Arcata Police first learn of incident through news media
Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Two female Humboldt State students were the victims of a racially motivated assault in downtown Arcata the evening of Friday, Nov. 6 while making their way on foot from the Plaza back to the campus, according to Humboldt State University. Two unknown male assailants reportedly threw beer at the women, then taunted and harassed the two before they were able to get away.
The women, who are African-American, “are clear that this was not only a physical attack, but a racially motivated one,” states a letter sent to the campus and community by HSU President Lisa A. Rossbacher Friday afternoon (see page A7).
According to Rossbacher, the two unidentified white men threw a glass bottle at the women, hit and sprayed them with beer. From inside the truck, the men “proceeded to taunt, harass and chase” the students, who “ran and successfully evaded the assailants.”
Rossbacher decried the attack as “antithetical to the values we hold as an institution, including our shared commitment to supporting the dignity of all individuals, to valuing diversity, and to respecting differences.”
Rossbacher was unavailable for comment Monday morning. According to Frank Whitlatch, associate vice president for marketing and communications, Rossbacher met with the students on Wednesday, and possibly again on Friday. “She was very personally touched by the situation,” Whitlatch said. “It personally affected her.”
The matter had been heavily discussed on campus during the week. The incident wasn’t directly reported to Arcata Police or University Police, according to word-of-mouth, because the students were “afraid of the police,” possibly due to recent, widely reported incidents of police-involved violence with African-American citizens.
Whitlatch said the matter had been reported to faculty members, who notified the administration. This accounted for the week’s delay in formally notifying the campus community. “There’s some processing going on,” Whitlatch said.
He said support resources such as counseling would have been made available to the students, but wasn’t certain whether they are taking advantage of them.
Nor is it known what the assailants said to the victims. UPD Chief Donn Peterson said all the specifics of the attack are included in Rossbacher’s letter.
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Peterson said. “He [the assailant or assailants] uttered some things; I don’t know what they were. It was certainly [the victims'] perception, and they’re the ones that experienced it.”
Peterson said it would be inappropriate to question the victims’ choices in handling the aftermath of the incident, including the way they reported it.
“We don’t want to revictimize the students,” he said. “They have their reasons for not reporting it, and we’re trying to be respectful of their wishes.”
While Rossbacher had known of the matter since mid-week, there was no communication from the President’s Office or UPD to Arcata Police to let them know that racist harassers were on the loose and active in Arcata.
APD Chief Tom Chapman said he first heard of the incident Friday afternoon when it was reported in the news media. He didn’t wish to publicly point fingers, but was clearly unsettled by the lack of notification from university officials.
“With even an informal report, minimally, we could have tried to identify the alleged perpetrators,” he said. “Arcata’s a small town. It’s not uncommon for our officers to recognize a vehicle based on a partial description – ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so’.”
A July incident in which an Arcata man was struck by a paintball near the Humboldt State campus resulted in the timely arrest of multiple suspects. UPD managed to track down the alleged perpetrators based on the scanty initial description of a black SUV.
Chapman said APD officers could have been told to be on the lookout for a similar vehicle. Had any similar incidents taken place, APD would have collated the reports and pursued the suspects.
“That’s what we do,” Chapman said.
Peterson said that following publication of Rossbacher’s letter, he spoke with Chapman, and has also spoken with City Manager Karen Diemer. “Any of the communication that didn’t take place last week is certainly taking place now,” he said.
The incident remains an “open, pending and active” case with UPD, according to Peterson.
He said he hoped that the incident would inspire heightened awareness in the community. “We have to figure out a way to foster a broader conversation with our community partners,” he said.
“We’re frustrated that there is someone running around out there that would do this,” Peterson said. “I’m sure this guy had friends and a mother in his life. Why are we treating women this way? It’s not acceptable.”
Chapman said he understands the reservations some may have about contacting police, but encourages victims of racial harassment or any other crime to contact APD, even with just a phone call.
“No one has anything to fear,” he said. “No one. Our goal is to investigate crimes and support victims. We can’t do that if we don’t have the information.”
Humboldt State’s Women’s Resource Center wasn’t immediately available for comment. The center, available at (707) 826-4216 and [email protected], offers resources for survivors of harassment and assault.