be alive.”
Her friends tried to reassure her, telling her the commenter was out of line.
“I don’t give a s—,” she told them. “Anthony would’ve thought it was so funny how many people are calling him a communist.”The ending is ironic, if somewhat abrupt. Did you consider other endings? Robert Klemko: I think it spoke to our larger point about all this partisan bickering over these people’s lives being so ridiculous and so far from the truth. Greg Jaffe: We initially talked about ending it with the scene of Gittings rolling the skateboard into Lake Michigan and letting it sink to the bottom. But she was going to wait until the investigation was done to do it and we couldn’t wait. Robert and I talked about ending it with her intention to roll the skateboard into the lake. But we both liked this scene because, as Robert says, it speaks to the larger point of the gap between the partisan narrative and the reality of people’s lives.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Chip Scanlan worked as a reporter for two decades, then taught writing at The Poynter Institute from 1994-2009. He now works as a writing coach and freelance writer. His credits include The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post Magazine and The American Scholar; two essays were listed as notables in Best American Essays.