Commentary: Insisting on Calling the Picnic Day Incident a Brawl, Local Paper Shows Its Bias

The Picnic Day incident, as we have called it from the start, tops the local paper’s lists of 2017 stories, and probably rightly so given the trickle-down policy effects and regional attention that the incident received.

The one line description is a little hyperbolic, but otherwise accurate: “Police and civilians got into a nasty fight, with both sides saying the other started it.”  (Nasty fight?  Come on there were only minor injuries and the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor battery).

The photo caption reads: “Footage from a motorist’s dashboard camera shows plain-clothed Davis police officers getting out of an unmarked SUV on Russell Boulevard at College Park at midafternoon on Picnic Day. Officers intended to clear the roadway of partygoers but a fight ensued.”


But, given all we know about the incident, why call it a “brawl” as the Enterprise has insisted from the start?

Today we await the McGregor Scott official report on what happened, and hopefully an unbiased assessment of who did what wrong.  But the coverage in the local paper was very early on tainted by the initial press release, and really never backed off the initial account.

The description, which portrayed the plainclothes officers as having “clearly displayed badges on their chests and visible police weapons,” described an incident that from the start was questionable and was made more questionable by the subsequent video release: “As the officers exited the car and began to identify themselves as the police, two officers were immediately physically attacked by multiple suspects and beaten on the ground. While on the ground, the officers were kicked, punched in the head, and one officer was struck with a bottle on the side of his head.”

The release continued: “The surrounding crowd was hostile and presented a serious threat to the officers, who were easily identifiable by their displayed badges and attire.”

Because of the settlement agreement we never got to see the defense’s account of what happened, but on video it looked less like a mob attack and more like a verbal altercation that turned physical with several one-on-one fights rather than a hostile crowd attacking the police as described in the press release.

But the Enterprise has never backed off the original description.

Bob Dunning, the venerable columnist whose column in many ways embodies the struggling paper, went after the Vanguard after our lengthy analysis of limited video came to a different conclusion than
the police department had.

In a May column, he writes, “When two Davis police officers were knocked to the ground, then kicked and beaten by a Picnic Day crowd, the usual cop-hating folks came out of the woodwork to claim that the fault for the whole thing rested with the police, not the assailants who did the kicking and punching.”

For questioning the official account, Mr. Dunning repeatedly refers to the Vanguard as a “cop-bashing blog” sometimes interchanging cop-bashing with “cop-hating.”

Mr. Dunning writes, “The cop-haters should be ashamed of themselves.  But trust me, they won’t be.”

The Enterprise itself a week later weighed in, acknowledging: “The grainy dashcam footage of Picnic Day’s brawl between police officers and a crowd gathered on Russell Boulevard, rather than bringing clarity to the events, has only hardened positions around the controversy.”

But the editorial, written by now retiring editor Debbie Davis, misses a lot of key points.  For example, she argues that Sgt. Steve Ramos was “immediately set upon by multiple assailants” upon exiting the vehicle.  She writes here: “The excuse that the suspects didn’t know he was a police officer is a complete irrelevance here; there’s no earthly excuse for the immediate beatdown they inflicted, cop or no cop.”

She’s created a clear strawman argument here.  The first point that we have raised over and over again is we do not know what was exchanged between Sgt. Ramos and the individuals outside of the vehicle.  The failure to identify themselves as police officers is only part of the backdrop of that.

The identity creates the context for the exchange – if the individuals believed that the officers were not officers and represented a threat to their safety, their reaction can be seen in very different light.

Ms. Davis’ account here failed to address the important context for this encounter.  The police vehicle aggressively made a u-turn and pulled directly into the crowd.  The officers were not clearly identified – although they may have had some identifying markings on them.

Police Chief Darren Pytel has now acknowledged that the operation itself was a mistake.  That a plainclothes unit should not have tried to clear the streets, that they should not have pulled into the crowd, and that they certainly should not have continued to escalate the confrontation.

But none of that came from the local newspaper, which continues to refer to the incident as a “brawl,” and attempted to use it at the time, not to call for police oversight or reform of police conduct, but rather as a reason to once again attempt to shut down Picnic Day itself.

As Ms. Davis wrote in May: “THE BRAWL led to renewed calls to rein in the chaos around Picnic Day, or even cancel the annual UC Davis open house altogether.

“The pattern of trouble was familiar; off-campus Picnic Day parties attended by people from out of town (Williams and fellow suspect Alexander Craver are from West Sacramento, Antwoine Perry is from Elk Grove) spiral out of control in the late afternoon as more people show up and more alcohol flows.”

She closes not with a criticism or questioning of the police but rather writes: “[W]e lament the fact that the pure joy of Picnic Day is a distant memory.”

Fortunately for us, the Vanguard was able to file the records request that led to the release of the dashcam video that at least provided us with a more clear picture of what happened, and we were able to expose former Sheriff John McGinness before he was entrusted to conduct the investigation.

He had immediately told the Bee that, while he was not ready to reach any conclusions, he’d seen “nothing that seems improper” in how police handled the Picnic Day situation.

We should find out this week if Mr. Scott agrees.

—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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  1. Tia Will

    “we lament the fact that the pure joy of Picnic Day is a distant memory.”

    Curious that a newspaper editor chooses to use the word “fact” when what is expressed is clearly her opinion.

    I lament the fact that Ms. Davis has chosen to engage in such hyperbole. I have attended Picnic Day festivities nearly every year that I have lived in Davis ( around 26) and continue to find it a “pure joy”.

    1. Alan Miller

      Curious that a newspaper editor chooses to use the word “fact” when what is expressed is clearly her opinion.

      On the other hand, it is a fact that Alan Miller finds pure joy in leaving Davis on Picnic Day whenever possible.

        1. Keith O

          There’s no quote marks.  Are you saying you actually remember that Cousins used the word “brawl” at a hearing that took place over 4 months ago?  Sorry, but I’m a bit skeptical.

  2. Alan Miller

    Bob Dunning, the venerable columnist whose column in many ways embodies the struggling paper, went after the Vanguard

    David Greenwald, the venerable blogger whose blog in many ways embodies the struggling blog, went after the Enterprise . . .

  3. Ron

    The Vanguard has written an entire article regarding whether or not to refer to the altercation as a “brawl”? (Is perhaps “altercation” an “o.k.” word to use?)

    By the way, why hasn’t the Vanguard reported much on the “other” incident which occurred on Picnic Day?

    1. David Greenwald

      Mostly this and the other article todays were year in review pieces with a slight twist to them.

      Why hasn’t the Vanguard reported on the other incident?  Because it wasn’t a police incident, never made it to trial, and didn’t happen to catch the prelim or plea agreement.

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