The enigma of “Activist John.” Why did an anti-Trump protester viewed with suspicion on the left follow Trump’s cult into the Capitol?
John Sullivan, a self-described activist for racial justice who filmed the fatal shooting of the QAnon cultist Ashli Babbitt during the storming of the U.S. Capitol, was detained in Utah on Thursday on federal charges of interfering with efforts by the police to stop the riot.
According to an affidavit submitted to a federal court in Washington, D.C., the FBI determined that Sullivan was not just an observer but a participant in the riot, based on a review of nearly 90 minutes of raw footage of the raid that he recorded on his phone and posted on YouTube. He is being held by the Tooele County Sheriff’s Office near his home in Sandy, Utah.
For the past week, Sullivan’s presence in the Capitol and his previous record of anti-Donald Trump activism has been the focus of frenzied attention in the right-wing media, where the baseless conspiracy theory that pro-Trump rioters were led into violence by left-wing anti-fascist agitators lives on. At the same time, left-wing organizers have been keen to stress that they ejected Sullivan from their ranks months ago, accusing him of being either a right-wing infiltrator or a dangerously naive amateur.
Although Sullivan began describing himself as a journalist in the aftermath of the raid, when his footage of the shooting was licensed by major news organizations, including the Washington Post and MSNBC, his raw footage captured him repeatedly expressing what sounded like genuine enthusiasm for the success of the riot. At one point highlighted in the federal complaint, Sullivan could even be heard trying to convince police officers to abandon their posts and let the rioters seize the House chamber.
If Sullivan’s prosecution proceeds, it will focus new attention on the ever-thinner line between journalism and activism in the era of social media, as participants in demonstrations become an ever more important source of the viral images that frequently define the success or failure of a protest.
Before Sullivan was arrested on Thursday, The Intercept conducted a careful review of his video of the raid and traced the contours of the heated debate over his true motives for being there that has played out over the past week in right-wing media and among left-wing activists on social networks. Here is that investigation.
Those of us in the reality-based community know who stormed the Capitol in Washington last week on live television and in broad daylight. They were Trump cultists, who helpfully documented their insurrection in Facebook livestreams, Parler videos, and Instagram selfies.
So it came as something of a shock that Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican House minority leader, felt the need during the impeachment debate on Wednesday to try to quash the delusional belief that anti-fascist agitators were to blame for the violence inflicted by the pro-Trump mob, six days after that conspiracy theory had been debunked.
“Some say the riots were caused by antifa,” McCarthy told his colleagues. “There is absolutely no evidence of that, and conservatives should be the first to say so.”
McCarthy’s words were needed because the far-right media bubble where most Republicans choose to reside is impervious to fact-checking. That’s why, even as federal agents round up rioters around the country with deep ties to the Republican Party, the false claim that the left was responsible for the right’s violence — repeated incessantly on Fox News, One America News, and Infowars — has become an unshakeable article of faith for diehard Trump supporters, no matter how much they are mocked for embracing that fantasy.
Among those pushing that conspiracy theory anyway is McCarthy’s Republican colleague Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a Trump ally who used his Twitter account to amplify debunked speculation that the pro-Trump mob at the Capitol was led astray by covert anti-fascist infiltrators.
The lie that Trump supporters were not to blame for their attack on the U.S. government is part of a desperate effort by the president’s enablers to deflect attention away from his responsibility for inciting a deadly riot — during which, investigators say, the mob fatally injured a police officer, one rioter was fatally shot by the police while storming a barricade, and another, carrying a Gadsden flag, was trampled to death.
Unable to find actual evidence that the pro-Trump hooligans who broke into the Capitol and assaulted the police were left-wing provocateurs, the right-wing mythmakers have seized instead on the incidental presence on the riot’s front lines of a single anti-Trump activist, a Black man from Utah who recorded his “adventure” on video.
But while it is true that Sullivan, the Utahn — a former elite speed skater, Uber driver and cybersecurity salesman who reinvented himself as a self-described Black liberation activist last year — did witness the shooting of Babbitt, the QAnon adherent killed trying to break into the House chamber, and filmed the gunshot from close range, there is no evidence that he orchestrated that violent confrontation, or any other.
