minneapolis riots george floyd
© Reuters / Adam Bettcher
The St. Paul Police Department has categorically denied one of its officers escalated the Minneapolis riots by smashing the window of an auto parts store while undercover, after social media sleuths claimed to have identified him.

St. Paul Police Department attempted to squelch viral rumors fingering Officer Jacob Pederson as the agent provocateur who smashed the windows of a Minneapolis AutoZone earlier this week in footage widely circulated on social media. In a series of tweets posted on Thursday, they denied that the man in the footage was Pederson and attempted to shame people for spreading the rumor, insisting their officer had been "working hard, keeping people and property safe, and protecting the right to peacefully assemble."

The official denial only served to pour more fuel on the fire, however.

The AutoZone was the first building to be torched, shortly after its windows were smashed.

While demonstrators around the man immediately suspected he was a cop (and even asked him as much after he grabbed at the phone of the person filming him), the attempt at identification came later, after his image was spread all over social media. A woman claiming to be his ex-wife came forward saying she recognized not only him, but also the respirator and gloves he was wearing.
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© @hplc_tech /Twitter
Unidentified man spray-painted slogan on Target store in Minneapolis
The rumors metastasized, with Pederson blamed for everything from burning down a Target store that was looted to spray painting "Free s**t for everyone zone" on the AutoZone that was also burned down. By Friday, Pederson's name was all over social media, with many calling for him to be brought up on charges of inciting the riots.

Protests that began on Monday after white police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on video choking George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, to death by kneeling on his neck for seven agonizing minutes, ignoring his and onlookers' cries for help, soon spiraled out of control as a small faction of demonstrators began breaking windows and spraying graffiti. Police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas, and fires and looting broke out not long after.

The chaos has provided fertile ground for disinformation, however. Claims that looters had attacked a helpless old woman in a wheelchair unprovoked were soon challenged by videos showing the "old woman" apparently stabbing people. A photo circulating on Twitter that supposedly showed Chauvin in a "Make Whites Great Again" baseball cap was also revealed to be fake, as the man in the photo was not Chauvin.