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John Sullivan, a self-proclaimed activist and journalist, filmed Ashli Babbitt’s death at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He now faces criminal charges.

John Sullivan, a self-proclaimed activist and journalist, filmed Ashli Babbitt’s death at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. He now faces criminal charges.

Illustration by Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

John Sullivan: Antifa, journalist or criminal? The story of the man who filmed Ashli Babbitt’s death

Trump wants to know who shot Ashli Babbitt, a Capitol rioter who died on Jan. 6. John Sullivan wants to know if he’s a criminal for filming it

SHARE John Sullivan: Antifa, journalist or criminal? The story of the man who filmed Ashli Babbitt’s death
SHARE John Sullivan: Antifa, journalist or criminal? The story of the man who filmed Ashli Babbitt’s death

Sitting in his Murray town house in July, the mild demeanor of John Sullivan contrasts sharply with the events that took place at the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. A statute of Buddha graces Sullivan’s mantle. The back of his right hand, which he uses to gesture as he speaks, has a tattoo of the “all-seeing eye” atop a pyramid. “It’s for self-reflection,” he tells me.

Sullivan, by his own admission, was in the middle of several protests and riots throughout the summer and fall of 2020, culminating in the Capitol insurrection in January 2021. But, unlike most demonstrators, Sullivan wasn’t there in support of former President Donald Trump; he wasn’t there as an agitator, either, he claims. But, the self-proclaimed “activist-slash-journalist”— who, according to his YouTube channel, captured extensive footage from that day — faces federal charges stemming from his alleged role in the Capitol riot.

Sullivan’s actions on Jan. 6 leave a trail of questions. The charges he faces are criminal: civil disorder, unlawful entry of restricted areas and obstruction of an official proceeding, among others. Trump allies — Rudy Giuliani, most notably — have pointed to him as evidence that antifa and other left-wing activists, not Trump supporters, helped spearhead violence at the Capitol.

But, Sullivan, in the center of a whirlwind of controversy and contradiction, claims he was acting as a journalist. He recorded 39 minutes of footage both inside and outside of the Capitol that day.

Now, he says, he wants his money back.

The 27-year-old Utahn sold rights to his video from Jan. 6, including an up-close look at Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt as she was shot, to NBC, CNN and other news outlets for more than $90,000. And the full video he took is still available on YouTube. But Sullivan tells me the money is gone — federal authorities deemed Sullivan’s actions to obtain the footage illegal and confiscated the cash from his bank account.

“Do you think it’s easy to sell that footage?” Sullivan asked, toward the end of an hourlong conversation. “Do you think anyone can get ‘90K’ for that?” He says his actions at the Capitol — pushing his way through the hallways with the mob and exclaiming “let’s burn this (expletive) down” in his video — were part of his journalism. Sullivan, however, was not credentialed or representing any publication.

The Department of Justice says there is probable cause that his actions were illegal. He denies wrongdoing.

The video footage he captured, the surest documentation of Babbitt’s death, is stuck in the middle. As we sat in his living room in Murray — he says he moved from Sandy after the FBI raided his home and confiscated cameras, laptops and GoPros — Sullivan rehashed the events of that day, moment by moment. At times, he expressed frustration, anger and even disdain.

His video is a trove of documentary evidence. But what Sullivan did to get it, and the laws he allegedly broke or ignored in the process, question whether the video should exist at all. Sullivan’s footage has been viewed by millions; now his own fate hangs in the balance.

Ashli Babbitt’s death sparked a political firestorm

Before a Republican House member called it an execution, and long before Trump said it was unjustified, Ashli Babbitt’s death was captured by Sullivan’s camera lens. It was a full-color confirmation of the violence and death at the Capitol.

While attempting to climb through a window outside of the House chamber, Babbitt was fatally shot by an officer. That much we know. But in the days, weeks and months that followed, alternative narratives about the day’s events started to crop up. One GOP House member, who helped barricade the House chamber doors from rioters down the hall from Babbitt, claimed that some of the footage looked like a “normal tourist visit.” Other lawmakers emphasized the “peaceful protesters” or “peaceful patriots.”

Some protesters were peaceful. But the legal record documents that others broke the law and committed acts of violence. And as the narrative has become increasingly politicized, the story of Babbitt’s death has taken on its own life.

“Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” Donald Trump asked in emails and at rallies and TV appearances. America deserves to know the name of the officer who shot this “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman,” the former president has said. But Trump’s question — “who shot Ashli Babbitt?” — overlooks a different query: whether America should have seen her death in the first place.

