'I Don't Think She Deserved to Die': Black Activist Who Filmed Ashli Babbitt Shooting Speaks Out
UPDATE: John Sullivan was arrested and charged on January 14th, according to the Department of Justice, with “one count of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, and one count of interfering with law enforcement engaged in the lawful performance of their official duties incident to and during the commission of civil disorder.” An FBI affidavit discounts Sullivan’s claim to be a journalist: “He has admitted,” the agent writes of Sullivan, “that he has no press credentials and the investigation has not revealed any connection between SULLIVAN and any journalistic organizations.”
John Sullivan, a.k.a. Jayden X, is a civil rights activist and crowdfunded video journalist. On January 6th, he donned a bulletproof vest and embedded himself in the masses that President Trump had incited to storm the Capitol. Sullivan scrambled up scaffolding and repeatedly weaved through a crush of rioters to record clashes between the mob and law enforcement. He emerged with a raw, hour-and-a-half frontline documentary of the day’s violent and chaotic events. He captures now-notorious figures from the riot, including the shirtless, face-painted “QAnon Shaman” and the bearded rioter dressed in a grotesquely anti-Semitic “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. Crucially, Sullivan’s camerawork captured the shooting of 35-year-old mob member and Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by the Capitol Police while attempting to clamber through a broken window into the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor.
(Content warning: Graphic images of Babbit’s death begin at the 1:14 mark in the video.)
Sullivan’s profile is unique: The 26-year-old is a resident of Utah and a former competitive speed skater who participated in the 2018 Olympic trials. He is no fan of institutional politics — “I’ve never voted,” he admits, “because I don’t believe in the two-party system” — but he found purpose in the street protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, even founding an activist group called Insurgence USA that fights for racial justice. Sullivan’s activism has brought him legal trouble: He faces riot and criminal mischief charges stemming from a BLM protest in Provo, Utah, last June. He says he’s also become a target of far-right militants he calls “chuds.”
How did a slender black man who has previously clashed with Proud Boys within among a crowd of largely white, riotous Trump supporters? Sullivan carried a simple setup: a cellphone mounted on an image-stabilizing gimbal. Fitting into the mob, he says, required mirroring its revolutionary sentiments. “I was worried about people recognizing me and thinking that I was Antifa or, like, BLM or whatever,” he says. “The entire time they’re yelling, ‘Fuck Antifa! Fuck, BLM.’ I’m not saying I’m Antifa, by any means. But I definitely believe Black Lives Matter.” Sullivan does more than join in shouts of “USA!” At one point in the footage, he can be heard yelling, “It’s a motherfucking revolution, let’s take this shit.” In another, he claims he has a knife that might be useful in opening a locked Capitol door. Sullivan insists he did not have an actual knife, and he makes no apologies for his tactics: “I had to relate to these people, and build trust in the short amount of time I had there to get where I need to go,” he says: “To the front of the crowd to see the dynamic between the police and the protesters, because nobody wants to see the backs of people’s heads from a far-off distance.”
One doesn’t need to approve of Sullivan’s methods to be gripped by the the front-row view of rebellion that his footage offers. Sullivan says he was floored by the feeble resistance of the police defending the nation’s Capitol, saying it was “nothing” compared to what BLM activists encountered when he filmed protests last year in Oregon. “In Portland protests and riots, there’s tear gas where you can’t even see in front of you,” he says. The use of crowd control agents at the Capitol was “anything but that,” he says. “It’s hard to fathom.”
Sullivan does not have institutional backing that might insulate a professional journalist from the demands of law enforcement. He says he was detained in D.C. on January 7th and interviewed by law enforcement, who took more interest in him as a witness to Babbitt’s killing than as a trespasser in the Capitol. Sullivan spoke to Rolling Stone by phone on Monday from Salt Lake City, just hours, he says, after he’d been visited by the FBI, which demanded a full copy of his footage from that day. “I got a USB drive, plugged it into my computer, and gave it to them,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It’s either that or they just take my phone.”
How did you end up in Washington on the day of the riot?
