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Video shows 2 vandalizing Ashe mural in Richmond in 2021

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Rabia Kamara graduated from VCU and went on to culinary school where she fell in love with making ice cream. She's now spreading Pride love through her delicious ice cream out of her shop in Northside. From 8@4 presented by Massey Cancer Center from the Virginia Wayside Furniture studio.

Nearly a year after the mural of Arthur Ashe in Battery Park was vandalized, a media collective known for exposing far-right hate groups has released footage of the culprits committing the act.

The defacing of the mural in the city’s North Side last year shocked local residents who saw Ashe’s image and descriptions of his achievements spray-painted white and covered with graffiti bearing the name of the white supremacist group Patriot Front.

Arthur Ashe Tunnel in Battery Park

The Arthur Ashe Tunnel in Battery Park on Sept. 27, 2022.

Chris Schiano, a journalist and producer with the nonprofit media outlet Unicorn Riot, said his organization was able to obtain the video and identify the suspects through investigative reporting and sources inside Patriot Front. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch is not naming the two suspects as it has not independently verified their identities.)

He said the goal of releasing the video is exposing the hate group and its members who have been attempting to intimidate local communities by spreading propaganda and vandalizing public artwork honoring African Americans, the LGBTQ community and multiculturalism.

“These [white supremacist] groups operate in kind of a gray area where most people don’t know much about them, and they thrive in that obscurity,” Schiano said in an interview. “I would hope that by releasing this kind of information we’re empowering people to ... know the hate group actors in their area, and hopefully they can feel a little safer or more aware.”

Last year, Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Gerald Smith condemned the vandalism and said they would hold the culprits accountable. But it’s unclear how deeply the case was investigated or if police identified any suspects.

A spokesperson for the department did not answer whether police had identified any suspects before.

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Local artist Hamilton Glass walks into the Arthur Ashe mural tunnel in Battery Park during a "bike and brunch" tour of Richmond neighborhoods with a focus on black history and culture Saturday, July 28, 2018.  He helped work on the mural, which was a group project.

“The vandalism was reported when it occurred, a detective was assigned and an investigation initiated,” said department spokesperson Tracy Walker. “This video changes the nature of our ongoing investigation and may prove helpful with apprehending those responsible for the crime.”

She asked that anyone with additional information to contact the detective on the case at (804) 646-2939.

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Ashe, a native of Richmond, was an international tennis icon as well as a celebrated author and humanitarian activist who opposed apartheid in South Africa. He won the 1968 U.S. Open and 1970 Australian Open in addition to his Wimbledon title in 1975. He died in 1993 at age 49.

The Battery Park mural was unveiled in summer 2017 — two days after what would have been Ashe’s 74th birthday — as part of the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project, a yearlong initiative that used street art to honor and celebrate the impact of African Americans on Richmond’s neighborhoods throughout history.

The mural covers the pedestrian tunnel that connects Richmond’s formerly segregated Battery Park tennis courts to the basketball courts.

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Patches of black paint covered what was reported to be racist graffiti on the Arthur Ashe mural on both ends of the tunnel at Battery Park on Oct. 21, 2021.

A sign at an end of the tunnel says it is dedicated to Ashe, who played and taught tennis at the courts there. “His efforts on and off the court as a great player and humanitarian are known and respected throughout the world,” it says.

Police last year said officers were called to investigate the vandalism at the northern edge of the park in the 2800 block of Dupont Circle on Oct. 21. They said it was the second act of vandalism that week, as a mural on a structure in the 3000 block of Meadowbridge Road nearby was defaced with similar markings.

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People walk through the newly unveiled mural honoring Arthur Ashe at the pedestrian tunnel to Battery Park on Wednesday July 12, 2017.

The footage released by Unicorn Riot on Tuesday shows two people with their faces covered spray-painting the Ashe mural under the cover of darkness. Though they are wearing face masks in the footage, their clothing, parts of their face that are visible and other characteristics match two people that Unicorn Riot had identified in other videos and leaked group chats it obtained through sources and Freedom of Information Act requests.

While the city initially painted over the graffiti, the artists behind the mural project have gradually restored it over the past year. Sir James Thornhill, one of the organizers and artists behind it, said in an interview Tuesday that he watched the footage and found it disturbing.

Thornhill said it troubled him that the mural seemed to be targeted in an act of retaliation as the city and state had recently finished taking down Confederate statues along Monument Avenue last year.

“I used to not think of these groups, but it’s shown me how destructive they are,” he said. “This is a crime. It’s a hate crime. I hope they get what they deserve.”

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That footage of the culprits vandalizing the mural leaked should not be a surprise, Schiano said.

Patriot Front’s website features slick, high-quality videos of its members around the country engaged in hand-to-hand combat training and acts of vandalism that it calls “activism.” The faces of the people in those videos, however, are obscured.

Around the time that the Ashe mural was vandalized, other public murals, community centers and racial justice memorials around the country were also covered with graffiti bearing the group’s name and slogans, according to various media reports.

The Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center define Patriot Front as a hate group rooted in a white nationalist ideology.

According to the ADL, Patriot Front has been responsible for the “vast majority of white supremacist propaganda distributed in the United States” since 2019.

The SPLC says Patriot Front formed several years ago as a spinoff of the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America following the fatal Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville five years ago.

James Alex Fields, the man who was convicted of killing Heather Heyer and injuring scores of people by driving his vehicle into a crowd of counterprotesters that day, marched at the event carrying a shield bearing Vanguard’s insignia.

A military veterans organization, Task Force Butler, recently called on prosecutors to take Patriot Front more seriously and seek criminal charges against its leaders as the group continues to seek notoriety through its vandalism and public marches, according to a recent NBC News report.

Thornhill said other Richmond murals dedicated to historic Black neighborhoods and community leaders have also been targeted in recent months.

While that graffiti does not match the Patriot Front stencils that were on the Ashe mural, he said it’s deeply upsetting for him as an artist and a local community member thinking that people could be intentionally defacing the street art because of racist ideologies.

“I’m hoping the perpetrators get caught,” he said. “This is not the culture we try to bring up as artists. We are about beauty and education.”