We know this because Sullivan, who began calling himself “Activist John” last summer when he organized a chaotic protest for racial justice that led Black Lives Matter Utah to denounce him, filmed almost every step he took inside the Capitol on his phone and posted the unedited footage on his JaydenX YouTube channel.
Watching Sullivan’s footage makes it obvious that he was not leading but following the rioters as they made their way through police lines into the Capitol, eventually reaching the barricaded door of the Speaker’s Lobby, steps from the House chamber, where Babbitt was shot.
That footage, which runs more than an hour in total, offers an unvarnished look at how easily the mob seized the Capitol and how freely they moved around while they were inside. A live CSPAN camera inside the Capitol and Sullivan’s own footage appeared to show that he arrived in the National Statuary Hall — shouting, “It’s our house, motherfuckers!” — near the very front of a group of rioters determined to enter the House chamber.
The images, and Sullivan’s excited, real-time commentary on events as they unfolded, also raised questions from skeptics on the left about whether Sullivan was just posing as a right-winger to film the riot or really harbors right-wing sympathies.
Again and again, he can be heard celebrating the success of the riot. “Let’s go!” he shouted after the last police line was breached outside the Capitol. “This shit’s ours! Fuck yeah!” Moments later he turned to a man next to him who was wearing full tactical gear — with a walkie-talkie on his bulletproof vest, zip-tie handcuffs, and a skull-patterned face mask — and shouted: “I can’t believe this is reality! We accomplished this shit, together!”
“Fuck yeah, brother!” the man agreed.
“Fuck yeah!” Sullivan replied. “This is fucking history! We’re all part of this fucking history!”
Minutes later, as the crowd swarmed around the Capitol and Sullivan rushed to join the rioters inside, he said, apparently to himself, “Let’s burn this shit down now, fuck.”
At other points in the storming of the Capitol, Sullivan even urged on the rioters through the megaphone he had previously used to speak at racial justice protests. “Get in that shit! Let’s go! Let’s go! Move! Move! Move! Move! Storm that shit! This shit is ours!” he shouted through the megaphone early in the crowd’s battle to break through police lines on the west side of the Capitol, beneath the inaugural stage. “This is our fucking house!” he added, as his megaphone briefly entered the frame of his video. A minute later, he used it again to tell the crowd to keep pressing: “Hold the line, guys, come on! Hold the line!”
Sullivan said later that his apparent joy in the riot as it unfolded was just him “blending in” to evade detection, but it sounded genuine and would seem to fit with his broadly anti-government leanings and his stated desire to see the U.S. government destroyed and replaced. “I’m all for burning the system down and creating something better,” he had said in a livestream commentary on the possibility of civil war two weeks before the November election. “I’m about it. I’m about creating something new, something that works better than what we have in place that gives us more freedom.”
Sullivan’s free-form recording of his journey alongside the mob also reveals that some curious locals entered the Capitol simply to observe the spectacle. As he gazed up in wonder at the dome of the Capitol Rotunda, Sullivan let out a cry of ecstatic delight: “Ohhhh! This is 2021, y’all! This is insanity! Holy shit! What is this? What is life? What is life right now?” Sullivan then asked the man next to him if he knew what the huge painting in front of them was. The man, a Richmond, Virginia, rapper named Bugzie the Don replied: “I don’t even know, but I know we’re in this motherfucker.”
“We are, dude, this is unreal,” Sullivan said.
“Tell ’em we’re here,” the rapper added, “Bugzie the Don in the building.”
The rapper, who later retweeted a brief video clip of himself and Sullivan inside the Rotunda that was broadcast live on CNN, told me in an Instagram message that he was not there in support of Trump’s delusional fantasies of election fraud. “I’m far from a Trump supporter,” he wrote. “I really don’t even get into politics at all. It was an experience for me and that’s really the only reason I was there.”
After the attack, the rapper shared a comment on Instagram that showed a rioter with a Confederate flag inside the Capitol and the message: “Y’all mad a woman is shot dead while storming a Capitol building but don’t care when a woman is shot dead while sleeping in her own house?”
