In the aftermath of 18-year-old Nia Wilson’s murder on Sunday night, Oakland transit police initially described the brutal attack against Wilson and her sister on a public transit platform as “random.” But social justice scholars and activists say that a white man’s violent attack against two black women — 26-year-old Latifah Wilson survived her injuries and is currently hospitalized — cannot be removed from the context of gender and race.
John Lee Cowell, 27, was booked on violating parole, assault with a deadly weapon, and first degree murder on Tuesday. According to local news reports, Cowell boarded and exited the same BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train as the two sisters, but they never exchanged words. Latifah Wilson told ABC7 that after the attack, Cowell remained in the station and stood on the platform while wiping the blood from his knife.
BART police’s initial characterization of the attack as “random,” angered many people in the Oakland community, who criticized the use of the word early on in the investigation. Police eventually said that they can’t rule out any possible motives and that they don’t have evidence that Cowell was part of a white supremacist group.
On Monday, BART police Chief Carlos Rojas said, “Everything that we’ve uncovered up to this point, we see no altercation. We don’t have any information that there was any type of dispute. It looks like it was an unprovoked, unwarranted, vicious attack.”
The Oakland community reacted swiftly to the news of her death. On Monday night, two organizations, the Anti Police-Terror Project and Community Ready Corps, organized a vigil in her honor. Protesters chanted, “Say her name!” Nia was a rapper. At the vigil, people listened to her music.
Say her name, #NiaWilson. We send our love and prayers to her family. We mourn the loss of one of Oakland’s daughters. We will say it again and again, Black women matter, #BlackLivesMatter. pic.twitter.com/ohpxRElSGb
— GABRIELA Oakland (@gabrielaoakland) July 24, 2018
— Lucas Guilkey (@lucasguilkey) July 24, 2018
Wilson’s death coincides with the overall rise in hate crimes in the East Bay and in California overall in the past year, according to an attorney general report from earlier this month. In Alameda County, where Oakland is located, hate crimes increased from 59 in 2016 to 89 in 2017, the East Bay Express reported.
According to an analysis of 2017 hate crime data, hate crime totals for the 10 largest cities in the United States have increased for four straight years and are at the highest levels in a decade. Black people were the most-targeted group. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released in 2017 shows that one of the leading causes of death for non-Hispanic Black women under the age of 34 is homicide.
Some Oakland activists have framed the conversation around Wilson’s death in this context. On the same night of the vigil and march, another event was taking place in Downtown Oakland, where the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group that attended last year’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, were reportedly in attendance. March protesters allegedly chased members of the group, leading the police to get involved. Activists say the Proud Boys were disrupting the vigil.
— Darwin BondGraham (@DarwinBondGraha) July 24, 2018
Although there is no evidence to suggest the Proud Boys themselves had anything to do with Nia Wilson’s murder, members of the Oakland community have drawn attention to an overall climate of hate that contributes to violence against women, particularly women of color. One activist tweeted a comparison of Wilson’s death to that of Heather Heyer’s, a white woman who was killed at the Charlottesville rally when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Hate motivated both deaths, said Eunique Jones Gibson:
I hate that I have to #sayhername for this reason.
I wish I could #sayhername because I discovered her magic and not because someone‘s hatred took it away.
If you remembered Heather… remember #NiaWilson.
This has to stop.
— Eunique Jones Gibson (@EuniqueJG) July 24, 2018
“As a city, we have a responsibility to make sure that hate has no place in our town,” activist and Oakland mayoral candidate Cat Brooks said in a statement on Tuesday.
Monique W. Morris, social justice scholar and author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools said Wilson and her sister’s race and gender can’t be erased from the conversation about her murder. Morris emphasized that violence against Black girls and women happens in both private and public spaces, adding that activists need to focus on the systems that contribute to the violence Black women experience on a regular basis. Morris said she hopes there is a robust discussion of how to prevent this violence.
“There is a deep hurt and understanding that there is a broader climate that is leading with hate at the moment in our society and that whether it is rhetoric and a broader climate of hate, the folks who suffer are indeed in actuality those with the least power,” Morris said.
“So I was definitely appalled when I heard the term ‘random’ being applied to this incident, although I think that was just a poor choice of words, because there was seemingly no motive that people could use outside of racial bias and gender bias, so folks were hesitant to use the words hate crime or hate incident as I’ve seen in some spaces,” she said.
Morris added, “In acts of violence against Black girls, there’s no way to take hate incident out of the crime of the attack on them because of the ways in which our societies are structured … By not acknowledging that in the context of this particular act of violence, we are actually doing a disservice to our ability to critique what is at the root of it and how we heal from this.”
The historical treatment of Black women and girls by law enforcement is also critical to the discussion, as crimes against Black women are often not taken seriously by the authorities. When 19-year-old Kenneka Jenkins went missing one Saturday morning in Illinois last year, employees at the hotel where she was staying were reportedly dismissive and police told the family to wait before they filed a missing person’s report, even though there was no requirement that they do so. It wasn’t until hours later, in the afternoon that police informed the hotel that Jenkins had gone missing. At 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, she was found dead in the walk-in freezer.
In the news coverage of the incident, Morris said she noticed reporters emphasize that Wilson hadn’t done “anything.” KTVU Fox 2 News used photos of Wilson where she is holding a phone case that was mistaken for a gun. The news outlet apologized. Irrelevant information such as some of the photos being circulated of Wilson, Morris said, are indicative of a culture that refuses to believe Black women.
“There is always this underlying assumption that Black girls must have done something.”
“There is always this underlying assumption that Black girls must have done something. Were they deserving of this treatment? It’s something we have to continue to interrogate when we talk about bias and the way it uniquely impacts Black girls,” Morris said.
“[Black girls] that weren’t doing anything, weren’t speaking loudly — what does that have to do with anything? It has nothing to do with any of it. It has to do with her being a human life that was worthy of protection and dignity, and that is being stripped away from her because someone saw her life as less valuable than his own.”