An angry crowd storms the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

Rioters supporting President Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

John Sullivan: Journalist or rioter?

This isn’t Sullivan’s first brush with controversy. Giuliani pulled Sullivan into the national spotlight in January when he claimed that Sullivan was part of the left-wing group antifa, which Sullivan denies. Sullivan contends that he organized a pro-gun-rights rally with a far-right militia group last summer. But signs in the front window of his Murray town house read “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.” For its part, Black Lives Matter Utah disavowed Sullivan after he was present at a Provo rally that turned violent last June. “We do not want to be associated with John Sullivan,” Lex Scott, the Black Lives Matter Utah founder, told Fox News.

When The New Yorker profiled Sullivan earlier this year, his paradoxical persona took a back seat to a bigger question: Is reporting a defense for rioting?

The First Amendment freedom guaranteed to the press finds hazy application in the 21st century, where people like Sullivan — uncredentialed, self-employed, reliant upon social media spikes and YouTube hits — want protection, too. Some news organizations, like NPR, are allowing their own journalists to participate in certain forms of protest and activism away from work, but with permission.

However, questions remain: Are only credentialed journalists, representing a media organization, recognized by the Constitution? What does that make of bloggers and freelance reporters? And is breaking the law, or trespassing, or, say, storming the Capitol permissible if the video footage that results is newsworthy enough?

Media organizations paid tens of thousands of dollars to use Sullivan’s video from Jan. 6, and segments were presented as evidence in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial in February. The New York Times’ 46-minute video documenting the day’s events flashes portions of Sullivan’s footage 10 times.  

There’s a reason rioters thought Sullivan was on their side, though. “I know how to not draw attention to myself,” Sullivan said. “The only way is to fit in in the best way that you possibly can.” Other journalists were blocked when protesters saw their credentials, and “MURDER THE MEDIA” was etched into one of the Capitol’s exterior doors by rioters; Sullivan captured footage that was crisp and largely uninterrupted — long enough that it could be synthesized with other accounts to form a timeline of events.

But Sullivan’s footage may prove to be a damning collection of evidence against himself. At one point in the video, Sullivan — donning a ballistic vest, with a gas mask in hand — stands atop the Capitol balcony with thousands of demonstrators below. His cellphone, mounted on a gimbal, records him yelling, “Let’s go! Get up here!” as rioters begin to scale the walls. After entering the building, when police move to escort Sullivan and others toward the exterior doors, he refuses to leave. “You’re not stopping anything from happening,” he says to an officer in the recording.

As he walks through Statuary Hall, someone yells, “Please do not deface the statues.” Sullivan is heard responding, “Well, people might burn this down, I’m not gonna lie. So it might be too late for that.” 

Minutes prior to Ashli Babbitt’s death, rioters crowded the hallway outside the Speaker’s Lobby, where they were met by locked doors and three officers. “Let me through, I got a knife,” Sullivan says, and makes his way to the front. Sullivan told an FBI investigator that he didn’t actually have a knife; when I pressed for clarification as to whether or not he actually had one, he wouldn’t answer.

“She’s dead,” Sullivan, in shock, mutters to himself. “Dude, this (expletive) is gonna go viral.”

“The only way to be in a position like that is if they look at you and they’re like, ‘OK, he’s chill with us,’” Sullivan told me during our interview.

In Sullivan’s video, protesters — including Babbitt — rush to the door to the Speaker’s Lobby, and some start smashing windows. What happens next was viewed by millions of Americans. Just feet away from Sullivan, a hand with a gun appears on the other side of the door. Babbitt, with a Trump flag draped around her back like a cape, begins to climb through a shattered window. The gun is fired once, and a bullet strikes Babbitt’s upper chest. She collapses backward.

“Shots fired!” Sullivan says.

People crowd Babbitt’s body and call for help. “She’s dead,” Sullivan, in shock, mutters to himself. “Dude, this (expletive) is gonna go viral.”

John Sullivan faces uncertain future as Ashli Babbitt’s death becomes a political rallying cry

Giuliani and the media latched onto Sullivan’s story quickly. Sullivan uploaded his video to YouTube the evening of Jan. 6; that same night, Anderson Cooper invited him on CNN to discuss his experience. It didn’t take long for Giuliani and others to research Sullivan’s history — his experience in protests in Portland and Salt Lake City. 

“He clearly is an antifa partisan. He’s involved in it. He agrees with it. He is not a pro-Trump person, and he is deeply involved in this invasion of the Capitol,” Giuliani said on his podcast on Jan. 9. 

Mugshot of John Sullivan at the Tooele County Jail.

