Riot Relief: Exclusive Interview with ‘Pink Shirt Pizza Guy’ | Minneapolis Artist/Activist EJ Easley
Spoken word artist, rapper, dancer, activist, community volunteer, promoter and VP of North Minneapolis performing arts collective Mac House, Elijah “EJ” Easley wears a lot of hats. But today we are across the freeway in ‘Nordeast’, on the patio at punk rock meets old-timer’s neighborhood bar Grumpy’s, and he doesn’t have anything to keep the sun out of his eyes, so he leans into the shade of the table umbrella. “I haven’t told anybody about this yet,” he begins with a smile, as the afternoon crowd begins to filter onto the grassy lawn. A couple months ago, Easley was turning down interviews with CBS, ABC, and FOX. But today he’s telling his story exclusively to Loud News Net.
Minnesota: Global Eye on the Pizza Guy
On May 25th, Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd at the corner of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street in South Minneapolis. That terrifying video travelled the world immediately, galvanizing a global protest movement. Overnight, Minneapolis found itself at the heart of a national and international conversation about police, violence, race, and justice. The George Floyd protests continued through the months of June and July, and have drawn between 15 and 25 million people, making them arguably the biggest protests in US history.
In the following week, Minneapolis burned. Helicopters circled around the clock as protests gave way to riots. While nearly 200 buildings burned, it was a fraction of the destruction visited on Los Angeles in 1991, when police brutally beat Rodney King. The LA riots claimed thousands of buildings, and left 63 dead. 2020’s Minneapolis riots, thankfully, had a smaller damage profile and death toll. But the decentralization of media since Rodney King, largely a result of the internet, meant that people around the world watched the Minneapolis riots unfold in real time. As Minneapolis burned, videos shot by protestors went viral in real time.
Pizza Guy vs Umbrella Man
Among the most prominent Minneapolis viral videos was the surreally-titled ‘Umbrella Man vs Pink Shirt Pizza Guy.’ Viewers might think of reminded David and Goliath by this clip. A towering, masked, and black-clad white rioter (oddly, carrying an umbrella) methodically smashes the windows of the Autozone that happens to be directly across from 3rd Precinct Police HQ. Both buildings would burn that night. A youngish, small-statured (Easley is 5’3″) Black man confronts the vandal face to face, almost immediately. In a neon pink t-shirt, carrying the distinctive pizza box that the internet would use to name him, this was ‘Pink Shirt Pizza Guy’, Elijah Easley, “EJ” to his friends. The vandal’s identity, on the other hand, would remain a mystery for months.
The huge, masked “rioter” smashes his windows, realizes he’s being watched, then turns and walks away quickly. But Easley, a blur of cheerful bright orange and pink, follows him, undeterred. Eventually the big man yells “If you follow me, I’m gonna fight you now.” But Easley stays persistent and cool. In the face of looming menace, his casual response of “Oh, that’s what’s up?” and then to a friend off-camera, a swaggering “somebody hold my blunt,” won the internet’s hearts, as a quick perusal of the comments on social media will prove. The video exploded on Twitter; dozens of uploads currently have a view count in the six figure range. In fact, videos uploaded by just three Twitter users (seanxsolo, mollygurl, and sfpelosi) totaled an astonishing 10 million views.
“That puff you see me take is the only one i got. I didn’t even get to smoke that blunt!”
Did he get the blunt back, though? Loud News Net readers may be wondering. “Yo, I know how that looked,” Easley laughs. “Listen, believe it or not, that puff you see me take is the only one I got!” He shakes his head and sigh. “I didn’t even get to smoke that blunt.”
But, beyond his viral internet fame, who is the real Elijah Easley? A longtime resident of North Minneapolis (Minnesota’s largest majority Black neighborhood), Easley attended Seed Academy Harvest Prep, is a third generation graduate of North High School Math and science were his strongest subjects, and he graduated with a civil engineering degree from Mankato State University.
At Seed Academy, with its almost all Black teachers, Easley absorbed a message of black empowerment and meditated on positive aspects of Black history. But then his first week of life of small town life at Mankato State put him face-to-face with some naked aggression. even during brought feelings of extreme visibility, “there weren’t many other Black students,” and
“Some guy in a truck actually yelled ‘go back to Africa, nigger’ at me,” he explains. “I was like, ‘Africa? I’m from Minneapolis! You heard of it?'”
That year’s Pan African Conference at Mankato State affected Easley deeply. Organized by Michael T Fagin, for some 30 years, the national conference has drawn black scholars and activists from far and wide. It was Easley’s first time attending a formal event of local and national importance. An offer to contribute shocked Easley, and he jumped at it. “I read it off my notebook. I might have stumbled a couple times, but the words must have resonated.”
