By Max Blumenthal – Jan 12, 2021
John Sullivan was at the front of the Trumpist mob in the Capitol, egging it on as he recorded the rampage. The far-right is pointing to him as proof of Antifa’s role in the riot. But leftist activists call him a dangerous provocateur and have banished him.
The most dramatic footage to emerge from the far-right storming of the US Capitol on January 6 depicted the lethal shooting of Ashli Babbit, a pro-Trump activist and military veteran, by a Capitol Police officer. The man responsible for capturing that video was John Sullivan, a self-styled activist who has operated under aliases “Activist X,” “Activist John,” and “Jayden X.” Since an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who described him as a “left-wing activist,” Sullivan has become Exhibit A in the right-wing’s conspiratorial case claiming Antifa was responsible for the violence in the Capitol.
(Update: On January 14 – two days after the publication of this article – John Sullivan was arrested in Utah and charged in District of Columbia federal court with “one count of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, and one count of interfering with law enforcement engaged in the lawful performance of their official duties incident to and during the commission of civil disorder.” The Department of Justice affidavit can be viewed here.)
Through interviews with Sullivan, his brother, a video-journalist documenting his exploits, and Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists who have encountered him, an unsettling portrait has emerged that stands at stark odds with the pro-Trump narrative about the notorious instigator. While Sullivan has attempted to brand himself as a BLM leader, he has been effectively locked out from activist communities across the country, where he is almost universally regarded as a dangerous provocateur.
A close review of the raw footage he shot inside the Capitol and published on his personal YouTube channel shows him enthusiastically identifying with the right-wing rioters and their objectives, volunteering to use a knife to assist them, and instigating them to commit acts of violence on all the way up to the moment of Babbit’s shooting. He has insisted to me that he has no political ideology, while associates describe him as a nihilist committed to spawning chaos above all else.
In his appearance on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, Sullivan was allowed to paper over this disturbing reality by portraying himself as an independent journalist who was merely documenting the pro-Trump mob. In the Washington Post, he was described as a “liberal activist,” while the centrist fact-checking organization Politifact referred to him as a “left-wing activist.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes played Sullivan’s video at length during a January 8 broadcast, stating that it was “licensed from a self-described civil rights activist.”
Right-wing media has feasted on these characterizations to paint Sullivan as a leading Black Lives Matter figure, driving the narrative that the violence inside the US Capitol was the result of leftist infiltration, and not the well-coordinated pro-Trump operation it clearly was. Fox News has dedicated an entire article to Sullivan’s presence at the Capitol, describing him as an “anti-Trump activist” with close ties to Antifa and BLM.
Trump legal counsel and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani took to Twitter to highlight Sullivan’s role in the riot, calling him a “suspected BLM activist.” His post was retweeted over 28,000 times.
DC is treating attack on Capitol like a traffic offense. This suspected BLM activist who invaded Capitol has already been released. And they want to do an impeachment? i https://t.co/nwidXrRz2A
— Rudy W. Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) January 9, 2021
Despite the overwhelming presence of far-right and openly white nationalist activists in the Capitol, the right-wing has exploited Sullivan’s presence to blame the left for a catastrophe that Trump inspired. A recent Data For Progress/Vox poll showed how the right’s narrative has broken through, with 47% of Americans and 68% of Republicans holding Antifa responsible for inciting the violence in the US Capitol on January 6.
So who is John Sullivan, and what was his connection, if any, to Black Lives Matter and the wider left-wing activist community?
According to self-described BLM and anti-fascist activists familiar with the 26-year-old Sullivan, he is best known for his propensity for inspiring chaos, engaging in counterproductive tactics that often trigger arrests, and consistently undermining BLM objectives. From Salt Lake City to Portland to Washington, DC, left-wing activists consider him persona non grata.
The slick but scammy content of Sullivan’s Insurgence USA website underscores the reputation he has earned in BLM circles as a grifter. The most extensive section of his site is dedicated to hawking expensive riot gear, including a $45.95 spear tip knife. Sullivan happens to be a former salesman who left his career during the summer of 2020 after winning a racial discrimination settlement.
