Panic Day: Annual UC Davis party descends into chaos, coverups and racial strife

Begun as an agricultural celebration, Picnic Day has become known for debauchery and violence over the past decade

An unmarked minivan hooks a U-turn on Russell Boulevard …

An unmarked minivan hooks a U-turn on Russell Boulevard …

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

The grainy dashboard video begins with a shot of a party that had spilled into the right lane of Russell Boulevard, directly across from the UC Davis campus.

The partiers, some of whom can be seen dancing to unheard music (there’s no audio in the clip), are forced to move out of the way when a minivan makes a quick U-turn and pulls up short at the edge of the crowd.

A man in an orange shirt approaches the van, leaning forward to address the passenger-side window. Within a few seconds, a man wearing a dark shirt and khaki shorts emerges from the door and appears to shove the figure in orange, who starts running away. The man from the van pushes through the crowd in pursuit, but he is beset on all sides by people hitting and shoving him until he stumbles and falls to the ground.

It was April 22—another installment of the infamous UC Davis Picnic Day was about to end terribly.

The man in khaki shorts is an undercover officer with the Davis Police Department. The messy street fight that ensued between him, two other officers and revelers sent two officers to the emergency room—they were released shortly with minor injuries. Five young people, all of them black or Latino, now face felony charges of assault and resisting peace officers.

The 103-year-old Picnic Day celebration has endured its share of debauchery and violence over the past decade. This spring’s melee has forced the progressive college town to confront uncomfortable questions about racial justice and police accountability.

That process has unraveled in a circus-like atmosphere.

After the eyewitness video contradicted the official police account of the incident, the city hired an independent investigator to buy back some trust from a community already concerned that only minorities were arrested. But the man picked to independently investigate the event, former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, soon stepped down after making some racially charged statements over the airwaves that upset the public.

Now, a city that has been trying to establish greater civilian oversight of the police for more than a decade is trying to assure residents that the “Picnic Day 5,” as the accused have been called, will get justice.

A preliminary hearing scheduled for Thursday, August 10, could offer the public its first chance in months to learn details about a scandal that has resonated throughout the community. Both police and the accused will have the chance to answer some of the many questions that, until now, have gone unaddressed.

Defense attorney Mark Reichel, who is representing one of the Picnic Day 5, sees the incident as part of the national debate around police violence, alleging that Davis police have a history of racialized policing.

… and rolls up on a gang of Picnic Day partiers …

“It’s really dangerous to be an African-American young male and be around armed police officers,” he said.

Wrecks, lies and videotape

Marked by rowdy partying and large numbers of emergency calls in the last 10 years, Picnic Day has provided annual PR headaches for the crunchy college town. But the April 22 clash between partygoers and undercover cops has sparked a different brand of controversy.

Initial reports of the incident, widely repeated by area news media, declared that the officers had been surrounded by a hostile mob, threatened and savagely beaten.

Police department officials issued a press release two days after the incident reporting that members of the crowd had punched and kicked the three cops, striking one in the head with a glass bottle as he wrestled with an assailant.

That April 24 statement said the three officers in the minivan judged that the crowd was blocking traffic, which prompted the officers to “take action.”

The department’s account continues: “Before the officers could act, the unmarked police vehicle was surrounded by a large hostile group and several subjects began to yell threats at the police officers in the car. One subject quickly moved to simulate he was pulling a gun on the officers.”

The statement goes on to report that, as the officers exited their vehicle, they tried to identify themselves as police but were attacked immediately and “beaten on the ground.”

The dashcam footage—a grainy clip recorded from across an intersection and released a few weeks later by the department itself—appears to contradict certain aspects of that account. Soon after releasing the video, Davis PD retracted its initial statement. The department has since gone mum.

So little evidence has been made available to the public that a thorough understanding of the events that day is impossible at this point. We are left with the dashcam video.

By the time the first officer is knocked to the ground, his two partners have rushed out of their vehicle to engage the crowd. The driver runs around the back of the van, which is facing the camera, and grabs a man who had been swinging at the first plain-clothes officer. That crowd member, dressed in an athletic jersey, manages to get away but loses a shoe.

