Judge rejects Patriot Front members’ bid to throw out case over Arthur Ashe mural vandalism

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A federal judge has denied a legal effort from members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front to throw out a lawsuit from two Richmond residents who sued them over the 2021 defacement of the Arthur Ashe mural in Battery Park.

Two Battery Park residents sued Patriot Front — which the Anti-Defamation League calls “a white supremacist group” and the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “a white nationalist hate group” — and more than a dozen of its members after the mural of the Black tennis icon and civil rights advocate was defaced and tagged with insignias associated with the group.

The lawsuit from the unnamed residents alleges a conspiracy by Patriot Front and members named in the suit to intimidate them and interfere with their ability to enjoy the public park in violation of their civil rights and Virginia law.

The suit, which seeks a jury trial and damages, claims the Battery Park residents interpreted the vandalism as a warning, leading them to limit or stop using the park over concerns that their children were at risk and that the neighborhood would be further targeted.

It alleges the defendants coordinated and carried out a plan motivated by racial animosity, stating that they “knew that Arthur Ashe was celebrated as a successful Black tennis player” and the “mural was located in a park in a predominantly Black neighborhood.”

Five Patriot Front members named as defendants in the lawsuit — Nathan Noyce, Thomas Dail, Daniel Turetchi, Paul Gancarz and Aedan Tredinnick – filed a motion to have the case dismissed.

Among other claims, they argued the plaintiffs failed to establish legal standing to bring the case forward, their case was pursued after the statute of limitations expired, and the lawsuit doesn’t properly state plausible claims and constitutional challenges.

A hearing on the motion was held on March 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Four days later, U.S. District Judge Hannah Lauck filed an opinion denying the motion to dismiss and allowing the case to move to discovery.

“The bulk of Defendants’ challenges effectively amount to factual, rather than legal, disputes regarding whether Plaintiffs will be able to prove, for instance, their alleged injuries and each of their claims,” Lauck wrote in her March 31 opinion. “Accepting Plaintiffs’ well-pleaded factual allegations as true and drawing reasonable inferences in their favor, as the Court must do at the motion to dismiss stage, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs state plausible claims.”

The lawsuit argues that Patriot Front and its members violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which was passed to provide Black people with protections against intimidation and violence, and Virginia’s code which bans racially motivated harassment or intimidation.

The lawsuit alleges that Patriot Front members have defaced murals honoring Black Americans and targeted LGBTQ+ events to intimidate communities and deter them from accessing public spaces and amenities.

It also claims that one of the plaintiffs noticed Patriot Front stickers placed throughout the Battery Park neighborhood in the run-up to the defacement, which came a week before jury selection in the “Unite the Right” trial in Charlottesville.

The motion to dismiss argued that the plaintiffs’ injuries in the lawsuit were not fairly traceable to the defendants’ alleged wrongdoing. But Lauck found that the lawsuit adequately pleaded “emotional injuries” traced to the racially motivated vandalism.

“Battery Park, post-segregation, served as a refuge for Black people in Richmond,” Lauck wrote. “It is reasonable to infer that the defacing of a mural depicting Arthur Ashe—a Black man who hailed from segregated Richmond but became a committed humanitarian activist and an international gamechanger— was driven by racial animus and was meant to intimidate.”

Judge Lauck wrote that the residents rightly rejected the defendants’ claims that they didn’t leave threatening messages.

“The Court agrees that the ‘destruction of the Arthur Ashe mural was itself a threatening message, which Plaintiffs received loud and clear, and which caused their injuries,’” Lauck wrote.

Lauck denied the defendants’ argument that Patriot Front is shielded from liability under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine – which states a corporation’s employees can’t conspire among themselves.

Lauck ruled that Patriot Front is “an unincorporated association,” not a corporate entity immune under the doctrine and that it “would be illogical and inappropriate” to employ the doctrine at this stage as the group faces allegations in the lawsuit that it is a white supremacist group “that calls for white ethnostate formation.”

“Federal courts also have stated the obvious: it would be improper to shield an unincorporated association from liability in a civil rights challenge by applying the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine where the group was created to deny the civil rights of others,” Lauck wrote.

Several parts of the Ashe mural were covered with paint and racist graffiti in October 2021, including Patriot Front symbols found on both sides of Arthur Ashe’s face as well as inside the tunnel on excerpts about his life.

The mural was eventually restored by Richmond artist Sir James Thornhill, one of the lead artists behind the mural.

Videos posted online nearly a year after the defacement showed two people with face masks on spray painting over the colorful mural of Ashe. Judge Lauck noted the video in finding that a racial animus existed.

“Specifically, Defendant John Doe 1 filmed Defendants Nathan Noyce and Thomas Dail while they vandalized the mural,” she wrote in her ruling. “This video evidence directly shows that racial animus exists: after Mr. Noyce and Mr. Dail began vandalizing the mural’s depiction of Arthur Ashe’s face at John Doe 1 ’s direction, John Doe 1 stated: ‘F[ ]g n*****’s face.’”

The ruling moves the case to discovery, where both sides will exchange information ahead of a potential trial.

“Moreover, the Court has articulated in detail why Plaintiffs state a claim that Defendants entered into a racially motivated conspiracy to interfere with Plaintiffs access to Battery Park,” Lauck wrote. “Patriot Front’s public call for the formation of white ethnostate and its previous destruction of murals honoring Black Americans are only the beginning of the Court’s rationale.”

Arthur Ago, the director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, argued on behalf of the Battery Park residents in court last week.

Ago described Judge Lauck’s ruling as “quite forceful” in a phone interview with 8News Monday, saying it, and the possibility that it would draw out the case, makes it appear unlikely that an appeal from the defendants would be filed at this point but he didn’t rule it out.

“After the ruling, we feel good about our case,” he said.  

The attorneys for Patriot Front and members named defendants in the lawsuit did not respond to a request for an interview or comment Monday.

The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief to keep Patriot Front “from future violations of rights guaranteed by federal and state law,” damages in an amount to be decided at trial, attorney fees and other costs.

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