Many activists have characterized Sullivan as an agent provocateur, while others have speculated that he is a law enforcement asset. What all seem to agree on is that he thrives off of creating as much chaos as possible.
“If there’s violence to instigate, he will raise it to another level. But he’s not the one that does it,” Sean Michael Love, a DC-based BLM activist and publisher of Blackhouse News, said of Sullivan. “And that’s a dangerous type of person. That’s one of the most dangerous types of people to me.”
Sullivan currently faces charges in his hometown of Provo, Utah for inciting a riot and criminal mischief. The charges stem from a counter-protest he helped organize against a July 2020 pro-police rally during which a woman driving an SUV was shot by one of his associates. The incident led to the formation of the Utah Citizen’s Militia and galvanized right-wing forces across the state.
Among the pro-Trump activists leading the charge against John Sullivan in Utah is his own brother, James Sullivan. The founder of a right-wing outfit called Civilized Awakening and a close ally of the Proud Boys, James Sullivan described John to me as an “agitator” who suffers from mental health issues and is driven by an insatiable desire for media celebrity.
“What he does is he creates hysteria, and he takes these phony videotapes of it, so that’s why he got kicked out of the movement [in Utah],” James Sullivan said. “They kicked him out because he would he would instigate violence to the point that people would get would get arrested. And then he would get views on Facebook or YouTube… He’s doing it for attention.”
An “apolitical” agitator becomes star of brother vs. brother documentary project
I reached John Sullivan by phone on January 8, while he still lingered in the DC area. He argued that his flagrant encouragement of the mob in the US Capitol was textbook undercover journalism. “It’s like investigating into something or like getting access into let’s say – you’re trying to get access into an underground drug ring,” he insisted when asked about his encouragement of the pro-Trump mob. “You know, you have to get your way in there somehow, like how do you do that?”
When I asked him about his own views, Sullivan was unable to offer anything resembling a coherent political position. He initially described himself as “more on the BLM (Black Lives Matter) side, ending the police brutality, the racial discrimination.” But moments later, he insisted, “Even to this day, I don’t have a political ideology… I don’t have a political stance.”
Through my conversations with the Sullivan brothers, I learned that they had become the subject of a documentary by a Los Angeles-based photojournalist named Jade Sacker. Sacker appeared briefly in Sullivan’s footage filming inside the Capitol and could be heard congratulating him for the invasion. “We did it!” she chirped to Sullivan as the mob flowed inside the building.
Sacker’s documentary project is being advised by Bryan Fogel, who produced “Icarus,” the Academy Award-winning Netflix documentary on alleged doping by Russian Olympic athletes, and “The Dissident,” which covers the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents, and has been endorsed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Sacker said she hoped Fogel would agree to serve as executive producer on her project about the Sullivan brothers “once he sees the sizzle and a demonstration of the work that I’ve done.”
When I reached Sacker on January 9, she initially downplayed the role of her documentary subject, John Sullivan, in the Trumpist rampage through the Capitol three days before. “He’s passionate, and he’s apolitical,” she said of Sullivan. “He is against the system, but he’s extremely nonviolent.”
Portraying herself as “someone who is very much [politically] progressive,” and opposed to Trump’s agenda, she framed her congratulatory comments to Sullivan as an expression of surprise, not approval.
“John knew somehow that people were considering storming the Capitol,” Sacker told me. “He had had intelligence days before, and I didn’t believe him. I never thought that something like that would happen. And then when we showed up at the Capitol, there were thousands and thousands of people there. I didn’t think that we would be able to document what was going on. So when I said we did it, I was just shocked that we like got in there at all, and that we were on the front lines of being able to tell the story.”
Upon further questioning, Sacker conceded she was not aware of the full extent of Sullivan’s actions in the Capitol. “As far as reliving the whole thing, like, I’m still processing it. And I’m still, I think also, like, a little bit scarred by what happened,” she said.
Sacker has also focused her documentary lens on John Sullivan’s brother, James, a pro-Trump activist who helped organize the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington. James Sullivan is a Black Republican, inheriting the rigidly conservative political line of the white Mormon parents that adopted him.
His and John’s adoptive father is an Army Lt. Col. who retired over two decades ago.
