Arcata council meeting shut down by Lawson activists

Members of the public, police officers, city council members and city staff members in Council Chamber Thursday night, with the council meeting halted by the protest. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

Kevin L. Hoover

Mad River Union

ARCATA CITY HALL – Weighty matters on the Arcata City Council’s first meeting of 2020 went unheard Thursday night because of another important case that remains unsolved – that of the April 15, 2017 killing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson.

During Early Oral Communication, several speakers alleged that a long-awaited report on the Arcata Police Department’s investigation of the Lawson killing had been completed and transmitted to City Manager Karen Diemer. The Lawson activists condemned what they said was lack of action by the council in not pressuring the legal system – including District Attorney Maggie Fleming – to advance the open case, possibly by having it tried outside the county.

Speakers also harshly criticized Mayor Michael Winkler for referring to opponents of the William McKinley statue as a "lynch mob," for wildly overestimating costs of statue removal and for his private business entanglements which prevent his participation in city business – including the Creek Side homes development and annexation on the evening's agenda.

The remarks by Lawson activists started out calm and cordial, but grew in both urgency and ferocity.  

Speakers referred to Winkler as a threat to public safety and demanded his ouster. Some vowed to disrupt council business until substantive action is taken to solve the Lawson killing, which they referred to as a “murder.”

“We will not allow business to go on as usual,” said one young man. “We will be down here every week, and we will be speaking. We will be shutting it down until David Josiah Lawson receives justice.”

“We’re going to start to shut the shit down,” said Kelsey Reedy.

That’s what ended up taking place, as speakers grew more impassioned, as more than a dozen individuals went from snapping their fingers in agreement with the sentiments expressed to chanting “Justice for Josiah!” and bringing the meeting to a halt. 

Five Arcata Police officers including Chief Brian Ahearn responded to the Council Chamber, looking on as the spectacle evolved but not intervening.

City staffmembers and individuals there for later agenda items – Arcata’s new restaurant single-use container ordinance and the Creek Side Homes housing project – huddled in small groups around the lobby, apparently discussing possible next steps for their issues.

Winkler eventually called a five-minute break, but the protesters then lined up chanting in front of the council dais, and the meeting was never to resume. The council meeting has been tentatively rescheduled to next Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 8 a.m. The mayor then went into the locked City Manager's Office, never to re-emerge.

Chanting prevented resumption of the council meeting. KLH | Union

The chanting prevented Former Mayor Carl Pellatz, there to speak on behalf of the Humboldt Crabs beer concession during the single-use container ordinance matter, sat glumly in the lobby, as did waste reduction expert Maggie Gainer, there for the same thing. As both awaited any indication of the meeting resuming, Pellatz bristled at the shutdown, something he said was unproductive in terms of accomplishing the protesters’ goals.

Diemer and Councilmember Brett Watson then engaged protesters in a lengthy, informal colloquy in the chamber, with the city officials responding to allegations of inaction and discussing numerous procedural and historical points. Diemer and Watson said they understood the frustration, and vowed to continue to pursue justice for the slain student. Diemer, who’d been called a “liar” by one protester, said she’s not received any copy of the Police Foundation report.

While several protesters demanded that the case be brought to trial, Diemer pointed out that if a case already deemed weak by legal authorities is tried and lost, there could be no retrial due to double jeopardy, even if compelling evidence is turned up. 

Meanwhile, Councilmember Paul Pitino engaged with a few of the protesters, telling them that for the council to answer questions and act, they have to be able to speak without being shouted and chanted down. When one protester shrieked “LIAR!” at him during a conversation, Pitino disengaged, citing an inability to communicate. Councilmember Sofia Pereira spoke with several members of the public and staff members in the lobby.

City Manager Karen Diemer, City Councilmember Brett Watson and protesters mix it up in the chamber. KLH | Union

As councilmembers signed a piece of paper presented to them by protesters, a reporter endeavored to view the document so as to know what Arcata’s elected representatives were committing to in the public chamber. This brought an unsuccessful effort to obscure the document by protester Reedy, who also participated in briefly closing the chamber to press access during one of the 2018 meeting shutdowns. The piece of paper turned out to be a simple contact list, with Councilmembers Pitino and Watson the only ones on it at that point.

A young man whose comments had ranged from chanting and yelling to reflective, sotto voce expressions of understanding and common humanity, told the protesters and city officials that “I am personally adjourning this meeting.”  With that, protesters filed outside, chanting “Justice for Josiah!”

The Lawson case has been plagued by reversals, including a Grand Jury refusal to pursue charges against initial suspect Kyle Zoellner to the recent refusal by the state attorney general to take on the case. Officials have cited a lack of unambiguous evidence and witnesses, while Lawson activists allege a botched crime scene response and follow-through by Arcata Police (which is the subject of the pending Police Foundation investigation report). Police Chief Brian Ahearn and Lawson's mother, Charmaine, recently jointly appealed to any uninterviewed witnesses to the killing to step forward.

It was the third time a council meeting had been halted by Lawson activists. Similar shutdowns, involving several of the same individuals attending the Thursday meeting, occurred on successive nights in August, 2018.

Winkler mum on issues

Mayor Winkler declined afterward to comment with any specificity. Matters raised for a mayoral response included:

• Extreme overestimation of the costs of removal of the McKinley statue ($525,000 vs. the $16,377 it actually cost), and suggesting that eight police officers would be laid off as a result.

• Use of racially charged terminology in describing statue opponents – many of them persons of color – as a “lynch mob.”

• Private business entanglements with developers which prevent him from participating in important council business.

• Why his company, Redwood Energy, consulted with AMCAL after the developer had submitted an application to the city for the Village housing development.

• Why he didn’t attempt to preserve his ability to perform his duties as a councilmember with regard to The Village housing development.

In response, Winkler stated, “In responding to your question about my fitness for office, in our system of government, we hold elections.

“I was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012 and 2016.

“If I choose to run again in 2020 and voters feel that I am unqualified then they can vote for someone else.”

The City Council Protocol Manual, recently revised and re-approved by the council and Winkler, describes communication as “perhaps the most fundamental role of a councilmember.”





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