Sunday Commentary: We Need to Acknowledge that Race Played a Fundamental Role in the Picnic Day Incident

We all want to believe that we live in a color-blind society where there are objective truths not colored by race or experience – but, while that day hopefully will someday come, it is not here yet, not even close.

While I have been thinking about writing this column for some time, I have paused – looking for the right words to express this very delicate point.  Finally someone this week said, just write it, the conversation needs to happen even if you get blowback from some of your readers.

The point I am going to make is this.  I am a white man.  That gives me certain privileges within society that some would rightly call white privilege.  My personal experiences with the police – even when I am given the unpleasant task of receiving a ticket – have been positive.  I get treated, generally speaking, with respect and have even been given the benefit of the doubt in a number of circumstances.

The last few weeks and more so over the last 11 years,  I have spent an inordinate amount of time talking to people of color in our community and elsewhere and, to put it plainly, their experience with the police does not match mine.  I will go so far as to say their experience is fundamentally and quantitatively different from mine.

There are many people in this community who have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the police.  Unfortunately, what I have found is that people of all races and ethnicities tend to universalize their own experiences.  They assume that the treatment they have received is the treatment that all have received.

More and more we know that is simply not true.

Stanford researchers recently did a study using the transcripts from traffic stops of people in Oakland and found, “Officers’ language is less respectful when speaking to black community members.” This finding held regardless of the officer’s racial background and regardless of where the encounter occurred.

We can see this at play in the traffic stop data that came out of Sacramento.   The Bee, in reviewing traffic stops over a 10-year period ending in February 2017, “found black drivers, especially men, are pulled over more often than others in the city – and have been for years.”

After Nandi Cain was beaten by a police officer after he crossed the street, the Bee also found, “Jaywalking tickets disproportionately given to black people in Sacramento.”

This week Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the shooting of Philando Castile, whom he fatally shot last year, claiming that he feared Mr. Castile was reaching for his gun – which he had informed the officer that he had in his vehicle.  “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me,” Mr. Castile informed the officer.

Instead of asking to see his permit, Mr. Yanez fired his gun after Mr. Castile appeared to be complying with orders.

Mr. Castile was stopped reportedly because the officer claimed he looked like a robbery suspect, but many people believe this was a case of racial profiling.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asked: “Would this have happened if the driver were white, if the passengers were white?”

It is this backdrop that we need to evaluate what happened on Picnic Day.  Because for me, reading the commentary in this community, too many people are evaluating the scene through their own eyes, rather than through the eyes of young people of color.

A critical question that is going to have to be determined is whether the individuals knew that these were police officers when the fight started.  People will of course argue, as Bob Dunning has on multiple occasions, that you can’t kick a regular citizen in the head either, but that ignores a lot of context here.

But leaving that point aside for the moment, understand that key portions of the complaint are premised on the fact that they “knew or should have known” that these were police officers.  The main assault charge, as well as the resisting arrest charges, are specifically dealing with conduct against police officers.

However, one key point here is that the young men have said that if they had known they were police officers, they would not have fought them because they would have feared, as young black men, being shot.  That fear is pervasive and it is universally felt.

Given the national climate – that seems like a pretty reasonable fear.

A second point that is critical here is going to be the self-defense claim.

It is worth discussing the law here briefly.

Self-defense according to the law has a three-part requirement.  First, the individual had to reasonably believe that he or she was in danger of great bodily injury.

Second, he or she had to reasonably believe that immediate use of force was necessary to defend against that danger.

And third, he or she had to use no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger.

Again, I think this is going to hinge at least partly on whether the jury believes that the defendants knew or should have known that these were police officers performing their lawful duty.  The defense is going to have to attack both parts of that – the identification issues will be laid out, but the lawful duty aspect may be equally important.

Moreover, I think the defense is going to have to challenge who started the fight.  It’s harder to claim self-defense if the defendants threw the first punch – even if the defense can show that the officers were overly aggressive in their approach.

Further, the defense is going to have to argue that the actions by the defendants were reasonable in an effort to defend themselves.  Again we have that word “reasonable,” and again I would submit that there are racial components to what is reasonable.