In an apparent bid to protect his family’s reputation and that of the Trumpist cause to which he is dedicated, James Sullivan has campaigned to blame the riot on his brother, and by extension, on the leftist forces John supposedly represented. If the recent DFR/Vox poll is to be believed, his efforts have been surprisingly fruitful.
But the real John Sullivan is far from a committed social justice activist. Within the larger BLM community, he is considered as dangerous to the cause as any Proud Boy. In fact, after suffering the effects of his caustic presence, several DC-based BLM activists told me they now refer to Sullivan as “Proud Boy X.”
While describing herself as Sullivan’s friend, Sacker conceded that his ultimate agenda is to spawn as much destruction as possible.
“He’s just angry,” she reflected to me. “And he says it in a lot of his videos – ‘Fuck the system, burn it down.’ He doesn’t think it can be reformed. Like he kind of wants his civil war. He’s a bit of a provocateur and he wants to dismantle the system, and he believes in the value of civil disobedience. And because he is apolitical, I think he feels more a sense of allegiance to anyone who shares that the values of, I guess, chaos.”
At the US Capitol on January 6, Sullivan found destruction-minded allies in the thousands.
Blaming BLM for a Trumpist frenzy
The storming of the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob resulted in the deaths of six people. These included Ashli Babbit, the pro-Trump activist who was shot by a Capitol Police officer, and Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who died on duty at the Capitol. An untold number were injured in the chaos, which ended in clouds of teargas and a hail of flash-bang grenades.
I witnessed a who’s who of white nationalist and militia-style groups on the Capitol’s grounds on January 6, from the Proud Boys to Three Percenters, from Boogaloos to Groypers to members of the Traditional Worker’s Party. Leaders of these extremist organizations and adherents of the conspiratorial QAnon cult were documented storming the building. There was no doubt the riot was the handiwork of the right-wing movement united under the banner of Trump’s Make America Great Again motto.
In the fallout from the rampage, Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump’s account, while Silicon Valley social media companies initiated a massive crackdown on his online supporters. Congressional Democrats have demanded Trump’s impeachment and the resignation of Republican members of Congress who echoed his claims of election fraud. For his part, incoming President Joe Biden has announced his intention to introduce sweeping anti-domestic terror legislation.
According to James Sullivan, public outrage over the violence in Washington has “completely destabilized” the pro-Trump grassroots. “They’re ratting out each other out,” he said of his allies. “They’re running away from Facebook, and they’re giving up.”
Sullivan is the founder of the Utah-based Civilized Awakening, a small grassroots group that organizes in support of Trump’s agenda and inveighs relentlessly against Black Lives Matter. On his personal Facebook page, he issued a call for “black/minority republicans” to confront “antifa” at Washington, DC’s Black Lives Matter plaza on January 6.
“Security has been taken care of,” he wrote. “I can’t say more than that.”
Strangely, in the days leading up to the Capitol building riot, John Sullivan promoted his own January 6 action on Insurgence USA’s website. His call for an anti-Trump demonstration directly contradicted Black Lives Matter DC’s statement urging counter-protesters to stay home.
Not only did no one show up for John Sullivan’s protest; its supposedly anti-Trump organizer went to the Capitol to encourage the Trumpist mob.
Like so many other right-wing activists, James Sullivan has been determined to pin the violence on leftist Antifa infiltrators. He maintains that the ringleader of the psy-op was his own brother.
“I know that John [Sullivan] was one of the people that led [the riot], and helped organize it,” James commented. “And, again, what I said is that Antifa goes off of basic psychological warfare, and they’re seeing that the Trump supporters are very, very emotional – kind of on a knife’s edge… [Antifa is] organized. You know, they’re a well oiled machine. So like, they planned this, to change the public opinion against Trump supporters, and to create anarchy in the country.”
On Facebook, James Sullivan has promoted Giuliani’s tweet and a Fox News report implicating his brother, John, as the supposed Black Lives Matter operative behind the US Capitol violence.
At the same time, he maintained to me that his brother has been afflicted by psychological issues: “What we [his family] have found out is that he is addicted to Adderall. He does not need to take it because he doesn’t have ADHD. And what happens is that he becomes a little bit paranoid. It’s very easy for him to to act cool, calm, and collected, but he flips on a dime.”