Despite what Sullivan’s footage actually showed, however, to far-right media outlets desperate to blame the left for the mayhem, the presence of Sullivan, who was filmed denouncing Trump at protest in Washington last summer, was a godsend.
When Sullivan went on CNN hours after he left the Capitol to offer witness testimony to the killing of Babbitt, he was introduced, inaccurately, as a “left-wing activist.” That description, and a subsequent report from the Deseret News in Utah, which noted that Sullivan faces charges for a protest he organized there in June at which another protester shot a man, set off a frenzy of speculation about him in right-wing outlets, which incorrectly identified him as “a BLM activist.”
In fact, Sullivan is a curious figure who is treated with suspicion or outright hostility by a number of left-wing organizers associated with Black Lives Matter and anti-fascism in Utah, California, and the Pacific Northwest.
Months before Sullivan embedded himself in the right-wing mob that broke into Congress, a racial justice activist in Portland warned members of the movement “to not associate with Activist John,” calling him “deceptive, dangerous and daft.” According to the activist, who goes by the name Gila on Twitter, Sullivan was responsible for dozens of protesters getting arrested at a Portland demonstration in September because he argued with local activists about the route to take “and led people down a dark street straight into a police kettle. Even though he had zero knowledge of the area he insisted people follow him and disregarded warnings from security.” Sullivan, the activist wrote, “is living in a fantasy land.”
Activists in Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Los Angeles have made similar warnings, and a member of the Seattle protest community shared a detailed briefing document on him headlined “John Sullivan: Naive Organizer or Agent Provocateur?” that has been circulating since November. The anonymous author of that memo also drew attention to the fact that his brother, James Sullivan, is an outspoken Trump supporter, a member of the far-right “Blexit” campaign to convince Black voters to exit the Democratic Party, and spoke at a Proud Boys rally in Portland.
Others on the left are convinced that John Sullivan has no real political convictions and is simply exploiting movements for racial justice and against fascism for personal gain. “Activist John,” they speculate, is a character Sullivan has invented, and the protests he organizes are a kind of performative, karaoke activism.
The founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, Lex Scott, responded to a Fox News report calling Sullivan “a BLM activist” with a TikTok statement in which she said he “never has been and never will be” a member of the group and called him “a thorn in our side.”
Two days after the attack on the Capitol, Sullivan confirmed that in a live video stream of his own, saying, “I’m not with BLM the organization. Do I believe personally Black lives matter? I believe Black lives matter. They matter, right? That’s simple, but I don’t believe in the organization, right, I’m not a part of it.” He also added, “I’m not antifa,” before concluding: “It’s pretty simple, you don’t call Black Panthers Martin Luther King.”
Sullivan’s ideology and tactics do seem to be in almost constant flux. After another protester shot a man at the first racial justice demonstration he organized in Provo, Utah, last summer, a local right-wing militia began showing up to subsequent events to police Sullivan’s group. In response, Sullivan first handed the megaphone to a local member of the Proud Boys at his next rally, then arranged firearms training for his small group, and started demonstrating with an assault rifle. Those tactics both enraged right-wing groups and alienated local Black Lives Matter organizers.
“I’ve only had one conversation with this man, back in June when he burst on the scene, and he said, wouldn’t it be cool, or amazing, if he was killed at a protest and it started a revolution,” Scott added in a second TikTok clip. “And I said, ‘John, no shade, but if you were killed, it wouldn’t start a revolution. If I was killed, it wouldn’t. Activists die every day. We don’t make the news, but we die, and it doesn’t start a revolution.’”
Scott also suggested that Sullivan had “a death wish,” and said that his provocative and incoherent approach to organizing in Utah had provoked such a strong backlash that “every white supremacist in this state hunts him. They want to kill him.”
Untroubled by such facts, Brooks, the Trump ally who led the effort to have Congress reject the electoral votes from states the president lost so that he could remain in power, jumped in to amplify a misleading report about Sullivan from the far-right website Townhall, which falsely asserted in a headline that Sullivan had a “History of Organizing Violent Antifa, BLM Protests.”
