When Reporting Becomes a Defense for Rioting | The New Yorker
Category: News & PoliticsVia: thomas • 3 weeks ago • 3 comments
By: Andrew Marantz (The New Yorker)
This article from the New Yorker Fills out some information on John Sullivan. It is a slightly more comprehensive view of what appears to be a somewhat confused young man.
John Sullivan claims that he was at the Capitol insurrection as a neutral journalist. Others say he was a riot chaser who urged the mob to "burn this shit down."
By Andrew Marantz
February 3, 2021 Sullivan has made a habit of blurring the lines between activism, advocacy journalism, and opposition research.Illustration by Jon Key; Source photographs from John Sullivan / YouTube (portrait 1, 2); Preston Crawley (portrait 3); Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency / Getty (crowd)
John Sullivan, also known as Jayden X, calls himself an activist, a reporter, or an entrepreneur, depending on who's asking. When I first reached him by phone, he told me that he was "a video journalist, or maybe a documentarian, or whatever you would say—going out there and just live-streaming the events that are transpiring, so that people can see it on the Internet." He lives near Salt Lake City, but, until recently, he spent most of his time on the road, looking for the next riot: Portland, Seattle, New York. He has tried to associate himself with the Black Lives Matter movement, but many organizers have disavowed him; others have gone further, accusing him of being an "agent provocateur," a "con artist," or a "thrill-seeking instigator." "Riots are meant to bring change, so purge the world with fire," he tweeted in December. But he has not always been clear about what kind of change he has in mind. "I'm not Antifa," he told me recently, although he went out of his way to mention that he often wears all black to protests, as many antifascists do. "And I'm not with the Trump supporters," he continued, although he was among the Trump supporters when a mob of them assaulted the Capitol, on January 6th. Using a Samsung phone mounted on a gimbal, he captured about ninety minutes of raw video—a chilling, near-comprehensive record of the siege. (Reviewing some of the footage, in Artforum, the film critic J. Hoberman called it "cinema as forensic evidence.") Sullivan has since uploaded his footage to YouTube and provided it to law enforcement; he has also repeatedly tried, and largely failed, to explain what he was doing there in the first place.
Sullivan is twenty-six, lean and sharp-featured, and he moves with the lithe precision of a former athlete. He has three younger brothers: James, Peter, and Matthew. "We're all Black, adopted, and our parents are white," John told me. "We were raised in a sheltered household and taught to view the world as colorless. Then you grow up and suddenly realize, No, actually, I'm Black, and a lot of the people I grew up around were racist as fuck." He told me that his father, John Sullivan, Sr., is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now works in the freight-shipping industry, and that his mother, Lisa, is a homemaker. They are conservative—"more conservative than Trump," Peter told me—and are devout Mormons, although their three eldest sons no longer practice the religion. Growing up, John, Jr., was a nationally ranked speed skater, but he quit in 2018. (On one of his Web sites, he claims that he "competed in the 2018 Olympic Games"; in fact, he only got as far as the Olympic trials.) In 2016, he starred in a slickly produced Uber ad, the conceit of which was that athletes who train at odd hours might want to work part time in the gig economy. A director's cut ends with a shot of Sullivan skating to an abrupt stop, followed by the tagline "Find your hustle."
After graduating from high school, Sullivan said, he thought about joining the Army Reserve, and applied to be a police officer in a Salt Lake City suburb. He ended up working in corporate sales instead. Last year, feeling isolated and restless during the pandemic, he decided to start his own business. George Floyd had just been killed, and Sullivan's social-media feeds filled with rousing images from street protests against police brutality. He went to a local Black Lives Matter protest, wearing a GoPro on his motorcycle helmet, and uploaded his footage to YouTube. After that, he established an L.L.C., called Insurgence USA. Later, on the Web site ActivistJohn.com, he posted a photo of himself raising a clenched fist, with the National Mall in the background, next to the words "John Sullivan is bringing the revolution." He solicited donations on Patreon and PayPal, offered his services as a motivational speaker, and sold merchandise: black tactical gloves; protective goggles; red baseball caps that looked like Make America Great Again hats, but actually read "Made Ya Look / Black Lives Matter." He started filling his YouTube channel with footage from street clashes, employing a gonzo-guerrilla aesthetic: balaclavas, billowing clouds of tear gas. "I put my body on the line to bring people the best documentation of history," Sullivan said. "That's my thing: When shit's going down, you follow me and I show you exactly what it's like."