John Sullivan shot back that his brother was a “complete fucking liar” and accused him of psychological issues of his own.
However, I obtained a message John Sullivan sent to a contact after participating in the riot in the Capitol in which he described himself as feeling mentally unwell.
Sean Michael Love, the BLM-affiliated journalist, offered a more jaded perspective on Sullivan’s motives: “I definitely think that mentally, he has some things he has to work out. But as far as him cooperating with the law enforcement, that has been our belief.”
Sullivan has forcefully denied this allegation as well. So what was the instigator known alternately as “Activist John” and “Jayden X” really doing inside the US Capitol?
A close review of his footage from January 6 demonstrates a clear consistency with the destructive behavior that resulted in his castigation by BLM chapters across the country, and raises further questions about his motives.
Recording a rampage, inciting a riot
John Sullivan was at the forefront of pro-Trump mob as it burst through police lines on January 6 and stormed into the US Capitol in a violent attempt to prevent the certification of Joseph Biden as the next president. The video he recorded and published on YouTube provides one of the most vivid depictions of the rampage – and of his own enthusiastic involvement in it.
The footage began as the mob stormed the Capitol deck overlooking the National Mall. Sullivan can be heard exclaiming, “Let’s go! This shit’s ours. Fuck yeah… We accomplished this shit. We did this shit together!.. We’re all part of this history.”
There was no indication he was impersonating a supporter of the invasion to gain the confidence of the right-wing mob. His enthusiasm for the frenetic scene appeared to be absolutely authentic.
Moments later, Sullivan encouraged invaders as they rappelled up the walls of the Capitol – “Let’s go! You guys are savage!” – and offered one man his hand. He could be seen with a gas mask hanging from his belt, clearly prepared for direct confrontation.
Once inside the Capitol building with the rioters, Sullivan proclaimed, “We gotta burn this, we gotta get this shit burnt.”
While proceeding down a hallway and into a meeting room, Sullivan appeared to be narrating to Sacker, the documentarian who accompanied him inside. “Fuck yeah, we fucking did this shit,” he boomed, briefly banging on a window, possibly to signal to the mob outside.
“Don’t do that,” an audibly irritated Sacker could be heard exclaiming. A fracture in the window pane became briefly visible.
“My bad,” Sullivan responded in a sheepish tone. “Well, they already broke the window so I didn’t know I hit it that hard. No one got that on camera.”
No one except himself, apparently.
In the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol building, Sacker came into view for the first time. Wearing a California Republic baseball cap and N95 mask and filming with a handheld camera, she approached Sullivan with a congratulatory hug.
“I’ll give you a hug now, we did it!” she said in a voice mixed with glee and relief. “You were right, we did it.”
“Dude, I was trying to tell you. I couldn’t say much,” Sullivan replied.
“You were right.”
“Is this not gonna be the best film you have ever made in your life?” he enthused to Sacker.
“Hell yeah,” she responded before nervously inquiring, “Wait, you weren’t recording, were you?”
Sullivan pledged to delete the footage – a promise he clearly did not keep.
Moments later, a man bearing a Trump 2020 flag bellowed at Sullivan, “Do not deface the statues!” Sullivan responded, “I can respect the statues – well, people might burn this down.”
When the pro-Trump mob reaches a phalanx of Capitol Police seeking to obstruct their rampage, Sullivan moved to the front of the crowd and joined several others in pressuring the cops to move out of the way.
“People got hurt downstairs,” he told an apparent commanding officer. “Y’all putting yourselves in harm’s way. I’m recording but I’m just trying to tell you, I’m caring about you. The mob of people, you don’t want that.”
The police eventually gave in and allowed the mob to press ahead.
While stampeding down a hallway, a rioter banged on the office door of a member of Congress with a kevlar helmet. Sullivan egged him on, declaring, “That’s what I’m saying. Break that shit.”
Then, in a fit of excitement, he exclaimed, “Does somebody have music? That would be fire if somebody had a boombox or something. Revolutionary music and shit.”
Minutes later, the mob reached a series of locked doors at the Speaker’s Lobby guarded by three Capitol Police officers. Behind them appeared to be a hallway filled with the offices of members of Congress.