I knew about the storming of the Capitol, obviously, for a while. Like probably like four weeks. I didn’t know the specific time they were going to storm the Capitol, but I knew it was going to happen on that day. And —
Let me stop you there, because a lot of people in America were surprised by what transpired at the Capitol. How did you know that this was afoot?
I run my own civil rights organization, and we were already watching the Trump supporters and what they were putting out. So we’d seen this coming for a minute. What prompted me to go out there [to Washington, D.C.] is when I’d seen Trump’s tweet about him supporting or condoning the event. When Trump says he’s going to be there, I mean, people are going to go make that extra effort. Suddenly it looks like they’re planning on storming the Capitol building and they were going to have the numbers to do so. So that’s when I knew I had to be there. I went on the 4th, so like two days prior.
In your footage, the cops made one pretty effective stand, with the mob fenced in under scaffolding on the Capitol steps. What stands out for you from that stage of the riot?
People got really angry and aggressive. I remember this guy grabbing a riot shield from a cop, like literally snatching it out of his hands and beating the cop with it. I was like, “OK, well, that’s a new one.” I’ve yet to see somebody just grab a riot shield, and nobody does anything, or shoots that person. Once that happened, the crowd got really engaged. And so they just pushed past that line right there. The cops were returning back up to the main Capitol steps onto the balcony. There’s another line there with some fences. But I mean, they [the mob] just barged through that with ease. The cops just slapped some of their hands with batons. And then eventually they leave. They just leave. It’s not like they were shooting them with pepper bullets or rubber bullets. Just gone. And so then everybody’s up on this balcony, like, “We made it.” And that’s when they start breaching the actual Capitol itself, smashing in the windows and breaking up doors to get inside.
Once inside, there’s a surreal scene where you walk under the Capitol dome. And then you cross into the House side and film two attempts to breach the House chamber. Did you have a sense of what the motivation was? Did these people want to get in to hurt members of Congress?
There was one guy [who] came out — I think I have him on video — and said, “We’re just going to go in there and sit down, and sit down calmly, because this is our House,” or something like that. So that could be his motivation. As far as the overall motivation of the group, I think a lot of people were there just because they were there. Because Trump said, “Go to the Capitol.” No one gave me a sense, specifically, of their action plan past the point of storming the Capitol. I wouldn’t know anything of it, other than it being a statement.
At one narrow hallway entrance to the House chamber, the crowd is blocked by police who are able to hold the line against them yelling, “Stop the steal!” Can you describe what happened?
It was just two cops, just two cops right there. They just wouldn’t move. I mean, all the other cops moved, but those cops didn’t move. So people were getting angry. They start pushing hard. You can’t really feel that in the video. But I’m in this crowd, like shoulder to shoulder, and they’re pushing so hard, like thousands of people behind me trying to get people to go forward and go through that door. And it’s just not happening, right? And so people finally get angry, and they go out and take a left, go down the hallway to break through a different entryway, which is where you end up at the glass windows, where those officers are guarding those doors.
This is outside the Speaker’s Lobby, which connects to the House floor.
I remember coming up to that and seeing one officer crying, he’s a little bit younger. I remember he said, “I want I want to go home and see my kids, man.” Not to me, but the officers beside him. And I was like, damn. And that compelled me to say, “Hey, guys, like, nobody here is trying to hurt you, they’re just trying to get in, you know? We’ll make a path for you to get through.” I’m not with the crowd, but I’m just trying to help them get out of that situation, talk them through that, because I know from what I saw prior — they literally like stabbed a cop’s eye. The crowd were doing all these things that might hurt the police to where they wouldn’t go home to see their kids. I just didn’t want that to happen, especially because it’s this door they [the rioters] really want to get through, and the [full] crowd has not reached us yet. So I tried my best to convince them. And they kind of peeled off to the right and get out of there.
This is when the shooting occurs. Can you take us through what happened next?
At that moment, everybody starts rushing the doors, just bashing the windows. And I remember just seeing, like, five or six guns just poke out of these doorways. I really took notice of the one to the left of me in the video. And I just remember screaming, “Gun, there’s a gun! There’s a gun! Guys, there’s a gun!” But what you can’t really understand is that nobody can hear me, right? Its like if you’re in a concert where everybody’s yelling and screaming and singing along. It’s so loud you can’t hear the person next to you. That’s how it was in there. So I’m saying, “There’s a gun, there’s a gun, there’s a gun!” And all these people are still banging on the window. They just keep doing it.
