The video also landed him in jail. Federal authorities tracking down Capitol trespassers watched Sullivan’s video, interviewed him and then obtained warrants Thursday charging him with causing a civil disorder, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Sullivan repeatedly exhorted rioters to enter the building and overwhelm police, and seemed to convince Capitol Police officers to walk away from the glass door entry to the House Speaker’s Lobby, his video shows. Moments later, with Sullivan screaming warnings about a gun, rioter Ashli Babbitt is shot and killed on the video by a Capitol Police officer.
Sullivan, 26, later claimed he was there to document — not participate — in the event.
His video attracted the attention of right-wing leaders, including President Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, who said it showed that antifa was the true organizer of the attack; and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who called Sullivan a “BLM & fascist #ANTIFA supporter arrested for role in Capitol assaults.”
But Sullivan is hardly a darling of the left. He began organizing protests in Utah last year, and at one of the first, one of the protesters shot a motorist, said Lex Scott, a racial justice organizer who founded Black Lives Matter Utah more than seven years ago.
“He came in to chase clout and get those media headlines,” Scott said of Sullivan. “Now, it’s not my place to ever tell anyone how to be an activist or what their goals should be … but the fact is that Black Lives Matter Utah has never had one arrest in seven years. We’ve never caused any violence, any destruction of property, and this man comes in here and taints our reputation in a day.”
Activists in Utah have spent months condemning Sullivan, who has at turns identified himself as a racial justice protester and leftist documentarian, and they have warned others to be leery of his motives and any events he sponsored.
“John Sullivan has exploited Black people, profited off of our pain and hurt the movement,” said Tyeise Bellamy, the founder of the Black Lives for Humanity Movement, a Salt Lake City group that works with the homeless. “We’ve been telling people this for months. So now, to see him up there as this poster child for folks to say, ‘Look, look, look, look, it was Black Lives Matter all along, or antifa all along’ — we will not allow you to say he is part of our movement to justify the destruction, insecurity and racism of the right.”
Sullivan, one of four sons of Jack and Lisa Sullivan, grew up in Stafford, Va., about 45 miles from Washington. A friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Sullivan’s personal history, said the boys were adopted and raised in the Mormon faith and had an isolated, conservative upbringing. His brother James is a conservative activist. His parents, who now live in Utah, did not return calls Friday seeking comment.
The boys enjoyed inline skating, and John Sullivan and one of his brothers later switched to the ice and began speedskating. There is a 400-meter speedskating rink in Kearns, Utah, near Salt Lake City, where Olympic-caliber skaters train, and Sullivan moved there to train, then tried to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics. He did not make the U.S. team. He also began driving an Uber, and the company featured him in a blog post and television commercial.
The first time racial justice activists in Utah heard of Sullivan, he was leading marches last year through the streets of Provo — the home city of Brigham Young University — which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has a Black population of less than 1 percent.
He organized rallies under a group he formed and dubbed Insurgence USA, which activists said Sullivan used to fundraise and solicit donations from individuals who felt compelled to support racial justice movements in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. His website sells “Rise Against the Norm” T-shirts, “Insurgence USA” face masks and other merchandise.
As near-daily protests exploded in cities around the country, Sullivan’s demonstrations attracted large crowds despite his dubious history as an organizer, said Scott, of Black Lives Matter Utah.
He held rallies featuring Black organizers. But attendees said one demonstration also featured members of the Proud Boys, an all-male extremist group with ties to white nationalism. The Proud Boys who attended, organizers said, told the crowd they wished to make peace with Black activists.
In a different demonstration on June 29, Sullivan led crowds through the heavily trafficked streets of Provo. Authorities later said the group did not secure a permit, KSL-TV reported. Cars zipped past, some nearly hitting protesters who marched on the asphalt, said Bellamy, who was there.