After Sullivan was briefly detained and questioned by the police in Washington on Thursday and then released, Brooks shared the conspiratorial Townhall report and further distorted the truth in an innuendo-laden tweet that concluded: “#BLM & fascist #ANTIFA supporter arrested for role in Capitol assaults, ‘standing next to’ killed Trump supporter.”
Again, don’t rush to judgment, but evidence below is not distributed by major #FakeNewsMedia. Investigation & time will divulge truth.#BLM & fascist #ANTIFA supporter arrested for role in Capitol assaults, “standing next to” killed Trump supporter.https://t.co/vywQo1ZTCl— Mo Brooks (@RepMoBrooks) January 8, 2021
The president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, followed by highlighting Sullivan’s presence in the Capitol in a podcast that treated the baseless rumor that the pro-Trump rioters were framed by anti-fascists as fact.
But instead of looking closely at the available video evidence of what Sullivan did during the raid on the Capitol — namely, following the crowd and cheering for their success as he filmed — Giuliani focused on video of Sullivan’s comments at a small protest in August when he had urged a handful of protesters gathered in Washington “to fucking rip Trump out of that office over there.”
Giuliani made no attempt to explain how Sullivan, by following the Trump supporters into the Capitol, was responsible for their actions.
Neither does Giuliani, nor anyone in the right-wing media, reckon with the audio on Sullivan’s recording, which reveals that he voiced almost continual support for the storming of the Capitol, expressing what sounded like genuine delight at the success of the rioters.
What’s more, although Sullivan now claims that he was just there to record the raid on video, on three separate occasions in his recording of the raid, he can be heard intervening on behalf of the rioters with the police. On each occasion, he tried to convince the officers guarding the legislators sheltering from the mob to stand down, abandon their posts, and allow the enraged Trump supporters to get into the House chamber. Those interventions would seem to undermine Sullivan’s claim that he was “just recording” the riot and not participating in it.
In each of these exchanges he initiated with the police as he stood at the front of the mob, Sullivan told the officers that he was concerned for their safety and warned that they could get hurt if they did not step aside. The final time he made that plea, he told one of three Capitol police officers guarding the barricaded door just outside the House chamber: “We want you to go home. I’m recording, and there’s so many people; they’re going to push their way up here. Bro, I’ve seen people out there get hurt. I don’t want to see you get hurt.” Again referring to himself as part of the mob, Sullivan told the officer that the rioters would help them leave. “We will make a path,” Sullivan told the officers, unaware that a heavily armed SWAT team was about to arrive to take their place. “We’ll make a path, bro, please, just let us make a path.”
As another rioter leaned in to tell the officers, “We backed you guys this summer. When the whole country hated you, we had your backs!” the officers did, in fact, step aside. At that moment, Sullivan shouted in triumph: “I want you to go home! Go! Go!” He then immediately shouted encouragement to the rioters around him who moved to break down the barricaded door. “Let’s go, get this shit!”
Twenty seconds later, as Sullivan filmed the rioters smashing the glass of the door that was the last thing keeping them from getting at the members of the House inside, he suddenly saw an officer in a suit just beyond the door raise his pistol. He shouted, “There’s a gun!” and panned his phone over to record it. Even after other members of the crowd echoed his warning, Babbitt, an Air Force veteran from San Diego, tried to jump through an opening in the glass and was shot as Sullivan filmed the officer firing his weapon.
In the chaotic aftermath of the fatal shooting, Sullivan described what he had seen to a videographer for the far-right conspiracy theory site Infowars, saying that he was sure Babbitt had been killed. “She’s dead. I saw the light go out in her eyes,” Sullivan told Infowars. “I’ll post the video. I have the video of the guy with the gun and him shooting,” he added. “I have it all, I was right at the doors.” When the Infowars cameraman asked for the footage, Sullivan told him, “Dude, this shit’s gonna go viral, bro.”
Sullivan then berated the police for shooting Babbitt. “That’s really fucked up! That got me moved, that got me heated!” he screamed at the officers. Babbitt, he said, was “just going through the window. No weapon, none, no violence towards that guy, and she just gets shot! It’s on your hands, your guys’ hands!”
