Life

Why the Aftermath of Nia Wilson’s Death Has Felt at Once Heartbreaking and Hopeful

To be a black woman is to feel a bittersweet joy at justice finally being sought for someone who looks like you, while still questioning why it’s happening.

Malika Harris places a candle down for her sister Nia Wilson at a makeshift memorial.
Malika Harris places a candle down for her sister Nia Wilson at a makeshift memorial outside the MacArthur Bay Area Rapid Transit Station on July 23 in Oakland, California.
Lorin Eleni Gill/AP

When I first saw Nia Wilson’s face pass on my Instagram feed, I knew before I read the caption on the brightly colored sketch of her likeness that she was dead. There is an indescribable set of cues in these achingly familiar posts, and as I read the details of the attack, I felt a familiar anxiety. Wilson’s death was a justification I didn’t need for a fear that I already knew was founded, not only in terms of statistics but in the whispered experiences I’ve heard from friends and family all my life.

Wilson is the young black woman who was attacked at a BART station in Oakland, California, just under two weeks ago. As she stood waiting on the platform, a man suddenly approached her, stabbing Nia and one of her sisters, Lahtifa, in what a local police chief called one of “the most vicious attacks” he had seen in three decades. Bleeding from her own wounds, Lahtifa nevertheless tried to soothe her baby sister: “She’s just yelling my name, ‘Tifah, Tifah, Tifah,’ and I said, ‘I got you, baby. I got you. Just calm down,’ because she has real bad anxiety.” While Lahtifa would survive the attack, Nia died on that train platform. She was 18.

Lahtifa described seeing their alleged assailant, a 27-year-old white parolee named John Lee Cowell, wipe blood off his weapon before escaping the station. Over the next 24 hours it took BART police to track down Cowell, a vigil to commemorate Nia’s life quickly turned into a demonstration protesting the racism that organizers felt not only motivated the attack but also the police’s seemingly slow response. A tweet from singer Oakland native Kehlani summed up the sentiment that animated much of the protests in the aftermath of Wilson’s death.

Police and prosecutors are still searching for a motive behind the seemingly random attack, but a lot of the digital organizing around Nia’s death—including posts by Anne HathawayRose McGowanReese Witherspoon, and Viola Davis—has taken place under the hashtag #SayHerName. Created in 2015, #SayHerName is part of a broader movement to bring to light black women’s experiences with anti-black and misogynistic violence. As Doreen St. Félix wrote in the New Yorker, “There is a blinkered symmetry to the way Americans have been taught to understand violence that is gendered and violence that is racialized: the victims of the former are white women; the victims of the latter are black men.” St. Félix also notes that, contrary to statements from political officials and authorities, Nia’s death was “not … the result of some awful serendipity [but] a reflection of how this country values the lives of black women.”

And yet in every regard but the actual fact of the murder, her death was a rarity. According to a recent Washington Post analysis, “Black victims, who accounted for the majority of homicides, were the least likely of any racial group to have their killings result in an arrest. … While police arrested someone in 63 percent of the killings of white victims, they did so in just 47 percent of those with black victims.” Wilson’s alleged killer was caught in 24 hours and promptly charged with murder and attempted murder—although not without the significant outrage of black protestors who knew that, without their calls for justice, Wilson could’ve easily joined the more than half of black victims whose deaths don’t result in an arrest.

But I’d say the most notable divergence from precedent here was that, compared to the many egregious examples we’ve seen in the past, Wilson was largely allowed to be a victim in the media coverage of her death. Obituaries and post-mortems focused on her career aspirations, which shifted at the speed that all 18-year-olds’ do—one day a paramedic, the next a rapper—or the fact that she had a job interview lined up for the next week. Except for one notable case in which the media outlet quickly apologized, most of the images chosen have been selfies taken in familiar poses, her enviably skilled hand at makeup on display. In other words, Nia Wilson is (mostly) being portrayed as the teenager she was. And that is devastatingly rare. From the age of 5, black girls are assumed to be less innocent than their white peers. In the aftermath of black teenagers’ deaths, we often see exaggerated narratives of affiliations with gangs or former brushes with the police.

There is a disarming dissonance between the brutally mundane fact of another black woman dead at the hands of a man and the speed with which justice for Wilson has been sought at an institutional level. After her death, I waited for the shoe to drop—waited for weeks to drag out before police gave up the search, waited for another repeat of the Michael Brown “no angel” obituary, felt the tension of just waiting lock up my brain, my muscles. And then nothing. Or rather, the most unexpected kind of something. And who knows why that something is happening—because Cowell is already a convicted criminal and is, according to his family, bipolar and schizophrenic? Because the attack was so clearly unprovoked? Because her sister was there to witness the murder and provide those heartbreaking details? Because Nia was assumed innocent?

To be a black woman in the world is to feel a bittersweet joy at justice finally being sought for someone who looks like you, while still questioning why it’s happening. And at the same time, to hold in your heart the dizzying certainty that the same end could meet you if you said no to the man catcalling you, to the man you call your partner, or even if you were to say nothing at all. And alongside that certainty is an almost fundamental doubt that should you meet the same end, anyone would care. Nia’s death and the institutional response to it both exposes and contradicts that certainty, that doubt. Within that dissonance there is a tired suspicion that the next death—and there will be a next one—will most likely come without the contradiction.