In count three for instance, Deputy DA Ryan Couzens alleges that Steve Ramos was engaged in his officer’s duties when three of the defendants attacked him.  Alexander Craver, they allege, “choked” Officer Ramos from behind while Elijah Williams punched him in the face, and Mr. Craver continued to choke him while Defendant Angelica Reyes repeatedly kicked him in the head.

However, Mr. Couzens doesn’t mention in the complaint that Sgt. Ramos had Ms. Reyes in a headlock and that both Mr. Craver and Mr. Williams may have believed they were acting in defense of Ms. Reyes.  By the way, the law allows for an act of self-defense to be based on a belief that turns out to be false.  They may or may not have seen Ms. Reyes’ initial interaction with the officer which led to the headlock.

Self-defense is going to hinge heavily on what actions you believe to be reasonable in defense of what the defendants might have seen as an attack.

The third point here is the possibility or even probability that at some point the defendants realized that they were dealing with police officers.  That is again where the national political climate comes back into play.  The experience of white members of the community suggest that, when you are approached by a police officer, you immediately comply and if you haven’t done anything wrong, you will go on your way.

But that is not the experience of many people of color, and in particular young, black men in society.  Mr. Castile was not doing anything wrong when he drove down the street and yet he ended up shot and killed – even as it appears he complied with the officer’s commands and informed him of his firearm.

Mr. Cain was not doing anything wrong when he crossed the street, and while he did challenge the police officer to a fight (he was already frustrated by the encounter at this point), the officer was wrong to oblige.

Imagine, there is a group of people standing on the street at a party when a van, unmarked, does a U-turn coming directly toward some in the crowd.  Words seem to be exchanged, and a fight breaks out.  And it’s a mutual fight.

It all happens in a matter of a few seconds.  Even if you eventually realize that these are police officers, the individuals – given the context of our times – are no longer likely to give the approaching men the benefit of the doubt.  They have every reason at this point to believe they are fighting for their lives.

If we simply evaluate the Picnic Day incident through our own prism, we miss the context through which the defendants likely saw the events as they unfolded.

People have mistaken the notion that race plays a role in this encounter to mean that the individuals were singled out because of their race – when more likely race plays a role in this encounter in a much more subtle but still fundamental way, as in it shapes our perception of what happened, and it shaped how the individual actors chose to respond to a very rapid escalation of a conflict.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith O

    So let me get this straight.  You want to argue that the accused didn’t know they were cops, a possibility, but even if they did know they were cops we should excuse their actions because of their race?

    1. David Greenwald

      What I’m saying is that much of the law is based on the notion of what a reasonable person would do under a given set of circumstances, and we cannot evaluate that notion of reasonableness through strictly our own lenses.

      1. Keith O

        So it’s the wild west, anything goes because “we cannot evaluate that notion of reasonableness through strictly our own lenses.”

        Sorry, but that’s just crazy.  Excusing people for fighting cops knowing that they are cops will lead to a lawless society.

        1. David Greenwald

          If you reasonably believe you are in a street fight, defending yourself, then yes. If the police are clearly identified and acting in a lawful manner, then the law is not on your side.

          1. David Greenwald

            How? I said if the police are clearly identified and acting in a lawful manner… I didn’t say that’s what occurred.

        2. Keith O

          But you’re trying to make a point that even if they did know they were cops we can’t judge and know what was reasonable because of their race.

          1. David Greenwald

            I was making the point that given the start of encounter even if at some point they learned that these guys were police officers, they may have been reasonably fearful of the officers’ intentions. The key part of my comment was “clearly identified” and “acting in a lawful manner” = given the start of the encounter both of those points do not appear to apply in this case.

  2. John Hobbs

    I agree that it is always a good idea to take a beat and try to see other’s perspectives before making an assessment of an incident. I have watched available video of the Picnic Day van into the crowd scene. I wonder if the officers were drug tested after this, because one of them looks and acts like a belligerent drunk, to me. I would hope that after such encounters the officers involved are drug tested, as surely their arrestees will be.

  3. JosephBiello

    I have to ask the DA, the police, and the part of the community that’s calling for prosecution of these young people, “what is the point of this charge”?

