Chaos Agent Banished by Black Lives Matter.
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 Antifaâs 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 âActivist X,â âActivist John,â and âJayden X.â Since an interview with CNNâs Anderson Cooper, who described him as a âleft-wing activist,â Sullivan has become Exhibit A in the right-wingâs conspiratorial case claiming Antifa was responsible for the violence in the Capitol.
Through interviews with Sullivan, his brother, a video-journalist documenting his exploits, and Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists who have encountered him, a more unsettling portrait has emerged that stands at stark odds with the pro-Trump narrative. 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 Babbitâs 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 CNNâs 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 âliberal activist,â while the centrist fact-checking organization Politifact referred to him as a âleft-wing activist.â MSNBCâs Chris Hayes played Sullivanâs video at length during a January 8 broadcast, stating that it was âlicensed from a self-described civil rights activist.â
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 Sullivanâs presence at the Capitol, describing him as an âanti-Trump activistâ with close ties to Antifa and BLM.
Trump legal counsel and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani took to Twitter to highlight Sullivanâs role in the riot, calling him a âsuspected BLM activist.â 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
â 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 Sullivanâs presence to blame the left for a catastrophe that Trump inspired. A recent Data For Progress/Vox poll showed that the rightâs 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 Sullivanâs 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.
âIf thereâs violence to instigate, he will raise it to another level. But heâs not the one that does it,â Sean Michael Love, a DC-based BLM activist and publisher of Blackhouse News, said of Sullivan. âAnd thatâs a dangerous type of person. Thatâs one of the most dangerous types of people to me.â
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 Citizenâs 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 âagitatorâ who suffers from mental health issues and is driven by an insatiable desire for media celebrity.
âWhat he does is he creates hysteria, and he takes these phony videotapes of it, so thatâs why he got kicked out of the movement [in Utah],â James Sullivan said. âThey 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 YouTubeâŠ Heâs doing it for attention.â
An âapoliticalâ 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. âItâs like investigating into something or like getting access into letâs say â youâre trying to get access into an underground drug ring,â he insisted when asked about his encouragement of the pro-Trump mob. âYou know, you have to get your way in there somehow, like how do you do that?â
When I asked him about his own views, Sullivan was unable to offer anything resembling a coherent political position. He initially described himself as âmore on the BLM (Black Lives Matter) side, ending the police brutality, the racial discrimination.â But moments later, he insisted, âEven to this day, I donât have a political ideologyâŠ I donât have a political stance.â
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 Sullivanâs footage filming inside the Capitol and could be heard congratulating him for the invasion. âWe did it!â she chirped to Sullivan as the mob flowed inside the building.
Sackerâs documentary project is being advised by Bryan Fogel, who produced âIcarus,â the Academy Award-winning Netflix documentary on alleged doping by Russian Olympic athletes, and âThe Dissident,â 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 âonce he sees the sizzle and a demonstration of the work that Iâve done.â
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. âHeâs passionate, and heâs apolitical,â she said of Sullivan. âHe is against the system, but heâs extremely nonviolent.â
Portraying herself as âsomeone who is very much [politically] progressive,â and opposed to Trumpâs agenda, she framed her congratulatory comments to Sullivan as an expression of surprise, not approval.
âJohn knew somehow that people were considering storming the Capitol,â Sacker told me. âHe had had intelligence days before, and I didnât 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 didnât 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.â
Upon further questioning, Sacker conceded she was not aware of the full extent of Sullivanâs actions in the Capitol. âAs far as reliving the whole thing, like, Iâm still processing it. And Iâm still, I think also, like, a little bit scarred by what happened,â she said.
Sacker has also focused her documentary lens on John Sullivanâs brother, James, a pro-Trump activist who helped organize the January 6 âStop the Stealâ 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 Johnâs adoptive father is an Air Force major general named Kevin J. Sullivan, who was disciplined for his role in wrongly sending fuses for nuclear warheads to Taiwan. Following his retirement after some two decades of service, Maj. Gen. Sullivan went to work for an arms industry firm that contracts with the Pentagon.
In an apparent bid to protect his familyâs 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 âProud Boy X.â
While describing herself as Sullivanâs friend, Sacker conceded that his ultimate agenda is to spawn as much destruction as possible.
