Olivia Pugh (right), shown with their sibling Nova Tempest, suffered an attack in a dentist office parking lot by a man apparently angered by their signs expressing support for Black Lives Matter. (courtesy photo)
It was clear that something was wrong when the vehicle followed them off Highway 421 onto Lewisville Clemmons Road, passed them as they were merging and then slammed on the brakes.
Nova Tempest, 26, and their siblings, 19-year-old Olivia Pugh, and a brother who is 17, had experienced harassment before because of the homemade signs expressing support for Black Lives Matter placed in the window of the vehicle, and they had no reason to believe this was anything different. The driver of the other vehicle went ahead and then pulled over so they could pass him, and then continued to tail them.
Nova, who was driving, took a right turn onto Shallowford Road at a red light, on the way to a dentist appointment in Lewisville. The other driver followed them through the turn at the red light, even though it was unsafe to do so, Nova said, nearly causing an accident.
The driver followed them into the parking lot at the dentist office, and Nova pulled into a parking spot facing the building. They said the other driver initially parked in the row behind them, and then pulled around to a spot that was perpendicular so he could watch them through his sideview mirror. Nova told Triad City Beat the man flipped them off, and Nova responded in kind. Nova locked their door.
Their brother, whom the family is not naming because he is a minor, cracked his door open, and the older siblings told TCB that the man, who has since been identified as 55-year-old Rod Steven Sturdy of Lewisville, approached and immediately began punching the 17-year-old brother in the face. Sturdy is white, and all three siblings are also white.
Olivia was riding in the front passenger seat on the same side of the vehicle as their brother. The inside handle on the front passenger door is broken, so Olivia rolled down the window, so they could unlatch the door from the outside and assist their brother.
As soon as Olivia exited from the car, they said they were met with a fist to the face. Their left arm is bruised where they lifted it and blocked a punch, and their other arm is bruised where they cushioned their head from hitting the car as they sustained a volley of blows. They also pulled a muscle in their left arm and their lower back on the left side. When they spoke to TCB on Tuesday via Zoom, dark red and purple contusions could be seen around Olivia’s left eye and extending down across their cheek almost to their chin.
During the altercation, Olivia said they flipped Sturdy off and “told him to get the F out of here.” Olivia told TCB that Sturdy responded by flipping them off and saying, “Fuck you, bitch, and fuck all that [N-word] Black lives bullshit.”
“At that point, our suspicions were confirmed,” Olivia said.
One of the handmade signs in the back of the car reads simply, “Black Lives Matter.” Another says, “Prosecute the cops who murdered Breonna Taylor” with the hashtag #SayHerName and the phrase, “No justice, no peace.” The sign lifts up Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot in her apartment by police in Louisville, Ky. while they were executing a no-knock warrant. Taylor is one of the most well-known victims of anti-Black violence who has been highlighted by protesters that took to the streets around the world after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. A third sign displayed in the sibling’s car depicts a flag with both LGBTQ and transgender pride colors and also incorporates Black and Brown to recognize Black, indigenous and people of color.
From the time Sturdy slammed on his brakes in front of them on Lewisville Clemmons Road, Nova and Olivia came to the mutual decision to write down his license tag number. He fled as soon as staff came out to assist them from the dentist office, Nova and Olivia said, but law enforcement located him later and served a warrant. Sturdy faces two charges of misdemeanor simple assault and misdemeanor assault on a female.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough addressed the incident in a public statement on Wednesday.
“The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office has zero tolerance for any type of behavior that harms or endangers anyone,” he said. “We all have the right to freedom of expression; whether you agree or disagree is of no importance. The right to freedom of expression still and will exist, and we at the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office will charge anyone who assaults, harms or attempts to violate those rights.”
Sturdy could not be reached for comment, but his mother told TCB that her son believes news organization do not have the right to publish stories about the incident without his authorization.
