Written by Robert Mackey. Video by Robert Mackey and Travis Mannon.
The sound of glass breaking, on Inauguration Day in Portland, Oregon, was music to the ears of Julio Rosas, a young video journalist.
That’s because Rosas, who works for the right-wing website Townhall, specializes in shooting viral video of mayhem at left-wing protests. On this day, black-clad, anti-capitalist protesters were attacking a Democratic Party office, and Rosas managed to record them from close range without being spotted.
Within minutes of the vandalism, by a handful of activists who broke off from a small #J20 march, Rosas posted his video on Twitter, where it racked up over 1 million views.
On the ground in Portland, Ore. for @townhallcom. A group of Antifa marchers just attacked the city’s Democratic Party office. They broke windows and spray painted the building.— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) January 20, 2021
Some of them had a hard time breaking the windows. pic.twitter.com/v0PSM7rEvd
With his tweet, Rosas had also beaten his friend and rival, Jorge Ventura of the conservative Daily Caller, by six minutes.
The Democratic Party Of Oregon building was vandalized moments go by an Antifa group in Portland Oregon. The group gathered at Revolution Hall and blocked roads off as they made their way towards the building pic.twitter.com/joDxZ30yA0— Jorge Ventura Media (@VenturaReport) January 21, 2021
Ventura, who went undercover to infiltrate the protest movement in Portland last summer, got less dramatic footage of this incident, but his 15-second clip, which showed that there were more people photographing the destruction in Portland than taking part in it, was still seen by more than 100,000 people.
When Rosas joined Laura Ingraham on Fox News that night, giving national attention to what would have been, before the era of viral video, just a local news story, Ventura held the camera for the live shot.
We know that because a third member of the conservative protest paparazzi that descended on Portland that day, Newsmax contributor James Klüg, gave viewers of his video blog a behind-the-scenes look at how the viral video-to-Fox News pipeline works.
On the air, Ingraham attributed the destruction to “antifa thugs,” using the right-wing shorthand that lumps everyone with left-of-center politics into one undifferentiated mass. Rosas, who was standing in front of a Circle-A — a symbol for anarchism, not anti-fascism — that had been spray-painted beside the ruined front door of the Democratic Party office, made no effort to correct her.
“The antifa groups here, they do not like Biden just as much they don’t like Trump,” he said. “They just hate America in general.” (In fact, Rose City Antifa, the Portland group that helped revive the Nazi-era concept of anti-fascism in the United States, released a statement making clear that this attack on the Democratic office was not the work of anti-fascists but rather of anarchists and anti-capitalists. “While many of the people involved may consider themselves antifascists in ideology,” the activists said, “we narrowly define antifascism as actions taken to oppose the insurgent right-wing.”)
As a reporter focused on protest movements, I’ve been studying video of chaotic events at demonstrations for more than a decade, since I live-blogged Iran’s disputed election and then covered the Arab Spring and Occupy protests, from the United States to Brazil. And one thing I’ve learned is that, whether a clip was posted online by a witness in Cairo or Kenosha, it always helps to know who shot the video, and why.
Over the past year, as I researched viral clips of contested incidents at protests against racist policing and far-right movements, I found that I was coming across the names of the same handful of videographers again and again. At protests in Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Louisville, Philadelphia, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, I discovered that many of the most viral clips were shot by a handful of field reporters for right-wing sites or freelancers with conservative politics.
Rosas and Ventura are not household names, but it’s important to understand their reporting, because they are members of an informal club of right-wing video journalists who roam from city to city, feeding the conservative media’s hunger for images of destruction and violence on the margins of left-wing protests.
In the year since George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin was documented in horrifying detail on the cellphone of a 17-year-old witness, Darnella Frazier, right-wing news outlets and politicians have been desperate to draw attention away from those unbearable images by focusing instead on viral videos of unrest at racial justice protests. That’s been a boon for the careers of conservative video journalists like Rosas, Ventura, and a half-dozen of their friends, who jokingly call themselves the #RiotSquad in Instagram selfies and podcast banter.
The impact of their work is hard to overstate. Even as they remain relatively unknown, this tight-knit group has produced many of the most viral videos of Black Lives Matter protests over the past year. And those images have helped create the false impression, relentlessly driven home by Fox News and Republican politicians, that the nationwide wave of protests that erupted after George Floyd was killed was nothing but an excuse for mindless rioting.
That’s not to say that rioting never happens; it clearly does. And even if you believe that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” it is undeniable that looting and arson did scar some communities where anger over racist policing spiraled out of control.
But the broader picture is that Black Lives Matter protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful.
Conservatives like to mock anyone who says that, usually by pointing to isolated images of chaos, like those recorded by the Riot Squad, or by cherry-picking misleading data. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, recently cited data showing that more than 500 racial justice protests turned violent in the United States last year. But Johnson failed to let readers of his Wall Street Journal opinion piece know that the same researchers — from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project — counted nearly 10,000 more Black Lives Matter protests that were entirely peaceful. According to the researchers, there was no looting, arson, or violence of any kind at 94 percent of the protests associated with Black Lives Matter. And in many cases in which there was violence, it was inflicted on protesters, either by the police or right-wing vigilantes.
That’s the wide-angle view of reality missed by conservatives obsessively viewing close-up images of violence, like those shot by the Riot Squad and played on a loop on Fox News and other outlets even further to the right.