Last June, early in his new career as an activism entrepreneur, Sullivan attended a protest near a police station in Provo, Utah. A pro-police group had organized a "Back the Blue" rally; another group planned an anti-police-brutality demonstration around the same time. (Sullivan's Insurgence USA organization reportedly promoted the latter event on social media.) The vast majority of Black Lives Matter protests last summer were peaceful—more than ninety-five per cent, by some estimates—but, at this one, clashes broke out. According to criminal affidavits later filed in state court, one of Sullivan's fellow-protesters shot a man who was driving near the protest, and Sullivan kicked a woman's car and threatened to beat her up. (Sullivan claimed that his confrontation started because the woman was trying to run over the protesters.) Sullivan was charged with criminal mischief and "riot," which was defined, in part, as assembling "with the purpose of engaging . . . in tumultuous or violent conduct." Sullivan argued that he had simply attended the event as a journalist—not a credentialled and impartial journalist, perhaps, but a journalist nonetheless.
More than once, his brother Peter, who describes himself as "politically moderate," asked John why he was drawn to potentially violent street actions. "He would talk about his business, how he wanted to be the best video journalist, and that meant taking risks," Peter recalled. "He would also tell me, 'You don't understand, it's such a surreal experience.' In addition to the journalism element, I think that rush is something that he really craves."
John Sullivan made a habit of blurring the lines between activism, advocacy journalism, and opposition research. He tried to stay abreast of where the next big protest or riot was likely to break out, monitoring activist group chats on Signal and Telegram. "I was able to collaborate with the left in their community to gather information," Sullivan wrote in an unpublished draft of a memoir. "But I also can connect with the right and successfully be in their presence without them being combative towards me." When he was surrounded by left-wing activists or right-wing activists, he sometimes gave the impression of being one of them; at other times, he implied that he was working undercover to expose one side or the other. In his recent conversations with me, he emphasized his neutrality. "I want to make sure my First Amendment rights as a journalist are not being forgotten," he told me.
The First Amendment enshrines, separately, "the freedom of speech" and "of the press." "If the Speech Clause is the Court's favorite child, the Press Clause has been the neglected one," Sonja West, a legal scholar at the University of Georgia, wrote in the Harvard Law Review, in 2014. As a result, West told me, "this remains a fuzzy area of the law." Can an undercover reporter misrepresent herself in order to get a story? Should a journalist in pursuit of publicly useful information be allowed to do certain things—push past a police barricade, say—that a normal citizen may not? "The Court has indicated that journalists have a special role that deserves protection," West said. "But it has been very reluctant to say what those protections are." If a professional reporter follows a crowd of protesters onto private property, the police may refrain from arresting her. If a whistle-blower leaks classified information to a journalist, prosecutors can treat this differently than if the information were leaked to a spy. In West's Harvard Law Review article, she advocates what she calls "press exceptionalism," suggesting a kind of checklist—eight "distinct qualities," including "attention to professional standards" and "a proven ability to reach a broad audience"—that might distinguish the press from "press-like" members of the public. Sullivan checks about half of these boxes, depending on how generously you apply the criteria.
There has never been a clean way to delineate professional journalists from everyone else, and the boundary has only grown blurrier in the selfie-stick era. Defining the press too narrowly risks excluding freelancers and correspondents from nontraditional outlets; defining it too broadly could mean including anyone with a cell phone and a YouTube account. "If everyone has equal claim to being a reporter, regardless of intent or track record, what it means in practice is that law enforcement won't be able to tell the difference," Lucy Dalglish, the dean of the University of Maryland's journalism school, told me. "Suddenly, you have a situation where anyone can do any crazy thing—like break into the Capitol building, for instance—and then, when the cops show up, they can just take out their phone and say, 'Hands off, I'm a documentarian.' " One of the people who invaded the Capitol on January 6th was Nick Ochs, a Proud Boy from Hawaii, who was later arrested for unlawful entry. "We came here to stop the steal," Ochs said on a live stream the day of the siege. That night, however, Ochs told CNN that he had entered the Capitol as a professional journalist. He was associated with a far-right new-media collective comprising audio and video talk shows, published on YouTube and other platforms. The name of the collective was Murder the Media.
