Nia Wilson's Purpose: Oakland Buries a Daughter and Demands Justice in Her Name

A sign posted on the windows of Acts Full Gospel Church, where Nia Wilson's service was held.  (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

The mourners wore white from head to toe as they filed into church for Nia Wilson’s homegoing, the funeral tradition for many in the African-American community. The backs of immaculate white jackets, white dresses and even jeans became a perfect canvas on which were painted pictures of Nia Wilson’s beautiful 18-year-old face, surrounded by angel wings and words like “Black Queens Matter.”

On Friday, Aug. 3, the young woman who was brutally stabbed, allegedly by a white man less than two weeks earlier at MacArthur BART Station in Oakland, was being sent home by family and friends.

Nia, people said again and again, means “purpose” in Swahili. That her young life was full of possibility and purpose seemed clear. She wanted to be a paramedic, her family said, even getting CPR-certified after she saved one of her aunts from choking to death.

In a slideshow of photos of Nia Wilson that streamed while Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” played from loudspeakers, you could see the purpose in her face, beautiful and young, looking at the camera, her eyes full of life, pouting her lips a little bit, capturing her best angle. A familiar pose repeats itself in these pictures, her hip cocked to one side, confident, proud, a girl on the cusp of being a woman, a daughter of Oakland.

What was evident, sitting in the vast room of Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland, was how deeply this young woman was loved by her large and close-knit family and beyond.

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As members of her family came up to the pulpit, they read poems and told stories about Nia through a curtain of grief. She was everyone's favorite cousin, everyone's favorite aunt, just everyone's favorite.

“I always think about your big smile and your loving ways,” said Aji Lewis, Nia’s oldest niece, still a little girl. “Titi Nia, I was told not to question God, but since you’ve been gone, I’ve been so confused,” the girl said between tears. “Can you promise to come visit me in my dreams?” she asked, before breaking down sobbing.

Nia Wilson’s cousin, Lauren Williams, described Nia as more like an older sister. The last time Williams was at a funeral, Nia was by her side comforting her. Now she was having to confront the loss of the person she wanted to turn to most.

Ebony Monroe, Nia’s older cousin, also said they were more like sisters. The two “had a special bond.” Both women loved to do makeup, and she had made Nia up for her birthday and for prom.

“I was just waiting for her to turn 21,” Monroe said. “And we was gonna go out.” Her voice broke while the crowd found a moment of bittersweet laughter. “We had plans,” she said. They had their whole lives ahead of them.

Nia Wilson’s sister, Malika Harris, read a poem she had written called "Nia’s Love," while trying to hold back from crying.

“Nia’s love, that one kind of love that you will never have to question, Nia’s love, the love she gives without no expression, Nia’s love, the love she gives when you need that feeling of protection,” Harris read.

A copy of a poem, written and read by Malika Harris, at the funeral of her sister, Nia Wilson. (Sandhya Dirks )

“Nia’s love, my Nia’s love, so honest and true, baby girl shine bright, and I promise we will get justice for you.”

If Nia was named "Purpose" at birth, her homegoing made it clear that for family and loved ones, there was purpose in her death.

“Blessed are those of us that find their purpose in life. All of us have now found our purpose,” said Ansar El Muhammad in his eulogy.

The service was interfaith. Nia’s father is Muslim, and in addition to family and local and national politicians such as Oakland City Council members and congresswoman Barbara Lee, ministers from both the Nation of Islam and Christian clergy spoke. They were united in their love for Nia and for her family, and in their anger over her savage killing.

John Lee Cowell, a 27-year-old parolee and transient, whose family has said he was mentally ill and estranged from them, is accused of the murder of Nia Wilson and the attempted murder of her sister, Lahtifa Wilson. BART police have said that there is little doubt as to his guilt, as surveillance footage captured the July 22 attack.

BART police described the murder as a prison-style attack, with Lee allegedly coming up from behind Nia Wilson and slitting her throat, then stabbing her sister.

It took around 24 hours for BART police to arrest Cowell, and when they did, the arrest was nonviolent, something many in the community feel might not have happened had he not been white.

Pastor and minister alike aired their gut-wrenching anger over Nia’s murder. No one said John Lee Cowell’s name, but he was there in the room.

“I was mad, and I wanted them to find him, but I was hoping the homies find him first,” Bishop Keith Clark told the cheering crowd.

That anger was echoed by Minister Keith Muhammad: “Pastor said he felt that if law enforcement did not find this man, that he wouldn’t have felt badly if the hood caught up to him. I approve this message.”

“The vengeance that comes from God, if government does not do its job, is a righteous indignation,” he added, calling on the community to hold politicians' and law enforcement's feet to the fire to get justice.

For many present, there were ghosts in the room, too. Ghosts that haunt Oakland’s black community, reminding them that they’ve felt too often that justice has been denied.