âHeâs just angry,â she reflected to me. âAnd he says it in a lot of his videos â âFuck the system, burn it down.â He doesnât think it can be reformed. Like he kind of wants his civil war. Heâs 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.â
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 fanatic who was shot by a Capitol Police officer, and Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who was allegedly beaten to death with a fire extinguisher and American flags by right-wing rioters. An untold number were injured in the chaos, which ended in clouds of teargas and a hail of flash-bang grenades.
I witnessed a whoâs who of white nationalist and militia-style groups on the Capitolâs grounds on January 6, from the Proud Boys to Three Percenters, from Boogaloos to Groypers to members of the Traditional Workerâs 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 Trumpâs Make America Great Again motto.
In the fallout from the rampage, Twitter permanently banned Donald Trumpâs account, while Silicon Valley social media companies initiated a massive crackdown on his online supporters. Congressional Democrats have demanded Trumpâs 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 âcompletely destabilizedâ the pro-Trump grassroots. âTheyâre ratting out each other out,â he said of his allies. âTheyâre running away from Facebook, and theyâre giving up.â
Sullivan is the founder of the Utah-based Civilized Awakening, a small grassroots group that organizes in support of Trumpâs agenda and inveighs relentlessly against Black Lives Matter. On his personal Facebook page, he issued a call for âblack/minority republicansâ to confront âantifaâ at Washington, DCâs Black Lives Matter plaza on January 6.
âSecurity has been taken care of,â he wrote. âI canât say more than that.â
Strangely, in the days leading up to the Capitol building riot, John Sullivan promoted his own January 6 action on Insurgence USAâs website. His call for an anti-Trump demonstration directly contradicted Black Lives Matter DCâs statement urging counter-protesters to stay home.
Not only did no one show up for John Sullivanâs 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.
âI know that John [Sullivan] was one of the people that led [the riot], and helped organize it,â James commented. âAnd, again, what I said is that Antifa goes off of basic psychological warfare, and theyâre seeing that the Trump supporters are very, very emotional â kind of on a knifeâs edgeâŠ [Antifa is] organized. You know, theyâre a well oiled machine. So like, they planned this, to change the public opinion against Trump supporters, and to create anarchy in the country.â
On Facebook, James Sullivan has promoted Giulianiâs 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: âWhat we [his family] have found out is that he is addicted to Adderall. He does not need to take it because he doesnât have ADHD. And what happens is that he becomes a little bit paranoid. Itâs very easy for him to to act cool, calm, and collected, but he flips on a dime.â
John Sullivan shot back that his brother was a âcomplete fucking liarâ 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 Sullivanâs motives: âI 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.â
Sullivan has forcefully denied this allegation as well. So what was the instigator known alternately as âActivist Johnâ and âJayden Xâ 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 â 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, âLetâs go! This shitâs ours. Fuck yeahâŠ We accomplished this shit. We did this shit together!.. Weâre all part of this history.â
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 â âLetâs go! You guys are savage!â â 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, âWe gotta burn this, we gotta get this shit burnt.â
While proceeding down a hallway and into a meeting room, Sullivan appeared to be narrating to Sacker, the documentarian who accompanied him inside. âFuck yeah, we fucking did this shit,â he boomed, briefly banging on a window, possibly to signal to the mob outside.
âDonât do that,â an audibly irritated Sacker could be heard exclaiming. A fracture in the window pane became briefly visible.
âMy bad,â Sullivan responded in a sheepish tone. âWell, they already broke the window so I didnât know I hit it that hard. No one got that on camera.â
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.
âIâll give you a hug now, we did it!â she said in a voice mixed with glee and relief. âYou were right, we did it.â
âDude, I was trying to tell you. I couldnât say much,â Sullivan replied.
âYou were right.â
âIs this not gonna be the best film you have ever made in your life?â he enthused to Sacker.
âHell yeah,â she responded before nervously inquiring, âWait, you werenât recording, were you?â
Sullivan pledged to delete the footage â a promise he clearly did not keep.
Moments later, a man bearing a Trump 2020 flag bellowed at Sullivan, âDo not deface the statues!â Sullivan responded, âI can respect the statues â well, people might burn this down.â
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.