Helen Parsonage, a lawyer who is representing the siblings, said she does not believe the charges are sufficient for the seriousness of the offenses. Considering the bruising that both victims received and the broken bones in the brother’s eye orbit, she said at the minimum Sturdy should be charged with assault inflicting serious injury, a Class H felony.
Parsonage also said she believes North Carolina’s hate crimes enhancement should be applied to the charges against Sturdy. NCGS § 14-3.(c) provides law enforcement with the discretion to upgrade charges if a “misdemeanor offense is committed because of a victim’s race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin.” Parsonage said the NC Court of Appeals has applied the hate crimes law to cover “ethnic animosity” and applied it to a case with a white victim and attacker.
Asked if the sheriff’s office is considering applying the state hate crimes law or upgrading the the assault charges in light of the severity of injuries sustained by the victims, Sheriff Kimbrough said in a statement to TCB: “While we are deeply disturbed by the assault that took place on Dec. 3, we are in constant conversation with the district attorney as to the new filing of the charges.
“We will investigate this matter in conjunction with the district attorney’s office to make sure justice is served,” Kimbrough continued. “Any assault on anyone is an assault on all of us and we at the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office will have zero tolerance for that.”
Nova and Olivia said they were not surprised by the Dec. 3 incident in the dentist office parking lot in Lewisville. Angry reactions to their signs expressing support for Black Lives Matter from other drivers are, unfortunately, not uncommon.
They made the signs in the early summer, when protests erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd.
“We’re both disabled and chronically ill,” Nova explained. “As much as we would like to go to protests, it’s not something we can physically do. This is our way of protesting.”
The harassment began almost as soon as they placed the signs in the car window.
“People would get really close to the car and then zoom around on the highway,” Nova said. “Or people would get really close and flash their lights, or turn their music up loud.”
During one incident when they were turning onto Jonestown Road, the siblings said encountered a truck flying an American flag and displaying Trump stickers. The driver yelled, “Fuck you, whore,” and, “Trump 2020,” they said.
In another incident, Olivia was sitting in the car at the Lewisville Library while Nova went inside. By then, they had worked out a plan in which the person in the car would blast the horn if they were in danger so the person inside could quickly respond.
Olivia said three white men walked up behind the car and read the signs, and then “walked up close and got really close to my window.” Olivia had their cellphone out and was ready to call 911, but the men backed off when they saw other people coming out of the library. The men went into the library, but stared at Olivia again when they came back out.
“It was instant hate,” Olivia said.
When asked to talk about what kind of justice they would like to see in response to the violence and personal violation they experienced, the siblings said what they want most is for people to be aware how common utterly common hatred towards Black Lives Matter and Black people is.
“If we could just get more people to understand that this happens all the time and have a recognition of how many people of color, specifically Black people are hurt every day and how being an ally is a verb,” Nova said, “and how important it is to make sure you are using your privilege in a way that helps other marginalized groups.”
Olivia said people should know that what happened to the siblings is more than a harbinger; it’s a current reality.
“We want to show people, to kind of like burst their bubble of privilege, that this happens all the time, and it’s not limited to people of color; it’s anyone who is a threat to white supremacy,” they said. “It’s here. You don’t have to go anywhere. The violence is here. A lot of people want to distance themselves from it. I hope this brings it closer so that more people will take action.”
This story was updated at 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 9 to reflect Helen Parsonage’s revised opinion on the applicability of North Carolina’s hate crimes law to the case. Initially, Parsonage had said in an interview on Dec. 8 that she didn’t think it was likely law enforcement would apply the hate crimes law. But in an email to Triad City Beat shortly after the story was published on Dec. 9, Parsonage said that after researching the matter further, including reviewing a NC Court of Appeals ruling, she now believes that a hate crime enhancement is appropriate.
The story was further updated at 10:20 a.m. on Dec. 10 to incorporate a statement from Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough on whether enhanced or additional charges are being considered.
The story originally stated in error that Olivia exited the car through a window because the door was inoperable. In fact, they rolled down the window so they could unlatch the door from the outside. The story has been updated to correct the error.