One rioter who was present at the scene told me the mob was seeking to break into the office of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Trump had condemned for certifying the election results.
As Sullivan made his way to the front, he volunteered a weapon. “Let me through, I got a knife,” he could be heard saying repeatedly.
When asked about the incident, Sullivan denied to me that he possessed a knife. “I can tell you I did not have a knife at that time,” he maintained. “Nor did I offer one to anybody.”
However, Sacker contradicted his account. “I do know that he carries a knife because he is afraid of the Proud Boys and he is scared of people on the right, and I’ve repeatedly told him that I don’t think he should.”
But if he was so frightened of right-wing extremists, why did he offer to use his knife on their behalf? I asked Sacker.
“Okay, let me be clear, I wasn’t aware of some of these actions,” she responded. “I’m sorry, I have misinterpreted your question. I can resolutely say that. That’s not the kind of behavior that I would condone or agree with. And I think that it’s concerning, and I wouldn’t have thought that he was, I guess, capable of actually giving someone a weapon, especially in that situation.”
Sullivan once again pushed to the front of the crowd and began hectoring the three Capitol Police officers standing guard, demanding they clear the way so the mob can break through.
“Bro, I seen people out there get hurt,” he said to one officer, his face just inches away. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. We will make a path dead ass. Just let us make a path. I want you to go home! Go! Go!”
The moment the officers capitulated to the pressure from Sullivan and several others including Ashli Babbit, Sullivan urged the crowd: “Go! Go! Get that shit! Let’s go!”
It was then that several men began smashing the windows and attempting to break down the doors.
Seconds later, as Babbit attempted to climb through a broken window, an officer appeared with a gun in hand from behind a corridor on the other side of the doors.
“Yo! There’s a gun!” Sullivan screamed. “There’s a gun!”
A shot rang out and Babbit’s lifeless body dropped to the ground, blood pouring from a wound in her neck, her eyes rolling back into her head. She was killed instantly, stopping the rabid mob in its tracks.
I questioned Sullivan about his documented role in pressuring the Capitol Police to abandon the doors and his encouragement of the rioters to break those doors down. He responded with an absurd piece of spin, insisting he was merely trying to protect the officers from harm.
“Either the officers are going to get hurt, or the people are going to go through that door. You know, I want to try and help save somebody’s life. I want to try and help save somebody,” he claimed. “When I see an officer cry, they want to go home to their kids. He was crying because he wants to go home to his kids. And when I see that, how can you not be moved? How can you not say nothing?”
“John is an agent provocateur, putting activist communities in danger”
John Sullivan’s journey to the US Capitol began in the summer of 2020, as protests sparked by the videotaped police killing of George Floyd spread across the country. At the height of the tumult, Sullivan turned against his ultra-conservative family and took to the streets.
“You know, he never said anything when Donald Trump was elected,” James Sullivan said of his brother. “We’d go to the ranch and have dinner with my dad and mom. And we’d just have normal conversations about politics, we would rip on Nancy Pelosi – and then George Floyd happened. And then he became a radical, and he started defaming my family, calling my dad a white supremacist, saying that I abused my kids. He was telling people that I savagely beat my now-fiancee, and just trying to destroy me.”
John Sullivan has attributed his personal rupture to being raised by white parents who imposed a colorblind worldview. “I don’t know my heritage, I don’t know anything about African American culture,” he said in a confessional video he recorded. “I wasn’t able to absorb and experience that… That’s how I was raised. That’s how my mind shaped and formed at a younger age. I still struggle with those things today.”
As he entered a largely white local protest scene, he was able to assert his racial identity for the first time. “When I’m in Utah and I see a whole bunch of people who are white organizing these events and not a single black person is leading, that’s concerning to me,” he remarked during a podcast interview. “So I felt obligated to stand up and start speaking against the racism and police brutality. And keep in mind, when I first started, I never had… [been] subject to police brutality, or like unjust treatment, but I started facing it when I did speak out.”
After over a decade of training to compete in the Olympics as a speed skater, then rising through the corporate ranks as a marketing whiz, Sullivan abandoned his normie life goals and founded an anarchic protest outfit called Insurgence USA. Soon enough, he was moving crowds with a megaphone and recording the results.
