By Akaelah Rain, AFROPUNK contributor
If you are familiar with Humboldt County, it is usually for its reputation as the epicenter of marijuana cultivation before California’s recent legalization. Humboldt county is also home to Humboldt State University, located in Northern California in the small town of Arcata. Arcata markets itself as a surviving embodiment of 1960’s counterculture that is welcoming to all. David Josiah Lawson was studying Criminology at HSU. Lawson was the president of the Brothers United, a group that formed as a result of the unsolved murder of a Black HSU student, Cory Clark in 2001. The group’s goal was to provide support for Black men in the predominately white institution and white area in which they felt unsupported.
Josiah Lawson and members of the Brothers United were attending an off-campus party when they were approached by a group of white locals and accused of stealing one of their phones. One of the locals demanded that they empty their pockets. An altercation began that left Josiah Lawson pepper sprayed and stabbed multiple times. It was reported by many who attended the party that instead of prioritizing Josiah Lawson’s survival the police who arrived on the scene focused on “crowd control”. Josiah’s friends were the ones who took action to save Josiah’s life. Paramedics didn’t arrive until 20 minutes after they were called. The police scanner that night revealed that the police on the scene delayed EMT response to do crowd control. Lila Ortega, one of the suspects reportedly said “I hope that n****r dies”. Witnesses testified that they saw Kyle Zoellner drop something shiny.
Photo via Tina Sampay
What many found irresponsible about police response was that despite five people being involved in the altercation with Josiah, only Kyle Zoellner was arrested that night. Josiah Lawson was pronounced dead that morning, April 15th, 2017. The hospital was less than a mile away from where he was stabbed. A two minute drive. Angelica Mcfarland was the one who reportedly pepper-sprayed Josiah and yet she was not called to testify. Mcfarland’s mother drove Zoellner car away from the crime scene that night and the 4 women involved in the fight spent that night together before talking to police. The officer who found the knife could not recall whether or not he was wearing a glove when retrieved it.
Local media immediately demonized Josiah Lawson despite the 4 girls involved in the fight being under the influence of cocaine and having contradicting testimony during the preliminary trials. Those who lived in the area where the party occured referred to the crowd of Black and Brown students as “thug” and “the oakland type”. Many rushed to justify his murder because of the Josiah and his friend’s physical retaliation to the locals. Zoellner was released due to lack of physical evidence. Marches sprung up after the decision demanding justice for Josiah Lawson.
Josiah’s mother, Charmaine Lawson visits every month to push for progress regarding the case of her slain son. Charmaine has also been working with students to ensure that HSU administration, Arcata Police department and City Council address issues of student safety and racism in Arcata. Lawson has been received with contempt and lip service from Arcata’s “liberal” community. Every year, when incoming students tour HSU, admin strategically avoid student protest about the way they deceivingly market their school as safe and inclusive. The school’s president Lisa Rossbacher has been highly criticized for failing to attend any discussions involving race and for gaslighting students when they express the danger they face day to day in Humboldt County. Like Rossbacher, officials who attempt to address racism have done it on their own terms using unrealistic methods that downplay the consequences of racism. City Councilwoman Susan Ornellas, while speaking at one of Josiah’s vigils, was asked by a student what the city of Arcata was doing to combat white supremacy locally, referring to the rumoured KKK chapter in the area. Ornellas argued that what was claimed to be white supremacy were actually just cultural differences.
The sudden influx of students of color has sparked a rather hostile backlash from locals who are not used to coexisting with people of color. In Arcata, POC are subject to job insecurity, housing discrimination and daily reminders that they are not welcome. Before Josiah’s murder, students were speaking out in numbers about the deep racism within the community. An email sent by Rossbacher responding to a racially fuelled assault, attempted to comfort the students by stating that Humboldt was in fact a safe area. This sparked a hashtag “POCNORMSHSU”, where students shared their painful experiences living in Humboldt. Since the murder of Josiah Lawson, HSU’s Multicultural center has been vandalized twice, specifically targeting posters regarding Josiah Lawson’s investigation that were found torn both times. The perpetrators left a note saying “White people are welcome too”. The students present at the discovery of the vandalism reported that the University police responded apathetically.
Humboldt States response to racism within its institution and surrounding the unsolved murder of Josiah Lawson is a symptom of a common narrative of students of color being reduced to quotas, marketing opportunities and grant opportunities. The Hispanic Serving Institution fund grants UCs and CSUs millions for reaching a quarter enrollment of Hispanic/Latino identified students. In 2012, the percentage of Hispanic/Latino students was 22.2%. In 2016, it was recorded at 33.7%. Spaces such as the Latinx student center do not see most of the money from the HSI fund and classes that are catered to Hispanic/Latinx issues are on the chopping block for budget cuts. In 2001, when Cory Clark was murdered the POC population combined was 16%. The population of Black students has remained steadily around 3% but their representation in Humboldt state’s advertisements would make it seem more like 40%. Regarding marketing and its over-representation of POC, HSU student Deema Hindwahi commented “If you are photographed by HSU and are a person of color, you are more likely to be featured on the schools website or brochures for recruitment”. Other students who work in the Multicultural center expressed frustration with the budget cuts, taking away their hours while using the center as a tool for marketing. One student stating “We are investing money into this institution and the institution is not investing in us”.
Photo via Tina Sampay
As a result of Josiah Lawson’s murder and student action, the Arcata City Council implemented a monthly student safety meeting that was paired with an update about Josiah Lawson’s case. The student safety meetings, dealing with difficult subject matter naturally became heated and ultimately lead to its abrupt cancellation. On March 22nd, as a result of Charmaine’s advocacy, the meetings were revived but this time city officials, HSU admin and updates on Josiah’s investigation were removed. The meetings were structured for students of color to yet again put forth more emotional labor and reiterate what the City council has already heard. Many of those who spoke were close friends with Josiah and hoped to get an update on the case and what efforts were underway to improve the safety of POC.
As we near the year anniversary of Josiah Lawson’s murder many feel that HSU admin as well as Arcata city officials would like to see attention to this case disappear, like the murder of Cory Clark. A mother sent her son off to college only to receive a phone call that her son’s life was taken and somehow officials have remained complacent. In the end, race played a huge part in this murder whether it be the police response, the initial argument or the fact that, as of writing this, no progress has been made on the case. A young promising student was murdered and his killer is still among the Humboldt community. Many find it necessary for an outside review of police and paramedic response that night. HSU Alumni, Tina Sampay has been reporting the case all year, commenting “The lack of justice in Josiah’s case is infuriating but understanding how racism and white supremacy works, it is expected. I am definitely surprised the way his case has been handled by local authorities because he was a college student, on the right path. What is extremely disheartening is to witness how Humboldt State University is failing to support students of color. Specifically, they haven’t shown up for any of the ‘equity’ initiatives as well as the racism and safety forums that have taken place over the last year since his murder. “Last week, a social media campaign began to bring national attention to Josiah Lawson’s case to help get his story out of Humboldt county.
Now say his name.#JusticeforJosiah
For more information and updates on the case please visit the website Justiceforjosiahlawson.com
or visit the facebook page “Justice for David Josiah Lawson”