John Sullivan made his first appearance in federal court on Friday on charges he took part in a pro-Trump riot timed to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden as the nation’s next president. “He thrives on chaos,” federal prosecutor Bryan N. Reeves told a judge, arguing that the 26-year-old provocateur should remain behind bars while his case works its way through court.
“Activist John” identifies not as a Trump supporter but a militant Black activist and citizen journalist. But he attracted the attention of the FBI when a video of the riot he posted online included recordings of him cajoling police officers to abandon their posts and exhorting trespassers roaming the hallways to “burn this shit down.”
Sullivan was accompanied on the Capitol rampage by L.A.-based photojournalist Jade Sacker, who is making a documentary about John and his brother James, a Black Republican activist in Utah allied with the Proud Boys. The brothers, who are Black, were adopted as boys by a devout Mormon father who is a retired lieutenant colonel. “[John’s] just angry,” Sacker told journalist Max Blumenthal of the Gray Zone. “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.”
Prominent Trump supporters, including the President’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have seized on Sullivan’s prior involvement in protests for racial justice to claim that “antifa” and left-wing groups infiltrated and steered an otherwise peaceful protest toward violence. (The FBI has said there is “no indication” that antifa took part in the U.S. Capitol riot.)
Sullivan’s video begins with him on the Capitol terrace and ends 40 minutes later with the shooting of San Diego-based Trump supporter Ashli Babbit by Capitol police. The 26-year-old has claimed that he was there to document the riot, but the federal affidavit paints a picture of a person instigating violence then standing back and watching it on a camera.
“Bro, I’ve seen people out there get hurt, I don’t want to see you get hurt,” he tells an officer guarding the Speaker’s lobby. Then, “Go! Go! Get this shit!” when the officers retreat, and the mob tries to break out the glass in the entry door windows. Babbitt is killed moments later and Sullivan films it.
“I didn’t think that she deserved to die,” he later told Rolling Stone. “She didn’t have a weapon. She didn’t have anything.”
Sullivan had plans to return to the Capitol on Inauguration Day, say federal prosecutors who want him to remain locked up awaiting trial. “The defendant uses messaging apps to set up meetings and set up riots,” Reeves told the judge.
Sullivan’s charges in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol came six months after he was charged in a bloody riot in Utah. In June, he formed his own group, Insurgence USA, and began attending racial justice protests, the first of which was an hours-long street blockade that resulted in a motorist being shot. At another protest, he invited Proud Boys to address the crowd. The founder of the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, Lex Scott, says Sullivan was a dangerous provocateur and told The Washington Post, “He came in to chase clout and get those media headlines.”
Racial justice organizers in Utah, Portland, and Washington, DC, have for months condemned Sullivan as a dangerous provocateur. In fact, Scott says Sullivan was “blackballed” from the group for reckless agitation and putting supporters in harm’s way.
“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 to the Gray Zone.
Magistrate Judge Daphne Oberg ordered Sullivan to stay off of social media, surrender his passport, and be on house arrest. His next virtual hearing in connection with the Capitol riot will be held on January 22.