‘I Don’t Think She Deserved to Die’: Black Activist Who Filmed Ashli Babbitt Shooting Speaks Out
John Sullivan, a.k.a. Jayden X, is a civil rights activist and crowdfunded video journalist. On January 6, he donned a bulletproof vest and embedded himself in the crowds that President Trump had encouraged to storm the Capitol. Sullivan climbed scaffolding and repeatedly snaked through a group of rioters to record clashes between the mob and law enforcement. He appeared with a crude hour and a half documentation of the violent and chaotic events of the day. He is now capturing notorious figures of the uprising, including the shirtless, face-painted “QAnon Shaman” and the bearded rioter 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 Capitol Police trying to get through a broken window into the speaker's lobby from the floor of the House to climb.
(Content warning: Graphic images of Babbit's death start at 1:14 in the video.)
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Sullivan's profile is unique: The 26-year-old lives in Utah and was a former speed skater who competed in the 2018 Olympic Trials. He's not a fan of institutional politics - "I never voted," he admits, "because I don't believe in the two-party system" - but he found sense in the street protests that followed the assassination of George Floyd. even the establishment of an activist group called Insurgence USA to fight for racial justice. Sullivan's activism has caused him legal trouble: he faces riot and criminal calamity charges arising from a BLM protest in Provo, Utah, last June. He says he has also become a target for far-right fighters whom he calls "chuds".
How did a slim black man who previously clashed with Proud Boys fare among a crowd of mostly white, seditious Trump supporters? Sullivan wore a simple device: a cell phone mounted on an image-stabilizing gimbal. In order to fit into the crowd, you have to reflect your revolutionary feelings. "I was concerned that people would recognize me and think I was Antifa or BLM or whatever," he says. "All the while they scream," Fuck Antifa! Shit, BLM. “I'm not saying I'm Antifa by any means. But I definitely believe Black Lives is Matter.” Sullivan is doing more than just shouting “USA!” At one point in the footage you can hear him screaming, “It's a bloody revolution "Let's take this shit." In another instance, he claims he has a knife that could be useful in opening a locked Capitol door. Sullivan insists he didn't have a real knife, and he doesn't apologize for his Tactic: “I had to relate to these people and build trust in the short amount of time I had to get where I need to go,” he said To see the police and the protesters because nobody wants to see the back of the people's heads from afar. "
You don't have to endorse Sullivan's methods to be caught in the front line of rebellion his footage offers. Sullivan says he was overwhelmed by weak resistance from police defending the nation's Capitol and said it was "nothing" compared to what BLM activists experienced when he was filming protests in Oregon last year. "During protests and riots in Portland, there is tear gas that you can't even see in front of you," he says. The use of crowd control agents in the Capitol was "anything but that," he says. "It's hard to fathom."
Sullivan has no institutional support to deter a professional journalist from the demands of law enforcement. He said he was detained in DC on Jan. 7 and interviewed by law enforcement agencies who were more interested in witnessing Babbitt's murder than as an intruder in the Capitol. Sullivan spoke to Rolling Stone by phone from Salt Lake City on Monday, just hours after he was visited by the FBI, which requested 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. "Either that or they just take my phone."
How did you end up in Washington on the day of the uprising?
I obviously knew about the Capitol storm for a while. How probably like four weeks. I wasn't sure when they were going to storm the Capitol, but I knew it would happen that day. And -
Let me stop you there because many people in America have been surprised by what was going on in the Capitol. How did you know this was going on?
I run my own civil rights organization, and we've already watched Trump supporters and what they brought up. So we had seen this coming for a minute. What made me go to Washington was when I saw Trump's tweet about him supporting or condoning the event. If Trump says he'll be there, people will make that extra effort. All of a sudden it looks like they're about to storm the Capitol and they'd have the numbers for it. Then I knew I had to be there. I went on the 4th, like two days before.
In your footage, the cops took a pretty effective point of view, with the mob fenced under scaffolding on the Capitol steps. What do you notice at this stage of the uprising?
People got really angry and aggressive. I remember this guy taking a protective shield off a policeman like he was literally taking him out of his hands and hitting the policeman with it. I said, "OK, this is new." I haven't seen anyone just grab a shield and no one does anything or shoot that person. As soon as that happened, the crowd really got engaged. And so they pushed past that line right there. The officers returned to the main steps of the Capitol on the balcony. There is another line there with some fences. But I mean, they [the mob] handled it with ease. The cops only beat their hands with batons. And then they finally go. You just go. It's not like they're being fired with pepper or rubber bullets. Just go away. And then everyone is on this balcony and says: "We made it." And then they begin to break through the actual Capitol itself, smashing the windows and breaking down doors to get in.
Once inside, there is a surreal scene where you stroll under the Capitol dome. And then you enter the house and film two attempts to break through the house chamber. Did you have a sense of the motivation? Did these people want to get in to hurt members of Congress?
There was a guy who came out - I think I got him on video - and said, “We'll just go in and sit down and sit down because this is our house.” Or something like that. So that could be his motivation. As for 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." Nobody gave me any idea of their plan of action after they stormed the Capitol. I wouldn't know about it other than that it's a statement.
At a narrow corridor entrance to the chamber of the house, the crowd is blocked by police officers who are able to hold the line against them and shout: "Stop stealing!" Can you describe what happened?