“Since the George Floyd protests, conservative media outlets including Fox News (particularly Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity), One America News, Glenn Beck’s BlazeTV, and right-wing YouTubers have been covering Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protests daily, specifically highlighting instances of violence, fighting, and property damage,” media scholar Joan Donovan observed in the MIT Technology Review last summer. “This coverage has come to dominate the right-wing narrative in a new way, flipping the script to suggest that Black protesters — demonstrating because they fear police violence — are themselves a threat to white people.”
“By using riot porn to incite fear in white people,” Donovan added, “the right-wing media ecosystem converts the real pain experienced by Black Americans into fodder for deranged, paranoid fantasies that white vigilantes must take up the functions of the police.”
To understand how this works — and how a group of just eight young journalists have had such an outsize impact on what millions of Americans know about the protests against police violence and systemic racism — it’s useful to take a closer look at some of the most-watched clips posted online in the past year.
The first and most obvious way that some of the Riot Squad journalists distort reality is through selective, misleading edits of the footage they shoot.
At a protest in Dallas five days after George Floyd was killed, a core member of the Riot Squad, Elijah Schaffer of Beck’s BlazeTV, posted a brief clip that showed the brutal beating of a white man by a group of mainly Black protesters.
BREAKING: man critically injured at Dallas riots— ELIJAH SCHAFFER (@ElijahSchaffer) May 31, 2020
It appears he attempted to defend a shop with a large sword
Looters ran at him, then he charged rioters
They then beat him with a skateboard and stoned him with medium sized rocks
I called an Ambulance and it’s on the way pic.twitter.com/kFxl3kjsBC
The graphic, disturbing footage was viewed more than 35 million times on Twitter.
What Schaffer knew, but concealed from viewers of his edited clip, was that the man he described as an innocent victim of the mob had, moments earlier, threatened protesters with a machete.
Video recorded by another witness showed that the protesters responded by hurling stones at the man, who then shrieked and charged at them, swinging the blade wildly and cutting one of them, before the others disarmed him and took bloody revenge.
Yoel Measho, a filmmaker who took part in the protest, posted that video of the man’s wild charge on Snapchat, along with a second clip of a protester displaying the machete as protest medics gave the man first aid. (Measho later shared both clips with The Intercept.)
After the other videos began to circulate, Schaffer made the rest of his footage available to broadcasters, which showed that he had recorded but edited out the man’s aggressive behavior.
A Dallas police spokesperson told me the day after the incident that the man had indeed confronted protesters with the machete before being assaulted. The owners of the nearby bar the man reportedly set out to defend confirmed in a phone interview that the business was not looted by the protesters or anyone else. (On a conservative podcast the following month, a man who said he was the victim of the beating confirmed that he did initiate the conflict by confronting the protesters with a carbon steel machete “shaped like an old Roman gladius,” which he had mentioned on Twitter before the incident.)
Among those misled by Schaffer’s edit was then-President Donald Trump, who boosted it on Twitter and then echoed false claims that the man had died, as federal agents were unleashed on peaceful protesters outside the White House.
“Innocent people have been savagely beaten,” Trump told reporters, “like the young man in Dallas, Texas, who was left dying in the street.” (On the night of the attack, Schaffer had passed on the false rumor that the man had died.)
In the months that followed, Schaffer’s misleading clip was used again and again to smear Black Lives Matter. Johnson showed the video at a meeting of the Senate Homeland Security Committee he chaired last summer, presenting it as evidence of what he called “the reality” that protests against racist policing “unleash anarchy.” The clip was also included in a video prepared by Kyle Rittenhouse’s legal team, and then screened by Trump’s lawyers at his impeachment trial, as part of a misleading montage of protest violence, much of it recorded by Riot Squad videographers, which they falsely accused Democratic officials of having encouraged.
At the first post-election rally of Trump dead-enders in Washington in November, another Riot Squad videographer, Schaffer’s friend and former roommate Kalen D’Almeida, used the same technique to mislead millions of viewers.
The viral clip D’Almeida posted on Twitter (where it was viewed over 3 million times before he deleted it) and Instagram (as the second clip in this slideshow) showed an older white Trump supporter being punched in the face from behind by a young, Black counterprotester.
The video, which lingered on the man’s bloody face, was quickly retweeted by Andy Ngo and shared by Trump, with the comment: “Human Radical Left garbage did this.”
That video was then edited into an attack ad against Democrats that Trump screened for his fans at a rally in Georgia on December 5, much to D’Almeida’s delight.
Technically I’m in the video as well pic.twitter.com/4CLNsHwWp7— Kalen From Scriberr (@FromKalen) December 6, 2020
But footage of the same clash recorded by Ventura showed that D’Almeida had edited his clip to hide the fact that the Trump supporter had started the fight, by first violently shoving one anti-Trump protester to the ground and then pushing and threatening to punch several others.
BREAKING - Multiple Trump supporters assaulted by pro-BLM supporters in Washington D.C. One of the supporters assaulted was brutally knocked out. The scene is chaotic right now #MillionMAGAMarch pic.twitter.com/2Gjl8WC8Z0— Jorge Ventura Media (@VenturaReport) November 14, 2020
When D’Almeida later posted more of his own footage of the incident, it became clear that he had also recorded the start of the confrontation but chose to edit that out to make the white man look like an innocent victim of the Black protester.