When he posted his video of the shooting on Twitter, it did go viral, along with Sullivan’s caption, which described the killing of the Trump supporter as a murder.
Despite what sounded like sympathy for the rioters in his comments as the storming of the Capitol unfolded, the focus of right-wing media on Sullivan since then has prompted a wave of threats against him online.
From the left, activists and journalists who cover the movements for racial justice and against fascism are enraged at Sullivan for giving the right-wing media material for their conspiracy theory about anti-fascist provocateurs.
Activist John pretended to be fash to storm the Capitol, went on CNN to talk about what he saw, and now is going to become *the* point of “proof” that everyone who stormed the Capitol was “BLM/Antifa.”— talia jane (@mxtaliajane) January 8, 2021
They’re not gunna care that he is reviled throughout the activist space. pic.twitter.com/d800jbb7ix
Talia Jane, a journalist who filmed the right-wing attack on the police outside the Capitol, told me in a message that Sullivan “shows up for attention” and is now “not welcome in leftist activist spaces.” She said that he had tried to join a protest at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on December 12, when local anti-fascists confronted a contingent of Proud Boys after a pro-Trump rally, and was not allowed to take part.
DC: Last night at BLM Plaza, at least 3 confirmed arrests. People were dispersing after intel that Proud Boys were on the way, ended up running into them.— talia jane (@mxtaliajane) December 12, 2020
Activist John attempted to join BLM Plaza, was immediately clocked, surrounded, and escorted away. #DCProtest #DefendDC #D12 pic.twitter.com/dALLOasBT0
Despite the skepticism about him on the left, the far-right hysteria over Sullivan reached such a fever pitch that when I called him to talk about it on Friday night, our interview was interrupted by a woman who came up to him on the street in Washington and asked him, again and again, “Are you BLM? Are you Black Lives Matter? John, will you just answer, are you with Black Lives Matter?”
As he walked away from the woman, I asked how he answers that question. Sullivan confirmed Lex Scott’s statement that he is not a member or a supporter of Black Lives Matter and told me he had formed his own group, Insurgence USA, to work for similar goals, like an end to police brutality and racial discrimination. Asked about his politics, he said, “It’s neither right nor left; it’s completely neutral, in the middle. I’ve never voted in my life nor will I probably ever.”
That echoed comments Sullivan made in October, two weeks before the election, when he told a handful of viewers following his hourlong YouTube monologue on the possibility of an imminent civil war that he was not interested in “picking sides on right or left,” and even believed that “voting for Trump does not make you racist.”
When I asked him to address left-wing critics who accuse him of either harboring secret right-wing sympathies or just exploiting their movement for profit — by selling “bloc gear” on his Insurgence USA website, including gas masks, bulletproof vests, and knives — he dismissed them. “These are all fallacies,” he said, as the woman continued to harass him.
I only discovered after we hung up that the woman who was stalking Sullivan as he spoke to me was Millie Weaver, an Infowars contributor who filmed her harassment of him and posted a clip on Twitter, where the video went viral and has now been viewed more than 1.2 million times — including by Giuliani, who shared it with a comment blaming Sullivan for the attack on the Capitol.
I also asked Sullivan about his brother’s recent claim, in an interview with a right-wing YouTuber, that John was, until recently, a conservative too. Jade Sacker, a filmmaker who is making a documentary about the two brothers — and was filming John as he filmed the riot in the Capitol — told me that the two men, who were both adopted, were raised in a deeply conservative military family. Their parents, Sacker said, are so right-wing that they refuse to watch Fox News, considering it too liberal.
John Sullivan flatly denied that he had ever been a conservative. “I’ve never, even to this day, had a political ideology,” he said. He also maintained that his activist organization, Insurgence USA, which promotes protests and sells gear to people who want to attend, was not political. “No, it’s not, not in the least,” he said.
When I asked Sullivan how his group hopes to end racial discrimination and police brutality without engaging in politics, his response was vague and contradictory. “We have to pass laws,” he said, “legislation that, effectively, hopefully, bring about change to hopefully end things like that from happening.” Moments later, he added: “You could say we do have laws in place that, you know, hopefully provide equality for all people, but you could say it’s far from the truth from a lot of things that we’ve been seeing.”
