Nia Wilson and her sister Lahtifa did everything right. They were just at the wrong place at the wrong time—the United States of America in 2018.
They paid their BART fare. They traveled together. They stayed in a well-lit part of the MacArthur BART station in Oakland at a reasonable hour on a Sunday night. And they were still attacked.
As one police official put it, Nia was killed “prison style,” a knife through her neck. Her killer also stabbed her sister. Lahtifa lived. Nia didn’t.
The first report broke late Sunday evening, with the story widely circulated by the Monday work hours, leading the week’s news cycle. The headline “Two Young Women Stabbed” appeared beside stories of Donald Trump’s Twitter tirade against Iran and R. Kelly’s 19-minute song, in which he apparently admits what we all know he’s been doing to young women. I couldn't listen to it. When there’s a war on black women, why would I want to listen to the enemy?
In spite of it all, photos of Nia and support for the Wilson family dominated national social media. Questions arose as to when BART would release surveillance footage or photos of the suspect, including from Oakland’s own Kehlani. As soon as BART officials published a photo of the suspected assailant, John Lee Cowell, his history surfaced: a restraining order filed against him by employees at a Richmond medical facility, a record for a robbery charge, a mention of a recent run-in with BART police. He showed a pattern of being a lewd, erratic person; someone you’d expect to commit an atrocity like this.
Unfortunately, Nia and Lahtifa didn’t expect it.
Maybe they were expecting to be safe on BART. What with all its money from the uptick in ridership and recent bond measures, its security guards and promises to replace fake decoy cameras, it should be safe to ride, right? Never mind the fact that BART had had two other unreported homicides within the past week.
Nia and Lahtifa were probably thinking like the majority of people walking the streets of America: if you do everything right, you’ll be safe. America, with all its laws and regulations and anti-terrorism propaganda, should be safe—regardless of it still being America.
“Still being America,” you know: a place where a white guy could “randomly” stab two black women on public transportation, and not only walk away from the scene of the crime, but get back on that same form of public transportation the next day. Then, be identified not by BART officials but by an anonymous tipster. Which then allowed the police to calmly arrest him, a domestic terrorist, with no conflict or force.
Ahhhh, America. You show your true colors all too often, especially to black women.
We’ve got to be honest with ourselves and realize that an unprovoked stabbing of two black women on a public transit platform by a white man isn’t just “random.” It’s a byproduct of our society, America 2018—and every year since Betsy Ross sewed the first flag.
Along with health issues, like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, diseases related to stress are killing black women at an alarming rate—stress often due to racism and sexism. And while homicides among women of all demographics are over 50 percent likely to be the product of their romantic/former romantic partner, black women die at a higher rate than any other group when it comes to domestic violence.
The Wilson sisters were just two of the many casualties in the war on black women. Many other women read their story and now walk down the street in a deeper fear than before. And yet they continue to walk down the street, to catch the train, to pursue happiness, in spite of the world we live in.
Yes, there are individuals and organizations who work to make this place more just for women of all backgrounds. Locally, groups like Misssey and Claire’s House have done and will continue to do that work. In response to this case in particular, activist and organizer Ashley Yates launched a GoFundMe to “purchase self-defense items such as tasers, pepper spray and attention-getting devices for Black women/femmes and queer persons in Oakland and the Bay Area.”
But it’s not solely women’s job to remedy this war. It’d be asinine to think so. The onus is on us, the men. And I’m not just talking about the ones who commit the heinous acts, but the men who let stuff slide. The men who don’t call out misogynistic behavior in their friends. The men who knowingly benefit from a male-dominated society, and quietly go along with it.
Even myself, a man with a platform, who all too often uses it to tell a man's point of view. It’s my job to lift the voices of the many African-American girls and women who attended a vigil for Nia on Monday afternoon. It's my job to make sure the photos of the faces, the solemn expressions, the heartbroken children, concerned mothers, and angry community members are amplified. It's my job to tell the world that these are people who said prayers, and then wiped their tears, balled their fists and punched the sky as they marched to where a group of white supremacists had planned to meet, letting them know we won’t stand for it.
The black community of Oakland is beautiful in that way. Even with our flaws and infighting, and in a city where sex trafficking and violence against women has been prevalent for decades, what we won't let happen is a malicious attack from outsiders. I'm amazed by my community rising to call when moved to do so; such a group of resilient, artistic, spiritual, hardworking folks. People didn't leave their anger behind social media posts this time around. They showed up at MacArthur BART and made their presence felt.
I'm proud to call this home. Maybe why we fight so hard is to ensure this will remain home.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.