Washington DC: 16:07 this violent altercation occurred between multiple individuals at Connecticut and I st. pic.twitter.com/ygxhzaF2tG— Kalen From Scriberr (@FromKalen) November 14, 2020
Like the beating in Dallas that Elijah Schaffer witnessed, the punch that felled the Trump supporter in front of D’Almeida was obviously a vicious blow. But through selective, misleading editing, D’Almeida contributed in the same way to the sense of innocent victimhood and white resentment nurtured day and night by conservative media outlets and right-wing politicians like Trump.
Three months earlier, D’Almeida had posted a meme on Instagram mocking the mainstream media for supposedly distorting protest coverage. The meme, which uses two panels from a comic strip by the right-wing Colombian cartoonist Jhon Alexander Guerra, shows a TV news reporter telling a cameraperson not to film while a protester is throwing a rock at a police officer. When the police officer then chases the protester with his nightstick raised, the reporter tells the cameraperson to start shooting, because “now it’s news.”
It was no accident that Rosas and Ventura chose to spend Inauguration Day this year in Portland. The liberal city’s strong anti-fascist protest culture, in a metro area surrounded by ultraconservative exurbs, has for years provided right-wing video journalists with a steady stream of skirmishes to record and exaggerate.
In July, for instance, Ventura and the Riot Squad’s Drew Hernandez, a right-wing YouTuber, both recorded an angry confrontation between Portland police officers and a Black, female protester who objected to being shoved forcefully by three officers.
BLM PROTESTER TO PORTLAND COP: “I hope someone kills your whole f*cken family” pic.twitter.com/ocVU0mHyi1— Drew Hernandez (@DrewHLive) July 12, 2020
“God damn it! I’m disabled, I can’t walk any faster!” the woman could be heard saying in the viral clip Hernandez recorded.
“Go!” one officer replied.
“I hope someone kills your whole fucking family,” the enraged woman responded. “I hope they kill you too. I hope someone burns down your whole precinct with all y’all inside. Can’t wait to see it.”
Hernandez’s clip was immediately boosted on Twitter by Ngo and even screened for the White House press corps by press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, in a montage of Portland unrest intended to justify federal intervention in the city. (The montage also included video shot by Ventura and his boss, Richie McGinniss.)
Kayleigh McEnany White House Press Secretary just played two videos from my reporting on the ground in #Portland@RichieMcGinniss reporting was also featured in today's briefing! pic.twitter.com/6aQiQ8GNGR— Jorge Ventura Media (@VenturaReport) July 24, 2020
The White House, however, edited the Hernandez clip for McEnany’s presentation, removing the start of the confrontation to conceal from reporters that the protester’s comments were in reaction to having been roughly treated.
The following month, D’Almeida recorded a shocking act of violence on a Portland street, five blocks from the main protest site.
Typically dressed in black to blend in, D’Almeida describes himself on Instagram as an “Undercover Exposé Artist,” making no secret that his aim in filming protests against police brutality is to capture footage that can be used to discredit anti-fascists or Black Lives Matter activists.
While he began that effort in Seattle, D’Almeida finally hit the jackpot in August, when he recorded, on both his cellphone and body camera, graphic video of a white man being kicked in the face and knocked out by a Black man who provided security at Portland protests.
Portland: A man accused of trying to run over protesters crashed his vehicle. BLM & Antifa militants then pull him from the car and violently assault him. pic.twitter.com/DiUbV9Mcy5— Kalen From Scriberr (@FromKalen) August 17, 2020
Hernandez and Ventura were also on hand to capture gruesome video of the aftermath, as the injured man, who was accused by his attacker of trying to run people down with his truck, lay unconscious and bleeding.
The video of the victim shared by Hernandez, with a caption attributing the violence to “BLM militants,” went even more viral.
BREAKING: After causing a white man to crash his truck in downtown Portland, BLM militants then beat the man and knock him unconscious— Drew Hernandez (@DrewHLive) August 17, 2020
911 has been called pic.twitter.com/zLyM4NoVJv
The incident got so much attention on Fox News that the culprit, Marquise Love, who was later jailed for the assault, became a symbol of Black Lives Matter for many of the network’s viewers.
That this brutal attack had not taken place during a protest, but after one, and at another location, where a long series of confusing, overlapping arguments among people drinking and smoking outside a nearby 7-Eleven escalated to violence was not something D’Almeida tried to explain to viewers of his video.
Hernandez later tried to connect the attack to the protests by claiming that the victim, Adam Haner, had been assaulted for coming to the defense of a trans woman who was assaulted by “Black Lives Matter protesters.” In fact, a careful review of raw footage posted online later by Hernandez shows that the incident started after Love, the self-appointed security guard, left the site of a protest and encountered Haner drinking beer outside the 7-Eleven. The two men eventually took opposite sides in a nasty personal dispute there that had nothing to do with politics or the demonstrations.
What Hernandez left out of the narrative he shared with Fox News is that his footage shows that the dispute between Love and the trans woman at the 7-Eleven only escalated after that person took out a baton and threatened the security guard with it.
Last August, all eight Riot Squad videographers converged on Kenosha, Wisconsin, to cover protests that gave way to arson and destruction following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The unrest also prompted members of a libertarian militia to take to the streets.
Almost everything we know about how one member of that militia, Kyle Rittenhouse, ended up killing two men in Kenosha that week comes from the Riot Squad reporters, who were there to document violence by anti-police protesters but instead recorded video of a pro-police vigilante shooting demonstrators.