Spike Moss and Dick Gregory
Afterwards, to his shock, civil rights activists Dick Gregory and Spike Moss introduced themselves. “It was amazing to have those two come up to me. Especially Spike Moss, because he’s from my hometown, and he’s been doing this in my hometown for forty years. In fact, when the whole ‘pink shirt pizza guy’ thing happened, I called him to ask for advice.
While meeting celebrities can be mesmerizing, Easley tries to keep grounded in an admiration for people’s actions rather than their outsized reputations. “I got starstruck too, but I have learned to value the message more than the person delivering it.” In the end, it was his peers, teachers, and strangers coming up to him that really affected him, and inspired him to keep writing and activism in the center of his life.
Community Activism and Volunteering
Community work is important to Easley. At the age of 17, he worked as a leader at Young Life christian youth ministry camp. While at Mankato State, he trained with Teachers of Tomorrow, an organization which prepares college graduates to become educators. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, he has volunteered with food drives across the city of Minneapolis. Easley embeds himself in a network of local non-profits and private businesses that have sprung up to meet community needs. A loose network of autonomous organizations like North Minneapolis’ Juxtaposition Arts, Brothers Empowered, and Breaking Bread Cafe have stepped forward to provide food distribution to the communities hardest hit.
“Since the beginning of social distancing, we orchestrated volunteers, heating food up, and feeding people who need help. People call us when they have food, and we help direct those resources around. In the case of Little Earth,” the US’s only predominantly Native American urban housing project, “we have a large elder community there, so we go door to door with food too,” Easley explains.
See a Need, Fill a Need
“I’m always working on some kind of structure or pitch or proposal. The idea is to create something myself, or get the grant so I can solve these kinds of problems. It’s hard, but it’s allowed for some things to change. See a need, fill a need; that’s how I try to think about it.”
But Easley is skeptical about the corporate sector’s role in the issues of the day. “We’ve got corporations here with a lot of money, that could do more to solve these problems. That Target CEO said ‘burn it down, I can rebuild.’ Well, that sounds cool on the surface, but the money that could be spent on that could solve the housing problem. There’s all these people who can’t get to a grocery store. It’s like, you putting your fist in the air and saying ‘I’m wit you brother’ but then you walking home.
I mean we have Target, 3M, Kellogg, Raytheon, Medtronic, the Mayo Clinic…we have places that are the pulse of the state economy. Do they see these people as their community? Because they have the power to solve these problems long before it became national news. The answer is out there; the people with the resources don’t really want to help.”
The Night Lake Street Burned
“When the protests started, I didn’t want to go. I already knew the state of our people during Covid, and I knew there would be drama, and I wasn’t ready for that. I probably wouldn’t have gone the second day if I hadn’t been called in to work at one of my volunteer positions,” a community non-profit focused on de-escalating conflict at events where tensions might be high.
The feeling in the air, arriving at the scene of the protest that day is something Easley will never forget. “I want to get a visual artist to work with me, to describe the experience I had. I took public transportation to get there, and I remember stepping off at Lake Street, and there was this pulsing wave of energy, and I though ‘Ok, here we go.’ This is unprecedented. We’ve never seen something like this in the history of our country. This is uncharted territory. I felt something was awry, and from the moment I got there, I was trying to stop people from escalating the situation.”
Video of Easley pulling a steel barricade out of another protestor’s hands and trying to prevent more destruction says a lot about his willingness to take risks for his ethics. In one clip, he yells at police who are busy shooting tear gas canisters. Ignored, he stomps away in frustration. At other moments, Easley, like a frustrated but determined kindergarten teacher, places himself in the space between protestors and cops, firmly but calmly working to turn down the heat.
All Pizza to the People
“When I got there, I ran into my buddy Louie Blaze (Freedom Fighter). He’s the reason for that pizza in my hand! Louie said let’s go to Little Caesars, get some pizza and hand it out to people. So that’s what we did. So, I offered this guy some pizza; he was like ‘nah, but you can hit this blunt’, and I was stressed out man (laughs) so I was like ‘hell yeah’. He said ‘you can have that’, and walked away. And that’s when I saw that guy [Umbrella Man] come around the corner.
Enter The Umbrella Man, Agent Provocateur?
“I hadn’t seen him earlier in the day, but I be tapped in, so I been hearing for years about agent provocateurs coming to protests and trying to turn them into riots.” Easley is hardly alone in having made this connection early. In fact, Congressman Keith Ellison was perhaps the first major public figure to use the term to describe to Umbrella Man.
At Autozone that day, Easley says he immediately had an intuitive sense that something wasn’t right.
Calm, Cool, and Collected
“I’m tapped into the energy. When I saw the guy with the umbrella, the way he walked up got my attention. He was calm, cool, and collected. If you watch the video, you’ll see everybody else was all…it’s a riot, it’s emotional, people are yelling. But, he walked up like he had a job to do; it was very calculated. So, I looked around at people like ‘do you see this’? It just did not add up.”