As night fell, the crowd began to thin. Just after 8:30 p.m., a large, white SUV sped toward the group, knocking several protesters out of the way. Police said a man fired at the driver, who suffered non-life-threatening wounds and later drove himself to the hospital. The alleged shooter was arrested on charges of attempted aggravated murder, aggravated assault, rioting and threatening the use of a weapon in a fight; Sullivan was charged with rioting. The case is pending.
Black Lives Matter organizers say the fallout stemming from that protest has been broad and far-reaching, sullying the reputation of Black Lives Matter Utah, an organization that had previously held meetings with officials including Sen. Mitt Romney (R), Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) and Sen. Mike Lee (R) and conducted peaceful marches and vigils throughout the state. Racial justice protests in Salt Lake City, Provo and elsewhere in the state have since been dogged by armed counterdemonstrators who often show up in tactical gear.
Later in the summer, Sullivan helped organize a pro-gun-rights rally and marched with self-styled militia members at the Utah Capitol, KSL-TV reported, further infuriating Black activists.
Sullivan’s reputation as an agitator and bad actor has followed him into other protest circles. In encrypted chats among left-leaning activists, organizers routinely flag posts by Sullivan to new members, saying, “Don’t trust that guy” and, pointing to his past ties with the Proud Boys, “He’s a double agent.”
Sullivan, whose social media alias is Jayden X, visited Washington in December to observe his brother James speak at the Million MAGA march. At one point, Sullivan was surrounded and frisked by Proud Boys who suspected he was antifa, said his friend, who saw the incident. The friend said that episode led him to try to blend in with those around him on Jan 6. “I’m sure that that experience in a large way affected his behavior at the Capitol.”
Sullivan’s 40-minute video begins with him already on a terrace of the Capitol, looking out at the roiling mob. Then, he follows rioters as they confront police at various points and enter the Capitol, and can be heard shouting, “We accomplished this s---. We did this together. … We are all a part of this history” and “Let’s burn this s--- down.”
Sullivan wanders the halls of the Capitol, always recording, refusing officers’ commands to leave, the video shows. Eventually, he joins a group pressing up against the glass doors to the House Speaker’s Lobby, and implores the officers there to leave for their own safety. “I don’t want you to get hurt,” Sullivan can be heard saying. “We will make a path.” The officers then leave, and seconds later, Babbitt is shot as she tries to climb into the lobby.
Sullivan has called himself a “video journalist,” but admitted to the FBI that he has no connections to any media outlet. Sullivan sold The Washington Post rights to use a portion of his video for a story on the shooting.
As conservative media outlets began pointing to Sullivan as evidence of liberal involvement in the riot, he posted a video on YouTube on Jan. 9 explaining his actions. “I was there just to document the events and to be a part of history,” Sullivan said in the video. He said he was not a member of Black Lives Matter, but did support the Black community.
“I’m not here to assert myself or my beliefs on other people,” Sullivan said. “I just want to give people the footage, the video.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine on Monday, Sullivan explained his seemingly boisterous support of the rioters. He said he needed to blend in, since he was dressed in black with no red hat or MAGA gear. “I was worried about people recognizing me and thinking that I was antifa or, like, BLM or whatever,” Sullivan said. “I had to relate to these people, and build trust in the short amount of time I had there to get where I need to go: To the front of the crowd to see the dynamic between the police and the protesters.”
Sullivan was accompanied for some of his time in the Capitol by Jade Sacker, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who has been making a documentary about Sullivan and his brother James since last year.
Sacker, a freelancer who has worked for publications including Foreign Policy and Atlas Obscura, said that she did not witness the Babbitt shooting and that she had urged Sullivan at one point not to cause any damage.
“I was just there to document what was going on,” said Sacker. “I don’t think that John is violent. And I certainly don’t think that it was ever his intention to hurt anyone.”
Sullivan was taken into custody in Tooele County, Utah, on Thursday after the FBI obtained a warrant for his arrest in Washington. He made his first appearance in federal court in Salt Lake City on Friday afternoon, and was ordered released pending a detention hearing next week. Sullivan’s lawyer, Mary Corporon, said Friday evening that she had no comment. Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.