    Look at that dashcam video.  The following is absolutely clear to me – this was not a belligerent crowd.  This was a discourteous crowd that spilled into the street.  Furthermore, absent an unmarked vehicle turning into the crowd, there would have been no physical altercation.  Finally, the whole darn thing took 13 seconds.

    What is the point of prosecuting these young people?  What are we really going to achieve as a community by dragging this on?  Will we achieve clarity regarding this incident?  I doubt it.   Will we achieve justice for the injured officer?  I doubt it.    Will we achieve justice for these young men?  I doubt it.

    I commented in a previous Vanguard article about this that the community does not know how to deal with Davis becoming a “big city” one day each year.    Prosecuting a bunch of young adults for an incident of police over-reaction (over-reaction to them hanging out in the street) compounded by the citizen’s over-reaction to a perceived random attack is a complete waste of time, money, and a waste of an opportunity to have a meeting of the minds between police, community, and affected sub-communities.

    Come on Davis and Yolo county.  Come up with a creative way to deal with this situation that doesn’t put these young people’s lives in limbo or worse, ruin their lives, because of a clearly ambiguous 13 second incident.










    1. darelldd

      Thank you, Joseph, for stating this so well.

      Especially this part:
      “This was not a belligerent crowd. This was a discourteous crowd that spilled into the street. Furthermore, absent an unmarked vehicle turning into the crowd, there would have been no physical altercation.”

  4. John Hobbs

    “this was not a belligerent crowd.  This was a discourteous crowd that spilled into the street.  Furthermore, absent an unmarked vehicle turning into the crowd, there would have been no physical altercation.  Finally, the whole darn thing took 13 seconds.”

    Amen. ( in a secular sense, of course.)

  5. Wayne Hawkes

    At the community level, Davis should not invite 10s of thousands of people to visit on Picnic Day unless we are able to properly handle the crowds and we should not have unmarked police vehicles with crews of non-uniformed officers cruising the streets at all, let alone handling routine traffic incidents. Within the Police Department, we need our officers to respond proportional to the risks and threats of each situation: calling for a patrol car with uniformed officers to handle the minor traffic problem at Russell on Picnic Day, for example. As individuals, we should each try our best to imagine ourselves as young Picnic Day partygoers dancing on a frat house lawn and how we would react when an unmarked van starts pushing right into the crowd you’re standing in for no apparent reason. If you are white and privileged like me, now try to imagine you are also black or Mexican. Charges have already been filed against those 3 young people who made the mistake of coming to our town for Picnic Day, so all one can hope is they get the best possible legal defense. However, the same scrutiny must be given to the apparent over-reaction and potential misconduct by those officers. This kind of confrontative over-policing has no place in Davis and must not be allowed to happen again.

    1. Keith O

      Charges have already been filed against those 3 young people who made the mistake of coming to our town for Picnic Day

      Ummm no, their was mistake was coming to Davis and fighting.

  6. Cindy Pickett

    Thanks, David, for your post. I agree that having these conversations is important even though they can often be difficult.

    For a person of color living in Davis, it is significant that there is an outlet that acknowledges that this is an issue that should be a part of our community dialogue.

    Just wanted to add that 2 cents!!

  7. Tia Will

    I would like to make one more point about this series of events in view of recent events in England. We now have several episodes of vans or trucks being driven into crowds with lethal effect. In at least one of these episodes, men then exited the vehicle and then attacked bystanders with knives. While we have seen none of these kinds of episodes here, I can certainly see after having viewed the available videos of the Davis event several times, how a person in the crowd could become frightened and pushed into a fight or flight high adrenaline state by the rapid approach of the van and rapid exit of shouting, men in plain clothes.

    1. Ron

      Tia:  In viewing the video, it’s difficult for me to believe that anyone in the crowd believed this was a terrorist attack.  The vehicle approached slowly, for one thing.

      Fear usually resorts in people running away, rather than remaining at or coming up to the side of a vehicle and engaging in a confrontation.  (That’s more of a sign of anger and appears to have been what occurred, prior to the “rapid exit” from the vehicle.  The rapid exit seemed to coincide with the physical confrontation.)