The second officer, who is dressed in what looks like a dark tactical vest, runs through the crowd chasing the man wearing orange, grabbing him around the neck and possibly kneeing him in the abdomen. They stay upright throughout their struggle, moving across the frame until they exit stage right.

… and very quickly, chaos erupts.

Meanwhile, the first officer has gotten up and joins a third colleague in taking down members of the crowd, both officers using wrestling-style moves to throw their opponents to the ground. A female crowd member who had been knocked down in the first seconds of the scuffle gets up and runs over to kick one of the officers as he wrestles a man on the ground. Others from the crowd follow the brawl down a residential cross street, many apparently filming the event with their phones.

As for self-identification, the department’s official statement claims that one of the officers was wearing police attire and had his badge visible—the last officer to leave the vehicle appears to be wearing a tactical vest, but the other two are indisputably in plainclothes. The press release also alleges that their badges were clearly displayed, as were their police weapons.

“From the video, you can see that there was no surrounding of any kind and that the vehicle actually aggressively drove up into the group,” said Kate Mellon-Anibaba, an activist with a group called Justice for the Picnic Day 5.

She believes that the police narrative, from claims that the officers were easily identifiable to their allegation that a crowd member implicitly threatened them with a gun, is false.

The fact that Davis police later took down the press release from its website and social media pages is also a “huge red flag,” said Mellon-Anibaba, who provided a copy to SN&R.

For attorney Reichel, who is representing defendant Elijah James Williams, there are two possible explanations for the differences between the police version and what the video shows: Either the officers lied to their superiors, or the department itself issued a dishonest public statement.

“They had no idea someone would have a dashcam on down the street,” Reichel said, calling the account offered to the public by Public Information Officer Lt. Paul Doroshov in that first press release inaccurate. “Did he just make it up? Or did the cops lie to the PIO?” he wondered.

After initially agreeing to a phone interview for this report, Doroshov stopped returning SN&R’s emails.

Meanwhile, the DA’s office has pressed on, charging Williams, Atwoine Rashadek Perry, Alexander Reide Craver, Iszir Daquan Price and Angelica Monique Reyes with multiple assault and resisting arrest charges.

A copy of the criminal complaint, filed by Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens, accuses Perry, Price and Williams of repeatedly punching an officer identified as “S.R.” in the face while Craver choked the officer from behind and Reyes kicked him in the head. The complaint also alleges that another officer, identified as “R.B.,” was held down and punched “repeatedly in the head” by Williams.

Williams faces five counts in all, Perry faces three and the rest two apiece. The complaint alleges that all five defendants “knew and reasonably should have known” that the two officers were cops acting under the color of authority.

Dozens of people showed up to protest charges against the “Picnic Day 5” last month in Davis.


Mellon-Anibaba and Reichel both take issue with the idea that members of the crowd understood that they were interacting with law enforcement officials.

For Mellon-Anibaba, who is married to a Nigerian immigrant and has a young black son, that prospect would be surprising.

“People of color teach their children you won’t be treated fairly by the cops,” she said.

Reichel is more forward in his dismissal of police allegations that the accused parties, all of whom are nonwhite, knowingly assaulted officers.

“You’d have to be a fucking lunatic to attack a cop and be a black kid,” he said. “We’re just fortunate these police officers didn’t shoot these people.”

In an email, Chief Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven said his office’s attorneys are “ethically precluded” from commenting on pending cases in the media.

“We will respond in court with the facts,” he wrote.

From agriculture to bro culture

Mayor Robb Davis called Picnic Day, which often attracts more than 100,000 visitors, an “unusual event” for the city, whose total population is only 70,000. He says that the celebration brings challenges like noisy house parties across the city and rowdy behavior.

The event has seen several controversies in recent years, including a riot that exploded in 2004 when police tried to shut down a large party in an apartment complex.

2010’s Picnic Day saw more than 500 emergency calls in Davis over the course of the day, overwhelming police. An article published in the San Jose Mercury News claimed “UC Davis may yank the blanket out from under Picnic Day,” quoting university officials, police and local business owners who all complained about the event, which was reportedly made worse because some local bars started serving drinks at 6 a.m.

And in 2011, a student was accidentally killed after he fell and hit his head on a curb while roughhousing with friends.

