PROVO, Utah – When Black Lives Matter protests kicked off in Utah in late May, John Sullivan noticed a lot of the leaders were white.
So the Black, 26-year-old, former speedskater decided to start his own organization. He called it Insurgence USA, and he immediately started organizing protests for racial justice.
When someone suggested they go to Provo, he thought it was a great idea. The event would give his group a chance to get out of downtown Salt Lake City, where protests were usually held.
“My thought process behind that was just to change some hearts and some minds when we went out there,” said Sullivan from his apartment in Sandy, dressed in his usual outfit of black cargo pants and a black shirt.
The June 30 event in Provo ended in violence. Video shows a line of cars stopped by protestors at an intersection on University Avenue near Brigham Young University. A white SUV drives to the front of the group and demonstrators quickly surround it.
A man in the crowd pulls out a hand gun and fires through the passenger side at the driver. The car accelerates and another shot is heard.
Police later arrested six people in connection to the incident. The driver — who drove himself to the hospital — was injured but survived. Authorities charged Sullivan with rioting and criminal mischief with intent to damage or destroy property. Sullivan said he had nothing to do with the shooting and that the shooter was not a member of Insurgence USA.
Beginning An Arms Race
But the events that afternoon in Provo would lead to the birth of another group — Utah Citizens Alarm.
On July 1, Casey Robertson was sitting in his kitchen and scrolling through social media. When he saw a video of the Provo shooting, he said he was furious. He watched it over and over again. His father is a former officer in the Provo police department and his mother was a dispatcher.
When he heard protesters were returning the next day, he posted a call to arms on Facebook.
Sullivan and other Black Lives Matter-aligned protestors returned to Provo the next day. They were greeted by Robertson and dozens of others armed with assault rifles, lining Provo’s Center Street. Robertson and his group’s self-described mission was to protect the city in case violence erupted.
But protestors marched without incident, and Robertson took it as a win. The Utah Citizens Alarm was born.
“You know, we were a very intimidating show of force and show of solidarity. I think from day one, we were an immediate deterrent for any more violence,” said Robertson from his suburban home in Utah County. The former entrepreneur is white, 47 years old, wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
So, Sullivan decided to respond to Robertson in kind. After encountering Utah Citizens Alarm in Provo, he and others with Insurgence USA began taking firearms training. They spent afternoons crouched in the Utah desert, firing the same type of weapons Robertson’s supporters brought to Provo’s streets.
Sullivan said things began to escalate. He said UCA members threatened his group on Facebook, and they would come armed to every protest he held. In fact, The UCA Facebook page was shut down in August along with a number of other armed groups in the country.
“We really felt like we needed to arm ourselves after we saw them consistently come after us,” said Sullivan. For Insurgence USA, bringing out the guns was all about self-defense, said Sullivan.
Tensions between Utah Citizens Alarm and Insurgence USA grew over the following months, sometimes dipping into the realm of a spy thriller.
They placed infiltrators in each other’s groups to gather and leak information on meetings and tactics.
Robertson said he has dossiers on BLM activists in the state. And he’s recruited suburban housewives to monitor social media. “They sit at home. They’re moms that take care of their kids. And they watch these potential terrorists and gather information,” said Robertson. “John Sullivan, for instance. There’s nothing he does that we don’t follow and we don’t have.”
Utah Citizens Alarm sees themselves in the role of vigilant citizens providing extra ears and eyes for police. A UCA member once got word of a plan to spill red paint at various government buildings around Salt Lake City, according to Robertson. He sent screenshots of the plan and a message to the Salt Lake City police.
“If you know about this and you still let it happen, then we’re going to know as citizens that it’s apparently now our job to come down and protect our city,” said Robertson.
He also said he helped police identify another person who flashed a handgun during the Provo shooting.
The Provo police department said they take tips from any concerned citizen. “I would say we have a relationship or communication with all the different protest groups. I have a number of Black Lives Matter representatives that do that same,” said Provo Police Sgt. Nisha King.
The Militia Next Door
Utah Citizens Alarm represents a new kind of armed group, according to Mark Pitcavage, a historian who studies far-right groups for the Anti-Defamation League.
“These new armed vigilante groups are essentially a phenomenon to their own,” said Pitcavage. For example, groups like the UCA don’t have the conspiracy-oriented, anti-government ideology of the stereotypical modern militia movement. And they aren’t fighting against authorities for a single issue like public land.
Pitcavage said he’s also seen a growth of armed left-wing and black nationalist groups. But that doesn’t really describe Sullivan, who advocates for mainstream liberal policies like more police body cams and unarmed first responders.
It’s hard to predict the future of groups like Insurgence USA and Utah Citizens Alarm, said Pitcavage. But if protests flare up again, he could see conflicts between these groups continue.
“I could also see, because of a Biden presidency, some of these newer armed groups start moving closer to the traditional militia movement,” said Pitcavage.
But Robertson said his group is headed in a different direction. Instead of wearing military garb, plain clothes members keep an eye on protests. They fly drones to watch demonstrators.
“We’re just evolving as we go. You don’t see a militia or some fake army or whatever. You don’t see that anymore,” said Robertson.
John Sullivan is still fighting charges from this summer’s protest in Provo. He said he lost his job because of his activism. So he’s moving to the Pacific Northwest where, according to him, there’s a friendlier protest community.
He blames the lack of support here in part on the Utah Citizens Alarm. “UCA brings a lot of that unknown and people being scared,” said Sullivan. He said other places have groups like UCA, but protesters there are more willing to confront them.
Robertson, on the other hand, said he’s just getting started in Utah. He’s opening chapters of Utah Citizens Alarm around the state.
“I literally want every neighborhood in Utah to be trained and prepared for civil unrest, self-defense and natural disasters,” said Robertson.
And he said he’s designing a playbook to make UCA-type organizations easily duplicated not only in Utah — but in other states too.