Humboldt State University students are leading a protest for their slain classmate, David Josiah Lawson, a promising 19-year-old Black sophomore whose stabbing death last April sparked outrage and heightened racial tensions in Arcata, Calif.
The students’ 12 days of action—each day marking a month that Lawson’s slaying has gone unsolved—began last week. A #JusticeForJosiah campaign has been launched ahead of the one-year anniversary of Lawson’s tragic death on April 15, 2017. Protesters are frustrated over how the student’s homicide was handled by the Arcata Police Department, city government and HSU officials, the North Coast Journal, a Humboldt County newspaper, reported Thursday.
Lawson died after two stab wounds in the early morning on April 15 last year. Witnesses pointed police to 23-year-old Kyle Zoellner, who is white. Authorities arrested Zoellner on suspicion of murder, but a judge ordered his release from custody last May after a two-week court hearing and testimonies from several witnesses. One of Lawson’s friends reportedly alleged that racial bias hindered efforts to rush Lawson to a hospital. An allegation about Zoellner’s girlfriend having hurled a racial slur and a death wish at Lawson were also made.
Students believe that race played a factor in the treatment of Lawson’s senseless murder, a tragedy that has prompted more concerns over the safety of people of color in Arcata. As protesters wait for officials and authorities to provide answers, they are preparing for a planned celebration of life for Lawson at the D Street Community Center in Arcata on Sunday (April 15).
The HSU community, hoping to get support from prominent civil rights letters and national attention about the teen’s death, have rallied behind Lawson’s mother, Charmaine Lawson. The past year has left Lawson’s mother with pain, grief, unanswered questions and shock over authorities’ handling of her son’s case.
“This tough journey has been filled with disappointments, from the lack of justification for the first responders’ actions, the delay in receiving the autopsy report, the police report that I have still not seen, the dwindling communication from the Arcata Police Department and the lack of availability from the HSU president,” Lawson’s mother wrote in a letter titled, “Why Doesn’t My Son’s Life Matter Enough?” submitted to the North Coast Journal on April 9. “What I’ve learned through my son’s murder is that if policies and procedures were followed, I don’t believe I would be living this terrible nightmare.”
Witnesses felt that racial discrimination was at play when first responders delayed providing aid to Lawson at the scene, Lawson’s mother said. Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman had confessed that a “defibrillator used by his first responders was slow to function because it was not fully charged,” she said. The suspect was placed safely in a police vehicle while her son continued to bleed to death, she also said.
Lawson’s letter and the latest student protests come as Chapman had abruptly resigned on April 10. An ex-FBI agent, Tom Parker, who had led an investigation of the Rodney King beating, had also recently exited Lawson’s case after volunteering as a consultant.
It’s unclear if the Justice Department will become involved in Lawson’s case.