John Sullivan, 26, of Sandy, was charged Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., with being on restricted property, civil disorder and violent entry or disorderly conduct in connection with riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Tooele County Jail

Sullivan said he believes Giuliani’s claims are false, but he knew the increased attention meant trouble. “As soon as Rudy Giuliani tweeted about me, I knew I was going to jail,” he told me. Days after the insurrection, the FBI obtained an arrest warrant for Sullivan and he was booked into jail on Jan. 14 on charges that include civil disorder, being on restricted property and “violent entry or disorderly conduct.” He was released a day later on a number of conditions, including a ban from social media and attending protests. In speaking to me, Sullivan reiterated his claim that he’s innocent.

The Giuliani version of events gathered steam across social media: It wasn’t Trump supporters but rather left-wing activists that instigated violence at the Capitol. By April, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that half of Republicans believed it was a nonviolent protest or the work of leftists “trying to make Trump look bad.” In February, Utah Rep. Burgess Owens told me only “150 or so” of the thousands at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were Trump supporters, and the rest were Black Lives Matter activists, Democrats or “Republicans who’ve never voted.” When I asked for clarification in an April interview, Owens didn’t want to discuss it. “Tell your readers that right now we have things that are more important now than Jan. 6,” he said. “I don’t know if you guys want to spend the rest of the next four years talking about Jan. 6, but the more time we move away from that, the less it really matters.”

Today, Sullivan is estranged from certain far-left activist circles. He traveled to Portland multiple times during summer 2020 to document Black Lives Matter protests there, but some activists warned others not to associate or speak to him. One Portland activist, known by the Twitter handle @ProtestPapi, called him “untrustworthy” and “opportunistic,” warning, “do not trust this man.”

The claims of antifa and left-wing insurrection slowly tapered off. But a new line of inquiry has emerged among some Republicans. In June, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., grilled the FBI director about Babbitt’s death, demanding to know the name of the officer who shot her. “The Capitol Police officer that did that shooting appeared to be hiding, lying in wait and then gave no warning before killing her,” he said.

In July, Gosar’s efforts continued. “Our fake news media has asked no questions or sought information about this tragedy,” he wrote in an official press statement titled “WHO KILLED ASHLI BABBITT?” “So, I have. And now President Trump has joined me in seeking the truth.”

In early July, Trump undertook two weeks of praising Babbitt and condemning the officer who killed her. There was “no reason” for her to die, Trump said at a rally on July 7. He reportedly regretted not lowering White House flags to half-mast in her honor. He sent an email to his followers and released a press statement, both with just four words: “Who shot Ashli Babbitt?” And although the Department of Justice says it will not pursue criminal charges against the U.S. Capitol Police officer who shot her, citing “insufficient evidence,” Trump continues to push for an investigation. Babbitt’s family, too, plans to file a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit.

Now, Trump claims he knows who the officer is — that it was the head of security for a high-ranking Democrat, and that the truth “is going to come out.” A senior law enforcement official told NBC News that Trump’s claim of the officer working for a high-ranking Democrat is false.

As we sat in his living room, Sullivan spoke of Jan. 6 with both anger and elation. He nearly fell off the couch acting out his maneuvers to get footage. He clenched his fists when mentioning Giuliani. When I asked him if he has any regrets, he sat down and leaned back. “None,” he responded.

For someone facing at least six criminal charges, he was unusually open. Other individuals at the Capitol on Jan. 6 have been far more hesitant to talk. The first rioter to be sentenced didn’t plead guilty until late June. Others refuse to speak to media. When I called the Arizona man who allegedly dressed up as Captain Moroni during the insurrection, he said, “Sorry, no comment,” and hung up. He was arrested by the FBI on two misdemeanor charges just two days after our phone call.

“I didn’t do anything. I was there to expose the truth.” — John Sullivan

But Sullivan considers himself completely innocent of the charges: obstruction of an official proceeding; civil disorder; entering and remaining in a restricted building; disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building; disorderly conduct in a Capitol building; and parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.

“I didn’t do anything,” he told me. “I was there to expose the truth.”

His case is different than the 500 other Capitol rioters, he claims, because his intent was to be a journalist — not an activist or protester. At least, that’s the case his lawyer will make, he says. (His lawyer declined to comment for this story.) But another nonviolent individual facing similar charges — who also captured bits of footage, including the scene of Babbitt’s death, and livestreamed them on Facebook — pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge last month and faces up to six months in prison.

With regard to Sullivan, his 39 minutes of high-definition footage remains central to what he claims to be his defense — but may prove to be the most damning evidence against him.