On the second night of protests in Kenosha, Ventura and Schaffer, who was disguised in a Black Lives Matter shirt, came across protesters arguing with a libertarian militia guarding a gas station.
Both recorded a tense political debate between a young, Black protester and a heavily armed militia leader wearing a tactical vest with an embroidered patch showing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and the slogan “Cowabunga It Is,” a reference to a Reddit meme.
"F*** you, you ain't with us" woman yells at armed man who is attempting to stop the mob from looting and vandalizing #Kenosha businesses pic.twitter.com/FkDlqz9w4N— Jorge Ventura Media (@VenturaReport) August 25, 2020
“That attempted murder of that citizen was wrong,” the white militia member said of the shooting of Blake. “And I’m all for protests, but you can’t be destroying your neighbor’s houses and businesses,” he added.
“This shit, the fucking value of property, has nothing to do with the value of life,” the protester shouted at him. “If you value this shit more than you value people, you’re not with us! Fuck you! You’re not with us!”
In his Periscope livestream from the same location, Schaffer gushed over the vigilantes.
Kenosha Riots Night 2 https://t.co/dtg2rkIMwE— ELIJAH SCHAFFER (@ElijahSchaffer) August 25, 2020
“What do you think about vigilantism where the police are not able to protect businesses, so citizens are coming in, and they’re protecting businesses themselves?” Schaffer asked a bystander.
“I feel a hundred percent,” the man replied.
“I’m with it too. I’m jiving with it,” Schaffer agreed. “I like that shit. That shit’s tight. Hell, yeah. These people are like God, right here. They’re protectors.”
Two blocks away, Ventura and Schaffer joined Rosas in front of a burning office furniture store, which provided the perfect backdrop for all three to record dispatches from the scene.
In his stand-up report, Rosas credited the “armed citizens” for stopping the ransacking of a car dealership and threw in a dig at the MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi, who had been accused by conservatives of downplaying arson while reporting from Minneapolis on the first George Floyd protests.
“What’s up everybody, so right now we’re still here in Kenosha,” Rosas said. “Riots are still going on right now where the curfew is still technically in effect, but as you can see, a lot of the people are still out and about. Obviously a burning building behind me, or, as Ali Velshi would say, not an unruly protest.”
When it was Schaffer’s turn to use the same burning building as a backdrop, he let viewers in on the secret that he was just pretending to sympathize with the protesters in order to expose them.
“My name’s Elijah Schaffer, reporting for BlazeTV, undercover, here in Kenosha,” he signed off. “Thank you again so much for watching. Have a great rest of the night and may God bless the United States of America.”
Within days, that stand-up was featured in a BlazeTV commercial for Schaffer’s show. “America’s streets have become a war zone,” a narrator intoned in the ad, “and Elijah Schaffer is right in the middle of it.” The ad copy promised that Schaffer would bring subscribers “what the mainstream media won’t show you”: endless images of fire and property damage, along with the young conservative’s “thought-provoking perspective.”
As he reported on racial justice protests last summer, Schaffer’s commentary on the movement against police brutality became increasingly unhinged. “Ultimately,” Schaffer tweeted in September, “I believe BLM, if left unchecked, would eventually produce genocidal outcomes.”
The next night, Schaffer and the Daily Caller’s head of video, Richie McGinniss, both interviewed a 17-year-old who had joined the militia: Rittenhouse.
I interviewed the alleged shooter before the violence started.— Richie?McG? (@RichieMcGinniss) August 26, 2020
Full video coming soon: pic.twitter.com/G3dVOJozN7
As that night wore on, protesters eventually tired of being policed by vigilantes and let the militia know. As tensions between the two groups escalated, video shot by Rosas and the Daily Caller’s Shelby Talcott showed the three men Rittenhouse would shoot that night — Gaige Grosskreutz, Joseph Rosenbaum, and Anthony Huber — in the middle of the heated dispute.
Rioters are getting into confrontations with armed citizens who are out here to prevent looting and destruction to businesses. pic.twitter.com/f65YkP24kG— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) August 26, 2020
After Schaffer interviewed Rittenhouse, he went to a nearby car dealership that was being vandalized. Moments later, Rittenhouse ran into that car lot, pursued by Rosenbaum, a protester enraged by the teenage vigilante’s presence.
Video recorded by a protest livestreamer showed that McGinniss, who was following Rittenhouse when the chase began, was running just behind Rosenbaum with his iPhone pointed at the two men when Rittenhouse turned and fired four shots, striking the protester from point-blank range.
Because McGinniss was just a few feet behind Rosenbaum when Rittenhouse opened fire and appeared to be filming, the fact that he released no video of the shooting that night led some observers to wonder if he, or the Daily Caller, might have decided to suppress or delete footage that could be used to convict the young right-wing vigilante.
Hernandez captured the shooting from across the lot and then continued filming as he moved in closer.
BREAKING: RIOTER HAS BEEN SHOT IN THE HEAD pic.twitter.com/l1NYqUYpD3— Drew Hernandez (@DrewHLive) August 26, 2020
While McGinniss ripped off his Black Lives Matter T-shirt and tried to stop Rosenbaum’s bleeding with it, Rittenhouse ran past Hernandez, calling a friend instead of 911.
Close-up images of the scramble to save Rosenbaum, recorded by Hernandez and Schaffer, showed that McGinniss’s cellphone, which was in his left hand as he administered first aid with his right, was in record mode at the time.
