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Comments to the CSU Board of Trustees by CFA Activists
Sept. 12, 2018

On Wednesday, Sept. 12, CFA activists addressed the CSU Board of Trustees about the union’s support for Charmaine Lawson, mother of slain HSU student David Josiah Lawson. They addressed the Board’s treatment of Ms. Lawson at a previous meeting, and echoed her demands to improve campus safety and seeking justice for David Josiah Lawson.

The following is a transcript of their comments.

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Sharon Elise

Good Morning. I am Sharon Elise, Associate Vice President and Co-Chair of the California Faculty Association’s Council for Affirmative Action, also serving as a Professor of Sociology at CSU San Marcos specializing in Critical Race Studies. I am here today to talk to you about how you treated the mother of a murdered Humboldt State student at your meeting in July. 

As Frederick Douglass said in 1881, “…if a crime is committed, and the criminal is not positively known, a suspicious-looking colored man is sure to have been seen in the neighborhood. If an unarmed colored man is shot down and dies in his tracks, a jury, under the influence of this spirit, does not hesitate to find the murdered man the real criminal, and the murderer is innocent.”

Given this, we are not surprised that when David Josiah Lawson’s mother came to you to express her grief and ask for support, she was treated more like a criminal than a righteous, grieving mother. Too often, Black people are criminalized, surveilled, and subject to menacing, harassment, and detainment, or worse, from the police, as we have seen — Black people in the park having a barbecue, a Black student napping in lounge of her college dorm, a Black mother watching her child play… a Black mother coming to the Board of Trustees. In this New Jim Crow system of racism, just being Black is enough to make whites fearful, enough to warrant police action. 

You can see what I am talking about in this screenshot from the Board of Trustees meeting in July. You can see the American color line in this picture: whites are afforded the luxury of being taken at face value, while Black people are surveilled and even menaced, as you see the officer has his hand over his weapon. 

Charmaine Lawson came to you because her son was murdered while he was attending Humboldt State University. She entrusted him to you, hoping he would get a great education. She expected he would survive the experience! She did not expect to be menaced by the police when she came to you.

Surely, you sympathize with Charmaine Lawson. And just as assuredly, she deserves more than that—David Josiah Lawson deserves more than that. They deserve justice. So what can you do? 

In CFA, we are learning to face up to racism and take it on when it occurs. You need to do that too. You can start by recognizing that racism is systemic and committing yourselves to anti-racism. We can help. This work belongs to all of us and cannot be outsourced to one person or office. You cannot ignore problems away as Board Chair Day appears to do in his San Diego Union Tribune interview when he reveals he knows nothing about student safety issues on campus and, even when asked about Humboldt, only that it is “remote” and has “some challenges with the interaction between off campus and on campus.”

What happened to David Josiah Lawson was more than a mere interaction and deserves to be remembered and addressed. David Josiah Lawson lived a short life that deserves our honor and recognition. It is not too late to get to know him, to stand for him, to seek justice. 

You can start today. Acknowledge racism in the treatment Charmaine Lawson received when she came to the Board of Trustees. Clearly state that it was wrong, render an apology, and assure her of your support as she seeks justice in the homicide of David Josiah Lawson. We are waiting for Black lives to matter.”

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Renée Byrd

Hello. My name is Renée Byrd and I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Humboldt State University.

I was hired five years ago to launch a new program in Criminology and Justice Studies. Josiah Lawson was a major in that program.

Josiah should be in one of our classrooms right now, learning to think critically about violence, about the anti-blackness at the foundation of our criminal punishment system, and about the possibilities for transforming our society.

Instead he fell victim himself to senseless violence.

Josiah Lawson’s life matters.

Josiah, like most of our students, came to Humboldt from hundreds of miles away. Our students are far from home, from their families and communities.

And that can be an incredibly positive thing. Meeting new people, encountering new ideas and having new experiences, their education is an opportunity to broaden their horizons and figure out who they are in new ways. They come from cities to an astonishingly beautiful and profoundly isolated, rural area. It is very different from home and they are exposed to very different ways of living.  