There were only two cops, only two cops right there. They just wouldn't move. I mean, all of the other cops moved, but those cops didn't move. So people got angry. You start pushing hard. You can't really feel that in the video. But I'm in that crowd, like shoulder to shoulder, and they're pushing as hard as thousands of people behind me trying to get people to go forward and go through that door. And it just doesn't happen, does it? And so people finally get angry and go out and turn left, walk down the hall to break through another entrance where you end up at the glass windows where these officers are guarding those doors.
This is outside the loudspeaker lobby which is connected to the floor of the house.
I remember coming up on it and seeing an officer crying, he's a little bit younger. I remember him saying, "I want me to go home and see my kids, man." Not for me, but for the officers next to him. And I was like, damn it. And that made me say, "Hey guys, nobody here is trying to hurt you, they're just trying to get in, you know? We're making a way for you to get through." I'm not in the crowd, but I'm just trying to help them get out of this situation, to talk it through because I know what I've seen before - they literally like to stab a cop in the eye. The crowd did all of these things that could hurt the police where they wouldn't go home to see their children. I just didn't want that to happen, especially because this is the door that they [the rioters] really want to get through, and the [full] crowd hasn't reached us yet. So I tried my best to convince them. And they kind of pulled right and got out of there.
This is the point in time when the recording takes place. Can you walk us through what happened next?
At that moment everyone is running through the doors and just banging on the windows. And I remember seeing five or six cannons sticking out of those doors. I really took note of the one on the left in the video. And I just remember screaming, "Gun, there's a gun! There's a gun! Folks, there's a gun!" But what you can't really understand is that nobody can hear me, can they? It's like when you're in a concert where everyone is screaming, shouting 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 say, "There's a gun, there's a gun, there's a gun!" And all these people are still knocking on the window. You just keep going.
What was Babbitt doing?
There was no way I saw her hit a window or break the window. Somebody else must have done that. But then all of a sudden I see her trying to climb through the window and I say, "Don't go in, don't go in" but I know she couldn't hear me. So my thought was to get this moment in front of the camera. I wanted to show how the gun fired and the bullet hit it and how it fell to the ground. All of this is going through my mind right now because I knew this would be the only record of how she would have died. Because I knew she was going to die. The man who pointed a gun at her leaned with the intention of shooting; he didn't play. It makes a difference whether you hold up a gun or warn someone or really lean into it. I thought I was going to show the world why she died. And I won't let her death go in vain. Because I didn't think she deserved to die. She didn't have a gun. She had nothing. That's what I'm thinking about right now, in this small period of time.
I remember she fell to the floor and I don't think this was the part I was ready for. That was emotional for me. I remember looking into her eyes, like staring at me. She just stares straight at me and I just see her soul leave her body, only the light leaves only her eyes. I felt a lot of anger, I felt a lot of sadness and grief, frustration. I don't think I could ever have prepared for it. This was the first time I saw someone die. I'm still trying to deal with it.
The footage is really hard to see. And then, just a moment later, another law enforcement group arrives in tactical gear. Is that the end of things?
At this point, people just calm down and are ousted by these riot cops who come out of nowhere behind us. They just start storming the building and throwing out all the protesters. They started throwing us all out. But as we leave the building there, a huge battle breaks out between a handful of demonstrators and like all these riot police. I mean a fight - a fist fight. The cops fight to get her out the door, they throw her out. They don't arrest anyone. You throw them out of the building, close the doors.
What did you do next
I guess it didn't really end there for me. Everyone knew I had this footage. And they come up to me and say, "Did you get the shot? Can I see it?" I showed a few people, I think they were just other reporters. And they definitely gave me the courtesy to say, "Get out of here, because people will probably try to do this for you."
[Before I left] I was actually called with a megaphone by a Trump supporter who said, "Are you Antifa?" And I said, "Uh, no." He says, "You look like you're dressed like Antifa." And yes, I would say I definitely look a bit like Antifa: I'm dressed all in black and I also had a bulletproof vest and a gas mask on. And I thought I was going to get fucked by a number of Trump supporters and Proud Boys, whoever was out there, because I was surrounded by bright people at that point. I said, "All right, I need to defuse this situation or I'll just be in pain." And so I start talking to him, "Hey, I'm just here to record." And he asks me: "What do you think?" And I say, "Well, I'm just very anti-government." He says, “Oh, OK. Well, that's a very anti-fascist thing.” And I said, “You know, you believe in electoral fraud, don't you? Well, I've never voted in my life just because I don't think my vote matters. "He says," Oh, OK, OK. We're sorry. ”I said,“ Dude, this sucks. ”I made him feel really guilty.
Has it had any impact since the day of the uprising?
The next day the police arrest me and the FBI takes me for questioning. Obviously I saw someone get killed and I was there at the Capitol. They want to know why I was there. I mean that is the question that arises. But they let me go, so nothing crazy. A lot revolves around the footage. You know I have the footage, yes. So that's what they want. They want the original files too. So that's what they'll get too. You don't just want to pull it off YouTube or something.
And did you get them the original files?
Oh yeah yeah They showed up to my house. The FBI came to my house. Probably like two hours before you called me, they showed up today and recorded the footage.
But you didn't feel like they were after you?
I haven't done anything incriminating. If they were after me, I would have been arrested by now. That's for sure.
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