âPeople got hurt downstairs,â he told an apparent commanding officer. âYâall putting yourselves in harmâs way. Iâm recording but Iâm just trying to tell you, Iâm caring about you. The mob of people, you donât want that.â
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, âThatâs what Iâm saying. Break that shit.â
Then, in a fit of excitement, he exclaimed, âDoes somebody have music? That would be fire if somebody had a boombox or something. Revolutionary music and shit.â
Minutes later, the mob reached a series of locked doors at the Speakerâs 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. âLet me through, I got a knife,â he could be heard saying repeatedly.
When asked about the incident, Sullivan denied to me that he possessed a knife. âI can tell you I did not have a knife at that time,â he maintained. âNor did I offer one to anybody.â
However, Sacker contradicted his account. âI 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 Iâve repeatedly told him that I donât think he should.â
But if he was so frightened of right-wing extremists, why did he offer to use his knife on their behalf? I asked Sacker.
âOkay, let me be clear, I wasnât aware of some of these actions,â she responded. âIâm sorry, I have misinterpreted your question. I can resolutely say that. Thatâs not the kind of behavior that I would condone or agree with. And I think that itâs concerning, and I wouldnât have thought that he was, I guess, capable of actually giving someone a weapon, especially in that situation.â
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.
âBro, I seen people out there get hurt,â he said to one officer, his face just inches away. âI donât 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!â
The moment the officers capitulated to the pressure from Sullivan and several others including Ashli Babbit, Sullivan urged the crowd: âGo! Go! Get that shit! Letâs go!â
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.
âYo! Thereâs a gun!â Sullivan screamed. âThereâs a gun!â
A shot rang out and Babbitâs 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.
âEither 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 somebodyâs life. I want to try and help save somebody,â he claimed. âWhen 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?â
âJohn is an agent provocateur, putting activist communities in dangerâ
John Sullivanâs 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.
âYou know, he never said anything when Donald Trump was elected,â James Sullivan said of his brother. âWeâd go to the ranch and have dinner with my dad and mom. And weâd just have normal conversations about politics, we would rip on Nancy Pelosi â 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.â
John Sullivan has attributed his personal rupture to being raised by white parents who imposed a colorblind worldview. âI donât know my heritage, I donât know anything about African American culture,â he said in a confessional video he recorded. âI wasnât able to absorb and experience thatâŠ Thatâs how I was raised. Thatâs how my mind shaped and formed at a younger age. I still struggle with those things today.â
As he entered a largely white local protest scene, he was able to assert his racial identity for the first time. âWhen Iâm in Utah and I see a whole bunch of people who are white organizing these events and not a single black person is leading, thatâs concerning to me,â he remarked during a podcast interview. âSo 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 hadâŠ [been] subject to police brutality, or like unjust treatment, but I started facing it when I did speak out.â
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.
The shots fired in Provo reverberated across the state, prompting the birth of a militia called Utah Citizenâs Alarm. âThat was the spark for the Patriot militia movement in Utah,â James Sullivan said of the shooting. âTwo organizations are formed, and thereâs like over 30,000 people that signed up to counter [John Sullivan].â
A rally organized by John Sullivanâs 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 âkicking vehicles and threatening drivers,â and urging protesters to block intersections.
âI never have incited violence or had any, I guess opportunities to do so,â Sullivan maintained when asked about the charges. He added, âIâve been charged but not convicted. Innocent until proven guilty, right?â
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.
âThat actually was a weird phone call,â James recalled. âThey reached out to me, and they said, âHey, this is what Johnâs doing. Weâre trying to get this stuff done and heâs getting people hurt and arrested. You know, and they donât need to be arrested. These are good people that are going to prison because John would incite violence.ââ
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 âfeeding into right-wing talking points.â 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 âanonymous tipâ about John Sullivan, demanding he be âlocked outâ of their circles. âWhile itâs 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. Itâs more likely that John is an agent provocateur, putting activist communities in danger.â
In addition to recently attempting to cozy up to our local orgs, (Including Rebellion Baby. Stop trying to be friends with us, John.) heâs doing a looooot of talking on his socials about wanting to move away from Utah.đ
â 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.âs âI Have A Dreamâ speech, Sullivan unleashed an incendiary diatribe: âWe gotta rip Trump right out of that office over there, pull him out that shit!â he ranted. âNah, nah, we ainât about waiting til the next election. We about to go get that motherfucker.â
Footage of Sullivanâs 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.
