Living in a community full of love, fear and a growing void of justice
Thirty-three months after a black HSU student was murdered in the city of Arcata, a circle of family, friends, students and community members huddled together, clasped hands and shouted his name.
“Justice for David Josiah Lawson,” the group said loud and clear over and over from the steps of the Arcata City Hall. The sun had set hours ago, and a winter wind was biting at those gathered in attendance, but weather wouldn’t stop the crowd.
“The vibe itself is very upbeat considering the weather,” said attendee Andre Ramos, who wore a heavy winter coat and a beanie pulled over his ears.
Every month since the murder of David Josiah Lawson, a crowd has gathered around Charmaine Lawson, the mother of Josiah Lawson, and together they demand justice for Josiah. Lawson remains steadfast in her belief that justice will happen. She makes the journey all the way up to Humboldt from her home in Southern California to remind those in power that she will make it happen.
“It will happen,” Lawson said. “I serve a mighty god. As long as I have breath in my body I will continue to be here.”
To Lawson, this was an open and shut case. The original suspect, former Mckinleyville resident Kyle Christopher Zoellner, was apprehended the night of the murder. Lawson said the murder weapon was also found. She said DNA evidence should presumably solve this case.
“Why we’re still here? Dumbfounded,” Lawson said.
As the months go by, more and more students move to Humboldt to attend Humboldt State University. Yet Lawson is concerned these students don’t know the situation they’re moving into.
HSU has a much higher population of people of color than the surrounding community. Most HSU students come from Los Angeles or the Bay Area and the small-town culture of Humboldt is different from what they’re used to. Lawson wants to ensure that all students who start the next step of their lives in Humboldt make it out again, but she feels that students of color simply aren’t welcome.
“If you’re a student of color, be careful,” Lawson said. “There are beautiful, amazing, wonderful, compassionate people here. There is love within this community, but there is evil and darkness here.”
Kwame Achebe, a San Diego native, agreed. Achebe has attended every vigil since the murder, but his voice still shook when talking about what happened. He chose his words carefully but spoke with a grim humor when recounting one of his first experiences in Humboldt.
“What’s funny is in San Diego I’m pretty light skinned,” Achebe said with a laugh. “In San Diego I’d have to be convincing people I was black. I didn’t need to convince anybody here. My first day at Arcata High I was greeted as ‘the nigger,’ OK? I was greeted as ‘the nigger.'”
Achebe said his experiences in Humboldt have told him that this isn’t an aberration.
“For us not to have justice 33 months after the murder of a young black man? It’s not out of the norm at all,” Achebe said.
Achebe said the elected leaders of Arcata don’t care about what happened to Josiah Lawson, so it’s up to the people.
“I’ve been out here from the very beginning. I see the look on their faces when they’re addressing us. They have no souls in their eyes,” Achebe said. “They don’t care.”
Part of the goal of the Justice for Josiah movement is justice in the form of political change, not just for Josiah Lawson, but for the whole system. Lawson vowed to keep working to elect people who she thinks will be able to uphold justice.
“I will continue to call people in power out that are elected officials who are not doing their jobs and make sure we get people with integrity and love and compassion in seats,” Lawson said.
Over the course of the almost three-year history of this case, it has faced numerous setbacks. The case against Zoellner was dismissed in 2017. In 2019, a criminal grand jury decided not to indict anyone for the murder of Josiah Lawson, and the California Attorney General declined to take the case.
“Justice for me is having Kyle Christopher Zoellner arrested for the murder of my son David Josiah Lawson and held accountable for his actions,” Lawson said.
The history of the case shows that a system that could bring about the justice that Lawson wants is not the one Humboldt has, but Lawson is convinced it will one day. Until then, Lawson is concerned for the students of color in the here and now.
“Don’t go anywhere alone in this town,” Lawson said. “Stick together so someone can tell your story if you’re not able to.”