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'This would have been swept under the rug': African Meeting House reacts to court decision in racist vandalism case on Nantucket

The African Meeting House on Nantucket.
The African Meeting House on Nantucket.

The Nantucket site manager for the Museum of African American History says the community is feeling a small measure of closure from Monday’s civil court decision in a case of racist and threatening vandalism on the island, but she believes the defendant should be criminally charged.

“The fact that no criminal charges have been brought is criminal,” said Desiree Spriggs, who manages the museum’s Nantucket facilities, including the African Meeting House, where the incident happened.

A Superior Court judge found Dylan Ponce of Nantucket responsible for spray-painting the message on the African Meeting House four years ago. It included a racial slur, followed by the word “leave” with an exclamation mark. A lewd image was also painted on the meeting house.

Judge Mark Gildea wrote in the decision that the slur is plainly intimidating and that the command “leave” constitutes an implicit threat by suggesting “or else.”

For the Nantucket community, the act was not entirely surprising, but certainly shocking, Spriggs said.

“To be an African American and see those words in the 21st century, and to feel that vitriol directed at a specific community, is traumatizing,” she said. “I think the community of Nantucket, … they were shocked — Black and white.”

She applauded the two Nantucket residents who filed a civil lawsuit against Ponce after a grand jury returned no indictment against him.

“If it weren't for Mr. Jim Barros and Ms. Rose Marie Samuels keeping the light and focus [on] this crime — this desecration against the African Meeting House — this would have been swept under the rug,” she said.

Two years ago, a statewide grand jury determined there was not enough evidence to charge Ponce with a crime. He refused to testify in the grand jury investigation, invoking his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Barros and Samuels then filed a suit in civil court, where the burden of proof is lower, and where not answering questions can be held against the defendant.

Michael Trudeau, first assistant district attorney for the Cape & Islands, said the burden of proof for a civil rights injunction is only that the allegations are “probably true,” not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to the Superior Court decision, Ponce’s employer said Ponce bragged about defacing the meeting house and used racist language, showing he knew he was targeting a place where Black people gather.

The employer, Jeffrey Sayle, also said he removed the spray can from Ponce’s apartment and hid it in a truck Sayle owned, according to the court decision.

Sayle previously pleaded guilty to a criminal charge related to misleading the investigation.

In the civil case, the judge ordered Ponce to stay away from the Meeting House, the plaintiffs and their families, and to refrain from racist harassment, intimidation, threats and assault.

Violation of the order is a criminal offense.

The DA’s office said Ponce could be charged with a crime if new evidence comes to light.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.