Hundreds Mourn Slain HSU Student at Thursday Vigil
The Kate Buchanan Room at Humboldt State University was filled to capacity on Thursday afternoon, as hundreds of HSU students were joined by professors, administrators, and other community members in a celebration of life for David Josiah “DJ” Lawson. The event was by turns heart-wrenching and inspirational, as friends and family members recalled the young man’s warmth, humor, and commitment to loved ones, including the other young men in Brothers United, a close-knit campus club for which he served as president.Lawson, who would have turned 20 in May, was stabbed to death in the early-morning hours of Saturday, April 15, during an altercation at a house party in Arcata. A Criminology & Justice Studies major, he had attended HSU since 2015.
HSU President Lisa Rossbacher, who welcomed attendees to the event, spoke of both “the collective sorrow of Josiah’s loss” and “the honor of having his mother, grandmother, and other family and friends here.” They had arrived in Humboldt County on Wednesday evening from Moreno Valley, in Riverside County, where Lawson had attended Rancho Verde High School. CARE Services Coordinator Vincent Feliz then introduced a group of students from the Indian Tribal & Educational Personnel Program (ITEPP), who sang two prayer songs for Lawson’s family. The first, led by Feliz, was the same one he had performed at his own mother’s funeral.
Corliss Bennett-McBride, director of the Cultural Centers for Academic Excellence (CCAE) at HSU, was the first of several speakers. She recalled meeting Lawson during a shopping trip to T.J. Maxx, where he had been employed, shortly after relocating to Humboldt County: “I told him, ‘Stop by my office and say hi, because I don’t have any friends,’” she jokingly recalled. When he did, she didn’t recognize him: “He had dreads when I [first] met him,” she said to laughter from attendees. On a more serious note, Bennett-McBride—who also serves as the advisor for Brothers United, a club composed mostly (but not entirely) of young African-American men—acknowledged the sense of culture shock many transplants feel upon arrival: “I’m very familiar with the transitional piece students are experiencing,” she said.
The members of Brothers United, all of whom have been deeply affected by Lawson’s death, then briefly took the stage to thank his family “for giving us such a wonderful young man.”
They were followed by his uncle, Matt Weaver, who was overcome with emotion: “The overwhelming support has been amazing,” he told the audience, before asking that any witnesses to Saturday’s tragedy come forward and speak to investigators.
The Lawson family’s pastor, introduced simply as Pastor Phill, exhorted those present to honor Lawson’s memory by living a life cognizant of “how precious, frail, and short it can be.” Directly referencing the racial polarization that has marked public discussion of Lawson’s death, he firmly told the audience: “It’s not about race. It’s not about color. It’s about life. This is how I know he [Lawson] ‘got’ it—I see every mix of race in this room.” The pastor added that he had never experienced “such an outpouring of support… If you can do it as a community for this family, you can do it for yourselves.” Once again exhorting Lawson’s friends and others to celebrate his life, he concluded: “If you fail to do that, you’ve missed it altogether.”
Echoing the pastor’s sentiments, Charmaine Michelle Lawson—who received a rousing welcome—showed formidable strength in the face of profound tragedy. “Thank you so much, Humboldt family, for being here, for celebrating my son, my baby, my baby!” She spoke of the college fair where Lawson made the decision to attend HSU: “I was already at the table when he arrived. He had on his jersey, he was smelling,” she recounted with a smile, “and when I asked, ‘How far is it?,’ he said, ‘Oh, about eight hours. Maybe 10. Maybe 11.’” As those present shared both tears and laughter, she recalled that he had been accepted at several universities, but “this is where he wanted to be. I knew he was in a good place… You guys were so loving and so caring. I’m so heartbroken, but I know he was so loved.”
Turning to the young men in Brothers United, she added: “Now I have 15 new children that I didn’t give birth to.” After asking them to deliver her younger son to college this fall—a task DJ was going to perform—she told the audience: “On behalf of our family, I appreciate you guys. Please keep us in your prayers, and keep his memory alive.”
Charmaine Lawson’s “15 new children” returned to the stage together, but most were too overwhelmed by grief to speak. Those who did spoke with deep emotion of her son’s warmth, humor and generosity, and of their own faith: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death better than the day of one’s birth,” said the first, quoting Ecclesiastes 7:1. “I’m glad I got to talk to him in this life, because he’s going to see Jah.” Elijah Chandler, who performed CPR on Lawson before the arrival of EMTs, gave arguably the most heartbreaking testimony: “I know how hard that boy fought [for his life],” he said, then added: “Everything that we are continues because Josiah wants it.” Brendan Thomas spoke of Lawson’s joie de vivre: “‘What we’re going to do this weekend’—that was about 70 percent of our conversation after Wednesday.’”
After a moment of silence, Residence Life Coordinator Tina Okoye sang a beautiful rendition of the Cure’s “Love Song,” re-popularized by Adele a few years ago. “Even though this is a love song, I think the lyrics transcend romance,” Okoye said. “And, as you can see here, Josiah loved everybody.”
Before the closing prayer, a speaker not listed in the program was introduced: Arcata Police Chief Tom Chapman, addressing the audience on Charmaine Lawson’s request. “You have my deepest sympathy,” he said. “You sent your son here to receive an education, to become a man…” His voice cracking, he then made a statement that first drew shock, then applause: “I just want you to know—we will have justice for David. It will happen.”