While Sullivan initially suggested that he had attended the raid on the Capitol just to observe it, he later claimed that he was there as a covert anti-Trump activist, conducting “counter-intel” on the pro-Trump “chuds.”
Whatever his motives for being among the rioters, it is important to be clear about what Sullivan did not do with his footage of right-wing rioters forcing their way into the Capitol, overwhelming police officers, and forcibly shattering glass in the barricaded door to the Speaker’s Lobby. He made no effort to distort the footage of the pro-Trump crowd through misleading editing to make them look bad. In other words, whatever Sullivan’s politics, if any, he did not emulate any of the techniques commonly used by right-wing video journalists who attend left-wing protests with the goal of discrediting the protesters by recording acts of violence and stripping them of all context.
Inside the Capitol, moments after Babbitt was killed, Sullivan could be heard on camera identifying himself to the rioters around him as “an activist.” In the days since then, once he sold his footage of Babbitt’s shooting to news organizations, including NBC and the Washington Post, Sullivan has started to describe himself himself as a journalist instead of an activist.
On Sunday, he changed the self description on the homepage of his website — which appeared as a line of text over a photograph of himself protesting in tactical gear with an assault rifle outside the Utah state Capitol last summer — from “Activist. Athlete. Motivational Speaker.” to “Activist. Video Journalist. Athlete.”
By Monday morning, he had updated that text to “Video Journalist. Activist. Athlete.” On Tuesday, he replaced the cover image of him protesting with a loop from his video of the pro-Trump mob attacking the barricaded door outside the House and the gun being drawn that would kill Babbitt, and the self-description was updated again, to just “Video Journalist.”
The sudden transformation of his public persona from activist to video journalist was complete by Wednesday, when Sullivan responded to a skeptical question during a live YouTube Q&A by saying that Insurgence USA, the activist group he founded last year to fight for racial justice, “is not antifa; it’s a media company, actually. You can look it up, it’s an LLC. It’s a media company that I created, and it is also a platform that I like to use as far as telling a lot of stories that are out there.”
Update: Saturday, Jan. 16, 5:07 p.m. EST
John Sullivan was released from custody on Friday by a judge in Salt Lake City, The Deseret News reported, despite objections from Assistant U.S. attorney Bryan Reeves. The Utah magistrate judge ordered Sullivan to wear a location monitor and observe a series of strict conditions, including being barred from social media and from attending protests and possessing a firearm and having his electronic devices subjected to monitoring and searches. He must also must remain at his home and find a job unrelated to his Insurgence USA organization.
Also on Friday, Rudy Giuliani tweeted and then deleted a screenshot from a text message that appears to have been sent by James Sullivan, John’s far-right brother, who claimed he was “working with the FBI” to place blame for the Capitol riot on John and “226 members of antifa.”
Rudy Giuliani just tweeted out a screen grab of a text conversation with someone, that contained a phone number for a "James Sullivan," where he says he is working on blaming Antifa for the suspect John Sullivan, who is in fact a Proud Boy.— Amee Vanderpool (@girlsreallyrule) January 15, 2021
Yes, your head SHOULD be spinning. pic.twitter.com/ZCJ5CeplQg
Giuliani deleted the message without explaining whether the text had been sent to him by James Sullivan or by someone who received it and provided a screenshot to the president’s lawyer. James Sullivan has not yet responded to a request for comment from The Intercept.
Giuliani citing James Sullivan’s text repeating the unfounded conspiracy theory about his brother being an antifa provocateur was eagerly shared by far-right media outlets, and intensified criticism of him from activists on the left.
Updated: Feb. 11, 12:02 p.m. EST
This article was updated with new information about the death of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick. According to a report from CNN, investigators have determined that Sicknick was not killed by a blow from a fire extinguisher, as anonymous law enforcement officials previously told reporters. The precise cause of his death has not yet been made public, nor has any information about when or where the confrontation with rioters took place.