Don't Forget Nia Wilson

Portrait of Nia Wilson, via ABC News
Nia Wilson, 18, was killed by a man wielding a knife on July 22, 2018. She was stepping off a train at an Oakland BART station with two of her sisters when John Lee Cowell slit her throat and stabbed her sister, Lahtifa Wilson. 

The next day, John Lee Cowell was recognized at another BART station in Oakland and was arrested, ending a manhunt that spread Nia and her killer all over social media. Cowell, who was released from prison two months prior, was charged with murdering Wilson and attempting to murder her sister. His attack has been described by BART police as a “prison-yard type of attack,” and Cowell had come out of prison two months prior to the attack.

Nia’s death sparked protests in Oakland and other areas of California, calling for justice. While the attack has been categorized as random by some media, people are noting that Cowell was a white man who targeted and attacked two black women. Those women did not provoke Cowell in any way and they did not have any association with him, so the attack seems to have been based on race and gender. Writer and civil rights activist Shaun King tweeted, “I absolutely believe John Lee Cowell targeted [and] tracked his victims (two young Black women) chose to kill them in the brutal manner in which he did, and made no real attempt at fleeing the city – all on purpose. It was not random. It was a targeted, planned attack.” 

Whether there was racial motive behind the attack or not, the conversations that have erupted from Nia Wilson’s death focus greatly on racism towards black people. When TV station KTVU aired a photo of Nia holding what looked like a gun, critics pointed out the ways in which the media continues to dehumanize black people and make them look more dangerous. Shaun King, who posted multiple times about Nia’s death on Instagram, shared a video of Cowell being peacefully arrested by two policemen while standing up. He wrote, “When we see horrific police brutality against African Americans, we often say police need more training. But here, while arresting John Lee Cowell, a violent white murder, they show us they absolutely know how to be calm, cool, [and] methodical...when they want to...I’m not saying they should’ve killed this man. I’m saying the hundreds of unarmed, non-violent Black folk who didn’t even commit crimes who’ve been killed by police should be alive right now.” 

Others wondered why the police were not quicker in catching Cowell, and many were afraid that the issue would go largely ignored. Singer Kehlani wrote on her social media, “...BART, you manage to catch riders who haven’t paid ticket fair, and young graffiti artists with your cameras and operators. YOU CAN CATCH A MURDERER...” 

The national coverage of Nia Wilson’s death is, in part, due to the vigorous social media campaign to bring justice to her death. Celebrities posted and tweeted about Nia’s death, with hashtags such as #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter. This started another conversation about the silence among the white community and supposed white “feminists” regarding Nia’s death. Actress Anne Hathaway called out white people and their silence in an Instagram post, captioned: 

“The murder of Nia Wilson- may she rest in the power and peace she was denied here- is unspeakable AND MUST NOT be met with silence. She is not a hash tag; she was a black woman and she was murdered in cold blood by a white man.

White people- including me, including you must take into the marrow of our privileged bones the truth that ALL black people fear for their lives DAILY in America and have done so for GENERATIONS. White people DO NOT have equivalence for this fear of violence. 

Given those givens, we must ask our (white)selves- how “decent” are we really? Not in our intent, but in our actions? In our lack of action? 

Peace and prayers and JUSTICE for Nia and the Wilson family xx"

Hathaway’s words are striking. Nia’s death, no matter the killer’s motive, is another example. Her death carries racial significance because her death is so similar to other murders of black people carried out under white supremacy. The protest and public outcry following her death is reflective of the continuing decades of pain black people have endured due to racism and injustice. 

Nia Wilson was only 18 and could have had a long life ahead of her. Her community lost a daughter, a sister, and a friend. 

With tears on his face, Wilson’s father recounted the story in this KUTV video. 

“I want justice for my daughter,” he said. “Please help me get justice for my daughter.” 

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