Police have denied any link to a shadowy figure dubbed “Umbrella Man”, who was filmed casually smashing windows of an auto parts shop at the Minneapolis riots before reportedly being sighted at protests in at least two other cities.
Unsettling footage of the “creepy white dude” methodically breaking the glass facade of a Minneapolis auto store with a hammer as the riots kicked off last Tuesday surfaced online after he was filmed by suspicious protesters.
Witnesses say the incident, which took place in the city where four police officers have been charged over the death of George Floyd, led to an escalation in violence which included looting and buildings being set alight.
In a series of clips uploaded to social media, the man, who is dressed entirely in black and has most of his face obscured by a distinctive gas mask, holds an umbrella over his head with one hand while wreaking destruction on Minneapolis Auto Zone with the other.
Several bystanders approach but Umbrella Man avoids each confrontation by walking off.
“Those cops will come for you if you’re pulling that crap,” Minneapolis activist Brad Svenson, who recorded the mystery vandal on his mobile, tells him.
“That’s garbage, pulling that sh*t.”
Other footage shows Umbrella Man duck through an open gate and across a parking lot while witnesses pepper him with questions and demand he take off his mask.
“Are you a f—ing cop?” someone yells at him. “Does it matter?” Umbrella Man responds before vanishing from view.
Minnesota Attorney-General Keith Ellison uploaded the video to Twitter and called on users to help identify him.
“Video shows a suspicious white man breaking windows at the Minneapolis Auto Zone and then walking away from the scene,” Mr Ellison tweeted. “This man doesn’t look like any civil rights protester I have ever seen. Looks like a provocateur. Can anyone ID him?”
Since then, theories about Umbrella Man and his agenda have exploded online, with people speculating as to whether he was an undercover cop or organised protester.
Police were forced to issue a statement denying any connection to Umbrella Man after Twitter users named him as Officer Jacob Pederson from the local St Paul Police Department.
The claim went viral after screenshots purporting to show text messages from Officer Pederson’s former fiancee saying she recognised his eyes and also the mask.
In a weird twist, St Paul PD initially denied Mr Pederson was one of its officers. It later issued a correction confirming his employment but claiming he had an alibi and that it checked out.
“We are aware of the social media post that erroneously identifies one of our officers as the person caught on video breaking windows in Minneapolis,” it said.
“We want to be perfectly clear about this: The person in the video is not our officer.”
Many online sleuths remain sceptical and have called on St Paul to release evidence proving his innocence.
“Cops are the ones in question here,” wrote schoolteacher Sarah Faith Payne.
“We will not We will not “take your word for it” anymore. There is no trust left. Provide proof that can exonerate him, or make him (and whoever else was involved) own up to what happened. Your silence is unacceptable.”
Whatever Umbrella Man’s true identity, it’s clear he has an agenda to create more chaos — that much people agree on. Sightings of him are coming in thick and fast, with witnesses swearing they have seen him — or somebody using the same tactics — at protests in Atlanta and Washington DC.
“This is, unfortunately, what I keep hearing,” political analyst Jared Yates Sexton tweeted to his more than 200K followers.
“Teams of 3 to 4 white men in black, co-ordinated, often with communications systems, operating as a paramilitary squad to spread damage. No interactions with protesters. In and out.
“I have to say, I keep hearing from former white supremacists that these methods are learned from Russian paramilitary groups that operate according to state-organised operations. “Everything I’m hearing from people on the ground fits this.”