[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rcata, Ca. Tomorrow starting at 6:30 p.m. at the D Street Neighborhood Center, there will be a showing of Unsolved Hate, a documentary about how the unsolved murder of David Josiah Lawson has affected the small college town of Arcata, CA.
A student in her last semester at Sacramento State University, Courtney Wagner traveled to Humboldt County with a few peers as her production team. In interviews with local business owners, students, HSU faculty as well as community members, the story of how this young man’s death has affected this small college town is told.
The Eureka Chapter of the NAACP is hosting the event which is part of a 3-part film series they are hosting for Black History Month.
“On April 15th, 2017 David Josiah Lawson was stabbed to death at a house party in Arcata, California. He was 19 years old, a sophomore at Humboldt State University. There are no suspects in custody. Students have responded to the investigation of Josiah’s homicide with unity, and one of their messages has been clear: Arcata does not feel safe for students of color. This documentary explores how racism is embedded in town culture and what the community is doing to resolve it.”
Courtney Wagner produced and conducted interviews for the documentary which was a final class project before graduation.
How did you hear about what happened to Josiah?
1.) A friend who attends HSU sent me a text the weekend he was murdered.
What was it about his death that made you want to do a documentary?
2.) Everything about his death made me want to do a documentary. My friend described him as the “young MLK on campus,” yet he met his end to a knife? People with a natural inclination to leadership and kindness don’t succumb to anger and violence when met with opposition. The more I looked into the case, nothing else sounded right either from the discrepancies in witness testimony to the way the scene was handled. The only thing I did know was my friend felt a target had been put on her back and on the back of any other student of color who spoke out. It looked to me like no authority, whether it be the school, the police, or local media, had made themselves an ally of the students. This is a prime example of institutional racism and for it to happen in California, a place the rest of the country identifies as a liberal utopia, is a true testament to how far we have to go as a nation in terms of reaching equality.
What was the experience like coming to Humboldt County to film? Did you learn things that you did not know before?
3.) Filming in Humboldt county has been surreal. There is such beauty here, from the redwoods to the ocean to the countless fields of grazing animals. There is such care here, care to protect the natural landscapes, to invest in healthy foods. The image I had of Arcata before arriving was an artsy liberal town filled with hippies who love organic food and weed. What I learned was “liberal” can have a very different meaning when it has developed in a place that is both culturally and physically isolating. I assumed people who fought to protect the planet would want to protect all the humans in it, but racism pervades even the noblest causes. One interviewee brought to my attention that there are those in Humboldt whose grandparents made their living off scalping Native Americans and were never told that was wrong. That floored me. We think of the past as so distant, but its consequences remain ever in the present.
How do you feel knowing it has been over ten months and his case has yet to be solved?
4.) I feel a lot of things about there still being no justice, 10 months later. I’m terrified that there is a killer on the loose. I am furious that students have to walk to class knowing this, knowing that no concrete precautions have been made to keep them safe. I’m heartbroken every time the 15th of the month comes around and I know Josiah’s mom is going to make the voyage to Arcata to demand justice for her son. It’s fucked. No parent should have to fight for her child’s murder to be solved, there should be an overwhelming desire to solve from not just the police department but the city itself! I see exactly why students do not have faith in the department, a child was murdered with a hundred witnesses and a suspect arrested on scene yet here we are with nothing. It’s infuriating. And I’ve seen how local media has betrayed trust by publishing students who asked to remain anonymous, by giving voice to those in power instead of the oppressed.
What would you like to see happen in Humboldt as a way for healing the community?
5.) I would like to see Arcata set aside an annual budget for student safety. The town’s economy revolves around the campus it only makes sense to reinvest. I heard a lot of talk about getting committees together and listening to panels, but no mention of funds. I don’t think healing can happen until students witness a real concrete change from the community. A financial investment of street lights, cameras, and inclusive training for officers is a solid place to start to earn the students’ trust back.
BIO: Courtney Wagner is a Sacramento State alumna with a degree in Communication Studies and a passion for film. Social activism and videography have always gone hand in hand in her career, from a high school PSA about human trafficking to her first scholarship documenting the LGBTQ movement. In the future she hopes to have her own production company focused on giving the oppressed a platform.