“People Were saying I befriended that guy (Umbrella Man) ’cause I was walking next to him. No, I was still following him…I was talking shit”
“He said something like ‘If you don’t leave me alone, I’ma fight you.’ And I’m from The Lows (the part of North Minneapolis which is South of 26th Street). And hey look, if you’re from The Lows, and somebody says ‘I’m gonna fight you’ you pretty much…” he trails off, gesturing with a meaningful shrug.
You pretty much tell somebody to hold your blunt?
“Yeah, exactly!” he replies with a laugh. “But hey, dude just kept walking away.”
Pizza Guy on chasing the Umbrella Man
“At that point I’m thinking ‘I need to see where this guy goes’, I guess to get some kind of evidence, or at least just keep him in my eyesight…know where he’s going and what he’s finna do, so I can prove what he is.”
“People were saying that I befriended that guy ’cause I was walking next to him. No, I was still following him. People who know me know I’m kind of a sarcastic asshole, so I was walking next to him, and I ran out of questions to ask him, so I’m like ‘Hey, wherever you goin, I’m goin. I’m your best friend now. C’mon, where’s your car at? Where your house at? You married?’ So I’m just talkin’ stuff at him.”
“To be honest, I knew he wasn’t gonna give me information. I was talking shit. I was making sure he knew he wasn’t getting away from me, and he was not getting away from what he did. Dude was absolutely there to elevate the tension.”
“I think we walked into where they had already shot tear gas, and I wasn’t paying attention, and I wasn’t ready for that cause I was just focused on him. So, that’s when I walked into the tear gas, and I don’t know where dude went after that. My work was calling, I was sick from breathing that stuff, and I left.”
“Our community is getting destroyed by ourselves and by outsiders, and the police aren’t helping. The people who aren’t part of the problem are leaving. And we’re dispersing our voting power. There’s a lot of groups who benefit from that.”
And on a topic that’s personal to him, Easley is contemplative but firm: “I was noticing people who weren’t Black throwing things. Now look, it’s great to come and show support, but don’t start throwing things. Because you’re not the one who’s gonna be penalized for that.”
“There was woman who was doing a livestream; I saw the camera, and I wanted to say something. I said ‘this is good, but we have to keep it up’. I’ve been to every major protest here since Trayvon Martin, and not just BLM. I’m a humanitarian, so if it’s about human rights, I wanna be involved.”
Umbrella Man Unmasked?
Online speculation about the identity of Umbrella Man died down in the days and weeks following the protests and riots. But a recent search warrant affidavit filed by Minneapolis Police Sergeant Erika Christiansen indicates the police believe the masked vandal may be Mitchell Carlson, a graduate of Minnesota’s Champlin Park high school.
Sgt. Christiansen’s affidavit argues that prior to Umbrella Man’s window smashing spree, “the protests had been relatively peaceful.” She goes on to state that “the actions of this person created an atmosphere of hostility tension” and to argue that “this individual’s sole aim was to incite violence.”
“Our community is getting destroyed by ourselves and by outsiders, and the police aren’t helping”
Easley is measured and thoughtful about the revelation of Umbrella Man’s possible identity. “I never really wanted to speculate about who he was, whether he was a cop, or any of that business. But I hope wherever he is, he’s out there at the bottom of the totem pole. Like scooping up horse poop or whatever,” he laughs. “Seriously though, I also hope this leads people who assumed that all of the protesters were rioters too to think twice now.”
Looking for Meaning
Does it surprise him that the man currently under police suspicion for being Umbrella Man has convictions for assault and domestic abuse, or that he’s a member of a motorcycle club whose name, “The Aryan Cowboys,” has obvious white supremacist undertones?
“I hope…people who assumed all the protestors were rioters will think twice now”
“Not at all surprised,” he says, with a shrug. “Usually the people who get into extremist behavior or organizations, whether it’s cults or fringe political groups, are already lost and trying to find some kind of meaning. He probably thought he was doing something important and meaningful. That’s what everybody wants.”
What Everybody Wants
What can we do about that? How do we build a society where people like Umbrella Man can still feel important and find meaning, but in a way that isn’t antisocial and destructive? Easley takes a deep breath and reflects before answering: “Man, it’s all about providing them with options. Most people, if they really have a choice, would rather do things the right way.
“You give people meaningful alternatives to the life they’re living now, bring families in and let them know about resources that are available to them, find out what young people are passionate about. What do they love doing? And you help them see a path to a career where they put their time into doing something like that. There’s a lot of people who benefit from us being out of control, desperate, angry, whatever. When we focus on bettering ourselves, we’re not so easy to control anymore.”
Editor’s note: Thank you to EJ Easley (aka Pink Shirt Pizza Guy) for this interview. We appreciate what he does as an activist and keeping the peace in tense situations. For more coverage of the fight for justice, stop by and check out our Bigger Than Hip Hop section.