Commentary: Reflections on What Picnic Day Means for Criminal Justice Reform and Restorative Justice

Protesters in front of the courthouse

There is a lot of distrust in what I will call the social justice community, at least some segments protesting the Picnic Day incident, that came out last night.  In my view, the reality is that without the work of Mayor Robb Davis this would have been a lot worse – at least the Picnic Day 5 will get a chance to sit in the room with the police officers they fought with in April, rather than being in a Neighborhood Court setting as some seem to have desired.

The reality is that, while some were calling for the charges to be dropped, the plea agreement allows that to happen in accordance with the way the system actually functions.

As Robb Davis likes to say, or perhaps is liken to say, since undoubtedly he does not like it, this is a broken system and, if anything, restorative justice could be seen as a metaphor for finding a new way forward through the unjust system.

For those complaining that there is an asymmetry of power and that the defendants are being made to participate in this process by force – well ‘no shit Sherlock,’ that’s what the criminal justice is.  The most powerful person in the room is not the impartial judge, but the partial prosecutor, representing not justice but rather the power of the state.

It is under these circumstances – realpolitik of the criminal justice system – that you have to view a restorative justice process.

The district attorney and by extension the police have all of the power in this current system.  And a restorative justice process with a trained facilitator, confidentiality requirements, and rules to allow all sides an equal opportunity to speak is the best way that I know to equalize the disparity of power.

We need to be real, this process is not what the DA wanted, it is a real way to bring a greater sense of equity into the conversation.  And it forces a conversation into a space where there is no chance for a conversation otherwise.

The power disparity is in our criminal justice system.  The nature of our criminal justice is such that, under normal conditions, defendants very rarely are enabled to even testify for fear – even if they are innocent – that they can get trapped on the stand.

Power gets displayed in that criminal justice system, and it is an absolute and asymmetrical power.  These young people get to do something rather extraordinary – they get to confront their accusers on equal footing.  When they enter that room they will have the opportunity to lay out how they were harmed by this situation and explain to the police officers why they responded as they did.

There has been a lot of judgment leveled against these individuals.  One downside of the plea agreement is that the five defendants will not get to clear their names through an acquittal by the jury.

But I heard it from a public commenter on Tuesday night who talked to someone who referred to the defendants as “thugs” – in a letter I recently received they were called “thugs” and “losers.”

The remarkable thing is that none of these guys had a criminal record.  Deputy DA Ryan Couzens, in fact, specifically cited that as a reason why he felt they were deserving of a chance to get the deferred entry of judgment.

As Jann Murray-Garcia writes in a recent column, “I get that they engaged in violent actions against the police, but clearly there is ambiguity, as well as their own admissions that they did not know they were fighting police officers. At least initially they thought there was a group of civilian men who made an aggressive U-turn and subsequently drove up as close as they could to a Picnic Day party crowd, after perhaps a verbal exchange.”

I think she makes an important point, that “clearly there is enough ambiguity reflected in the official actions of city of Davis officials that we can pause at what this incident has meant for our officers, our community and these defendants.”

The willingness for people in our community to write these young people off as “thugs” and “criminals” is unfortunate.  I say that as someone who watched the video – I saw the police make a number of policy and tactical errors that I think contributed to the situation and I saw a group of young people responding to a dynamic and very rapidly unfolding situation in a way that probably would have been better considered to have been handled in another way.

But lost in the slow moving footage is how little time elapses from the arrival of the van to the end of the fight.  It is very quick and no one has a chance to really deeply consider their actions.

As Jann Murray Garcia points out, “They have admitted they would have done things a different way.”

But then she adds, sadly and correctly, “I think the most important lesson they learned was this: Don’t come to Davis. Your future is in danger if you do.”

The initial reaction to this incident from a lot of people in this community was to ask why these outsiders or strangers were coming to Davis, as though their purpose was to cause trouble.  The message that we have sent is that people of color, do not come to Davis.  And that is a horrible message, but one I think a lot of students who come to UC Davis end up learning as well.

To me we need to change the structure of our criminal justice system.  We need to change the way the police interact with citizens, especially those of color.  And we need to find better ways to fix our mistakes once we’ve made them.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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41 thoughts on “Commentary: Reflections on What Picnic Day Means for Criminal Justice Reform and Restorative Justice”

  1. Wayne Hawkes

    You nailed it! The police actions on Picnic Day succeeded in communicating their intended message to all young people of color, “Don’t come to Davis [thug].” Sad!

        1. Keith O

          Well of course you’ll always have those that want to make it about race.

          I agree that the message could’ve been delivered differently, but without a trial with all the facts and witnesses coming forward are we ever going to know what actually took place before the brawl broke out?