On June 29, 2020, at the height of the demonstrations that swept the country following the videotaped police killing of George Floyd, John Sullivan helped lead a group of protesters to downtown Provo, Utah to confront a rally in support of law enforcement.
The counter-protest descended into chaos when participants attempted to block motorists, and some vehicles attempted to plow through them. At an intersection, activists surrounded a white SUV and attempted to prevent it from moving. As the vehicle slowly trundled forward, a member of the crowd named Jesse Taggart fired his handgun at the driver, then shot a bullet into the rear window as they sped away. The driver was hit in the arm by one round. Sullivan was seen standing to the side during the shooting.
June 30, 2020 shooting in Provo, Utah. On the upper left, Jesse Taggart opens fire. On the right is John Sullivan.
The shots fired in Provo reverberated across the state, prompting the birth of a militia called Utah Citizen’s Alarm. “That was the spark for the Patriot militia movement in Utah,” James Sullivan said of the shooting. “Two organizations are formed, and there’s like over 30,000 people that signed up to counter [John Sullivan].”
A rally organized by John Sullivan’s Insurgence USA in downtown Provo three days later saw scores of armed militia members counter-protesting across the street. In an unusual move, Sullivan handed the megaphone over to several members of the Proud Boys and militia activists, giving them a platform to address the crowd.
The following day, Taggart was arrested and charged with aggravated assault. Several other participants in the June 30 melee were slapped with lesser charges.
On July 9, Sullivan was arrested as well. His charge sheet alleged that he was seen in the video he recorded of the protest “kicking vehicles and threatening drivers,” and urging protesters to block intersections.
“I never have incited violence or had any, I guess opportunities to do so,” Sullivan maintained when asked about the charges. He added, “I’ve been charged but not convicted. Innocent until proven guilty, right?”
After John Sullivan was let out on bail, his brother, James, said he was contacted by members of the Salt Lake City chapter of BLM beseeching him for help in driving John out of their community.
“That actually was a weird phone call,” James recalled. “They reached out to me, and they said, ‘Hey, this is what John’s doing. We’re trying to get this stuff done and he’s getting people hurt and arrested. You know, and they don’t need to be arrested. These are good people that are going to prison because John would incite violence.’”
Barred from the Utah activist community, John Sullivan gravitated to Portland, an epicenter of leftist direction action protest against police brutality.
Local activists quickly accused Sullivan of leaking private details of their actions through an array of social media burner accounts he had set up, including one called @watchriotporn. They also grumbled about the incendiary promotional material he churned out for protest events, accusing him of “feeding into right-wing talking points.” At one protest, he was accused of leading demonstrators away from the main procession and into a police kettle, prompting mass arrests.
On November 23, 2020, Portland anti-fascist activists issued an online “anonymous tip” about John Sullivan, demanding he be “locked out” of their circles. “While it’s easier, and generally more fair, to believe he is a naive narcissist, clout chaser and inept organizer, it might not be an accurate analysis. A narc for the feds might not be an accurate assessment either. It’s more likely that John is an agent provocateur, putting activist communities in danger.”
In addition to recently attempting to cozy up to our local orgs, (Including Rebellion Baby. Stop trying to be friends with us, John.) he’s doing a looooot of talking on his socials about wanting to move away from Utah.🙃
— Rebellion Baby (@RebellionBaby) November 26, 2020
The pattern of behavior Sullivan showed in Utah and the Pacific Northwest was also on display during several appearances he made at Washington, DC protests.
On the fringes of the massive march that converged on Washington in August 2020 to commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Sullivan unleashed an incendiary diatribe: “We gotta rip Trump right out of that office over there, pull him out that shit!” he ranted. “Nah, nah, we ain’t about waiting til the next election. We about to go get that motherfucker.”
Footage of Sullivan’s comments were shared widely by right-wing activists on social media, who exploited them to advance their case against BLM. He told me he was questioned by Secret Service agents after his speech.
— Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) August 28, 2020
“I always say, how good is your message if it falls on deaf ears?” Sullivan said in defense of his speech. “I mean, regardless of if you want to take it literally that we’re going to do that or figuratively for a system that is in place right now. And we’re gonna burn it down. But we need to get rid of him and put something better in place, [because] people are upset.”
On November 18, 2020, Sullivan published video of himself encouraging looters during intense protests against the lethal police shooting of Karon Hylton, a youth from DC’s Ward 4. The language he used to egg them on was practically identical to his encouragement of pro-Trump rioters inside the US Capitol: “Oh my god, you guys are savage! Take that shit and run. Go!”
According to Sean Michael Love of Blackhouse News, Sullivan repeatedly insinuated himself into DC BLM protests, usually with a bullhorn in hand, and worked to bring demonstrators under his sway. On November 14, when a large group of Proud Boys stormed through downtown Washington, DC to protest the presidential election results, Sullivan’s actions wound up diluting the counter-protest by local anti-fascist forces.
“He was part of the reason why that march wasn’t as large as it should have been,” Love recalled. “He swooped a group with him of about like, 50 to 100 folks, and took them to different parts of the city. We were like, you weren’t even supposed to be here. People weren’t supposed to be listening to him. And that reduced the numbers greatly earlier in the day.”
When a battle with the Proud Boys erupted that night, Love said some of the activists that went off with Sullivan were absent: “There were some people with him that should have probably been with us. So that is when we really started pushing, making sure letting everybody knew to stay away from this guy.”
But even as he was banished from left-wing circles, Sullivan attracted the interest of an aspiring documentarian who saw him as the potential protagonist in a moving real-life drama. With Jade Sacker focused on his exploits, and providing him and his brother with logistical support, he gained an additional incentive to stay on the front lines, wherever they were.
Paying the Sullivan brothers’ way to “benefit our film”
Sacker told me she first met John and James Sullivan at the vice presidential debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on October 7, 2020. She had been tipped off by a colleague about their dramatic fraternal rivalry, and was compelled to arrange to meet them “randomly, kind of just like on a whim.”
Sacker witnessed James outside the debate arena taunting Black Lives Matter supporters through a megaphone while surrounded by Proud Boys.
“And then John comes in later in the night with his group of, like, Biden supporters,” she recalled, “and they are representing the left, and people from James’ side are screaming at John. And they’re like, ‘You’re a traitor to your family,’ because their family is conservative. And people on John’s side were screaming at James that he’s a traitor to his race. And I just realized, like, wow, there’s probably a lot to unpack here.”
She spent the next three months immersed in the world of the two brothers and their family, filming and trying to make sense of a relationship that many outsiders viewed with puzzlement and deep suspicion.
Sacker has also used the resources at her disposal to propel the brothers’ political ambitions.
“I have covered James, and John’s travel in the past,” she said, “but mostly James’s airfare, because he’s in a different financial position than John. My reason for that was because James pays quite a bit in child support. And he’s struggled to maintain his public speaking engagements. So when he had an opportunity to go and speak at certain events, we wanted to help him because you know, it would benefit our film.” (Sacker said she did not pay for John Sullivan to travel to Washington DC on January 6.)
Since the riot at the Capitol, Sacker said she has provided John Sullivan with media assistance: “Some of the people in my apparatus for the film were trying to lend support to him. As you know, he was trying to publish some of some of his footage, and doing interviews and stuff like that at the direction of some of the people that had been helping me with the film.” (She said some of those helpers have worked for Bryan Fogel’s Orwell Productions, but the production house is not yet formally involved in the project.)
Among the videos Sullivan has released since the Capitol riot is a January 10 livestream in which he attempted to explain away his actions. In the live chat section, commenters badgered him for failing to explain why he volunteered to use a knife, accused him of breaking a window inside the Capitol, and wondered why he had not been charged with any crimes. During the livestream, Sullivan was wearing the same California Republic baseball cap that Sacker had donned inside the Capitol.
When I first questioned Sacker about Sullivan’s provocative actions inside the Capitol, she reflexively advocated for his innocence: “I don’t think that he’s a danger to anyone. I don’t think that he meant to hurt anyone. I think he was perhaps caught up in the moment. But his only intention was to document what was happening.”