The memory of Oscar Grant, killed by a BART police officer on New Year's Day 2009, hung in the room. The unarmed Grant was shot in the back while restrained and lying face-down at Fruitvale Station. The BART police officer said he mistook his gun for his taser.  He was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, but not guilty on charges of voluntary manslaughter and second-degree murder. He served 11 months in a private jail cell.

It wasn’t just the death of Oscar Grant or the slaying of Nia Wilson, connected to each other in the same way the BART tracks link station to station, that tinged the emotional service. It was also the echo of too many young black people, especially women, gone too soon. The Say Her Name hashtag and movement has become associated with Nia Wilson. Signs posted on the front windows of the entry to the church read: “Say her name” and “She is not a hashtag.”

A sign at the front of Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland for the funeral of Nia Wilson. (Sandhya Dirks )

During the service, speakers called out for the room to "say her name!" The room roared back “Nia Wilson,” the sound filling the worship hall.

Say Her Name began as a response to a disproportionate lack of media attention given to the deaths of black women, especially in interactions with law enforcement. It blew up after Black Lives Matter became a national rallying cry that often focused on the killings of black men.

Media have been criticized for their response to Nia Wilson’s death. Local Fox affiliate KTVU showed a picture of her the day after her death holding a cellphone case that looked like a gun. “As if she was a gang member,” said Nina Knox, who grew up with Nia’s mother. “As if it should be swept under the carpet, as if you know, other people that’s not in the urban areas see such a picture, and say, 'Oh, that was just an old black gangbanger from Oakland and we don’t want to send our support there.' ”

Critics point out that choosing images like that reframe the story, making it seem like she was responsible for her own murder, painting an innocent victim as a villain because of the color of her skin, making it easier for people not to care. KTVU has apologized for its editorial choice.

A headline from a San Francisco Chronicle story about Nia Wilson’s murder said: “Divergent paths met tragically on Oakland platform.” That framing of the narrative threatens to erase Nia's death as the focal point, critics say, and puts her killer on the same level as her, as part of a tragic story rather than the prime mover of that tragedy.

But Nia’s name means purpose, Bishop Keith Clark said again, at the crescendo of his sermon. “That scoundrel of a human being, who snatched our sister’s life, what you meant for evil, God’s gonna work it for our good. 'Cause racism, we come to tell you something,” he called out, the crowd on their feet.

Mourners stand at Nia Wilson's funeral. (Sandhya Dirks)

John Lee Cowell has not been charged with a hate crime, but for Nia Wilson's family and the black community in Oakland, there is no doubt that her death is about race. The district attorney's office and investigating officers say they have found no direct links to white supremacist organizations in Cowell’s past, but for many that does not mean it did not happen in the context of white supremacy.

“For the district attorney, the mayor, and all of those in government, can I be very clear about a piece of history that you and I are very clear about?” Minister Keith Muhammad asked the room.

“If we waited for the slave master to say why he enslaved us, he would never admit to hatred. But we’ve got hundreds of years of slavery, suffering, and death," said Minister Muhammad.  "Look at how high the bar has been set before a hate crime can be convicted in America, and in the state of California. They have made convicting a hate crime an impossible dream," he said.

Bishop Keith Clark spoke directly to the current administration, while not calling out the president by name, hinting at the fact that President Trump has been uniformly silent about Nia Wilson’s murder. This in contrast to how a similar case played out: that of a young woman, Kathryn Steinle, also killed in a seemingly random attack in a public place in a violent and tragic way.  When Steinle was fatally shot on a San Francisco pier in July 2015, then-candidate Trump used her death as a political rallying cry. Kathryn Steinle was a white woman, killed by a gun fired by a homeless undocumented immigrant who had been incarcerated for low-level crimes.

Nia Wilson was a black woman, and the suspect in her killing is a homeless white man who was on parole and had been incarcerated for violent crimes in the past. A jury found that Steinle’s death had been an accident, but there is little doubt that the murder of Nia Wilson was an accident.

For the family and the community, the difference between these cases is not just that the killing of Nia Wilson was far more brutal and deliberate. It was that she was black, and her attacker white.

“The administration done messed up now,” Bishop Clark said. “Because you let us get together, Muslims and Christians, you done messed up now.”

At the end of the over three-hour service, Bishop Bob Jackson, who leads Acts Full Gospel Church, came forward to speak the final words.

“I didn’t know her but I love her,” Bishop Jackson said. “I didn’t know her, but I feel she’s a part of me. And I’m praying she became a part of all of us. Because if anybody is going to unite us, it’s going to be Nia.”

“Purpose, purpose has brought us together today,” he said.

There was an open casket, as is traditional at African-American homegoing celebrations, and a viewing of Nia Wilson's body. The family sat in the front row, resplendent in all white, as over 100 people lined up to pay their respects.

The coffin was covered in a translucent veil, a shroud. The body of Nia Wilson lay there, her makeup perfectly done, as it often was in life, her hair regal, her face silent and composed. Her eyes were closed.

To those who came to say goodbye, she looked like a queen.