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Dymanh Chhoun, a photojournalist with WCCO, has filmed lots of tense protests in Minneapolis. But he hadn’t experienced tear gas until the protests of the police killing of George Floyd. Still reeling from the tear gas, he encountered–and filmed–a masked man with an umbrella outside a Lake Street AutoZone.
That man, who became known as “Umbrella Man,” was identified this week in a police affidavit as a white supremacist. Police matched him to photos a Muslim woman took when she encountered the Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, while eating burgers with her young daughter in Stillwater in June.
Dymanh, who immigrated to South Minneapolis from Cambodia as a young child and has contributed photography to Sahan Journal, spoke with us about his experience covering the protests and confrontation with Umbrella Man.
In your time at WCCO, you’ve covered a lot of protests, right?
The first official one was actually in north Minneapolis, Jamar Clark. That was my first protest. I was there the first night. I was there from the very beginning of the protest.
Then Donald Trump came, he was not the president yet, at the convention center. There were people burning the flag. Philando Castile. I was on the highway, 94 in St. Paul. I even got video of people running to the highway before it even started. So of all that experience, that’s a lot, and this is the biggest one, the one that just happened.
I was there the first day, on Tuesday, May 26. I went out there and I started shooting video. This is the beginning, people just on a microphone, there were maybe 20 people. And people kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming. And I just stayed there the whole time. And after that, this is the first day, so after that people start marching to the Third Precinct on Lake Street. It was a lot of people. I’m talking about thousands.
So what is it you’re seeing at the police precinct?
People now start to jump on one police vehicle, breaking the window, doing a lot of stuff to it. I got all the footage. The scary part, this is when I think everything went downhill, was police vehicles and personal vehicles were in a parking lot, and there’s a big fence around it.
And now I’ve started seeing people kicking the fence, jumping over the fence, just breaking the fence, and I started getting video of it. And then they got in. And they started going in and breaking windows, just damaging the vehicles. And that’s when I captured the van. A white van came and people started seeing police officers come out with riot gear and then I got video of that. And they started shooting tear gas, to start shooting using their weapons, and I got that on video.
And the second day, May 27, that’s when I met the umbrella guy.
Did that first day feel different from protests you’d covered in the past?
Yes! Because I cover a lot of protests but I don’t think I’d ever experienced tear gas. I don’t think I ever saw a police officer with their riot gear and their gun. Smoke coming out of their gun. It looked like I saw it in a movie. Like a bomb, but it’s not. Or a grenade. It reminds me of Rambo, the movie.
Walk me through May 27. Did that day feel different or did it feel the same? Where did your day at work start?
I got a message to go to 38th and Chicago. There weren’t a lot of people there. Not long after that, I got a message to go to Lake Street and Minnehaha.
So I went and now I saw police officers with riot gear all around their building. It’s fenced now so no one is near the building anymore. I see big lights. Police officers with riot gear, police officers on top of the building. And I see people on one side, near AutoZone. A lot of people were on that side of AutoZone.
Imagine police officers in a line, like maybe a hundred police officers standing perfectly in a line, making sure no one can do anything to the building. And they have their riot gear on, their helmet and everything. And once in a while, every five minutes or so, you could see the police throw tear gas or a smoke grenade or whatever.
And then I guess they decided to push the protesters out more. Guess what happened to me. I couldn’t breathe. Pepper or something going into my lung, in my throat. Tear gas! Holy crap. I just started running. It was just too late. It was already in my nose, in my mouth, in my eyes.
So I’m now behind True Value, having a hard time breathing, my eyes watering. A gentleman came and poured milk in my face. I think he saw my big camera so I think he knows I’m with the media. I wiped my face with my shirt, I still have some milk in front of my face. And that’s when I was like, I need to record this. I want my friends and family to see this.
So I took my personal phone and recorded myself saying a few words about getting hit with tear gas. I was talking, but I did not notice that that video was going to become something. In the back frame, that’s where the umbrella man was. He was standing in the back of my camera shot.
I post that video on Facebook, put the phone away, pick up the big camera again, start to shoot people running into True Value. The window’s already broken. I don’t know who broke the window. And he’s behind me. So I’m having young people running in and out with candy, with stuff, and I’m recording this.
So after I got the video, I’m walking and I near the corner and my mind tells me I should turn around and get another shot. And right when I decided, someone had an umbrella on my camera blocking it. I turned around, my eye’s looking right at him. But my camera’s almost pitch black, because his umbrella was on top of my lens, so he blocked my shot. So I turned around, he starts swearing and saying stuff to me. I didn’t say anything to him, I just turned around and he was right behind me already.
