Facilitator Renee Saucedo takes input from the crowd.
With several attendees expressing frustration over a lack of concrete steps to come out of previous events, Thursday night's Community Dialogue on Race at the D Street Neighborhood Center was marked by a barrage of questions 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 Lawson, who was stabbed to death at an off-campus house party on April 17, 2017. Few of the questions were answered.
The meeting, which was 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 murder solved. Several parents said they were concerned for their children's safety.
Community members called for an exploration of institutional racism.
Charmaine Lawson, David Josiah Lawson's mother, could not attend in person due to a family graduation but a family friend livestreamed the event for her, adding her own questions. Saucedo tallied the responses and narrowed in on the investigation, with Diemer responding to questions from audience members.
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. Her words were met with audible scoffs. Pitino, responding to the question of whether the city would rehire Tom Parker, the retired Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who left the case in April, said he had been instructed by legal counsel not to comment.
Parker, who had joined the investigation as a volunteer, said at time he believed the police department was withholding information and failing to follow his recommendations. Then Police Chief Tom Chapman resigned less than 24 hours after him. The reinstatement of Parker was one of the primary requests of Lawson's family, according to a release sent out prior to the meeting.
Diemer said outside counsel had reviewed the pending lawsuits and, concluding that Parker would almost certainly be a witness in a trial, found the idea of him returning to the investigation legally problematic.
Several people commented on the absence of HSU President Lisa Rossbacher, who had attended a previous 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 an advisory board was certainly an option.
Diemer added that 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 flesh out 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.