Robert Gehrke: What we know about John Sullivan, charged with rioting at the U.S. Capitol

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Sullivan, who formed the group Insurgence USA, stages a Solo Armed Stance to protest the federal detaining of protesters in Portland, at the State Capitol grounds. Sullivan showed up at 8 a.m. for his solo protest, by 10, more than 20 armed counterprotesters showed up on the grounds of the Capitol, on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

John Earle Sullivan made his first appearance in federal court in Utah on Friday on charges he participated in the violent rioting at the U.S. Capitol.

There’s not much question he participated. He filmed it and posted it on social media — including chilling footage of a woman being shot by Capitol police trying to crawl through a smashed window — then posted subsequent videos describing the experience.

The real question, in my mind, is: What was he doing there?

Sullivan, you see, is a self-styled direct-action militant Black activist and founder of his own group, Insurgence USA. He has become the focal point of President Donald Trump supporters — including Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani — as proof that Antifa and leftists had infiltrated the ranks of an otherwise peaceful rally and instigated the violence that left five people dead and shook our democratic institutions.

Trying to answer that Big Question sent me down a rabbit hole of contradictions.

Let’s start with the basics: Sullivan was raised in a military family. His father was a lieutenant colonel, a devout believer in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who raised his boys in a conservative household and taught them to love the Constitution, his brother James, said on the Tooele Happy Hour podcast this week (more on James later).

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

John took up speed skating and had Olympic ambitions. He was featured in a 2016 ad for Uber that included Olympic hopefuls and he competed in the 2018 U.S. Olympic trials, finishing 20th overall in the 500 meter and 1500 meter events, failing to make the team.

John worked as a successful salesman, his brother said, making more than $200,000 in some years. He paid cash for a Mercedes and was building a house in Sandy, when his political views radicalized.

“He was doing amazing things with his life and he came out and said capitalism is a cancer to Black society, when capitalism literally gave him the Mercedes and the house he was building,” James Sullivan said.

In June 2020, John attended his first Black Lives Matter event, according to Lex Scott, the founder of the Utah chapter of the group. Nobody had seen him before or knew who he was. Sullivan also started his own group, Insurgence USA, in response to the killing of George Floyd and he organized his first protest in Provo.

“His very first protest he held was the one someone got shot,” she said.

(Courtesy of Lisi Merkley, The Daily Universe) A white SUV moves through protesters in Provo on Monday, June 29, 2020. Police say one of the protesters shot into the car, injuring the driver.

Police say protesters blocked an SUV that was attempting to turn when one of the protesters fired a round through the window, hitting the driver in the arm. Sullivan was arrested days later, charged with rioting, making a threat of violence and criminal mischief. Charging documents say Sullivan was with the shooter most of the day and did nothing to stop the act.

Weeks later, Sullivan showed up dressed in black with a rifle across his chest for a “solo protest” at the Utah Capitol. His demonstration drew counter-protesters from a Utah militia group.

But Scott said he did something that was “just a big no-no.”

“At his second protest he invited the Proud Boys on stage, he invited the militias on stage and said, ‘We want to work with you, we want to be friends with you,’” Scott said. “That is when he officially got blackballed by the activist community.”

Scott said Sullivan never attended any of the BLM meetings, never worked on any of their initiatives, never helped with their push for police reform.

“This guy is a clout-chaser, someone who is only here for fame or money or someone who just needs attention,” she said. “He’s a thorn in my side.”

In an extensive Twitter thread, a group of Washington state activists tweeting under the handle @RebellionBaby document a series of events where Sullivan is accused of carelessly sharing details of planned actions, leading people to waiting police where they were arrested or compromising the identities of individuals in the group — leading them to believe he was at best seeking attention and at worst an infiltrator.

In addition to being banished from Black Lives Matters events in Utah and shunned by groups in other cities, he is also accused of profiting from the cause.

On his Insurgence website he hocks face coverings, gas masks, bullet-proof vests, spear knives, T-shirts and jogging pants. And he promotes himself relentlessly on a network of social media accounts.

But how did he end up not just among a group of Trump supporters who ransacked the Capitol, but really riding the crest of the wave?

Sullivan said in a video recorded after the rioting that he doesn’t support Trump or President-elect Joe Biden. He’s not with BLM or Antifa. But he knew, based on social media posts, there would be an effort to overrun the Capitol and he wanted to be there to film what transpired like a citizen journalist.

“Was I an agent provocateur? Was I there to invite violence? I can tell you no,” Sullivan said in the video. “I was there to document the events and be part of history.”

But he did a lot more than document. In a video he can be heard shouting, “Let’s go! This s*** is ours! … We accomplished this s***! We did this together … Let’s burn this s*** down!”

He is seen climbing through a broken window, he confronts law enforcement and tells them to go home, then enters an office and — it appears and the federal charges against him allege — broke a window looking out onto the plaza.

Eventually he and the mob come to the barricaded doors at the Speaker’s Lobby where he films Ashli Babbitt trying to climb through a broken window before being shot by a police officer. Sullivan later shared the video with news outlets and it had more than 18,000 views as of Friday.

His participation in the riot is seen as proof by Trump backers that the events were provoked by leftist infiltrators. Chief among them is Sullivan’s brother, James.

James Sullivan launched Civilized Awakening which aligns with the “Patriot Movement” and is decidedly pro-Trump. He spent 90 minutes on the Tooele Happy Hour podcast exchanging right-wing grievances with the hosts and claiming his brother has been “indoctrinated by a radical socialist ideology.”

“The only way I see him having a way out is him going to jail to be completely honest. He won’t stop. He won’t listen to anybody,” James Sullivan said. “He’s so indoctrinated, he’s devoid of logic.”

The two brothers are the subject of a documentary in the works and, after not having spoken in months, were put in the same room for filming. The producer asked John what he would do if James was stabbed and he had a phone. Would he call an ambulance? James said John’s response was, “I’d step on his face and let him bleed out.”

At the end of the day, I’m not sure any of this gets us any closer to understanding Sullivan’s motives. He strikes me more as having a thirst for chaos and violence than a coherent philosophy or agenda.

“He incited violence,” his brother said, “people got hurt, and he stood back and watched it on a camera.”

But on some level, it doesn’t matter. The notion that Antifa made good people do bad things is patently absurd. Everyone who participated in the Capitol riot are responsible for their own actions and need to be held accountable.

Hopefully they will — and that goes for John Sullivan, too.