Here’s how one Riverside County mom is trying to improve safety across the Cal State University system in the wake of her son’s murder
Charmaine Lawson will never forget the late-night phone call that her son was dead.
Her son, David Josiah Lawson, 19, was fatally stabbed at a party on April 15, 2017, in Arcata, a rural town near Humboldt State University, as he was wrapping up his sophomore year.
Almost a year-and-a-half later, the murder is still unsolved.
Feeling helpless and frustrated, Charmaine Lawson, of Perris, has been calling on the California State University system for help in finding her son’s killer — and has been a catalyst for improving school safety across the Cal State University system. On Wednesday, Sept. 12, Lawson led a group of 40 folks supporting her to a Cal State Board of Trustees meeting, in Long Beach, demanding officials take responsibility for student safety — even off-campus — and ensure those associated with the universities, particularly minority groups, feel comfortable in their communities.
Her supporters, donning “Justice for Josiah” shirts, included professors and students from across the state, some of whom occasionally shouted “shame” to the board.
“DJ and our family trusted you with his life and you failed him,” Lawson said at the meeting.
In response, Adam Day, the chairman for the Board of Trustees, said, “We do share your grief and hope for the best in the investigation.”
The Arcata Police Department said the younger Lawson, who was a two-sport varsity athlete at Moreno Valley’s Rancho Verde High, was repeatedly stabbed following an argument early on a Saturday morning at an off-campus house party. First aid was performed at the scene before paramedics took him to the Mad River Hospital, where he died.
A month later, police had charged a suspect, a white male, for murder. But at a preliminary hearing, the case was dismissed because “information in the hearing differed from the information available when the case was charged,” according to a statement from the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office.
While police did not pursue hate crime charges against the suspect, some in the community said they thought the sophomore’s murder was motivated by racism.
“David Josiah Lawson was a victim of a hate crime,” The Lumberjack, Humboldt’s student newspaper, wrote in a March 2018 editorial, “and has become the poster child of the racism that exists in Humboldt County.”
On Wednesday, Dawson also linked her son’s death with an atmosphere in Arcata that she said can be hostile to minorities.
In response, university spokesman Frank Whitlatch admitted that Humboldt is much more diverse than the outside community, and said some students experience “culture shock.”
But, he added, “we’re working to build more bridges and understanding.”
Arcata, a rural and geographically isolated city of 18,000, is 80 percent white, 16.8 percent Hispanic/Latino and 2.6 percent African American, according to the U.S. Census. Humboldt State’s 8,500 students make up nearly half of the city’s overall population, but is far more diverse: 43.7 percent white, 33.7 percent Hispanic/Latino and 3.2 percent African American, according to the university. Humboldt students largely originate from the Los Angeles area, making up 32.1 percent of students.
In the 23 Cal State campuses, meanwhile, students were 40.1 percent were Mexican American or other Latino, 23.5 percent white and 4.1 percent African American in 2017, according to the CSU.
Humboldt graduate Ayanna Wilson, who originally hails from the Coachella Valley, said she felt out of place in Arcata. Although the community has a reputation as a “hippy town” rife with liberal-leaning folks, people of color are often overlooked in local issues; certain parts of town — particularly in the impoverished areas – are known among Wilson’s peers to be ripe with racism, she said.
“It wasn’t very safe,” Wilson said.
Whitlatch, though, said the death of David Lawson roiled the entire community.
“Humboldt County is essentially a small town,” Whitlatch said. “This was an incident that shook the whole campus, it shook the community. It continues to reverberate. It is not something that we expected and it definitely caused a lot of soul-searching and emotional pain in Humboldt County.”
The spokesman also said Humboldt’s campus police have a close relationship with the Arcata police and assist with calls off-campus regularly. The investigation is on the forefront of everyone’s minds, he said.
Wednesday’s meeting was Charmaine Lawson’s third time addressing the board. She hasn’t been happy with the response, feeling that the Cal State system has been more defensive than supportive of her situation.
Lawson said she feels her son’s university should have done more to prevent similar situations from happening.
“Campus patrol needs to be patrolling off campus in areas that they know students are living,” she said. “Students have to grocery shop off campus, do laundry, go to work, go out to eat. They do a lot of those things off campus, you cannot keep campus police only on campus because when students step out of that campus zone, what is going to happen to them. They are not safe.”
However, officials for Humboldt and the Cal State Chancellor’s office said campus police assist with calls off campus regularly. The investigation is on the forefront of everyone’s minds, Whitlatch said.
Some grass-roots groups tied to the university have sprouted in the wake of the murder to bridge the gap between Humboldt students and the rest of the community, Whitlatch added. It’s a start, for now, but Whitlatch expects more will action could come as the groups progress, he said.
“I think these groups are a part of the answer and will try to come up with some other solutions as well,” Whitlatch said.
Humboldt professor Renee Byrd said that it’s not just her campus that needs to do more to keep students, particularly minority students, safe — but all 23.
“As leaders of the CSU,” she said Wednesday, “you must grapple with the contradictions of a system that holds police out as the primary route for protection and addressing violence, even as they themselves are perpetrators of violence against marginalized folks.”
In 2016, there were 17 hate crimes across the 23 campuses, according to Cal State campus crime reports.
Byrd, and other Cal State professors, said they believe the officials should reach out to their professors who study issues related to race, violence and safety, to start a larger dialogue about systematic racism in the Cal State system and its law enforcement.
“Talk with black parents and academics,” Byrd said. “We’re right here in the CSU. You’ll learn a lot.”