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Few Answers and Much Frustration as Pending Lawsuits, Lawson Questions Stymie Dialogue on Race 

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Photo by Linda Stansberry

With several attendees expressing frustration over a lack of concrete steps coming out of previous events, the May 24 Community Dialogue on Race at the D Street Neighborhood Center was marked by a barrage of questions directed at the two city officials present: City Manager Karen Diemer and City Councilmember Paul Pitino. The questions largely revolved around the investigation into the death of Humboldt State University student David Josiah "DJ" Lawson, who was stabbed at an off-campus house party on April 17, 2017. Few of the questions were answered.

The meeting, facilitated by community organizer Renee Saucedo, began with introductions, an agreement to ground rules and with each participant asked what they would like to see as a result of the meeting. Around 50 people sat in a circle, addressing the question. Many students said they would like the killing solved. Several parents said they were concerned for their children's safety. Community members called for an exploration of institutional racism.

"I'm here to stand with students of color and to add my voice to the conversation," said Sharrone Blancke, interim president of the local NAACP chapter.

Charmaine Lawson, Josiah Lawson's mother, could not attend in person due to a family graduation but a friend livestreamed the event for her, adding her own questions. According to a press release sent prior to the event, the family's priority for the dialogue was to work on bringing back "retired FBI investigator Tom Parker to lead the investigation of Josiah Lawson's murder, rather than relying on the city of Arcata's limited skill." Parker left the investigation in April, saying he believed the police department was withholding information and failing to follow his recommendations. Then Police Chief Tom Chapman resigned fewer than 24 hours after Parker stepped away.

Saucedo tallied the responses and narrowed in on the investigation as the primary topic for discussion. City officials were tapped to respond to questions from audience members.

Pitino, responding to the question of whether the city would rehire Parker, said that he had been instructed by legal counsel not to comment, causing several people to audibly scoff. Diemer explained that there were some things that could not be discussed publicly, as the city had been named in litigation brought by both the Lawson family and by Kyle Zoellner, the original suspect in the case.

Diemer said outside counsel had reviewed the pending lawsuits and, concluding that Parker would almost certainly be a witness at trial, found the idea of him returning to the investigation legally problematic. The investigation is currently being conducted by a team that includes two Arcata Police Department officers and two investigators from the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office. Diemer added she is currently searching for an additional investigator and welcomes suggestions.

Several people commented on the absence of HSU President Lisa Rossbacher, who had attended a previous meeting and was reportedly invited to subsequent sessions.

In a phone interview after the dialogue, Charmaine Lawson said she would like Rossbacher to attend "just to be supportive."

"Be supportive to a young man that was a student at that university before he was murdered right down the street," Lawson said. "Be supportive for the students of color, be supportive of the community. This is something she should just show up, let the community know, 'I'm here to advocate for the student.' ... That's what I would like for her to do, that's what the community would like for her to do, that's what DJ would like her to do."

In response to a Journal email, HSU spokesperson Aileen Yoo sent the following statement: "The president, vice president, police chief and other university officials have attended many events and activities related to creating a more diverse and equitable community. They will continue to do so because this is valuable engagement for HSU and the community."

At the meeting, a community member asked the council to put the issue of racism on its agenda, to form a committee to explore the issue and to collaborate with HSU on addressing racism toward students and people of color in the larger community. The community member also suggested a police oversight committee, which Pitino said was only possible if the governmental structure of Arcata was changed to that of a charter city, although a police advisory board is certainly an option.

Diemer added the city has been working on a program with the university to promote racial equity. Giancarlo Campagna, Saucedo's husband, accused Diemer and the council of protecting the interests of white "settler families" rather than people of color.

"I think it would behoove you to make sure the case goes away," he said. "It's a continuation of white violence on brown bodies."

Campagna said Diemer needed to "stand up to the white families."

"I don't know if you're even capable of standing up for what's right," he said.

Pitino took umbrage at the accusation, saying he doesn't "bend over for any white settlers."

Before Saucedo asked the media and public officials to leave so the remaining attendees could discuss action steps, Diemer agreed to work with Charmaine Lawson and others to bolster the investigative team, saying the city was openly recruiting California law enforcement professionals with experience in homicide investigations to help with the case. Saucedo said she could not say whether there would be a report on the rest of the evening's discussion, although some of it was included in the group's Facebook Live video. That discussion included pressuring the university and the district attorney's office to bring Parker back to the investigation and asking the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury to investigate the city.

The Journal requested a report from the remainder of the meeting but had not received one as of press time. Although the meeting was originally announced by the city as part of its series of Community Dialogues on Race, noticed on the city's website and held on city property, Diemer said after the meeting that several factors have impacted the city's ability to formally participate in and host the meetings.

"In the past, the city hosted meetings at the request of the group to facilitate an additional dialogue on race," Diemer said. "But the city can't host meetings that discuss an ongoing investigation."

Diemer explained that prior to May 24, the dialogues were classified as study sessions of the city council, which fall under open government laws of public meetings. Those laws require a majority of the city council to be present and for the entire meeting to be public.

"That structure has been challenging for the type of dialogue that this group has been attempting to engage in," Diemer told the Journal. "The city can't participate in meetings that aren't open to the public."

She said that the city will be "regrouping" and that Arcata has committed to supporting Equity Arcata, a local group made up of city leaders, HSU staff, business owners and community members exploring initiatives related to diversity and inclusion.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or linda@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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About The Author

Linda Stansberry

Linda Stansberry

Bio:
Linda Stansberry was a staff writer of the North Coast Journal from 2015 to 2018.

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