        2. David Greenwald

          I’m simply communicating how people of color view this incident.  The message coming from some in the community was why are these people coming into our community (for Picnic Day no less).  I’m still hearing that in obnoxious emails and letters I have received.  People of color feel very unwelcome in this community and the fact that they read your comments arguing with me every step of the way only feeds into that.

        3. Keith O

          People of color feel very unwelcome in this community and the fact that they read your comments arguing with me every step of the way only feeds into that.

          How so David?   Is it because I don’t automatically fall in line with our DPD must be racist because they confronted a crowd that was blocking an intersection?

        4. Keith O

          Well, sorry that I don’t automatically think that everything is about racism like most liberals do.  When something is proven racist I will call it out as I have in the past, but when you and others constantly bang that drum I think people start to get tone deaf to it.  It’s like the boy who cried wolf.

      1. Keith O

        I should add that if you watch the video of the incident that crowd on the corner had many white people in it too. So when the cops decided to approach the group was that also because of their racism towards the white people?

      2. Tia Will

        Hi Keith

        Do you believe that “message” would have been delivered in the same way had it been a group of over 50 white women inadvertently blocking the street ?



        1. Howard P

          Don’t know… do remember a bunch of red carp partially blocking the street near CR 105/CR 30H years ago, due to localized flooding… sheet flow across farmland, and one of the farmers had a koi/carp pond… had to respond to flooding issue… saw the ‘carnage’… probably why I have no interest in sushi (or, ‘squishy’)… yeah, a bias.

  2. Alan Miller

    well ‘no s**t Sherlock,’

    Did DG just drop a NSS in a Vanguard editorial?

    Strange I can’t drop an S-bomb in the comments section of a blog that drops S-bombs.  (I actually had to edit the S-bomb so this would publish without moderation — ironic since the quote was the thing that dropped it into moderation.)

      1. Alan Miller

        When you don’t use a word often, it has more effect when you do use it.

        When you don’t get to use a word ever, it has no effect, ever.  But I guess you have ‘privilege’.

  3. Ron

    But then she adds, sadly and correctly, “I think the most important lesson they learned was this: Don’t come to Davis. Your future is in danger if you do.”

    How about this:  “Don’t come to Davis (with an expectation that you can block an intersection on a primary street for an extended period)”?

    On a broader level, it seems like there’s “two” different Picnic Day activities going on.  One is on campus, family-oriented (aka “wholesome”) and focuses on UCD’s ties to agriculture.  The “other” event is an off-campus, often rowdy (and sometimes violent) “party”. 

    Neither event is limited to one skin color, nor are they necessarily divided between residents vs. visitors.  (However, I don’t feel a great deal of “support” for those engaging in the latter. More so, as I grow older and increasingly fail to see the “value” in it. Some may view that as (an emerging) “grumpy old man” syndrome, but I view it as “wisdom”.)

      1. Ron

        None, since you probably don’t count my significant other as a “person of color”.  (Different color than me, but doesn’t “qualify” under your definition.)

        The circle of people I am regularly in contact with is probably much smaller than yours, in general. (I’m not a “reporter”, for one thing.) There aren’t many “white” people I speak with about such things, either.

        I don’t doubt that that some who are of Hispanic origin, and – especially African-American don’t always feel “welcome” in Davis.

        However, I wonder if there’s a difference in perception (feeling of “being welcomed”), for those actually engaging in Picnic Day activities, on campus?  Have you asked those folks (e.g., students of color, and their families)? Do they feel harassed, in that situation? (Or, is it primarily when they’re blocking the street, for example?)


        1. Ron

          To clarify:  I’m making an assumption here, that those who are attending on-campus activities are (often) not the same as those “partying” in the street.  (Regardless of skin color.)  But, I’m sure there’s some overlap.


  4. Tia Will


    When something is proven racist I will call it out”

    So do you believe that only you have the right to determine when something is objectively “racist”? Because I guarantee you that our lines often get drawn at different places.

  5. Ron

    David:  Just wondering if you ever found out the reason that one of those arrested was reportedly carrying ammunition. Is that normally needed on Picnic Day (or any other day)?

    I don’t fully understand this “restorative justice” process, or what the purpose is.  (To arrive at greater understanding?)  But, if one side is only interested in “blaming” the other (and isn’t interested in listening to the other side’s concerns/perspective), than it probably won’t work.

    Even those not involved seem to be “taking sides”, one way or another. (Not a good sign.) Perhaps a “proxy fight”, for some. Hopefully, the participants will keep an open mind.


      1. Ron

        Don’t know a lot about guns/ammunition, but I suspect that some types of ammunition are more suitable for hunting than other types.  Not sure what type was found on that person.

