Brendan Gutenschwager didn’t have his gas mask with him at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but in his defense, he never thought he’d need one. He was in Washington, after all, to document a rally of Donald Trump loyalists who had announced weeks earlier that they’d be coming to pressure Congress not to certify the 2020 election victory for now-President Joe Biden. The MAGA folks would be angry, sure, but it escaped Gutenschwager’s imagination — and that of most Americans, really — that a large demonstration in broad daylight outside one of the world’s most secure government buildings could devolve into such a travesty.
For anyone watching around the world via television or the internet, it is almost guaranteed that some of the earliest video images they saw of rioters running amok inside the Capitol came from Gutenschwager’s iPhone. The 23-year-old from Wyandotte, in the most daring and perilous adventure of his self-made journalism career, followed the masses as they breached the seat of American power. In all, he posted 20 videos that afternoon, totaling about 7 minutes of footage that showed the violence and mayhem, along the way being temporarily blinded himself by pepper spray. As of late January, those postings had racked up more than 17 million views on Twitter and countless more as his clips aired on a veritable loop during mainstream media reports.
“I was trying to capture very important moments that tell the story of what happened,” Gutenschwager says weeks later while preparing to fly to Cheyenne, Wyoming, for a demonstration against GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who earned the ire of many fellow Republicans by voting to impeach Trump. “It’s rare to be picked up by so many outlets, so even though it’s a difficult event to cover, that aspect of it is great.”
Gutenschwager didn’t end up on Capitol Hill by accident. For five years, since he was briefly an undergraduate at New York University, he’s gone out with his cameras — usually a phone, sometimes a Nikon, and occasionally a drone — to cover political speeches and demonstrations. He’s paid his way by working “oddball jobs around Detroit and sometimes even when I was on the road,” he says, and dug himself deep into debt building his following. He declined to disclose how much he owed.
For a while, Gutenschwager posted his work on YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram, impressing — and alarming — family and friends but finding only modest reach otherwise. Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 shut down his gig as a substitute teacher, as well as the in-person classes he was taking at Schoolcraft College in Livonia and the presidential campaign events he’d been filming. The next month, though, Gutenschwager was in Lansing for the first armed demonstrations against pandemic lockdowns. This time he primarily posted to Twitter, where he had about 1,000 followers but gained some early traction in retweets and shares. Some of that material got picked up elsewhere, occasionally without attribution, so he began watermarking his videos with his Twitter handle, @BGOntheScene, to ensure credit.
Gutenschwager soon became a fixture at lockdown protests as well as at the Black Lives Matter events that followed the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. From the Pacific Northwest to Appalachia, he hopped from one demonstration to the next almost without a break.
It was exhausting, exhilarating, and scary, he says. In October, he was pulled from a parked car in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and slammed to the ground by police who thought he was a protester defying a curfew. Gutenschwager, as a member of the media, was exempt from curfews. “Even though I told them I’m press and eventually they dropped the charges, in the moment I got a concussion, and I can’t undo that,” he says.
By the Capitol riot, he’d amassed more than 100,000 Twitter followers and established himself as one of the nation’s gutsiest and most peripatetic independent videographers. One breakthrough, he says, was capturing the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, a white 17-year-old from Illinois who became a cause célèbre for Trump supporters in August after he shot and killed two BLM demonstrators he said were attacking him at a protest in Kenosha. The incident occurred after most major media outlets had left the protest; Gutenschwager typically shows up early and stays late hoping to film overlooked aspects of such events. “My interests are very event-specific,” he says. “I always ask, ‘Can I bring something new to it?’”
On Jan. 6, he brought something new and invaluable to one of the most shocking events in American history. His Twitter log shows he began filming late the night before, capturing thousands camping out in line to attend the Save America March at the Ellipse in front of the Washington Monument, where Trump would speak.
His coverage darkened around 2 p.m. with a 26-second clip of marchers clashing with law enforcement at the Capitol and tear gas raining upon them. “They have just stormed the Capitol. Video to follow, beyond intense,” he tweeted at 2:19 p.m. Over the next four hours, Gutenschwager posted videos of rioters breaking windows and climbing into the Capitol and chaotic scenes inside, as police set off flash-bangs and rioters rushed and overwhelmed guards, paraded in the Rotunda, and banged on office doors looking for lawmakers. “I was underprepared because of how quickly it escalated,” he says.
Typically a font of brio as he discusses his work, Gutenschwager declines to discuss, “for my own sanity,” where he went in the Capitol or what he saw beyond what’s in the videos he released. He won’t even say if authorities have been in contact about using either his posts or his outtakes as evidence. Gutenschwager, who assiduously avoids talking about his personal political views, did say he found it “a weird juxtaposition” that some demonstrators admonished others not to break or trash anything because the Capitol “is our house.”
“It was so chaotic and fast-paced, it was hard to process something unfolding like this,” he says. “I thought we’d have a few hours of demonstrations outside the Capitol and then I’d get a couple hours to grab lunch before night marches when maybe there would be some clashes. That ended up being so far from what actually happened.”