The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Umbrella Man’ went viral breaking windows at a protest. He was a white supremacist trying to spark violence, police say.

A man who was filmed on May 27 smashing the windows of a Minneapolis shop during the George Floyd protests sought to incite racial tension, police said. (Video: Bradley Svenson)

With an umbrella in his left hand and a hammer in his right, the man in black lobbed his weapon so nonchalantly into an auto parts shop’s windows that it surprised many others in Minneapolis marching nearby in a May 27 protest after George Floyd’s death.

Soon after the abrupt attack, the mostly calm demonstration near a police precinct erupted into looting and arson — the first fire in riots that eventually caused $500 million in damage and left two people dead, the Associated Press reported.

For weeks afterward, activists and Internet commenters homed in on a viral video of the figure nicknamed “Umbrella Man,” speculating that his intent was actually to turn the peaceful protests destructive.

On Tuesday, Minneapolis police identified him as an affiliate of a white supremacist group that allegedly sought to “incite violence,” according to a search warrant affidavit filed in the Hennepin County District Court. The Star Tribune first reported of the warrant. The 32-year-old man has not been charged.

The Minneapolis Police Department declined to comment on the case, citing the active investigation.

The news comes amid rising fears of right-wing agitators purposefully stoking violence at protests. Last month, federal prosecutors charged supporters of the right-wing “boogaloo boys” movement in incidents including the killing of a security officer at a federal courthouse and plotting firebombs and explosives at a government building and peaceful protests — all with the aim of stoking racial conflict.

Theories that white supremacist groups may have been involved in the “Umbrella Man” case arose soon after video of him vandalizing the business began circulating widely on social media. Many falsely identified the man as a St. Paul police officer, causing the department to release surveillance footage showing the officer during the time of the protest.

Much of the suspicion around “Umbrella Man” came from his clandestine get-up — all black including a gas mask that covered most of his face — and his reaction to protesters confronting his vandalism. As he made is way along the building, breaking the glass one pane at a time, an African American man in a pink T-shirt and white shorts approached him, seemingly insisting he stop. But “Umbrella Man” pushed forward until more onlookers neared. He eventually turned around and went behind the building, but many in the crowd followed him, one even yelling to ask if he was with the police.

Not long after the man shattered the windows of the AutoZone and ran away, people started looting the store and eventually set it on fire.

Erika I. Christensen, a Minneapolis police arson investigator who wrote the affidavit, said that his “sole aim” was to provoke discord.

“Until the actions of the person your affiant has been calling ‘Umbrella Man,’ the protests had been relatively peaceful,” she said. “The actions of this person created an atmosphere of hostility and tension.”

The destruction quickly spread. The following morning, the Minneapolis Fire Department said it had responded to roughly 30 fires. One man was shot and killed in a pawnshop, while a second man was found dead and burned in another pawnshop.

“This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city,” Christensen said.

It took months for Minneapolis police to identify the man. Christensen wrote in her affidavit that she spent “innumerable hours” scrolling through social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube.

The break finally came last week, when a tip came in naming “Umbrella Man” and said he is a member of the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang made up of mostly white men who ride Harley-Davidson bikes. Christensen wrote that “Umbrella Man” is also a “known associate” of the Aryan Cowboys, a group described by the Anti-Defamation League as a white supremacist prison gang based mainly out of Minnesota and Kentucky.

Christensen also wrote that just before smashing the windows to the AutoZone, “Umbrella Man” spray-painted in white, “free s--- for everyone zone,” on the red doors of the store.

He was also involved in an incident in Stillwater, Minn., where a group of motorcycle gang members wearing Aryan Cowboys leather vests accosted a Muslim woman, according to the affidavit.

In response to the news, some civil rights leaders are urging the Justice Department to investigate further. Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted, “A great time to ask AG Barr about the department’s investigation of violent white supremacist groups.”