The phone’s engaged red record button, the presence of a white shutter button on the screen’s lower right, and the red block around the time code at the top are three signs that an iPhone is recording, and all are visible on McGinniss’s phone in the video recorded by Schaffer and Hernandez.
That fueled speculation that McGinniss might have withheld incriminating visual evidence to shield Rittenhouse, who quickly became a hero to many of the Daily Caller’s far-right readers and was defended by the site’s founder, Tucker Carlson.
McGinniss, however, told The Intercept that while he thought he had recorded video of the shooting, he discovered later that he had accidentally hit the wrong button on his iPhone and it did not start recording until after the shots were fired.
As Rittenhouse ran from the lot, Talcott filmed protesters shouting that he had shot someone. Moments later, Rittenhouse tripped and fell in front of Rosas, who recorded the teen vigilante shooting at the men who tried to disarm him.
Rosas, who is in the Marine Reserves, quickly took cover, but another young video journalist, Brendan Gutenschwager, ran past him and got the clearest images of Rittenhouse shooting Huber, who died of his wounds, and Grosskreutz, who was badly injured but survived.
As Rittenhouse rose to his feet, with Huber sprawled on the street in front of him and Grosskreutz retreating, Gutenschwager could be seen just behind the gunman, filming from the sidewalk.
Within 10 minutes of the first shooting, Hernandez and Schaffer both posted their video of the fatally wounded Rosenbaum on Twitter, along with captions that maligned the victim. Hernandez described Rosenbaum as a “rioter,” while Schaffer made the false claim that the man had been shot “while looting a car shop.”
On his BlazeTV show later that week, Schaffer continued to attack the victims, falsely accusing them of committing crimes and praising the right-wing vigilante for killing them.
“I really don’t have sympathy for them. I just do not. They were rioters, they were vandalizing the place. And, do crimes, get rekt, that’s what I have to say,” Schaffer told his viewers. “I think them attacking Kyle Rittenhouse, with a skateboard, a pistol, and trying to jump him is what makes them deserve to be shot. I think Kyle’s been memed into history.”
“Kyle is a hero in my eyes,” Schaffer added. “Next time commies come up on a patriot like that, watch out.”
Gutenschwager is the only Riot Squad videographer who is not either employed by a conservative news site or openly right-wing. But before he started filming protests, Gutenschwager traveled the country as something of a Donald Trump groupie, attending at least 24 Trump rallies before the 2018 midterms and describing them as “exhilarating” on his video blog.
Gutenschwager’s footage of left-wing protesters behaving badly has earned him invitations from Ingraham to appear on Fox News, but he promises fans of his Twitter feed who provide financial support that they can rely on him to report “the unbiased truth from the ground.” He also sells his footage through the news agency Storyful, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., but licenses video from social media video to broadcasters across the political spectrum.
Even so, Gutenschwager’s video of mayhem at left-wing protests is frequently used by right-wing outlets and meme creators to smear demonstrators.
For instance, when Gutenschwager got viral video of a left-wing protester being set on fire by a Molotov cocktail in Portland last summer, it quickly turned into a right-wing meme mocking the protester’s pain and was retweeted by Trump’s social media caddy, Dan Scavino.
A man just got lit on fire. Chaotic night in Portland already #PortlandRiots #Portland pic.twitter.com/iWOP0is6MQ— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) September 6, 2020
Peaceful protestors in SE Portland this evening...pic.twitter.com/2MIGuQkhNz https://t.co/nU2BVycLqX— Dan Scavino??? (@DanScavino) September 6, 2020
When the Riot Squad rolled in to Louisville, Kentucky, in September to cover protests over the decision to not charge the police officer who shot Breonna Taylor with killing her, Gutenschwager was alongside Talcott and Rosas.
All three recorded a scene that quickly became the focus of huge attention on the right: protesters picking up banners and shields from a rented U-Haul truck.
Unloading the riot shields from the Uhaul #Louisville #BreonnaTaylor pic.twitter.com/F9KqzRB5lM— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) September 23, 2020
While the BLM crowd was marching in Louisville, a U Haul truck pulled up with shields and supplies for the group to use. pic.twitter.com/VestCPdyTk— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) September 23, 2020
The fact that left-wing protesters prepare to demonstrate should hardly be surprising, but the Riot Squad video of the U-Haul reignited baseless right-wing conspiracy theories that Black Lives Matter protesters must be secretly employed by George Soros.
As the three video clips racked up more than 11 million total views on Twitter and flooded conservative networks, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ingraham all demanded to know who had rented the truck — as if only a billionaire could afford a U-Haul.
Speaking to Glenn Beck after Rittenhouse killed two protesters in Kenosha, Schaffer scoffed at the notion that the Riot Squad’s reporting was biased and complained that Twitter, in its breaking news section, had featured reports from national newspapers whose writers did not witness the shootings instead of the conservative video journalists who did.
“The people who were there, I would say this: Even if you don’t like their commentary, video evidence does not lie,” Schaffer said. Referring by name to Ventura, Rosas, Talcott, McGinniss, D’Almeida, and Hernandez, Schaffer told Beck that this group of people was “just eager to show America what is actually happening.”
Schaffer, who was caught distorting video of the news event he witnessed in Dallas, was not the ideal spokesperson for the argument that the personal politics of a video journalist should be ignored. But it is true that several of the Riot Squad reporters are not as overtly partisan as Schaffer, D’Almeida, or Hernandez.