What was Babbitt doing?
By no means did I see her bash in a window or even break the windows. Somebody else did that, for sure. But then all of a sudden, I see her start trying to climb through the window, and I’m like, “Don’t go in there, don’t go in there,” but I know she could not hear me. So my thought was to get that moment on camera. I wanted to show the gun firing, and the bullet hitting her, and how she dropped to the ground. All of this is going through my mind at that moment, because I knew that this was going to be the only record of how she would have died. Because I knew she was going to die. The guy who was pointing a gun at her was leaning with an intent to shoot; he was not playing. There’s difference between holding a gun up and warning somebody versus, like, really leaning into it. I was like, all right, I’m going to show the world why she died. And I’m not going to let her death go in vain. Because I didn’t think that she deserved to die. She didn’t have a weapon. She didn’t have anything. This is what I’m thinking about in this moment, in this small sliver of time.
I remember she dropped to the ground, and I don’t think that’s the part I was ready for. That was emotional for me. I remember just like looking into her eyes, like she was staring at me. She’s just staring straight at me, and I just see her soul leave her body, just the light just leave her eyes. I felt a lot of anger, I felt a lot of sadness and sorrow, frustration. I don’t think I could ever have prepared myself for it. This was the first time I saw somebody die. I’m still trying to deal with it.
The footage is really difficult to watch. And then, just a few moment later, a different law-enforcement group in tactical gear arrives. Is that the end of things?
At that point, people just kind of calm down, and they get pushed out by these riot cops that come out of nowhere from behind us. They just start storming the building and throwing out all the protesters. They started funneling all of us out. But as we exit the building there, a huge fight breaks out between a handful of protesters and like all these riot cops. I mean, a fight — a fistfight. The cops are fighting to get them out the door, they throw them out. They don’t arrest anybody. They throw them out of the building, close the doors.
What did you do next?
I guess it didn’t really end there for me. Everybody knew I had this footage. And they’re coming up to me, like, “Did you get the shot? Can I see it?” I showed a few people, I think they were just other reporters. And they definitely did me the courtesy of telling me, “Get out of there, because, people are going to probably try and take that from you.”
[Before I left] I actually got called out by some Trump supporter with a megaphone, who was like, “Are you Antifa?” And I was like, “Uh, no.” He’s like, “You look like you’re dressed like Antifa.” And, yeah, I would say I definitely look a bit like Antifa: I’m dressed in all black and I had a bulletproof vest on as well, and a gas mask hanging from that. And I thought I was about to get fucked up by a whole bunch of Trump supporters and Proud Boys, whoever else was out there, because hella people surrounded me at that point. I was like, “All right, I got to defuse this situation, or I’m just going to be in some pain.” And so I start talking to him like, “Hey, I’m just here to record,” And he asks me, “What do you believe?” And I’m like, “Well, I’m very just anti-government.” He’s like, “Oh, OK. Well, that’s a very Antifa thing to say.” And I was like, “Well, you know, you say you believe in voter fraud, right? Well I’ve never voted in my life, just because I don’t think my vote counts.” He’s like, “Oh, OK, OK. Sorry.” I was like, “Dude, that’s fucked up.” I made him feel real guilty about it.
Have there been repercussions since the day of the riot?
The next day I get detained by the police, and the FBI does bring me in for questioning. Obviously, I’ve seen somebody get killed, and I was there at the Capitol. They want to know why I was there. I mean, that’s the question that comes up. But they released me, so nothing crazy. A lot of it just centers around the shooting footage. They know I have the footage, yeah. So they want that. They want to have the original files, too. So they’re going to get that too. They don’t just want to pull it off YouTube or anything like that.
And did you get them the original files?
Oh, yeah, yeah. They showed up to my house. The FBI showed up to my house. Probably like two hours before you called me, they showed up today and took the footage.
But you didn’t feel like they were after you?
I haven’t done anything incriminating. If they were after me, I’d already have been arrested. That’s for sure.
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