But also, they experience culture shock and hostility.  

To navigate that, at its most basic, HSU needs to ensure their safety and provide carefully thought through institutional support that facilitates their well-being and sense of belonging.  

The demographics of the student body has changed over the years. So, in impoverished areas like ours, the long understood divide between town and gown is more complex, as racism inflects the economic dynamics at play.

We need to understand our obligations as leaders in the region. We must make sure that our students have housing, employment, and a sense of belonging when they do things as routine as visit the grocery store.

The CSU system must provide more support to Humboldt, so that it can transform itself and the local region. President Rossbacher must step up, learn from new people and take a more active role. We need to engage the parents, families and the communities from which students come, as well as the intellectual and cultural traditions that can provide a sense of belonging.

We need to pay careful attention to how black people’s location differs from those of white people, especially when it comes to policing and inclusion.

Let me give you an example – you recently gave four years worth of the membership rosters of several Black student organizations to the Arcata Police. Students were simply notified in an email that their names and information were given over, ostensibly to investigate Josiah’s murder. This is incredibly problematic.  

You must begin to think of safety through a racial justice lens. That will require study on your parts. I am here today to tell you that you have work to do.

You have to understand that from our experience as Black people, the police are not a neutral force; they are a force that both fails to protect us and perpetrates violence themselves. You cannot assume that the police equal safety for our Black students. In fact, they often mean the opposite, a threat to one’s safety, well-being and belonging in various spaces.

As leaders in the CSU, you must grapple with the contradictions of a system that holds police out as the primary system for addressing violence, even as they are purveyors of violence themselves for marginalized people.

The parents of our Black students have to worry every time their kids leave the house, let alone when they travel hundreds of miles away to get an education. Josiah deserved to be able to come to Humboldt and read books, encounter new ideas and be safe doing that. Josiah’s life matters.

With the increased exposure of the murder of Black people by police, we expect the administration of the CSU—especially white administrators—to start to get this.

Talk with Black parents, students and their communities. This cannot be outsourced to one Chief Diversity Officer. Talk with Black academics who study these issues—We are right here in the CSU!  You will learn a lot.

We need a new consciousness about what students of color need when they arrive. Especially Black students.

It is time for you to take racism seriously and do the real work in yourselves to make an education possible for our students.

In other words, it is time for you to declare that Josiah’s life matters.”

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James Thomas

I am James Thomas, Pastor of Livermore Community Church in Sherman Oaks, and a lecturer at Cal State LA. 

I am deeply concerned about how we are attending to the well-being of students, especially black students like Josiah, who responded to the invitation to go to a CSU campus, but later discovered that the well-being of blacks, their families and those who advocate for them are not a priority.

As a parent, there isn’t anything more important than safety – it trumps academic ranking, it is more important than a school’s job placement or graduation rates. It is the most important aspect of a parent’s decision to affirm a student to attend a particular college.

Josiah Lawson was murdered while enjoying normative black culture. When CSU fails to promote, develop and celebrate Black cultural norms the consequences are being killed living, driving, walking, sleeping, speaking, kneeling and protesting while black.

So, how do we emphasize wholeness and well-being – as well as safety — on our CSU campuses? 

When it comes to the victimization of Blacks, those in authority are laxed in their approach to demand justice but seem hyper vigilant in criminalizing young black people. When administrators misunderstand dominant cultural norms, it results in dialogue and mitigated solutions that are long lasting. On the contrary, misunderstanding black cultural norms is often fatal as was the case of Josiah.

If you invite us to come to your institution, you must allow us to be black. That means, the culture of the institution has to change to make space for us. You need to be ready for the students you recruit. You are not ready.

It means working open-mindedly with the students, parents, community leaders, pastors and faculty.  We need discussion about safety among all of us, not to profile anyone, not to criminalize them but to make students healthy and whole.

Support, Sustain and Celebrate – that is the framework around which we must create the space for the young Black students you are bringing to these campuses.”

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