McGinniss, who appeared in a reality show about the 2016 election as an undecided voter, worked for the far-right pundit Mark Levin but says he campaigned for Obama in 2008. Talcott denounced the January 6 attack on the Capitol as a riot, and wrote on Instagram last June that she had witnessed “incredible scenes of moving, peaceful protests as well as violent anarchy” while “reporting on a historic #BlackLivesMatter milestone.” Then again, she also spoke at the far-right Conservative Political Action Conference this year, in conversation with Rosas.
And while Gutenschwager once complained of anti-Trump comments in an official New York University publication after he dropped out of the school, his video of the Proud Boys burning a Black Lives Matter banner they stole from the Asbury United Methodist Church was even featured in an impassioned denunciation of the attack on the Black church from Chris Hayes on MSNBC.
But Joan Donovan, the media researcher, argues that the way footage of violence and disorder at left-wing protests is used by right-wing news outlets, and consumed by conservative viewers, is more important than the personal views of the journalists who hold the cameras.
By focusing on sensational, graphic images of violence on the margins of protests and entirely ignoring peaceful demonstrators, even members of the Riot Squad who are not as far right as Schaffer have contributed to a political project: the right-wing media’s campaign to portray racial justice protests as anarchic and dangerous.
What’s more, as Donovan wrote last summer, viewing what she calls “riot porn” often “enrages and traumatizes” those who watch it. Being bombarded with viral videos of violence at left-wing protests might even have motivated some reactionaries to take to the streets, either in anti-anti-fascist fight clubs, like the Proud Boys, or armed militia groups, like the one Rittenhouse joined in Kenosha.
“Fed into a media ecosystem with an established bias toward highlighting violence and rioting, the videos have mobilized white militia and vigilante groups to take up arms against Black Lives Matter and ‘antifa’ protesters,” Donovan wrote. “This feedback circuit has created a self-fulfilling cycle where white vigilantes feel justified in menacing and physically attacking racial justice protesters — and inspire others to do the same.”
Rittenhouse’s legal team made a similar argument in a strange promotional video laying out his claim to have acted in self-defense. The video suggested that his thinking was influenced by episodes of violence at left-wing protests that he’d seen on video.
“Did Kyle Rittenhouse have reason to believe his life was in danger?” the video’s narrator asks at a key moment. That question is answered with a montage of viral videos of violence from earlier in the summer, including D’Almeida’s video of the man being kicked in the face in Portland, Hernandez’s video of a Black woman tackling a white woman just before that incident, and Schaffer’s video of the man being pummeled in Dallas.
The sequence ends with video of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer who was gunned down by an avowed anti-fascist, Michael Reinoehl, in Portland. But the suggestion that Danielson’s murder might have contributed to Rittenhouse’s fear of left-wing violence is clearly false, since that killing, the first by a self-described anti-fascist in 27 years, took place on August 29, four days after Rittenhouse shot the three protesters in Kenosha, killing two of them.
In other words, even when the Riot Squad videographers accurately record unrest they witness, their selective focus on unrest after police shootings helps conservative outlets demonize Black Lives Matter protesters.
For a textbook example of how this works, look at how the Riot Squad covered a racial justice protest in Philadelphia last October, a week before the election.
Protests erupted in West Philadelphia after a bystander filmed the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man whose family said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.
That night, after the police clashed with protesters in the neighborhood, there was some vandalism and looting, which Wallace’s family forcefully condemned.
The next night, Schaffer, Rosas, Ventura, Talcott, and McGinniss were all on hand to film protesters rallying peacefully at a park in West Philadelphia and then march to a police station. They filmed a tense face-off between protesters and a line of officers outside the station, but since there was no violence, only one of their clips got any traction on social media: video of a woman screaming a racial epithet at the police.
Later that night, there were minor skirmishes in West Philadelphia, but by then the Riot Squad had left the protest and driven across the city to cover a more telegenic scene: the mass looting of a shopping center 10 miles away.
BREAKING - Hundreds of looters break into stores on a strip mall on Aramingo Avenue in #Philadelphia pic.twitter.com/FnyEJwzReY— Jorge Ventura Media (@VenturaReport) October 28, 2020
As Talcott and Rosas filmed inside a ransacked Five Below discount store there, looters could be heard telling Schaffer to stop recording them and then seen punching him in the mouth.
Stores being looted in Philadelphia while police are guarding the Walmart that was looted earlier. pic.twitter.com/R84NUaPk4W— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) October 28, 2020
That video of Schaffer being assaulted was viewed over 1 million times, as was a clip in which he wrongly identified his assailants as “Black Lives Matter protesters.”
PHILADELPHIA: This is the footage I was recording when BLM assaulted me.— ELIJAH SCHAFFER (@ElijahSchaffer) October 28, 2020
Other journalists were filming but I was the only white person in the store
I do believe I was targeted for being white as they accused me of being a white supremacist
& did not attack people of color pic.twitter.com/Gji7uHq0gB
“What happened,” Schaffer told viewers, “is I just went into the Five Below to see what was going on with some of the looting, and I was jumped by the Black Lives Matter protesters, who immediately started punching and kicking me.”
In fact, as Talcott later acknowledged in an interview on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the videographers had to drive 30 minutes away from the protest by Wallace’s neighbors, in West Philadelphia, to film at the retail center in another part of the city, where there were no protesters, only looters taking advantage of the overwhelmed police force.