In July, Sullivan returned to the Provo police station for another demonstration. Standing on a small promontory and holding a megaphone, he gave a short speech. Then, spotting members of the Proud Boys and other far-right groups in the crowd, he improvised a kind of olive-branch gesture. "I want to understand you," he said. "That's what we're about here. Getting to know people . . . because then you love them just like your family." The megaphone was passed to several far-right activists, including a burly Proud Boy in a camouflage vest. The following month, Sullivan, wearing body armor and carrying a long gun, led a few dozen Second Amendment enthusiasts, including both left-wing activists and members of the Utah Constitutional Militia, on an armed march to the state capitol.
The more prominence he gained in local newspapers and TV-news segments, the more vocally left-wing organizers denounced him. (Lex Scott, a founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, told me, "He's a thorn in our side. We learned to stay away from him long ago.") Some wondered whether he was a police informant, or a spy for a far-right militia. Among their reasons for suspicion was Sullivan's brother James, a right-wing activist in Utah who had ties to the Proud Boys. (When asked if he had ever collaborated with James, John said, "I have barely spoken to that man in years.") James currently runs a right-wing Facebook page called Civilized Awakening, which, in addition to the usual links about Trump and voter fraud, seems to specialize in anti-John Sullivan content—for example, a crudely Photoshopped image of John receiving a creepy neck massage from Joe Biden. Recently, on Facebook, James wrote, "I got into activism for one reason, and that was to take down my brother." An activist from Portland floated a simpler explanation for John Sullivan's antics: "He came off as someone that was a bit lost and looking for a family/following anywhere he could find it."
According to left-wing activists, John Sullivan promoted his work online using a fluctuating assortment of handles: @ActivistX, @BlackFistNews, @FascistFighter, @WatchRiotPorn. Sometimes, he appeared to log in to multiple accounts simultaneously, using one to corroborate another. During one group chat on Signal, an organizer warned, "Activist X is not to be trusted." Sullivan, who was in the chat, brushed it off. "Lol the fuck?" he wrote, using the display name Activist X. "I've know Activist X," the next comment read. "Sounds like a lot of bullshit to me." This was supposed to appear under the display name Tiger Wolf, but other activists claimed that they could see that it was actually posted by Sullivan, from another one of his phone numbers. "Why did you respond to yourself?" one asked. Another wrote, "I'm burning this chat lol." (Sullivan denied using the handle Tiger Wolf and others, saying, "People are trying to hack my accounts and misrepresent me.")
During the fall and winter, as Black Lives Matter protests fizzled and pro-Trump protests grew, Sullivan followed the momentum, live-streaming from far-right events in Washington, D.C., and at the Oregon state capitol. On Election Day, he witnessed a group of Proud Boys, normally implacable supporters of law enforcement, chanting "Fuck the police." "That was shocking," he wrote in a draft of his memoir; in his view, the far right's turn against the police marked "a paradigm shift." In December, he started to notice chatter on Parler and Telegram indicating that Trump supporters planned to descend on the Capitol. He booked a trip to D.C. In the memoir draft, he recalled thinking that Trump supporters who were angry about the outcome of the election, especially those who "overcame this barrier of supporting the police," might "unite with Black Lives Matter. . . . I felt that perhaps they would come and fight together against the government."
In the first shot of Sullivan's main video from the Capitol, he is standing outside, underneath a set of bleachers erected for Joe Biden's Inauguration. He angles his camera to take in the crowd behind him: red MAGA hats, yellow Gadsden flags, a man in a fur pelt. Suddenly, the crowd surges up a flight of stairs and toward a line of police barricades. The officers, most of whom do not have helmets or shields, are vastly outnumbered; they hold the line for a few seconds, but they're quickly overtaken. "This shit's ours!" Sullivan shouts, as the invaders swarm onto a terrace. "We accomplished this shit. We did this shit together! Fuck, yeah!"