Closing the ceremony, Pastor Phill asked that all present stand and join hands; he himself took the hand of the man nearest him, a professional photographer momentarily nonplussed by his inability to work. “Let it go,” the pastor told him. “You’ve been working hard all this time.” Turning to the crowd, he told those present, “God placed you here to do your part”—and once again, exhorted each and every one to see others without prejudice, without preconception, as they themselves would like to be seen.
Josiah Lawson’s death is one of at least four violent deaths that have roiled the HSU community in the last several years. In February 2009, Andrew Pease, an Army veteran who had survived cancer, was stabbed to death in the parking lot of Ray’s by two men on a robbery spree through Eureka. Just two classes short of receiving a History degree, Pease was posthumously awarded a bachelor’s degree. In September 2012, Suzanne Seemann, a deeply respected and enormously popular lecturer in the Geography department, was killed by a hit-and-run driver who purposely targeted her and two friends—all unknown to him—while they were jogging on Old Arcata Road; at the time, the driver had already murdered Hoopa resident Dorothy Ulrich and stolen her car. And on New Year’s Day 2014, the Rev. Eric Freed was tortured and murdered by a Southern Humboldt resident who had been released from the Humboldt County jail in the middle of the night. Beloved by both his parishioners at St. Bernard’s and his students and colleagues at HSU, Freed was also the director of the Newman Center, a community for Catholic students.
In the wake of each of these tragedies, local communities have been both united and sundered: united in grief for the deceased, but also deeply divided about the causes of violence in Humboldt County. A quick perusal of any comment thread on online media reveals an instant reflex, on the part of many residents, to hold the homeless and/or transient population responsible—the same people who, in the eyes of many, have fostered a violent and permissive drug culture that has resulted in both increased property-crime and increased murder rates in Humboldt County. Yet none of the convicted or accused murderers in these cases has been a transient; all have been either Humboldt County natives or longtime residents of the area. The difficult question of the drug culture—and how much is imported vs. how much is homegrown—is one that lawmakers and the community at large continue to grapple with.
Josiah Lawson’s death has introduced a new element to the already toxic brew of online discussion of crime in Humboldt County: that of white-on-black violence. Lawson was African-American; Kyle Christopher Zoellner, 23, the McKinleyville resident currently charged with Lawson’s murder, is white. Zoellner pleaded not guilty to Lawson’s murder on April 19, and his bail was set at $1 million; a preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 1. Yet, six days after Lawson’s death, the Arcata Police Department has yet to release a detailed statement—and online discussion reveals a deep divide between many of Lawson’s friends and acquaintances, who believe racism played a part in his death, and Zoellner’s, who assert that Zoellner is not a racist and acted in self-defense.
Adding fuel to the proverbial fire is the fact that HSU is the most racially diverse place in Humboldt County—yet even on campus, students, faculty, and staff of color often feel that they have been recruited to check a box on an administrator’s checklist, not necessarily to be part of a truly inclusive community. As Dr. Renée Byrd, a sociology professor, poignantly wrote in a blog post this week, “I am so often Professor Byrd’s TA or her student. Sometimes people have assumed I am entering someone else’s office. I like to imagine that I am having a wild affair with Dr. Byrd, the imaginary scholar who legitimately occupies this office space. Her and I steal away and finger the words of all the latest monographs, rolling them over in our mouths. They are sweet, our secret pleasure. How problematic that this is the only way I can imagine legitimately inhabiting this space, as someone’s illicit lover.”
It is difficult to say what will, or should, come next in the wake of the tragedy that unfolded in the early-morning hours of April 15. The Arcata Police Department has interviewed at least two dozen witnesses and received an anonymous email purportedly detailing the events of the night. Yet, among Humboldt County residents, especially those acquainted with either Lawson or Zoellner, the narratives being told on social media are markedly different. One can only hope that the truth of what occurred will be fully revealed in court—whether it involved racism, drugs, or the all-too-common and often-fatal combination of alcohol and testosterone—and that both the HSU community and the community at large will find the courage to face it with honesty.
Charmaine Lawson and Pastor Phill already know how they will face the terrible reality of Josiah Lawson’s death: with an unyielding insistence on celebrating his life—a life he meant to dedicate to people poorly served by the criminal-justice system—and with a focus on sharing love. They, and Lawson’s other loved ones, are left with the cold comfort of the words on the back of Thursday’s program, a quote from Harry Potter’s doomed uncle Sirius Black: “The ones that love us never really leave us.”
- 19-Year-Old HSU Student Dies After Stabbing in Arcata Early This Morning
- 23-Year-Old McKinleyville Resident Arrested in Connection with HSU Student’s Stabbing Death
- HSU Offers Students Who Witnessed Stabbing Death Amnesty for Breaking School Rules; Asks Cooperation With Police
- Arcata Police Not Releasing Photo of Suspect in Stabbing Death for Now
- APD Received Anonymous Email About Fatal Stabbing; Pleads With Writer to Come Forward
- Celebration of the Life of Stabbing Victim Will be Held at Humboldt State University Today; Racial Bias Alleged to Have Led to Death
Cristina Bauss was a reporter for The Independent in Garberville from 2004 until 2010, and for KMUD News in Redway from 2006 until 2008. She returned to college in her late 30s, and graduated from HSU in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Geography and an Advanced Geospatial Certificate. She lives in Eureka.