But the viral video of the attack on Schaffer struck a nerve with conservative viewers and helped make the looting in one part of the city, not the peaceful protest in another, the focus of days of misleading, politicized coverage on Fox.
Following Schaffer’s lead, Carlson even referred to the looters in Philadelphia as “more than a thousand BLM activists — Joe Biden voters.”
While their work is mainly used to undermine left-wing protesters, Kenosha isn’t the only place Riot Squad videographers have captured images of right-wing political violence.
After a pro-Trump rally in Washington in December, D’Almeida, Gutenschawger, and Talcott recorded a mob of Proud Boys ripping Black Lives Matter banners from Black churches and trashing or burning them.
This happened right in front of me. https://t.co/GWL0KwhYlw— Kalen From Scriberr (@FromKalen) December 14, 2020
Proud Boys tear down another Black Lives Matter board from the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church #DC #MarchForTrump #DefendDC #ProudBoys pic.twitter.com/ml1TbhV98Q— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) December 13, 2020
And on January 6, Gutenschwager’s viral video of Proud Boys member Dominic Pezzola using a stolen police riot shield to break a window and gain entry into the Capitol was one of the iconic images of the day. It was later used to indict Pezzola, and it was screened by the House managers at Trump’s impeachment trial.
Trump supporters break into the U.S. Capitol Building after storming the police line here in Washington #DC #Trump #DCRally #BreakingNews pic.twitter.com/Q8jdQjqNla— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) January 6, 2021
Nearby, Hernandez filmed Trump supporters described as “patriots” attacking the police.
DC: Patriots storm the capital of the USA #Tatumreport pic.twitter.com/rHZi02k32S— Drew Hernandez (@DrewHLive) January 6, 2021
Schaffer tweeted viral footage of police lines being breached and then followed people he called “revolutionaries” into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.
IMPORTANT: this is exact moment the siege of the Capitol building began as the two men in front ripped down a preliminary barrier & rushed officers who were behind a 2nd barrier— ELIJAH SCHAFFER (@ElijahSchaffer) January 6, 2021
They then encouraged others to follow their lead. Officers appeared to be taken completely off guard pic.twitter.com/LE0a01PXBi
IMPORTANT: This is a video I captured inside one of the offices of Nancy Pelosi after dozens of alleged Trump supporters occupied it— ELIJAH SCHAFFER (@ElijahSchaffer) January 7, 2021
It seems that staff left in such a hurry that they forgot to lock the doors because there were no signs of forced entry
Some vandalized it pic.twitter.com/EWFeYuiMek
Rosas showed Trump cultists battering the doors of the Capitol and then trashing the camera equipment of television crews trying to report on the raid.
Rioters just mobbed camera crews and destroyed their equipment. pic.twitter.com/sEni7inSxS— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) January 6, 2021
McGinniss ended up scoring a viral hit with a friendly interview of a Trump supporter smoking a joint under the Capitol dome.
A man lit up a doobie under the Capitol Dome pic.twitter.com/2WeoYoc6uD— Richie?McG? (@RichieMcGinniss) January 6, 2021
Still, on Fox News and elsewhere inside the conservative media bubble, all this video evidence of right-wing violence was not used to vilify the rioters the way that clips of far less significant events at left-wing protests were last summer.
While the Riot Squad video journalists are still mostly unknown to people who are not addicted to Fox News, some of their faces have become familiar to left-wing activists. That’s led to the violent suppression of their reporting on more than one occasion in recent months.
At an anti-eviction protest in Detroit in April, several activists tried to stop Gutenschwager from filming, blocking his lens and ordering him to leave. As Gutenschwager objected, one of them, a man wearing a pin with an anti-fascist symbol on it, replied: “Get out of here you fucking Nazi.”
Just got assaulted attempting to cover an anti-eviction march in Detroit this afternoon. A member of the protest ‘security’ ran up, grabbed my camera and forced me against a building #Detroit #DetroitProtests pic.twitter.com/OL9lyKEcHk— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) April 10, 2021
When Gutenschwager asked what he had done, another activist, who was livestreaming the protest himself, replied: “Dude, you were in the Capitol!”
Just got assaulted attempting to cover an anti-eviction march in Detroit this afternoon. A member of the protest ‘security’ ran up, grabbed my camera and forced me against a building #Detroit #DetroitProtests pic.twitter.com/OL9lyKEcHk— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) April 10, 2021
Moments later, an activist photographer got in Gutenschwager’s face and told him: “You’re not fucking welcome here.”
“You’re not f***ing welcome here.” A man wearing a Press patch then accosts me and tries to force me to leave, as the crowd marched through Greektown in Detroit #Detroit #DetroitProtests pic.twitter.com/fIX7iAxM7L— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) April 10, 2021
The left-wing livestreamer then made it plain to his own viewers that he knew Gutenschwager’s work by referring to him, imprecisely, by his Twitter handle. “So this is BGOonTheScene. He’s not welcome here,” the man said, as he filmed Gutenschwager from close range. “He’s not welcome here and he continues to be here, ’cause this guy was in the Capitol building on the 6th.”
According to Gutenschwager, he was then slammed into a barrier by another man, who put him in a chokehold, bloodied his mouth, and hurled his camera over a fence.
