More than 20 armed men show up at Utah Capitol during small demonstration against police violence

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Armed men face off with a couple of protesters on the State Capitol grounds, where a handful of protesters were protesting recent violence in Portland, on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

At 8 a.m., John Sullivan took his place in front of the Capitol. He was covered in black clothing and gear from head-to-toe — a black bandana around his nose and mouth, a black rifle slung across his chest over a black tactical vest, black boots on his feet.

The exhibition, promoted by his activist group Insurgence USA, was described as a “Solo Armed Stance,” meant to decry police arresting protesters in unmarked vehicles, like what’s happened to demonstrators in Portland, and what happened to him at his house July 9, when he was taken into custody for his alleged involvement with crimes at a June 29 protest in Provo.

“I literally thought I was going to die,” Sullivan said of the arrest.

For two hours on Wednesday, Sullivan stood undisturbed with his rifle and a few other protesters. Then, about 20 men showed up. They, too, wore tactical vests and carried guns. Many wore masks and dark sunglasses, despite the overcast sky. They identified themselves as members of Utah Citizens’ Alarm. Their stated goal: Keep the peace. With guns, if they decide it’s necessary.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Sullivan from Insurgence USA and a few protesters talk with counterprotesters at the State Capitol grounds, where more than 20 armed counterprotesters showed up, on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

“Just as [police protesters] have the right to their First Amendment rights and to exercise that, we have also the Second Amendment, which allows us to bear arms, and yes,” UCA leader Casey Robertson said, “we want to be a deterrent for anyone that wants violence in our communities, and [being armed] is loud and clear deterrent for anyone who wants to destroy, kill, attack, that there are people here who will practice their Second Amendment rights.”

Sullivan said he wanted to protest with a gun on Wednesday because he wanted to appeal to UCA and other armed groups.

“I want to speak in a language that they can understand,” he said. “I can carry a gun just like you.”

Yet, he said, as a Black man, his holding a gun was met with scrutiny and force — like Sullivan said he knew it would. There was a larger police presence at the Capitol on Wednesday than in recent days. And more than 20 men with guns showed up to quell whatever threat they thought Sullivan’s demonstration might lead to.

Once word got out that the armed group was at the Capitol, a few more police protesters showed up, leading to some brief confrontations between the groups.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). Kay Jay from Salt City News films armed counterprotesters on the lawn in front of the State Capitol on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

At one point, as they were leaving, UCA members held up cans of mace at activist Emanuel Hill and Marvin Oliveros, who stuck around the group with others — talking to, cursing at and heckling them — until the armed men left.

Utah Highway Patrol officers stood nearby throughout the morning, watching, and sometimes trying to lead the armed group away from the protesters when they asked for protection. A UHP spokesman didn’t immediately respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment Wednesday.

Robertson said UCA works closely with law enforcement, that they are ”extra eyes and ears for the police.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Utah Highway Patrol keep their distance as more than 20 armed men roam the State Capitol grounds, where a handful of protesters were protesting recent violence in Portland, on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah recently called out Utah police for their perceived alliance with this armed group and others, saying the ACLU trained observers saw officers fist bump and accept water from these members during a July 1 protest in Provo, planned by Insurgence USA.

UCA members were also at a planned march against racism in Taylorsville on July 11 that was canceled because of “safety concerns.” Insurgence USA organized that event, too.

Robertson said Wednesday that the group formed after a protester shot a truck driver during a demonstration in Provo on June 29. Jesse Keller Taggart, 33, has been charged with attempted murder and other felonies for allegedly firing the gun. Bradley Glenn Walters, 29, of Ogden, has been charged with aggravated assault and rioting, third-degree felonies, for allegedly pointing a gun.

Sullivan himself has been charged for alleged rioting and criminal mischief from that evening. In court documents, law enforcement specifically mention Sullivan as an organizer and say he talked to Taggart after the shooting.

“John Sullivan had a criminal responsibility ... to report felony acts, condemn the behavior, and aide in the investigation,” a probable cause statement read.

Sullivan told the Tribune that cars were trying to run over demonstrators that night and denied he committed any crimes or knew any would take place.

“I didn’t know people were going to get ran over. I didn’t know he had a gun,” Sullivan said.

Throughout the morning Wednesday, UCA members always outnumbered protesters.

In his Facebook Live feed, broadcast on the page Just Media Utah, Oliveros told the armed men they were scared. Footage shows that at one point three men with guns positioned themselves around Robertson. Over the next few minutes, as Oliveros and others point this out and taunt them, more UCA members joined around Robertson.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Armed counterprotesters surround Casey Robertson, as protesters film them with their cell phones at the State Capitol grounds, where more than 20 armed counterprotesters roamed the area while a handful of protesters were protesting recent violence in Portland, at the Utah State Capitol on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Oliveros laughed at them, asking what they feared when there were so many of them, all armed.

Another activist, Lorena Burciaga, asked the men why it was necessary to show up with guns, with so much of their faces concealed, instead of just their noses and mouths to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Burciaga said that if the men wanted to express their opinion, or join rallies, they could.

But, she added, as a caveat, “We don’t have [fire]arms. We have only the voice.”

The armed men tried to leave at one point, but told UHP troopers they didn’t want to be followed, and many stayed put for a few more minutes. Oliveros and others had said they were going to record members’ license plate numbers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Counterprotesters threaten to spray mace on protesters during a face-off at the State Capitol grounds on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Around 12:30 p.m., the UCA members were standing grouped under the cherry trees that circle the Capitol building. UHP troopers were nearby. Then two trucks pulled up, honked a few times, and the men ran to hop in. Protesters followed. Some UCA members pulled out mace, telling the protesters to step away.

But the situation calmed quickly, and the trucks drove away.

At least one protester waved goodbye to them.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). A couple of protesters wave as the armed counterprotesters leave in the back of their pickup trucks, after a handful of protesters faced off with more than 20 counterprotesters at the State Capitol on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.