But presented with precise details of how Sullivan instigated the mob in the moments leading up to Ashli Babbit’s killing, Sacker began to openly entertain doubts about her subject. “My sense of conclusion with this [film project] was that it would end with [John Sullivan] reading a diary that he gave me where he talks about self-loathing, and a lot of the trauma that he’s been through as a child,” she said. “I never could have anticipated that this would happen. I certainly never anticipated that he would vocalize some of the things that he has. And it’s – I mean, I don’t know where to go moving forward with this.”
Days after the chaos at the Capitol, Sacker said she had yet to watch Sullivan’s disturbing video. Yet she continued to train her camera on him and film his exploits around the city.
“He always gets released and usually much quicker than everybody else”
On the night of January 7, less than 24 hours after the riot at the Capitol, the leader of the Salt Lake City chapter of the Proud Boys and head of Utah’s Latinos for Trump, Thad “Chief” Cisneros, requested a conversation with John Sullivan.
According to Jade Sacker, Cisneros was a close political ally of John’s brother, James, and had been friendly with his father as well. He had been acquainted with John, who provided Cisneros with a platform to speak at the July 2, 2020 rally he helped organize in Provo, Utah.
I learned about the unusual meeting between Cisneros and Sullivan from local BLM activists tracking John Sullivan’s movements in DC. One source sent me a photograph they took of the two fraternizing in front of the Hamilton, a downtown DC hotel where Sullivan had been staying. Sacker can be seen filming their conversation.
According to Sacker, Cisneros “wanted to have a better understanding of John’s intentions, why he was at the Capitol,” whether he was collaborating with the FBI, and if his ex-military father had some role in what he did. She framed his questions in terms of “conspiracy theories” floating around the far-right online ecosystem.
As the two spoke, pro-Trump bystanders spotted Sullivan and summoned DC Metropolitan Police. Within minutes, Sullivan was in handcuffs on the steps of the Hamilton. Footage shot by a right-wing activist in town for the “Stop the Steal” rally showed Sullivan bantering with Sacker while she filmed his detention.
“Well, I guess I’m going to jail, Jade,” he said.
“I had bigger ambitions for you,” she responded.
“I had bigger ambitions as well, but I don’t see what I’ve done.”
According to Sullivan, FBI agents arrived to question him about what he saw inside the US Capitol. “They basically asked me about [Ashli Babbit’s] death, and the situation revolving around that and kind of how it played out,” he told me. “So, that being said, it was a very short and very brief conversation, just to provide some clarity from my mouth on really what went down that day.”
Sacker, who was also questioned by the FBI, said the federal officers described Sullivan as “cooperative.” After an hour and a half in detention, he was free to return to Utah, where he not arrested for another week – until days after the publication of this article.
Sean Michael Love of Blackhouse News said Sullivan’s history of being swiftly freed from police custody was a source of longstanding suspicion for BLM activists: “He always gets released and usually much quicker than everybody else. And that’s just, you know, when you see that pattern, you wonder if there’s something else going on.”
When I asked him directly if he had ever worked with law enforcement or been asked to collaborate, Sullivan angrily denied the allegations.
However, his videotaped police detention and his subsequent release have only deepened the sense of suspicion about his motives and agenda. Back in Utah, his brother, James, said lawmakers and activists across the spectrum are united in seeking to prevent him from destabilizing the political climate.
“We have almost a synergy here in Utah,” James Sullivan reflected. “And John coming back to disrupt that is something that even [elected] representatives have come out against. And the Democrats do not want him here. Like, we have a unique political climate here in Utah. There’s no real chance of violence or anything like that here – unless John comes back and starts igniting his group.”
An FBI bulletin disseminated to the media reported that armed pro-Trump protests are planned in 50 states on Inauguration Day. An outlier among those protests is one recently advertised on John Sullivan’s Insurgence USA website calling for an “armed march” at the Utah State Capitol. The flier made no mention of Black lives, or Black liberation. Instead, it called to “end government control.”
Correction: This article originally identified Kevin J. Sullivan as the adoptive father of John and James Sullivan. Their father is a retired Army Lt. Col. whose name has been withheld at the request of several acquaintances of the family.
Featured image: File Photo.