Looking over a balustrade to the lawn below, he sees a roiling crowd of thousands of people. He lets out several wonder-struck cheers, his voice cracking with exertion and emotion. "That's beautiful shit!" he shouts. "Let's go!" People are climbing up the walls, and he offers one of them a hand up. "Holy shit, dude, that was awesome," he says. "Let's burn this shit down." A few seconds later, Sullivan rests his camera on a ledge and turns to a woman next to him, who is also filming. "I'm just gonna rely on you for footage from now on, is that chill?" he says. "Or should I just keep recording?" But then he presses forward, still taping, following the group through a broken window.
Inside the Capitol, Sullivan wanders from room to room more or less at random, as if playing a first-person video game with no clear objective. He marvels at the palatial digs ("This is surreal"; "I'm shook at this!"; "What is life?") and fantasizes about their destruction. "We've gotta burn this," he says. "We've gotta get this shit burnt." When he is surrounded by Trump supporters, he provides encouragement or advice. When confronted by police officers who ask him to leave, he says, "I'm just filming," or "No freedom of the press now?" A few times, he tries to persuade police officers to abandon their posts. "We want you to go home," he tells an officer. "I don't want to see you get hurt."
In the Rotunda, he stops to admire the domed ceiling, watching the afternoon light stream in from above. "Damn," he says, relishing the moment. Then, gesturing toward the fresco on the ceiling, he asks the man next to him, "What is this painting?"
"I don't even know, but I know we in this motherfucker," the man responds.
"Gang shit, bro," Sullivan says.
"Make sure you follow me on Instagram," the man says.
Sullivan continues past Corinthian columns and ruffled red-velvet curtains, into a marble hallway packed with insurrectionists, where the mood turns dark. A woman with a gray ponytail stands inches away from a police officer, vibrating with rage. "Tell fucking Pelosi we're coming for her!" she shouts. "We're coming for all of you!" She stops and stares the officer down, as if preparing for battle. "You ready?" she asks.
"I'm ready, bro," Sullivan says, perhaps to himself. "I've been to so many riots."
Suddenly, the mob pushes past the police and into a small inner corridor. One of the insurrectionists grabs a megaphone and turns to face the others. "We need to remain calm now," he says. "We've made our point. Let's be peaceful."
"Fuck that shit," Sullivan says. "Push!" Several times throughout the video, he can be heard saying, "I got a knife." (He now claims that he didn't actually have a knife: "I used that to navigate myself to the front of the crowd.")
Some of the insurrectionists break away and find another small hallway, leading to a set of wood-and-glass doors. On the other side is a lobby leading to the House chamber. (The mob doesn't know it, but several members of Congress, staffers, and journalists are still in the process of being evacuated from the chamber.) The insurrectionists use helmets and wooden flag poles to start beating down the door, smashing the glass and splintering the wood frame. One woman, an Air Force veteran named Ashli Babbitt, starts to approach the door. A plainclothes police officer stands on the other side, wearing a mask and pointing a pistol in the group's direction. "There's a gun!" Sullivan says, but Babbitt doesn't seem to hear. She starts to climb through an opening in the doorway. The officer shoots once and Babbitt falls to the ground, bleeding, eyes open. "She's dead," Sullivan says to the man next to him, who identifies himself as a correspondent from the far-right conspiracist network Infowars. "I saw, the light goes out in her eyes."
"I need that footage, man," the Infowars correspondent says. "It's gonna go out to the world."
"Dude, this shit's gonna go viral," Sullivan says.
From his hotel room, Sullivan uploaded his video footage to YouTube. He licensed parts of it to the Washington Post and NBC, and Anderson Cooper interviewed him on CNN. Right away, far-right conspiracy theorists started to use Sullivan for their propaganda efforts. Some tried to suggest that Sullivan was a left-wing plant who had somehow orchestrated the entire insurrection. Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's lawyer, tweeted a screenshot of what appeared to be a text conversation between himself and James Sullivan, who claimed, baselessly, that there were "226 members of antifa that instigated the Capitol 'riot,' " and added, "I'm currently working with the FBI to expose and place total blame on John."