I didn’t know: Was he walking behind me the whole time? I don’t know if he was making sure I don’t record, I don’t know what he was thinking. But I didn’t think about him. I don’t know who he is, I don’t care who he is. All I cared about was getting a quick video again of a different angle. He had an umbrella blocking the front of my camera. He started swearing at me, saying a lot of bad words to me. I don’t know what exactly he said, but it was a lot of bad words.
I went on with my job. I don’t need to get the video. I can get people starting to regroup and go back to where the police were trying to get us out.
What was your impression of him?
He was the first guy that got on my nerves. He’s the first guy to swear at me. He’s the first guy that didn’t like me. The first day, the second day no one was mad at me at the protest. No one swears at me, no one tries to beat me up, no one threatens me, no one. I captured the protest Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and no one said anything like that to me.
So did you see him breaking the windows?
At the time, why did you think he was being so hostile?
Good question! I didn’t know! The funny thing is, how can I see you? I can only see your eye and a little bit of your skin color around your eye. There was nothing else I could see of him. But in my experience with protests, when someone’s mad at you, don’t try to make it worse.
Why do you think he had the umbrella?
Everybody asks me, was it raining? I don’t remember, I’m sorry to tell you that. I don’t know.
But he used it to block your lens.
Yes, he did. I think the umbrella is not officially to block cameras, but he did do that to me. But to my knowledge, I don’t think he got the umbrella because of the camera, it’s because of something else. I don’t know why.
Did you find yourself coming back to thinking about that interaction often?
Everybody was tweeting about it and they’re asking me. Everybody was just asking me questions on Twitter. I keep reading the questions, I keep reading the comments, and I wonder, why are they so focused on him? Did he start it? Why do they all ask me like I know who he is?
The police said in their affidavit that this guy started a chain of events that led to the fires and the property destruction that followed. They said it was his aim to incite violence. And there are some people who seem to think if not for this guy, the protests might have stayed peaceful. What do you think about that?
I followed some other video people recorded, him breaking windows. I don’t know his purpose or his meaning or what he wanted to do. But looking back at my experience and looking back at all the video and all that happened, I think he wanted to do something to harm the community, to make the protesters look bad.
But do you think that changed the mood of the crowd at all when those windows were broken? It sounds like there were already some broken windows, it sounds like some people were already looking to cause property damage at the police station. Do you think there was something that he did that changed the mood, or the tone, or the direction of the crowd?
I would say he helped. I think something might already happen, I’m not really sure, but I think he helped make it worse. Because if there’s not people like him out there, then everything might be okay.
What was going through your mind as you were seeing all of this happen?
One thing in the back of my mind that I always tell myself: do my job, make sure you are safe, make sure you go back home to your family. I got two beautiful kids and a wife. I want to make sure my wife feels confident in me. I never in a million years would ever, ever, ever imagine I would see this in my hometown. And I thought about AutoZone. AutoZone used to be Blockbuster.
Yes! I remember. Only the true ones remember when AutoZone was Blockbuster.
And me and my family would go there to rent movies every weekend! Rainbow used to be behind AutoZone. I remember I used to go shopping at Rainbow.
I went to Roosevelt High School. People were marching on the route that was one block away from my high school. Hiawatha, there’s a buffet area, it’s all my places that my mom and dad used to go to. We lived in Minneapolis for 12 years when we came to America, from 1993 to 2005.
There’s a part of me that tells myself this. My mom and dad saw people dying in Cambodia. My mom and dad saw bones, skinny people starving for food, relatives dying, genocide in Cambodia. My mom and dad saw all of that. So that was always also a reminder for myself when I saw people burning down Wells Fargo in front of Kmart. I saw a vehicle on fire, I see people posing next to that vehicle and I’m capturing all of this and I just cannot believe it.
My mom and dad used to bring us to Kmart once a year to buy clothes for school. I used to work at Subway across from that Wells Fargo, and I saw people go into that Subway. A Cambodian owner hired me to work at that Subway, and I see people coming out with bread and stuff, to break down the store. So imagine that, you know?
Yeah. How did that make you feel?
It made me feel sad. And the same time, I had to tell myself, you’re doing your job. But again, I captured some amazing photos.
What do you hope happens next in south Minneapolis?
I hope we rebuild it. I hope we can rebuild it. I hope the people, whoever destroyed it, understand that there was a lot of people, that you made life worse for them. Some are elderly people who walk to the dollar store who have no transportation and need to go the dollar store or grocery store.
Lake Street will always be Lake Street. When we went to college, we learned that the street changes as people flow from different cultures. I still have friends on Lake Street. I’m still going to go shopping on Lake Street. Lake Street will always remind me of who I am and who I became.
I hope the city helps the business owners to rebuild. I cannot imagine being the business owner and having your store all burned down. All I know is that I hope it all comes back to be normal again, stores are up, gas stations are back up, amazing restaurants are back up and better. But also a lot of history is gone.