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Nia Wilson symposium reignites discussion on violence against Black women

on November 5, 2019

On a warm Saturday afternoon, Oakland residents gathered at the Greenlining Institute for “Reckoning With Nia: A Community Symposium On Black Womxn, Public Safety & Collective Trauma,” an event dedicated to Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old African American woman who was murdered last year at the MacArthur BART Station in a knife attack. The event focused both on her remembrance and the effect of her death a year later, while discussing efforts being made to prevent violence against women in Oakland.

Attendees met in an open space filled with food catered by Miss Ollies: Chicken, plantains, red beans and rice, and a mixture of vegetables, accompanied by sparkling water and soft drinks. They talked in the main room while harpist Destiny Muhammed played warm, inviting and hopeful melodies, setting a positive atmosphere as the last few people took their seats.

Two large rectangular windows and six circular overhead lights illuminated the gathering space with chairs oriented towards the center. Here, panelists sat and proceeded through their agenda, as a smiling picture of Wilson beamed from two television screens throughout the event.

The first panel was moderated by Ashara Ekundayo, owner of the Ashara Ekundayo Gallery, which focuses on art created by Black women, or made in collaboration with Black women. Lateefah Simon, a civil rights activist and president of the Akonadi Foundation, an organization that provides financial support to nonprofits that improve Bay Area communities, and UC Berkeley African American Studies Professor Leigh Raiford sat alongside Ekundayo in front of the guests. Courtney Desiree Morris, an assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley and artist in residence at the gallery, rounded out the panel. Wilson’s sister Letifah, who was also attacked the night her sister was murdered, used FaceTime to participate as well. A computer was connected to one of the screens in the room, so that Letifah’s face appeared in front of the audience as the panel proceeded.

On July 22, 2018, Nia, Letifah and their sister Tashiya Wilson were returning from a family gathering in Concord. The three had gotten on at the Concord BART Station, and the MacArthur BART Station was their transfer point. Around 9:30 pm, after exiting the train at MacArthur, all three were allegedly attacked on the platform by 27-year-old John Lee Cowell, who had been riding the same train. The attack caused Nia’s death, and Letifah suffered a serious neck injury.

Cowell was arrested the following day. Cowell has been charged by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office with first-degree murder in the death of Nia Wilson, attempted murder and lying in wait. Earlier this year, a judge ruled that Cowell was mentally fit to stand trial, which is expected to begin in January. Cowell has not yet entered a plea. In October, a judge agreed to seal his public defender’s arguments for why the case against Cowell should be dismissed.

Wilson’s death sparked a public outcry. That July, a vigil was held at the MacArthur BART Station. Cowell, who is white, has not been charged with a hate crime, but many of the Wilson family’s supporters believe that the attack was racially motivated. In 2018, Cowell’s family members released a public statement alleging that he has been diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Media coverage of the incident was criticized by multiple organizations, including the National Association of Black Journalists, over the publication of a photo of Wilson holding a gun-shaped phone case. They argued the photo of her holding what at first glance appears to be a gun might lead people to believe that she is partially to blame for what happened.

Wilson’s family has also filed a wrongful death suit against BART, claiming that Cowell should not have been able to use BART given his alleged previous infractions. In 2016, Cowell was arrested at the El Cerrito BART Station following a robbery at El Cerrito Plaza. The suit alleges that Cowell had a history of fare evasion and threatening passengers, which BART officials had a duty to prevent.

Both trials have yet to begin. “We just want answers,” said Letifah during the Saturday event, holding back tears.

As the family waits for the trials to begin, they are trying to spread Nia’s story. In February, the family established the Nia Wilson Foundation, with the goal of providing counseling services and housing to young men and women, a self-defense course for women, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America programs, and a resource center. “It could’ve been anyone that night,” said Letifah as she described their hopes for the foundation and how they want to honor Nia’s memory. Describing how she is handling this difficult period in her life, she said: “Getting up every day and trying to persevere through everything. Stay the pace to get our justice.”

Following the call, the panelists spoke about their individual reactions to Wilson’s death. “It took me many weeks before I could go to that station,” said Ekyundo, who said she preferred to walk to a further station. She said that there is more work to do to prevent violence on BART and violence against black women in the Bay Area, asking the crowd, “What is next? What are the policies? What are the strategies?”

Simon said she was on vacation with her mother in Haiti when she found out. “There was no more vacation,” said Simon. “This family did everything right. I was in a space of complete horror and still a space of complete humility.”

Simon argued that the community could have done more—both prior to the incident and during it—to lead to a different outcome. Because Cowell had a prior arrest history, some of which was related to BART, Simon believes he should not have had access to the station that night. Simon also said that no one helped Nia Wilson the night she died. “We failed Nia. BART failed Nia. Her parents didn’t fail her, but community did,” said Simon.

Reiford, who has a daughter of a similar age, said she felt personally affected by Wilson’s passing. “Nia’s murder is very much tied to my own daughter,“ said Reiford as she described an incident shortly after Wilson’s death in which her daughter became fearful for her own safety. Reiford spoke to the crowd about the portrayal of Black women in media, saying the media often tells stories about something bad happening, instead of stories about change occurring through policy or community action. Reiford said it is important to protect young Black women, stating that if someone is in danger, the community not only needs to have a plan of action, but needs to carry it out.

Morris, who moved to Oakland in July, said she has only recently started to take BART because she did not feel safe riding it. “Before, public transportation felt like a gift. I feel uneasy in a way I didn’t before. I don’t feel safe,” she said.

After the panel concluded, attendees were given a break to decompress and grab more food prior to the start of the roundtable discussion. This time, Morris was the moderator and was joined by Janelle Luster, a program associate for Compton’s Transgender Cultural District in San Francisco, an organization that aims to aid the transgender community through financial assistance and offering community spaces. The other panelists were Olka Forster, creator and host of the Black Moon Podcast, which aims to contextualize the stories of Black people who have died, and Angela Hennessy, an associate professor of Fine Arts and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts.

“Nia was killed for existing, just like trans women. [That] brought it home for me,” said Luster, referring to heightened risk for violent attacks faced by transgender women. “Having these spaces is important to keep names alive,” she said of events like the symposium.

Hennessy said she thinks that people have the power to improve public safety, particularly that of Black women, arguing that everyone has a responsibility to do something. “So many people are picking up the work. Together as a family and as a community, we are much stronger,” said Hennessy.

Hennessy then began to explore the concept of strength. Black women are often at the forefront of social movements, she said, and Black women are often associated with being aggressive, leading to a lack of community response until something bad happens to them. People don’t intervene because they believe that the women will be able to handle the situation on their own, she said. “Defined strength for black women doesn’t leave room for vulnerability. We need to see a shift in what that looks like,” she said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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