John Sullivan uploaded videos in which he spoke directly to the camera, attempting to justify some of the more incongruous parts of his Capitol footage. "I have emotions, and those moments are crazy," Sullivan said. In another video, he added, "I was not there to be a participant. I was there to record. But I also have to blend my fucking Black ass into that crowd." Many of his followers didn't seem to buy it. When he tweeted, "#TrumpSupporters are making a hit list to take me out," someone responded, "Stop acting like the victim. . . . You were obviously more involved then what you are playing out."
"I mean, the FBI doesn't think so," Sullivan responded.
A week after the insurrection, James Sullivan says, he sent the F.B.I. tips about his brother. On January 14th, according to John, agents came to his apartment and seized two computers, two cell phones, and his camera equipment. Federal prosecutors announced that Sullivan was being charged with one count of knowingly entering a restricted building, one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct, and one count of interfering with law enforcement. "People are understandably angry and upset, but I'm hoping we don't respond to mob violence with mob justice," Mary Corporon, one of Sullivan's defense attorneys, told me. "It's going to take a lot of discipline to look at each individual case separately, to give each person a chance to be presumed innocent, but that's what the Constitution requires."
A central function of the press is to reveal significant information, including images that the public otherwise would not have seen. "People can say what they want, but nobody else got the footage I got," Sullivan told me. "That shit was history, and I captured it." The events leading to Ashli Babbitt's death are of undeniable import, and we would understand them less well if Sullivan hadn't documented them. In a dissenting Supreme Court opinion from 1972, Justice Potter Stewart argued that, in order to protect "the full flow of information to the public," there "must be the right to gather news." Sullivan and his lawyers may end up arguing that some of his actions on January 6th—shouting support for the mob, for example—were acts of newsgathering, necessary for Sullivan to get as far as he did. This theory would be less helpful, presumably, in explaining away some of Sullivan's other actions, such as encouraging the invaders to push forward or claiming to have a knife. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, from 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that speech is not protected by the First Amendment if it is "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." This is a high bar, but it's possible that Sullivan's speech would clear it.
Sullivan spent the night of January 14th in jail. The next day, he was brought before a judge, who released him on the condition that he wear an ankle monitor and stay in his house except for pre-approved activities. Near the end of the hearing, the prosecutor asked that Sullivan be barred from using the Internet. The defense argued, "It is nearly impossible to find employment in the twenty-first century without some form of Internet access." In the end, the judge ordered the prosecution and the defense to agree on "a list of social-media sites that you feel would be dangerous for Mr. Sullivan to use."
Against his lawyers' advice, Sullivan has called me nearly every day since his release, giving me a Zoom tour of his apartment and sending me a Google Drive of protest footage, snippets from his childhood vlog, and cell-phone recordings from his family's Thanksgiving. I wondered whether these were acts of defiance or of self-sabotage, but it seemed more likely that he was trying to alleviate his boredom. He showed me his video-editing setup, which includes a ring light, a key light, and a professional microphone with a pop filter—but not his computers, which had been confiscated by the F.B.I. His rhetoric about his trip to D.C. was triumphant—"I think I really accomplished something"—but his body language seemed deflated. He told me that, when he closed his eyes, he still saw images of Babbitt's shooting. "Even after all the wild stuff I've witnessed," he said, "that was the first time I ever saw anyone die." Internet sleuths continued to argue about whether he was a far-right plant or an Antifa double agent, but he sounded more like a confused kid who was in over his head.
During one of our conversations, he told me that he hadn't yet received the list of social-media sites that he would be prohibited from using, but that he had been told to expect a far-ranging ban. "Maybe I'll be allowed to use LinkedIn, maybe not even that," he told me. "I'm just watching TV and meditating and trying to steer clear of all of it." This may have been his goal, but he did spend at least some time lurking on Twitter. I know this because, on January 16th, he followed me. He used one of his old handles, @ActivistJayden. I clicked on the account's profile and scrolled through its history. It was one of Sullivan's lesser-used accounts; at the time, it consisted only of a few retweets. There was a live stream of a protest outside a federal prison and a video of a protester playing a violin while tear gas spread around him. On New Year's Eve, @ActivistJayden had retweeted a tweet that read, "Let's make 2021 the year of political upheaval." Replying to the tweet from a different account, Sullivan had written, "I'm fucking ready."