By: Paul Mann
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Days after the murder of a black Humboldt State University undergraduate, Arcata Vice-Mayor Sofia Pereira issued an unsparing condemnation.
“We cannot continue to ignore the systemic and cultural racism that exists in our community,” she declared at the opening of last week’s regular Arcata City Council meeting. “While we can say we’ve been working on issues of equity in our community, we as a community failed [murder victim] Josiah [Lawson] and other students of color, who have stated over and over that they do not feel safe and welcomed here.”
Every other member of the council and its staff sat mum and expressionless as Pereira called attention with an emphatic rebuke to Humboldt’s bigotry against people of color that reaches back to the Indian Island massacre of 1860 and has endured since.
In meetings with HSU students in the wake of Lawson’s murder, she said, “I heard first-hand the fear that students of color have about local racism and for their safety off-campus; they know and we know that racial inequities continue to exist. The students expressed concerns that I share, that race played a role in the homicide.”
Pereira said she met with many students who expressed concern over the response time and the priorities of the first responders who arrived on scene. “It is important to me that our students of color feel safe and protected. I will ensure that once the criminal investigation is complete that we review the actions of our response and identify which actions have led to these concerns.” The Union confirmed the concerns independently.
Saying “I deeply apologize” for Arcata’s failure to oppose racism openly and aggressively, Pereira, a 2009 HSU alum, told her colleagues and meeting attendees, “I am saddened by this senseless act of violence, as is everyone I have spoken with.
“I learned a lot of wonderful things about Josiah’s time here at Humboldt State University and his plans for the future. He was a bright light in the lives he touched – with a kind heart, a great sense of humor and a drive to create change” in the criminal justice system.
Pereira closed her statement with a confession. “These words don’t feel enough because they aren’t enough. I heard loud and clear from the students I spoke with that we need to take action. So that is where we must go from here.”
An uncomfortable silence followed before Mayor Susan Ornelas called the meeting to order matter-of-factly and announced the Pledge of Allegiance.