KENOSHA, Wis. — Anti-police-brutality demonstrators were converging on Kenosha from all over Wisconsin for a second night of marches. An armed right-wing group had put out a call for “patriots willing to take up arms and defend [our] City tonight from the evil thugs.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Oh, he got a gun! ” a woman screamed of Rittenhouse. “He got a gun!”
‘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.
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.
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.
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.”
At the time, he and his new fiancee, whom 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. 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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“Where?” McGinniss asked. “Where’s the hole?”
“It’s in his f---ing head!” the woman cried.
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.
By then, Rittenhouse was jogging down Sheridan Road, chased by a crowd of demonstrators, including Huber with his skateboard.
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 the need to bear witness to the night’s protests.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Huber’s mother declined to comment for this story, but Huber’s family issued a statement describing him as a hero.
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.
“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’s 3-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, skipped rocks and gazed out at Lake Michigan.
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.
‘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.
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.
“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!”
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!”
‘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?”
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.
“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.
“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, 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.
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.
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.
Ever since Huber’s death, Gittings’s 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.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.