Davis bicycle cops stand watch at a UC Davis Picnic Day Parade. Picnic Day happens every year in the spring and attracts many people to the small town of Davis.


Despite its recent troubles, Picnic Day hasn’t always been an excuse for raucous day-drinking.

According to UC Davis history professor Kathryn Olmsted, the event was started as an actual picnic when Davis was an agricultural school. When the campus was made into a full university following World War II, the event became more of an open house for community members to view exhibitions hosted by the various departments.

“Picnic Day became a celebration of the agricultural origins and a celebration of the university in general,” Olmsted said.

She reckons that the event’s transformation into an excuse to party began in the 1990s, when students began to host large house parties off campus. She went on to say that the advent of social media has caused Picnic Day to explode in popularity, drawing out-of-towners from across Northern California and creating the wild scene that exists today.

“It’s just become this event that I think most Davis residents try and avoid,” Olmsted said, adding that, in the last decade or so, people have called for the event to be canceled every year. But the university administration wants to keep it going, she believes, because the on-campus events are so popular. For example, one chemistry department demonstration is such a draw that attendees have to line up hours in advance to get seats.

In the wake of this most recent scandal, some locals have renewed calls for the event’s cancellation. Comments on the Facebook page of The Davis Enterprise, the local paper, lament the lost innocence of Picnic Days gone by. A columnist for the Enterprise, Bob Dunning, mused that the violence caused by a “gang of thugs” meant it was time for the community to reevaluate whether to continue the tradition.

But Mayor Davis disagrees, telling SN&R that he doesn’t see a threat to the future of Picnic Day.

“I think most people in the city would agree that it is a great event,” he said.

Reached by email, Stewart Savage of the Davis Downtown Business District sided with the mayor, writing, “I have not heard any substantial conversations about canceling picnic day.”

Color of accountability

Mellon-Anibaba and other local activists have called for Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig to drop the charges against all five defendants, and plan to host a rally in solidarity with them at their preliminary hearing in Yolo Superior Court on August 10.

Then there’s the complication that Davis PD’s internal investigation had its own scandal when former Sheriff McGinness, now a conservative radio host, claimed on his show that black people were better off before the Civil Rights Act.

“If you look at certain groups within our broad population, for example, African-Americans in this country did much much much better before the Civil Rights Act,” McGinness said on his May 12 KFBK broadcast.

McGinness didn’t respond to SN&R’s request for an interview, but problematic comments about race didn’t stop with his Anthony Scaramucci-quick exit.

Comments on the Davis Enterprise website and on social media have largely targeted the accused, often couching the blame in terms of troublesome “out of towners”—a euphemism that may bear racial undertones. Community activists allege that despite its progressive veneer, Davis is a city with a toxic history of implicit bias and racialized policing.

So what will the effects be of this most recent scandal? In the immediate aftermath of the fight, police revised the city’s undercover policy in an effort to prevent similar confrontations in the future, a change that Mayor Davis supports.

“If police are arriving on the scene to deal with crowd issues, they have to be clearly identifiable from their vehicle and their dress,” he told SN&R.

The mayor also expressed confidence in the ongoing internal investigation, which was taken over by local attorney McGregor Scott. “At this point I’m satisfied that the process is going forward,” Davis said.

He also offered some suggestions for the City Council to explore, like greater requirements for permitting outside events during Picnic Day or working with landlords and tenants to create greater accountability for boisterous parties.

Mayor Davis pointed out that the large house parties that spring up around the city each year are generally hosted in rental properties. Although the council hasn’t made any specific proposals yet, the mayor explained that they plan to address the issue before next year’s event by speaking with police and community members.

The future of Picnic Day seems secure for now, but it might be the Davis police who have to make changes.

Citing a 2006 study that found evidence of profiling in police interactions with some residents, Mayor Davis acknowledged the department’s troubled history but said that he has seen evidence of positive changes in the 11 years since.

However, the mayor acknowledged that Davis residents of color and those experiencing homelessness have different police interactions than he does as a white man, which is a problem he’s eager to address.

“My question moving forward is, how do we provide opportunities for people who are fearful, and who fear that they are being differentially treated, to bring those issues forward so that they can be dealt with?” he said.