A Black musician who alleges he was attacked last summer in Boston by masked Patriot Front members armed with shields sued the group Tuesday in federal court, setting up a legal battle that his advisers say was modeled after a successful lawsuit against organizers of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
The complaint filed Tuesday by Charles M. Murrell III, 36, in US District Court in Boston seeks to expose Patriot Front, a white nationalist organization, to the same kind of financial penalties imposed on organizers of the 2017 gathering in Charlottesville, advisers for the litigation team said.
Murrell, an educator and classically trained musician who plays several instruments, said his physical injuries have impacted his saxophone playing and he has “lost the ability to feel safe.” He is bringing the lawsuit, he said, to pursue accountability for the “violent white supremacist attack.”
“I don’t feel like Black and brown young people should be walking around cities with hate organizations being able to attack them for no reason,” Murrell told the Globe.
Licha M. Nyiendo, chief legal officer at Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that is advising the lawyers handling Murrell’s case, said there’s a model for using litigation to “bankrupt and decimate these neo-Nazi groups.”
“That’s what we hope to accomplish by suing Patriot Front,” she said.
Another adviser from Human Rights First is Amy Spitalnick, who served as executive director of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit group that organized the lawsuit in Virginia against the people and organizations behind the Charlottesville rally that killed Heather Heyer, 32, a counterprotester.
Civil litigation, she said, can target the “finances and operations of these extremist groups.”
“When it comes to what happened in Boston a year ago, it’s so crucial that we make clear there will be consequences for this sort of violent hate,” said Spitalnick, who is also chief executive of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
A message sent Tuesday morning to Patriot Front through its website wasn’t immediately returned.
Murrell was walking through the Back Bay on July 2, 2022, when he encountered Patriot Front members marching through the city in a demonstration that caught police by surprise. Murrell has said the group attacked him. News photographs of the clash show a Patriot Front marcher pressing a shield against Murrell’s head, forcing it into a light post.
No charges have been filed. Police have said the case remains open.
The complaint asserts that Patriot Front’s alleged attack on Murrell was a “coordinated, brutal, and racially motivated” offensive that was emblematic of the group’s strategy of using violence to achieve “white supremacist goals.”
As examples, the lawsuit includes screenshots and photographs of masked Patriot Front members in confrontations with Black people, including an incident in Philadelphia on July 3, 2021, and what Murrell’s lawyers described as a post on the social media site Telegram showing the group practicing drills with shields.
In the Charlottesville case, a federal jury in 2021 ordered a dozen organizers and five groups to pay about $26 million in damages. Among those penalized were James Alex Fields Jr., an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler who is serving a life sentence for killing Heyer; Christopher Cantwell, a white nationalist from New Hampshire; and Richard Spencer, who gained national notoriety for headlining neo-Nazi rallies.
While most of the jury award was slashed in January under a Virginia law capping punitive damages at $350,000, the defendants remain on the hook for about $7.5 million in legal fees and penalties, court records show.
Spencer has called the case “financially crippling.”
“This guy was the leader of the neo-Nazi movement in America six years ago and he has been effectively marginalized because of this case,” Spitalnick said.
The 46-page complaint accuses Patriot Front of conspiracy to violate Murrell’s civil rights, civil assault and battery, and other misconduct. The suit names the organization and its leader, Thomas R. Rousseau, of Grapevine, Texas, as defendants. Also listed as defendants are masked marchers who paraded through Boston but remain unidentified. The lawsuit refers to them as “John Does 1-99,” and says Murrell will seek their identities during the litigation and amend his complaint “should one or more responsible individuals be identified.”
Rousseau was photographed with Fields at the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, which they attended as members of Vanguard America, the complaint said. The Anti-Defamation League describes Vanguard America as a neo-Nazi group. Shortly after the event, Rousseau broke off from the group and established Patriot Front, the lawsuit said.
The Boston law firm Foley Hoag LLP is representing Murrell pro bono.
The complaint alleges Patriot Front began planning its march on Boston as early as December 2021 and offers new details from Murrell’s account of his encounter with the group.
On the day of the Patriot Front march, Murrell was walking from Back Bay Station to Copley Square, where he planned to perform music by Bach on his saxophone outside the Boston Public Library, and didn’t know about the demonstration in advance, the lawsuit said.
When he saw masked marchers walking toward him with shields and flags, Murrell reached for his phone to record, the complaint says.
But before Murrell could record, he heard one of the masked men say what he believes was the word “tar” and understood it to be a reference to his race.
“The masked and shield-wielding mob then yelled together, ‘DO NOT BREAK OUR RANKS,’ and quickly surrounded Mr. Murrell,” the lawsuit said.
Rousseau then allegedly yelled, “RIGHT SCREEN,” which the complaint described as an order to Patriot Front members to use their shields in a “violent manner.”
Murrell’s lawsuit alleges Patriot Front members pressed him against a light post and knocked him to the ground, where they hit and kicked him until law enforcement intervened. An ambulance took Murrell to Tufts Medical Center, where he received stitches and treatment for lacerations to the head, hand, and face, the complaint said.
After the march, Patriot Front members loaded their equipment into a U-Haul box truck that was driven out of the city. State Police stopped the vehicle in Stoneham and issued a criminal citation to the driver, Colton M. Brown, 24, for allegedly attaching an unregistered Arizona license plate to the truck.
Brown so far is the only person linked to the July 2, 2022, demonstration to face criminal prosecution. The case was dismissed in April after he paid $150 court costs, records show.
Murrell said he doesn’t believe white supremacist groups are being held accountable for their actions.
“White supremacist organizations like this that are planning and organizing around violence should be taken seriously and need to be held accountable,” he said.
Patriot Front and its members have faced civil litigation and criminal prosecution tied to their alleged activities in other parts of the country.
Last month, five Patriot Front members were convicted in Idaho of criminal conspiracy to riot after police accused them of planning to disrupt a Pride event last year in Coeur d’Alene. More trials in the case are set for this month.
In Richmond, Va., Patriot Front, Rousseau, and other members of the organization were named as defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing them of vandalizing in 2021 a mural there honoring tennis player Arthur Ashe, the first Black man to win the US Open and Wimbledon.
The case is pending. Last month, the court entered defaults against Patriot Front and Rousseau because they hadn’t responded to the lawsuit, court records show.
Murrell’s lawsuit said that since his encounter with Patriot Front, he has suffered nightmares and flashbacks about the confrontation.
Even the music composition book he had with him when he crossed paths with Patriot Front carries a “gruesome reminder,” the complaint said. “Residue of his own blood spattered on the cover.”