      1. Keith O

        Good summation Ron, I totally agree.  No way that could’ve been construed as some kind of terrorist attack.  The only question I have in my mind is did the cops identify themselves quickly enough.

        1. Ron

          Yeah – seems like everyone agrees that the “identification” issue is key (and probably something to address, going forward).

          I don’t really know enough about police work to make an overall judgement regarding all of the uses of unmarked police cars and plainclothes officers. Wondering if there’s any reason (at all) for it, regarding these types of enforcements.

    2. Howard P

      Adrenaline was likely not the cause of the “high”… unless triggered by… another commonly available ‘substance’… the events in England, long after Picnic Day, being a “precursor”?  Really?

  8. Ron

    From article:  “My personal experiences with the police – even when I am given the unpleasant task of receiving a ticket – have been positive.  I get treated, generally speaking, with respect and have even been given the benefit of the doubt in a number of circumstances.”

    Not disputing this statement, but there can be exceptions.

    Years ago, I was driving a moving truck with loose steering (and a loose side mirror).  Due to the wind on the freeway, the mirror could not be maintained in a position to see what was in back of me.  And, the truck was extremely loud.

    I became aware of a highway patrolwoman, alongside me.  I realized she wanted me to pull over.

    I then learned that she had been trying to pull me over for some time.  She clearly did not immediately believe that I was unaware of that effort (despite my explanation), and was quite agitated.  At one point (when my passenger exited the vehicle), she instructed me to put my hands up, as I recall.  (Something like that – it was years ago.)  It seemed that she was becoming quite angry.  (Backup was already there, as well.) At that point, I was becoming quite concerned.

    The tense situation was ultimately resolved, but it seemed (from my perspective) to be an over-reaction.  (She might have noticed the mirror, for example.)

    Apparently, the initial reason for the stop was due to my “weaving” (as a result of the extremely loose steering).



    1. Ron

      (My passenger had exited the vehicle after the patrolwoman already had me step outside and in back of the truck.) The patrolwoman yelled at her, to remain inside the vehicle (which my passenger then did).

      In any case, I could see that this was a situation that could easily escalate, if one wasn’t careful.

    2. Howard P

      Yeah… all officers need to be psychics before any action is taken… ‘Might have noticed the mirror’? You drove a van with loose steering?  With a loose mirror (and you apparently were aware of both), impairing your driving, particularly in high wind?

      Do you understand that was a violation of your responsibilities as a driver?  Where you were admittedly weaving?  Sounds like a “good stop” to me.

      If you were not charged with multiple violations of the vehicle code, you sure got off light.


      1. Ron

        Howard:  I became “aware” of the issues with the rented moving truck AFTER it was fully loaded, and I was on my way.  Would you have turned around (or stopped somewhere along the way, at that point)? Seems to me that the truck rental company would have some responsibility to ensure that the vehicle was safe to operate, before renting it to me.

        Yes – it was probably a good stop, to begin with.  I was aware of some minor weaving, within my lane – and no traffic around me. (However, someone with knowledge of such things later told me that the road I was on had somewhat of a reputation for drug running.)

        Yes, the officer might have noticed the mirror (twice), once, when she was trying to pull me over (from behind), once again, when I mentioned it to her as soon as she pulled me over.  However, she had already arrived at some erroneous conclusions, and was clearly agitated.

        She “might” have also tried pulling up beside me earlier, before concluding that I was purposefully avoiding pulling over.

        The reason I’m bringing this incident up is because it occurred to me, despite being the “correct” skin color.  And, I could see how easily things can become escalated, especially if one doesn’t follow the instructions of the officer.

        I didn’t get a ticket.  Had I received one, I certainly would have launched a formal complaint regarding that officer’s actions (and would not have let it go).


      2. Ron

        The truck was no “van”, either.  Had pretty large/obvious mirrors, as well. I recall repositioning them as needed, along the way. (Light traffic, stayed in the right lane.)

        A major truck rental company. Vehicle was so loud that I apparently didn’t even hear any audible signals to pull over, either. (And, I have good hearing.)

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