        Regardless, I guess it wasn’t illegal, or we would have heard more about that.  But, seems quite unusual. I would also suspect that most hunters are pretty careful about “putting everything away” in a secure location, upon return from a hunting trip.

        1. David Greenwald

          That’s why I think part of the key to this puzzle was the lack of criminal records by the defendants.  People trying to portray these guys are looking for trouble miss that key point over and over again.

        2. Ron

          In general, the existence of (or a lack of) a criminal record does not “prove” anything, when analyzing a particular incident. (However, I suppose the same could be said about carrying ammunition.)

          Based upon the video, I don’t view those arrested as “looking” for trouble.  They were engaging in a minor infraction, though.  (From what I recall, there may have been others who avoided the subsequent violent confrontation.)

        3. Howard P

          To have a criminal record, you have to be “caught”… no record does not equal no criminal activity… in this case, will give the benefit of the doubt.  As it should be.

      2. Howard P

        Few hunters use pistols… what kind of ammunition was found?  Some calibers work for both pistols and rifles… but one does not usually use 22 cal or 9 mm for hunting (at least ‘game’)… unless you’re talking quail, those calibers are seldom used for hunting… unless we’re talking about a different ‘game’, which you cannot get permits for… hopefully…

        The ‘redeeming’ thing was that no “delivery system” for the ammo was recovered… then the question becomes, was the weapon ‘not found’, or ‘not present’… big difference…

  6. Alan Miller

    This entire process for this case baffles me.  I read the article on how the restorative justice process would work.  But this is such a unique case, because of the possibility that the Five may not have known at first that they were fighting police officers, and the officers may have approach too aggressively when not in uniform.

    I virtually never agree with Enterprise Columnists London & Murray-Garcia on their approach to racial issues.  However, their columns this week rang true with me on their key points (if not on all the racial underpinnings).  The restorative justice process needs to be two-way in this case.  Yet what we have here is officers who may have ‘fueled the fire’ meeting with the Five who were convicted but will be able to get away somewhat unscathed if they agree to a process.

    I would love to be a fly on the wall in the room for that meeting.  But really, if the officers did have a degree of fault in this, and this is supposed to be an honest process, can the Five come out and say, “You a-holes started this!” ?  I imagine the Five may feel that way.  Do they dare say it?  Can they make individual public statements after the process, or only joint ones?  With the investigation not complete, how do you have an equal footing situation?  Most restorative justice has a clear perp and a clear victim.  This situation seems pretty muddied.

    I don’t agree that there is some message that Davis is saying outsiders aren’t welcome because BP doesn’t agree with DG’s views on racial issues and states it in comments.  I don’t agree that the officers should have been able to deal with a crowd in the street in such an aggressive manner.  I have no opinion on whether the race of Five was relevant to how the officers responded, because I can’t know, and neither can you.  I am glad that the police department changed their procedures on non-uniformed engagement immediately and didn’t wait because it could have the appearance of an admission of wrongdoing — that needed to be changed regardless and kudos for doing so.

    I remain skeptical about restorative justice having any meaningful process here.  A bunch of young people who got the book thrown at them, then got a deal that will get their records scrubbed, if, among other things, they meet with the cops that may have come at them too aggressively and are under investigation and have all the authority.  This isn’t like two citizens meeting, one of whom committed a crime against the other and talking it through.  This is WAY different on so many levels.

    Another thing the Just Us in Davis people brought up was how the Five may have their records cleared, but they would now always and forever come up in internet searches (that is when it is an advantage to be named Alan Miller, along with the other 100,000 of us namesakes).  This is a new world, and expunging a record isn’t really such a complete thing anymore, especially if your name is Uniquename Onlynameface.  The entire idea of publicly reporting on those accused of crimes but not convicted needs to be rethought.

    1. Howard P

      Without getting into details, I strongly suspect there were no “innocents”… rest assured, given David’s and others’ comments, only three will have severe punishment meted out… or else… just like the demands for ‘justice’ in the imam case (another thread)… nothing less than dismissal and ‘banishment’… some would prefer ‘criminal charges’… no RJ… the die has been cast by vox populi… ‘facts’ no longer matter… done deal… but no one will admit to that… it would show the ‘dark underbelly’…

    2. Howard P

      This is a new world, and expunging a record isn’t really such a complete thing anymore, especially if your name is Uniquename Onlynameface.  The entire idea of publicly reporting on those accused of crimes but not convicted needs to be rethought.

      Yes.   Big time…

  7. Tia Will


    So are you now accusing the cops of ageism too?”

    I accused of nothing. I asked your opinion about whether or not the message delivery means would have been the same. My experience as a senior white woman with the police moving me from one location to another has been very different from this. I suspect that age, race and gender all play roles in how police treat citizens. Do you think that police are completely blind to what all the rest of us perceive automatically ?

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