â Brendan Gutenschwager (@BGOnTheScene) August 28, 2020
âI always say, how good is your message if it falls on deaf ears?â Sullivan said in defense of his speech. âI mean, regardless of if you want to take it literally that weâre going to do that or figuratively for a system that is in place right now. And weâre gonna burn it down. But we need to get rid of him and put something better in place, [because] people are upset.â
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 DCâs Ward 4. The language he used to egg them on was practically identical to his encouragement of pro-Trump rioters inside the US Capitol: âOh my god, you guys are savage! Take that shit and run. Go!â
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, Sullivanâs actions wound up diluting the counter-protest by local anti-fascist forces.
âHe was part of the reason why that march wasnât as large as it should have been,â Love recalled. âHe 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 werenât even supposed to be here. People werenât supposed to be listening to him. And that reduced the numbers greatly earlier in the day.â
When a battle with the Proud Boys erupted that night, Love said some of the activists that went off with Sullivan were absent: âThere 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.â
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 brothersâ way to âbenefit our filmâ
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 ârandomly, kind of just like on a whim.â
Sacker witnessed James outside the debate arena taunting Black Lives Matter supporters through a megaphone while surrounded by Proud Boys.
âAnd then John comes in later in the night with his group of, like, Biden supporters,â she recalled, âand they are representing the left, and people from Jamesâ side are screaming at John. And theyâre like, âYouâre a traitor to your family,â because their family is conservative. And people on Johnâs side were screaming at James that heâs a traitor to his race. And I just realized, like, wow, thereâs probably a lot to unpack here.â
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 brothersâ political ambitions.
âI have covered James, and Johnâs travel in the past,â she said, âbut mostly Jamesâs airfare, because heâs in a different financial position than John. My reason for that was because James pays quite a bit in child support. And heâs 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.â (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: âSome 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.â (She said some of those helpers have worked for Bryan Fogelâs 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 Sullivanâs provocative actions inside the Capitol, she reflexively advocated for his innocence: âI donât think that heâs a danger to anyone. I donât 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.â
But presented with precise details of how Sullivan instigated the mob in the moments leading up to Ashli Babbitâs killing, Sacker began to openly entertain doubts about her subject. âMy 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 heâs been through as a child,â she said. âI never could have anticipated that this would happen. I certainly never anticipated that he would vocalize some of the things that he has. And itâs â I mean, I donât know where to go moving forward with this.â
Days after the chaos at the Capitol, Sacker said she had yet to watch Sullivanâs disturbing video. Yet she continued to train her camera on him and film his exploits around the city.
âHe always gets released and usually much quicker than everybody elseâ
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 Utahâs Latinos for Trump, Thad âChiefâ Cisneros, requested a conversation with John Sullivan.
According to Jade Sacker, Cisneros was a close political ally of Johnâs 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 Sullivanâs 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 âwanted to have a better understanding of Johnâs intentions, why he was at the Capitol,â 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 âconspiracy theoriesâ 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 âStop the Stealâ rally showed Sullivan bantering with Sacker while she filmed his detention.
âWell, I guess Iâm going to jail, Jade,â he said.
âI had bigger ambitions for you,â she responded.
âI had bigger ambitions as well, but I donât see what Iâve done.â
According to Sullivan, FBI agents arrived to question him about what he saw inside the US Capitol. âThey basically asked me about [Ashli Babbitâs] death, and the situation revolving around that and kind of how it played out,â he told me. âSo, 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.â
Sacker, who was also questioned by the FBI, said the federal officers described Sullivan as âcooperative.â After an hour and a half in detention, he was free to go.
Sean Michael Love of Blackhouse News said Sullivanâs history of being swiftly freed from police custody was a source of longstanding suspicion for BLM activists: âHe always gets released and usually much quicker than everybody else. And thatâs just, you know, when you see that pattern, you wonder if thereâs something else going on.â
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.
âWe have almost a synergy here in Utah,â James Sullivan reflected. âAnd 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. Thereâs no real chance of violence or anything like that here â unless John comes back and starts igniting his group.â
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 Sullivanâs Insurgence USA website calling for an âarmed marchâ at the Utah State Capitol. The flier made no mention of Black lives, or Black liberation. Instead, it called to âend government control.â