A man rammed me against a concrete fence and barricade, bloodying my mouth and elbow as well as putting me in a chokehold while stealing my camera. That was then thrown over a fence, which I eventually was able to retrieve and continue recording #Detroit pic.twitter.com/HRDm9PKuFB— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) April 10, 2021
After he retrieved his camera, Gutenschwager was threatened by the activist photographer, who accused him of selling footage to Breitbart that could be used to identify protesters, opening them up to harassment.
There have been similarly troubling scenes at right-wing rallies, where Proud Boys and other militant right-wingers have attacked video journalists they suspect of being left-wing activists.
Man pushes live-streamer to the ground and kicks him in the face at Proud Boys is rally in Portland pic.twitter.com/SAdHShqir3— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) September 26, 2020
At a Proud Boys rally in Portland last September, an armed man even told the videographer Ford Fischer, who is suspected by some on the left of harboring right-wing sympathies, “We know that you’re antifa.”
Ok, I hate that I have to do this, but here an explainer of what just happened to those who saw some people come up on me earlier.— Ford Fischer (@FordFischer) September 26, 2020
“We know that you’re antifa” claimed armed security for the event, demanding I leave. pic.twitter.com/RVIyOjTyOg
Fischer, who was overheard in another videographer’s recording telling the right-wing security guards who wanted him to leave, “I’m, like, very friendly with a lot of people here,” tweeted that he was eventually saved by the Proud Boys’ leader, Enrique Tarrio, who “told them I’m independent and to leave me alone.”
In this hyperpartisan environment, activists on both the right and the left fear that video will be used against them and are increasingly trying to insist that their events should be documented only by like-minded videographers.
That’s one of the main reasons that so much of the video of the right-wing raid on the Capitol was recorded by people who at least seemed to the participants to be on their side.
Two months before the attack on Gutenschwager, right-wing protesters in Huntington Beach, California, even tried to stop D’Almeida from filming their rally, accusing him of being “antifa” because he was dressed in black and wearing a mask.
The confused face-off amused left-wing activists monitoring a right-wing livestream of the rally in support of Tito Ortiz, a former MMA fighter-turned-city council member who has been leading local conservative resistance to mask-wearing and racial justice protests.
At the Tito Ortiz protest, a conservative journalist got accused of being Antifa by other conservatives ? pic.twitter.com/vJM4msPofe— Borrachinha Depot (@FullContactMTWF) February 11, 2021
“You’re filming us, and you’re trying to dox us, so why are you doing that? You’re not welcome here,” a rally organizer with a bullhorn told D’Almeida. “How about you leave. We don’t want lying journalists like you. Get out of here, scum.”
D’Almeida, who had spent months posing as a supporter of left-wing protests in order to undermine them, tried to signal to this crowd that he was on their side. “Does anyone want to look me up right now?” he said. “My name’s Kalen D’Almeida, I’m a reporter. I’ve been retweeted by Donald Trump.”
When one right-wing protester asked who D’Almeida worked for, he named the news site he founded with two graduates of a Christian college outside Los Angeles. “Scriberr News,” D’Almeida said. “We’re out of Fountain Valley, we’re nonpartisan.”
“Nonpartisan? What does that mean?” the man with the bullhorn asked skeptically.
In April, D’Almeida ran into more serious trouble when he was recognized by people on the left who are familiar with his work while livestreaming a Black Lives Matter march for Daunte Wright in Los Angeles.
After one protester snatched D’Almedia’s cellphone, video from a left-wing livestreamer showed that other marchers surrounded him and jeered at him to leave. “Nazis go home! Nazis fuck off!” protesters chanted as D’Almeida was surrounded. “Get the fuck out of here you piece of shit!”
D’Almeida was then punched and briefly knocked out, before a female protester intervened. Another undercover right-wing videographer, Tomas Morales, showed that before the woman sent D’Almeida on his way, she scolded him for undermining the protest movement.
“Listen, people are fighting for their fucking lives, this is not a joke. Leave us the fuck alone! Look at my face. I saved you this time,” the woman told D’Almeida.
As he rose uneasily to his feet and tried to get his bearings, the woman pushed D’Almeida away. “Get the fuck out of here,” she told him. “’Cause this is your last chance. You’re lucky. Get out of here.”
One left-wing activist suggested later that D’Almeida had brought the attack on himself by acting more like an undercover political operative looking for dirt on the protesters than a truly nonpartisan journalist. “Don’t be a fucking fascist and this shit wouldn’t happen, Kalen,” the activist tweeted at D’Almeida. “Fascism is an extremely poor life choice.”
The next day, left-wing activists in Portland assaulted a well-regarded local video journalist — apparently for failing to accede to demands to “protect” protesters who wanted to conceal their identities from right-wing enemies. In Oakland that night, a left-wing blogger reported that he was harassed by protesters for just having a camera, and witnessed assaults on two other photographers.
Jfc man Oakland black bloc is way too touchy about cameras. Like, I get it, but if people are operating in good faith then maybe try talking to them first before just kicking their ass? Fash propagandists are a different story of course but if it's a friendly journo... https://t.co/qs8Pf4cUG5— Mitch O'Farrell Hates Freedom (@desertborder) April 17, 2021
Violence against journalists, even ones operating in bad faith, is inexcusable. Unfortunately, videographers like D’Almeida have contributed to an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, making assaults on journalists more frequent. And this has also made the work of scrupulous and fair reporting on the politics that plays out on our streets much harder, and more dangerous.