Nia Wilson Deserved Better From Oakland, A City Many No Longer Recognize
An Oakland native reflects on the impact and implications of another black girl’s slaying in their hometown.
In 1962, Malcolm X said “The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman.”
Nearly 60 years later, these words are just as true as the day Malcolm spoke them. On July 22nd, 2018, 18 year old Nia Wilson was stabbed and killed on the MacArthur BART station train platform in Oakland, California. Her killer, a white man, was arrested later the next day about 16 miles northeast at the Pleasant Hill BART Station. News of her brutal death was a punch to the gut to a lot of Oakland residents. In response, they showed up by the hundreds for a vigil outside of the station where Wilson was murdered. Her family was also in attendance, including her sister Letifah Wilson, who was with Nia at the time of the attack, and also sustained injuries. This senseless act of violence brings forth an all too familiar feeling of pain and anguish for Black women around the nation, who know that at any moment, that could be one of us.
The new, gentrified Oakland is marketed as safe to those who are looking for a new, hip and “urban” place to live while narrowly escaping the impossible rents of the city across The Bay. However, The Town and surrounding Bay Area cities alike have become much less hospitable for those of us who were born and raised here, especially Black people. To put it simply: we’re constantly being attacked in our own home. In the recent cases of “BBQ Becky” and “Permit Patty,” white women use 911 as a customer service hotline to report trivial non-offenses . Then you have “Jogger Joe,” who threw one of our unhoused community member’s belongings into Lake Merritt. This kind of casual racism is particularly heinous in the case of “Permit Patty,” who thought it was okay to call the SFPD on an 8 year old Black girl selling bottles of water on the sidewalk. This woman decided that calling the police on a child was the best thing to do in this situation, despite knowing that calling the cops can lead to fatal outcomes for Black people. Instead of minding her business, she committed to this violent act against a young Black child.
Yes, the Bay Area has always been racist. My home is no different than every other place in the United States, a country founded on those very principals. The Black Panther Party wasn’t founded here because it was the most peaceful place on earth. When natives like me were growing up in Oakland, we had to worry about a lot of things, but getting stabbed by a white man on BART was never one of them. This rise of brazen attacks on our bodies and our existence is leaving us with feelings of vulnerability eerily similar to 1962.
Stoni, a fellow Oakland native and artist reflects on this, saying “We’re turning into the minority in our own city and they look at us as if we don’t belong. It’s crazy because now white people can walk their dogs in West Oakland at 1am in the morning and feel safe but I can’t walk in a Starbucks at 3pm and feel secure.”
We’ve seen these attacks on women across the country, from the siege of a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland to the assault on Chikesia Clemons by Alabama police. And, often they come at the hands of white men, who are not held accountable for their actions at all or until it is too little, too late. Wilson’s killer is 27-year-old John Cowell. He’s a known criminal currently on parole, with a laundry list of offenses under his belt including threatening a Lucky’s loss prevention officer with a fake gun and box cutter in 2016, which he was never detained for. In fact, Wilson had warrants out for his arrest when he was cited for fare evasion by BART police, days before the murder on July 18, 2018. If Wilson were a non-white immigrant like the man who killed Kate Steinle in San Francisco, there would be mass outrage, people calling for stricter laws, and questioning why this man was free in the first place. But, both Wilson and Cowell are the right color, and too many times men like them are given the benefit of the doubt others are never afforded.
There is no benefit of the doubt given to little Black girls on the sidewalk trying to raise funds to go to Disneyland. There is no urgency to bring our killers to justice, as we saw when it took BART nearly 12 hours to release the identity of the killer. We are shown over and over again that we are not deemed worthy of the same common courtesy as everyone else. When it comes to us, we’re always having to humanize Black women and girls into relatable characters—someone’s daughter, wife, niece, etc.—in order to show that we deserved to be mourned and cared about just like everyone else. So, yes we are angry. You can’t tell us to calm down when people feel like they can play Russian Roulette with our lives and think it’s okay. If we don’t speak up for other Black women and girls we know nobody else will.
“I don’t feel safe doing normal things in fear of some white person calling the police or trying to end my life," Stoni said. "I’ll never be able to get on BART and feel the same. They know they can do to us what they please because it’ll blow over in a month or so with no real justice being served.”
This is the sentiment felt amongst many of Black women in The Bay Area in the wake of this tragedy. This sense of discomfort arises even on that crowded morning commute. When you’re surrounded by people, shoulder to shoulder, too packed, nothing could possibly happen, right? On that train car, you do anything to keep your mind off the fact this TransBay Tube ride seems to be taking a little longer than usual. You constantly look at every white person, and inspect their hands. You try to assure everyone that’s texting you “Be safe on BART” that everything is okay when it’s not. These are just a few examples of the astounding sense of loss, pain, and fear that has overcome many of us: for the life of Nia Wilson, for our peace of mind and for freedom that we no longer have in the place we grew up in.
Wilson attended Oakland High School, an alma mater Stoni and I share with her. Like us, she was probably all too familiar with the ambient dangers of stations like MacArthur BART and AC Transit, the East Bay’s bus system. She likely knew to make sure to travel with at least one other person at night time to be safe. She likely knew to assure her parents who she was with when she left home. She likely knew to make sure to say “okay” when her people told her to “let me know when you get home.” Despite this, she also probably knew that it was a very real possibility that she wouldn’t make it home. While some of us Black girls did Sunday night, Nia Wilson didn’t.
If you want to donate to Nia Wilson’s family in their time of need, you can find the official gofundme page here.